© 2022 Robert Sickles
I’m taking a short break from writing about me and my whacky experiences. I want to tell you about my wife Linda’s awesome work in uncovering the story of her Grandma Pearl. Linda wrote The Lives of Pearl a few years ago, so this is also an unabashed plug for her book :•)
Linda had heard bits of the story from her relatives. She was wondering if it could be verified that her Grandma Pearl, as a toddler, was left with an aunt by her woodsman father and wound up in the care of strangers; that those people stole away with her, changed her name to Leona, and raised her on a homestead hundreds of miles to the west; that, incredibly, she married a Canadian Métis migrant field worker, a French-Chippewa named Jean Baptiste Ouellette; that he disappeared forever at a train station and left his wife to continue on the train with an infant, and pregnant with Linda’s mother; that “Leona,” now a grown woman, learned that her real name was Pearl, and miraculously found her true father after happening upon a personal ad in a weekly news magazine. Everyone, I especially, urged Linda for years to write it all down, and finally she started digging into it.
Linda organized her tasks. “I dug through family legends and documents, looking for secrets and memories. I had talks with the few family members who would know anything relevant. Then it took many hours of difficult but fascinating genealogical research.” She added, “To make sure my story had a setting that was correct and believable, I looked over lots of material—books, public records, newspaper articles, historical maps and photos… I even found an old railway schedule so I could verify train travel in 1914.” Linda’s quest would have been a lot easier if she’d interviewed her grandma, or if her mother and aunts were more forthcoming. Nevertheless, a plausible storyline that already existed was brought to life in Linda’s wonderful work of historical fiction.
Linda began her narrative with baby Pearl’s father, Henry. He was a Minnesotan from a family of German immigrants. One piece of family legend was that Henry’s eye was blinded when his grandfather whipped him because of the boy’s love for Mary, a servant girl. Henry and Mary were said to have eloped, but she died soon after Pearl was born. Linda found the proof she needed for all of this in a cache of old letters and records, and a photo of Henry who appears to have a glass eye! Internet research brought out the names and nationalities of the people involved in that tragic tale, and in years of research, doors to rooms were opened that had been sealed for a century.
Linda wanted to know about how Henry came to leave his daughter with neighbors, and ran across conflicting versions of the story. One version was that those people believed Pearl was given up for adoption because Henry couldn’t take care of her. Another version said that Henry had intended to come back for his daughter after his work in the forest, but the couple abducted her because they were desperate for a child of their own. Linda, as detective, would have to determine if Henry would be portrayed as a sympathetic character or not.
The part about Grandma’s Métis husband deserting her at the station always cried out for exploration. Somewhere on that trip, Jean Baptiste stepped off the train and disappeared forever. Did he run into foul play? Maybe he backed off because he could see nothing but trouble ahead, no matter where they lived, as an interracial couple in the early 1900’s. This part of the story was the hardest to uncover, and required the most imagination on Linda’s part. She considered all the factors that could have forced the couple to go separate ways. "My Grandma Pearl was devastated when Jean left her. But I had it in her words—she never stopped loving him. That says to me that, considering the reality of their times, parting was eventually for the best. That was a satisfying conclusion. I'd rather not think that Grandma hated him for the rest of her life."
Linda also looked deep into the history of the Métis Native Americans of the U.S. and Canada. “Mixed”—that’s what the French word Métis means, are often regarded as outsiders by both white and tribal worlds, they’re the marginalized of the marginalized. She wrote parts about their culture, their Michif dialect and history, which necessarily describes poverty, war, mistreatment, denial of government recognition and social rejection. There’s no way to describe the heartbreak she feels for her ancestors. And as a side benefit, through ancestry research on the internet, Linda has found Métis "cousins" from branches of her family she never knew existed.
As the writing progressed, Linda was deeply moved by the pattern of abandonment in Pearl’s life—a mother’s death, a father leaving her with neighbors, her first husband dropping off the face of the earth, and more until the end of her life. Abandonment and betrayal certainly weighed heavily on the Métis as well. "It's complex thing, understanding another's life. Grandma rebuilt her life several times, raised a family, and outlived three husbands. She even became skilled at architectural design. But alongside the rewards of her life, I knew her to be unhappy and plagued with anxiety."
After each of Linda’s chapters, she added “Afterwords” where she steps aside to share her reflections—in my opinion, her truly golden and most heartfelt writing. What connections did she feel to Pearl's life? What perspectives did Linda gain that can be valuable for anyone to read? Linda would make the case that a loving forgiveness of the past is important healing work. Not just for her own life, but for the spirits of history.
If nothing else, I think the readers of The Lives of Pearl could take away a renewed interest in their own family history. Follow Linda's example: "Be fearless, go find some cousins!"
Flag of the Métis people. Infinity symbolizes the immortality of a single culture formed from two.
The government of Canada has granted the Métis people First Nation status. The United States government has not recognized Métis as a unique tribe of Native North Americans.