I cannot think of anything dearer to me than Family.
It isn’t just the bonds of loyalty, support, and trust invested in siblings, parents, and partners that endear me to the idea of Family, but the deep connection that it has to one’s identity, memory, and past. No one is more responsible for who I am (or for my very existence) than my family and parents. Not to mention their parents, their parent’s parents, and so on.
Our seminar “Performances of Memory” (March 12), while problematizing the very concept of family and my desires to photographically enshrine those who I love most, has inspired me to grapple with and put to rest a dying family tradition that more recently I have begun to unconsciously ignore and forget. I want to pay my respects to my web of extended family members, an Imagined Community of Wiebes being held together by almost nothing more than the frames of our ageing Christmas family photos. I want to pay my respects to the glue that kept us all together for many years: my Great-Grandparents.
This is the oldest photo in my possession of my Great-Grandparents, Annie (née Penner) & Clanton Wiebe.
Though it has been less than a decade since their passing, I feel as close to / far apart from this photo as I do from their most recent photos.
This photo haunts me,
because it makes me remember; where otherwise I would ignore or forget.
because in the short amount of time that I lived in Winnipeg’s downtown core I often found myself walking past the exact spot where my Great-Grandparents are standing. The east side of Hargrave Street, just a couple of blocks from the infamous Calvary Temple on Cumberland Avenue.
because of the sheer amount of contingency their relationship, and the many lives that it created and influenced, hangs on. Though I do not know when this was taken, I pretend that it was on their first date. By their expressions I can tell it went fairly well. What if it hadn’t? Would I be here, writing this now, if Clanton had forgotten to hold the door to the restaurant open? What if Annie’s breath had smelt bad? I find it a disturbing thought that something so infinitesimal might have changed the course of my own history.
And because, as his first-born great-grandchild, I was one of six others who carried Clanton to his grave. His was the only open-casket funeral I have attended, and though there is no photo of him resting in his casket, there need not be. The image of the last time I saw him is etched in my mind.
At times I dwell on my father’s words when he eulogized Annie. He spoke about her “love language,” baking and cooking. That is, the way that she showed affection for the many people that she cared about. Though she did not pass on this particular “language” to her eldest son (my own Grandfather), I believe he and his wife found their own way of expressing the affection they felt for their family and for his parents: hosting the Wiebe family Christmas dinner and taking the family photo.
While I have found earlier Christmas family photos from before my Grandparents began hosting us at the House on Forbes Road, this one from 2001 is the oldest I could find from after this tradition began. The tacky Beach theme of this Christmas (complete with palm tree in the top-left corner) was conceived of by my Grandparents as a way to help ease themselves mentally back into the harsh, reviled prairie winter. Though I find the image cute and warm (not just because of the imaginary Australian sun beating down on us), I see it more as a foreshadowing. A decade after this, my Grandparents spend more of their winters under the Texan sun than in Winnipeg. For that matter, no Wiebe is spending any more time under the roof of the beloved House on Forbes, purchased years ago by a family I’ve never met. The photos stay the same, but my understanding of them change and shift under the weight of continued accumulation of life experience and new memories.
There wasn’t much rhyme or reason to where we positioned ourselves relative to one another. Spouses might sit next to one another one year, while the next they might be on opposite sides of the photo. My own younger siblings alternate between the arms of their parents, aunts & uncles, and their older brother.
Faces may get older, even disappear or reappear, but I am struck by the general continuity of these five years. The ritual of taking the photo ALWAYS followed the same schedule without fail: it would take half an hour to collect everyone from the disparate corners of the House on Forbes (an adventure I was often recruited for); fifteen minutes to squish together around the living room couch (here we had to make sure no cousins wandered off before everyone had arrived); and another fifteen for my Grandparents to bicker over who had lost the camera, find it, bicker over who had left dead batteries in the camera, find new batteries, bicker over how to use the camera’s timer, find the setting, and finally take the picture and then take a few more, just in case. My youthful disdain and impatience for this routine slowly turned into an unfailing adoration. You learn to love your family’s flaws.
