Podcast: Season 4, Episode 6

What is unspoken can fill up space.”

Picture of Grace

We don’t know what we don’t know, but these unknowns still shape us... And can be passed through generations unless it is given air, tended to, and healed.


This episode we speak to genealogist Theresa McVean from Ancestree Detectives who gives us a glimpse into the world of genealogy, and the process of how working with a professional can help thread seemingly disparate knowledge into a family story arc. Theresa has stories for days and we get to hear about how she has used her detective skills with clients and a few stories from her own discovery journey.


If you have a family mystery needing solving and looking to hire a professional to guide you, Ancestree Detectives is a great place to start. You can get in touch with them at https://www.ancestreedetectives.com/


About our guest: Theresa McVean, co-founder and chief genealogist at Ancestree Detectives. By providing a platform for family historians to connect with a diverse group of vetted experts for as few as 30 minutes at a time, Ancestry Detectives empowers customers whether their search is record-based or DNA oriented.

Theresa began her career at the Toronto Reference Library, joined the Globe and Mail’s fledgling digital department in 1999. She went on to an award-winning career in advertising with leading publishers and advertising agencies before launching Ancestree Detectives with co-founder Dawna Henderson.She is the Chair of the Ontario Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists as well as a member of the marketing committee for APG internationally.

A daughter, sister, mother, and grandmother who grew up in Dundas and Niagara Falls, Ontario, she is a lover of family history and storytelling.



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Episode Transcript


Anika

Welcome back to Root & Seed. A podcast about tradition seekers, who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity. I’m your host, Anika Chabra.


If you’ve been following along this season, you know we’ve been diving into the topic of documenting one’s background. While at first glance, that might sound pretty straightforward, we’ve been relishing in the diversity of the documenters themselves.


Today we get to talk to a real professional in the space of genealogy. Genealogy is the study and tracing of lines of descent or development. While it may be focused on records, dates, names and places, the facts. There is so much more to benefit from mapping one’s family tree than just data collection.


In Episode 2 of this season, historian Lucky Budd mentioned how piecing the stories across generations can help create a narrative arc. Taking in the information we have to create that story, he mentioned how one photo can paint a picture of what life was like and how the lack of a single photo can also help us infer things too. He said there's always these little tidbits that lead to beautiful knowledge. But, where do these tidbits come from? This is where a genealogist can help.


Theresa McVean is a professional genealogist, but we find she is more of a detective, maybe even part therapist. She got her start working in libraries and then worked in publishing for a bit before pursuing her passion of helping people find their family histories. With her business, Ancestree Detectives. That's ancestry with "tree" at the end, she helps people at any stage of their family investigation to discover things from filling gaps in a family tree to solving family mysteries. She has literally done it all including using personal diaries and facial recognition technology to help bring colour to a family story.


With that in mind, we wanted to change the format of this episode a tiny bit. Normally we’d let Theresa tell you a bit about herself, but instead, we wanted to take this time to let Theresa share some of the cases she’s worked on… One because they are enough to give you goosebumps; and Two because if this doesn't make you want to do a DNA test or sign up for ancestry.com, we don't know what will.


You know us, we love a good culture spark and to spin it, we asked Theresa what sparked her and what got her curious about genealogy in the first place.


Theresa

It was a personal story that I didn't really know whether it could be solved. My father, as a toddler with his sister who was a baby were, I don't want to say left at the church, like in a basket. But he was born in 1938 so during world war II, his father did not return from the war. Although there was no indication that he had died and at the time young mothers didn't really raise children on their own.


I'm not sure when this was, but there was a time when you could not, you would have to do it with your parents or another adult. But anyway, this did happen to them, they were happily, or luckily raised by one family associated with the church and I just always wondered, of course you would always wonder why did this happen and who were the people? They did keep their own names, but that didn't necessarily make it easier and you couldn't necessarily rely on stories. There were little snippets and then one major element is I lost my father when I was seven because he developed a mental illness where there wasn't really an ability to communicate with him based in reality.


And that even sort of fueled me further because it was as if I had lost him and this project took me years and in its difficulty, I probably was more motivated to become a professional genealogist. And I don't usually talk about this story, but it is the reason, and it wasn't until two years ago that I solved it 100% and in doing so I met a half-uncle who I had overlapped with when we both worked at The Star. So we both worked there at the same time and it's really a remarkable outcome, that's all I can say. He's so happy to know us and we are so pleased to know him and he was reunited with my father last summer up in North Bay at a nursing home.


Anika

The world certainly does work in mysterious ways. It’s some serious serendipity that Theresa actually worked with her uncle before realizing they were related! So obviously she understands the empathy a genealogist needs to have in a case in order to investigate it appropriately. Ancestree Detectives has a network of different genealogists whether your family has questions that relate to Indigenous descent, African American records, or LGBTQ+ stories. But in one particular project, Theresa tells us of a case she was asked to handle personally, and how she really had to use all of her detective skills.


Theresa

A client whose grandparent on one side of her family lived through the Holocaust came to Canada and did not speak about it. And as is often the case, as I said, it's sort of what is unspoken can fill up space and she eventually wanted to understand what may have happened in particular to her paternal grandfather.


