Three years ago, my sister and I visited the Pier 21 Museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where staff in the research centre helped us locate the passenger lists for three out of four sets of our great-grandparents.
The image above is the official record of the entry of Friedrich and Karolina Stengel into Canada (possibly via Pier 2, in Halifax) on March 26, 1912. They travelled with their two children – their three year old son Heinrich and five month old daughter Olga (my grandmother) – as well as Friedrich’s 17 year old brother Julius. They had $60.00, and I didn’t need the note at the top right of the page to tell me they had travelled steerage class.
I had always been interested in my family’s history, but seeing these records sparked a desire to search beyond the collection of family tales I had been told over the years. Since then, I have located many interesting facts about my family’s history. I am still struggling how best to write these stories down – is it better to write a non-fiction family history and “stick to the facts” despite all the gaps in my knowledge, or would the freedom of fiction allow me to more fully explore the richness of my great-grandparents’ lives?
While I decide, I will occasionally share interesting “research notes” here.
“I went to find in Valparaiso a little house to live in and write quietly.”
~ Pablo Neruda
More than anything, I wanted
to sit at his desk, hold
his pen with its famous green ink,
write a few lines of my own
about this poet who loved life
and lived– and found this last house,
when he felt the “tiredness” of Santiago,
in the skeleton of another’s abandoned dream.
I wanted to ride the carousel horse
around his living room, drink his special punch
mixed in the ceramic bull,
sit by the fire on a rainy afternoon,
scribble in a notebook while he napped
upstairs. I wouldn’t be offended at my host’s
neglect, content to sip water out of a green glass goblet
and admire the view of the cerros, houses
built one on top of the other, scrambling
for the best vantage of the bay.
I wanted to sit at the bar, accept the glass
of wine he poured and listen
to stories about his beloved Chile. I would admire
his collection of curios– many of which simply appeared
to fulfill his wishes. “Collectors must not be shy,”
he would say, “they must tell everyone
what they are looking for.”
I wanted to linger in his house
until all the other tourists were gone,
wait by the window as dusk crept over the hills
and listen to the poet recite as shadows grew.
I want a house like this, I would say
into the darkness, to live and write quietly.
The silence would approve.
Valparaiso, January 2013