From my own young perspective, recording the family’s Christmas was a sacred, albeit tedious, enterprise. Everyone seemed to agree on the importance of being in the photo and those family members who had wished to attend but for whatever reason could not were often photo-shopped into the frame. The embracing couple at the top-right corner of 2003 were not actually in attendance that year. Neither was my father’s cousin at the top-left corner of 2006. Our family might at times be physically apart, but we could still be photographically together with a little (digital) Christmas magic.
The presence of boyfriends & girlfriends were sometimes (very quietly) put into question: “Why should he be in the photo if she’s just going to break up with him again in a month or two? It’ll ruin the picture.” “I wish his last girlfriend was still around. I hope it doesn’t work out between him and this new one.” Young, naïve, eavesdropping Brad couldn’t agree more with his gossiping relatives: Family was supposed to be permanent, forever. I didn’t want to have to look at strange men and women years after (what I and my relatives perceived as) an inevitable break-up while perusing the holy album of Christmas family photos. The album’s continuity and sanctity mustn’t be violated. Yet soon enough I too would introduce a strange new face to our tradition; a face whose presence certainly wasn’t permanent.
Family isn’t permanent.
Christmas 2007 was the first without Clanton. You might not immediately notice the absence, but I do. I feel the absence even more because it is the first step in a slippery slope. I know what comes next without needing to look.
In preparation for their retirement my grandparents sold the House on Forbes. The house that they themselves had built, where my father & aunt were raised, and where we were supposed to always spend our Christmases together.
In spite of the loss of a patriarch and the space to which Christmas had been intrinsically linked (at least in my mind), the Wiebes gave Christmas another shot, at least for Annie’s sake. Meeting at a restaurant, we had our waitress take the photo. There was no bickering, I did not need to corral or cajole. The process only took a moment. It wasn’t right.
We did it again, one last time in 2009. A shorter get-together, a different restaurant. Many extended family members were now in other places, perhaps with different families creating new traditions of their own. Our matriarch, the strongest link that we all had to one another, had joined her deceased husband. Apart from a desire to continue a tradition, I can’t seem to find the continuity that as a child I had hoped would go on forever.
I look at this picture and I see the faces of my youngest cousins who will never remember their Great-Grandparents and will never know the House on Forbes road: things I had always thought were essential to being a Wiebe.
It was around this time that my Grandparents started having us get together on the side and taking back-up pictures: gatherings and photos of their children and grandchildren. No extended family.
The site of these smaller gatherings (2008-2009) alternated and the photos that were produced from them never found the same permanence or potency as the older ones. In fact, I cannot seem to find photos for 2010 or 2011; years when I am almost certain we did not celebrate with extended family. Did we bother taking any? Are they lost? Either way, the fact that they are not now in my possession speaks to the decline of our Christmas tradition and to their relative unimportance in relation to the older family photos.
I see this photo from 2012 as the end. Extended family (obviously now many years absent from our Christmas family photos) has gotten older, passed on, started new families, splintered, and migrated. Not many of us seem to call Winnipeg home anymore. Annie & Clanton no longer magnetically attract us all together and there is no place quite like Forbes road that could adequately accommodate and welcome all of us together. These people and that place only exist in these photographs, and for that I both cherish and hate this album. My Grandfather, prime instigator of our tradition and the seeming head of the Wiebe clan after Annie and Clanton’s passing, spent what I believe to be his first Christmas outside of Canada this past December.
His only daughter’s family recently moved to Alabama and hosted him and my grandmother for a warm, snowless Christmas. Further north, in my own childhood home, his only son tried to jumpstart a near-dead tradition and bring as much of the extended Wiebe clan together as possible, the first time anything like this had been attempted in many years. Though quite a few of us managed to make an appearance that day, we forgot to take a picture…
Post-script: In light of writing about these photos and participating in our seminar, I am certain that I am too emotionally invested in these photos to ever be able to properly scrutinize and analyze them according to the methods and theories put forward by the many authors we have consulted in the last three months. At the same time, I am unprepared to cede interpretive authority over them to an outsider. In retrospect, I question the advisability of my publishing this post. The desire to bury these photos and protect them from others’ gaze is almost as palpable as the desire to share this story.