I often go outside of the usual genealogical places and in this case, I relied heavily on diaries which is a big way that I solved my own mysteries. So I would order books from used bookstores and this was during the beginning of COVID and they would take forever to get here because you know everything just took a long time to arrive. And one Friday late in the afternoon, I received a slim volume. It was sort of a self-published diary of a woman and the reason I chose this diary. She didn't have the same last name or anything, it was facial recognition. I kept looking for people with a certain smile almost. It was like their dimples.


And I found a picture of her father on the internet and I thought this is promising. I received it, it wasn't very big, but it had a lot of chapters and I was speed reading, speed reading maybe for two hours. I turned to chapter 21 when she herself was telling the story of returning to her home village, which had been in Poland and finding somebody who lived there and saying tell me about my family. Has anybody survived? And they said to her, of your father's seven sisters and brothers only one has survived and then I read the name of my client's grandfather and I stood up out of my chair and tingling all over. Like I had goosebumps on the top of my head. I called her right away! It told the most interesting story of how he escaped. He had been in Auschwitz, I don't know how it was he escaped, but he had escaped to Russia somehow.


Anika

Imagine being able to fill that gap in your story. Unreal. Theresa did say it best when she said, “What is unspoken can take up space.” That really resonates with us. For so many reasons but most significantly because we don’t know what we don’t know and across generations, these unknowns still shape us. And we appreciate the advice that if you're not able to get the details from your immediate family, it is still worthwhile investigating the stories of your family from a few generations back.


Doing so might answer questions, you might find people you better identify with and get information that explains why our parents are the way they are. Giving us empathy for the decisions that they made at a certain time in a certain circumstance. There's this idea called Emotional Inheritance, which means our DNA carries not just the genetic information, but also our experiences. Super interesting. Now back to it we asked Theresa the question that might be on your mind now. How does one actually get started?


Theresa

Oh, there are so many ways to begin and so many more people begin now. So back more than 30, about 35 years ago when I worked at the reference library, not many people embarked on it because you wouldn't have the time if you were doing it yourself or the resources, because back then it was an expensive thing.


Usually, pretty affluent people pay to have their genealogies done and also throughout history more affluent people had better records to look for and find. But because now we have all of these different technologies, there are so many ways, some people are scrapbooking. They're actually just sort of paving the way for future generations. Other people are getting DNA kits for the holidays. That in itself is not the easiest way in I would say. I think the easiest way is to start with you, talking to your grandparents, go into the closet, and find all the family photos. There are lots of resources to deal with things like that. There's a company called Vivid Pix who has, on their website, lots of educational videos about how to sort through the boxes or albums of photos and how to restore them. That's what their specialists in Vivid-Pix, enhancing old photos, to begin with, and many more things and they're really good at that sort of thing. Recording which is what your app does, which is great and the guided recording is very helpful. I myself have this micro recorder from when I would interview my grandmother for a few minutes every time I saw her as her memory was fading.


So, let's say you and your kids just set out to do it and you went on to My Heritage, that website and you put yourselves in. One of the first things you should do is check off all the privacy settings. So, I mean automatically those websites hide any living people, but then as a project, go a little further back and then go off the website and use oral history. Phone your relatives, phone whoever, you know, an aunt or the oldest person you have and just start asking questions.


Understanding the political history, social history of the place you came from and even if you don't have a town at least painting the background of your picture so you know if you wanted to do a big landscape, you would find out what is behind all of this. And this might be a good time to tell you a story that I find really powerful about how some people pieced together a history.


There is, I believe he's an archeologist named Jock Madu and he was born in South Sudan in the Dinka tribe. And this tribe was late to literacy, even in the early 1980s, they didn't write things down. The way they shared their family history was through songs and songs have a cyclical pattern to them, that's how we enjoy them. There are verses and choruses that come back and back. And these songs, when you were about the age to get married, you would go to a Dinbajook and they would write your song, but they didn't write it down anywhere, they sang it to you. It would be about an hour to two hours long.


It would have pieces of your parents' and your grandparents' songs in it. So it wasn't like they were totally rewriting it. It's like they were reorganizing it and inserting you into your song. These one- to two-hour songs were sung to you once. So normally if you didn't have a very good memory or a knack for remembering songs, you would bring somebody with you like a human tape recorder.


And then in 1983, there was a genocide and lots of children started walking miles and miles and miles from South Sudan through east Africa alone. Sometimes boys were sent off with their older sisters, but it ended up being like a parade and then a sea of boys walking across. And when they would camp along the way, they would sing each other these songs. It would be their parents' songs for comfort and then eventually they got to a settlement and it became a really big part of things. And somehow, cassette tape recorders were provided to them and so they started recording every night and then when they were resettled and it could be in America, let's say.


They were sent off with tapes and sometimes the tapes would go through the mail. They would hear, oh, we have somebody from either our family or our clan and I'm in Calgary, but I'm gonna mail the tape to London and then they might mail it to Dakota and it just became this almost like a patchwork quilt with some missing squares that helped them piece their history back together.


