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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

I never knew Joan Hatcher or any of her family members or friends but after finding a piece of her history in a thrift shop, I have since learned a lot about her to try and return it.

Joan was born in Montreal in 1926, the first child of an up-and-coming McGill University chemistry professor and his Eastern Townships-born wife. She took her first boat ride on Lake Memphremagog when she was five months old, and her first tooth came in just before Christmas that year. Young Joan suffered her share of illness: Decades before routine childhood immunization and over a period of just 10 months, she had bouts of measles, rubella, mumps, and chickenpox. Fortunately, she survived them all, eventually having her own daughter and living into her 90s.

The facts about her later life are courtesy of Google and Ancestry. The intimate details of her childhood were among many handwritten notes in a little book titled My Infancy, which somehow found its way to the shelves of a Montreal thrift shop alongside a tattered collection of T.S. Eliot’s poems.

I spend a lot of time looking for old books, and occasionally something tucked between the pages is more interesting than the book itself – I’ve found a Mother’s Day card inside a 1960s novel, flowers pressed in a 1920s school reader, and many yellowed newspaper clippings of book reviews. Occasionally a reader has jotted down a few thoughts in the margins. But I never expected (or for that matter, wanted) to find someone’s baby book, let alone one with the level of charming detail found in Joan’s.

To a collector of vintage paper products, the book is exquisite. Its aged, caramel-coloured pages have pencil-drawn illustrations of babies with unnaturally cherubic faces and headings such as “Our Darling in Short Clothes” (as opposed to the long dresses that all babies wore during the first months of life. Joan donned her short clothes the day she turned three months). There are snapshots of baby Joan in the bath, and toddler Joan in a peacoat and a tuque, looking unimpressed with having her photo taken.

The book is filled with the kind of detail that would make anyone with an interest in genealogy swoon. That’s why I was horrified at seeing this priceless family heirloom with a $2.99 price tag.

I’ve been researching my working-class Scottish ancestors for years, and they didn’t leave much of a paper trail. There are no stacks of letters tied with lace and ribbon, no family Bibles handed down, no trunks stuffed with diaries and journals. If the women in my family kept baby books, they have long since disappeared. The few photos and documents that have survived, such as my grandfather’s Second World War pay book, are precious to me.

Thanks to websites such as Ancestry, I have collected binders full of facts about several generations of my family. I’ve found census records in national databases, baptismal and marriage entries in church documents, and addresses in city directories. I’ve travelled to Scotland to walk along the streets they lived on (most of the housing they lived in has long since been razed and replaced), visited the cemeteries where they are buried, and searched for living descendants. I’ve been able to reconstruct the overarching timeline of my ancestors’ lives – the places, the dates and the milestones. But without anything written in their own hands, a big piece of them is missing. I can’t hear their voices. It’s like having a table of contents but no chapters.

Flipping through the careful script of each entry in Joan’s baby book – the photo of a diapered seven-week-old, the envelopes with carefully wrapped locks of hair (really!) – my first thought was what it would feel like to discover this kind of treasure for one of my own family members. A twinge of envy gave way to sadness that Joan’s book wasn’t in the hands of someone who could really appreciate it and feel connected to it.

I almost put it back on the shelf. After all, what right do I have to it? But then I wondered what the book’s fate would be if I left it in the thrift shop and whether I could find a rightful owner.

I was surprised at how easy it was to find Joan online. She grew up during a time when newspapers tracked the comings and goings of out-of-towners, and The Sherbrooke Record has many references to young Joan and her sister visiting their grandparents in rural Quebec.

Her obituary was in her maiden name and she died in the city where she was born. But while I had hoped to find a menagerie of grandchildren, the notice only cited one daughter and a son-in-law as surviving family members. I did a few other searches to cross-reference the names and confirm this was indeed “my” Joan, there was no doubt. Then Google revealed that both Joan’s daughter and son-in-law have since died, apparently without children. My heart sank. No direct descendants. I found a handful of references to Joan’s younger sister – her only sibling, from what I can see – but her trail went cold in Saskatchewan.

So for now, Joan’s baby book is in my care. I go back to it from time to time, mostly to look at the photos of Joan’s expressive little face and imagine all the life that happened between then and now.

In the meantime, I will keep looking for someone who might remember hearing stories about “Aunt Joan in Montreal” or a distant cousin in Quebec – someone who, even if they didn’t know Joan, is a leaf on her family tree.

Elizabeth Moreau lives in Ottawa.