And so if you are going to try and recreate your history and you have huge gaps, you might not be able to find anything on a person, but if you find the stories that surround it you'll have an understanding of the situation your family was in and then just keep painting in and painting in. And you never know, one day you might come upon your mixtape or you might come upon the square of the quilt. You don't know how that gift will come to you, but you need to trust that it may.


Anika

Finding the stories around the gaps that we have in our own histories is such a beautiful way to understand our histories. Sometimes it’s filling gaps with fiction like Nancy told us about a few episodes ago, but we really like the idea of taking the truths from the community in which our ancestors resided and now with modern technology, Theresa had this to offer.


Theresa

Here's another way of reconnecting if it's possible and that is to walk in your ancestors' footsteps. It's not always possible, during covid we might not be able to go anywhere. If you come from a place that’s war-torn, it just might not be time yet that you can go there, but you can go there with Google Earth and it's something I often do. And you can also have somebody at the other place, use their phone and be like your tour guide. There are so many variations of that. You can just walk, let's say it's a war-torn country. You can go to the place, but then go on the earth to a different date and walk down the street as they were. It might be pretty heavy, but I think when the time is right, we've all got it in us to walk in the shoes. And I have a story of a client I told you I'd come back to it.


So during covid, I mapped out because this is another interesting thing for some people. In your own backyard, there are places that you didn't know were significant to you. So they might be places from an earlier time when your parents first came to Canada, and in her case what I discovered was in this one neighbourhood in Toronto, all four of her grandparents came and they didn't come at the same time. One did come at the same time as a couple and things she didn't know was that her maternal grandparents both also settled there separately.


And so I created a map in Google Earth with a lot of pins and I attached the history of the particular time to it. Even just standing in front of the house where let's say her maternal grandmother lived when she first arrived and then walking over to places that the record showed that she had an association with really is powerful. Just to stand in front of a house and not go in and knowing that when she was, who knows like 22, that's where she started. Or in my case, I went to a small small village in Alsace, which is in France right now. I hired a genealogist and we were trancing through backyards just to find the remnants of a wall that was part of my ancestors' home. I don't know the story of them, but I have stood where they stood and looked at this wall and if that's all that you have to look at, you'd be surprised at just how powerful it is.


Anika

Wow, we really love that notion of walking in their shoes. Theresa actually told us about how she just equipped her 23-year-old client with a campervan for 2 weeks in Norway to find his ancestral places and even to visit the national archives of Norway to try and find a birth record for his grandmother's great-grandmother. How cool is that?


Ok, now on to our favourite part of our podcast, questions from the conversation tool. As the muse for others to reflect on their memories we wanted to know about a story that Theresa held close to her heart. So we asked her, “What is your favourite memory from childhood?”


Theresa

I have one sister, she's 16 months younger than I am so it's almost like having a twin. When we walked to school, we'd set off on the same foot so that we were in lockstep. We often were dressed very similar or the same. We used to go up to Dorset Ontario around Huntsville to visit our grandparents on March break or summer vacation. And once on the March break, we were there and my grandmother worked at this lodge. You know, a place with little cabins and then a big lodge house where people would go for their meals and it had a lake, snowmobile trails, things like that. So we got one of those magic carpet toboggans. They're very slick, they're very fast and I would say that we were 9 and 10 years older. We could have been 8 and 9 years old, I don't remember exactly. Not old enough to scheme things, but probably not with all the judgment on Earth. So we went to a hill, which was actually not meant for tobogganing at all and we went down on our magic carpet so fast that we missed trees that we could have hit and we ended up right inside a shed. We were thrilled, it was so thrilling and so dangerous. It was just unbelievable.


And then we sort of flung into the shed and we were laughing and lying on her backs. And then a young man came running out of the lodge and he said, get up, go, your grandmother is coming because she saw it through the kitchen window. And she was the most loving woman on the face there, but if you saw her with her finger pointed at you and her eyes narrowed a little bit, you'd be afraid. So it was this really intense feeling of the fear coming down the hill and the thrill and feeling so happy. And then knowing she's coming after us with her finger pointed, it's just locked in my memory and my sister's memory.


Anika

Theresa really came alive as she recounted this moment that she shared with her sister and how it’s so vivid and clearly etched in her memory so fondly. We love hearing the personal stories of the professionals and were grateful that Theresa shared that one with us.


One of the things that we appreciate most about Theresa is her detective-like nature, she is a problem solver and she has many tricks and tips to get to the end result. A better understanding of your history than when you first started. When this episode first airs it’s just before the holidays which means gift season is upon us. If you feel inspired to share this with your family members and think they could benefit from a session with Ancestree Detectives or as a gift to yourself, be sure to check out our show notes on how to get in touch with Theresa and her team.


If you are listening to this podcast, we have a feeling that you like stories. Next episode we get to hear even more when we interview Kyle Leung, a fellow podcast host of “What kind of Asian are you?” Kyle reflects on his own immigrant experience and tells us what he’s learned from interviewing his guests across the Asian diaspora.


Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, Executive Produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel, and Edited by Camille Blais.



Episode Credits

Hosted by: Anika Chabra

Brought to you by: Root & Seed

Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel

Edited by: Camille Blais

Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN

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