The family log
by Jamie MacKinnon

In 1992 I bought an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch log book. It has 160 blank, unlined pages. The spine is covered in burgundy cloth. The front cover has a reproduction of William Hart's "Bluebird of Paradise," and on the back, Audubon and Havell's "Greater Flamingo."

It was the start of the summer holiday, and I had the idea of starting a family log, a record of what we did, what was on our minds. I wanted everyone to contribute.

It starts with my then-nine-year-old daughter's impressions of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons: "Today we went to a historical site. It's name is Ste. Marie among the Hurons. We went to the museum and then saw a film. When it was finished, the film said 'Why don’t you see for yourself' and where the film was, a door opened!"

Then it's me commenting on the "wonderful, pungent smell of mash" at the Creemore brewery, and my five-year old son Matthew’s sketch of "Our motel in Midland." My wife Julie writes of the "endless beaches of Tiny Township." There's a sketch of a "mini circus" in St. Thomas done by my daughter, and a sketch of the Port Stanley harbour done by my wife.

1993 records a conversation about the building of a "fort" (sticks laid on the ground) by my daughter, son and another girl at a cottage we had rented. The recorded dialogue shows the bossiness of a ten-year-old with a six-year-old ("Matt, look for more sticks!") and captures an afternoon when the forest floor provided more interest than a toy store. This is followed by a sketch of Matthew missing his first tooth.

1994 covers a trip to Cape Breton Island. Genevieve, my daughter, sketched "Dad looking at signs in fog" and "Pulling up and putting down lobster traps by our restaurant in Neil’s Harbour." I noted that behind this same restaurant, on the shore of the Atlantic, we found wild strawberries and gave a few to the Japanese tourists standing nearby. The Japanese were puzzled initially, and then very pleased. After a visit to the Glace Bay harbour, my son made a wonderful sketch of fresh caught skate being loaded onto a conveyor at the end of which is a box labelled "snow."

In 1995 Matthew wrote that "at the Museum of Nature I saw a robot and he could talk." In 1996, the log notes that the plum tree we'd planted was nine feet tall, and that Julie and I had gone, sans enfants, to Boston and Cape Cod ("happy to be there out of season," Julie noted). And on it goes.

The sketches are done with coloured pencils, crayons, pen – whatever was at hand. The odd time, one of us has taped something to the page – a label, a scrap of paper written on with home-made ink – but with one or two exceptions, there are no photos. This became a "rule": photos are too passive.

Writing and sketching oblige you to decide what, in your recent experience, is important, and you have to invent a way of communicating the experience. The result is more revealing, more significant, than any photograph.

Keeping the log has required, as you may imagine, some begging and pushing. The kids have to be asked to "do a page."

I bought the second log in 1998. It starts with sketches of the sandbanks at Sandbanks Provincial Park in eastern Ontario and records some of the hallucinatory words said aloud by our son Matthew (age 11) during a vivid dream in the middle of the night: "I won two new cars! . . . Fifteen-love. Thirty-love. Forty-love. Game. Two new cars!"

A sketch of Bridge 21 over the Welland Canal at Port Colborne. Details of a mini-putt game. A description of the 25th annual Home County Folk Festival in London, including this from my wife: "Don Ross brought the crowd to its feet. His guitar playing was stunning. An elderly gent sitting next to me asked me if there were someone else playing with Ross. When I said No, he suggested that there might be someone playing with Ross 'at the back of the stage.' I can understand why he couldn’t believe that one person could get so much sound out on an instrument."

1999 starts with me noting some random facts, things that provided a backdrop for the times: the war in Kosovo was apparently over, spring had been dry and warm, my son was my equal in tennis, Harris had won a second term at Queens Park. And we had a new roof rack on our car: we were going to Alberta.


"Left Ottawa at 6:30 a.m. on Dominion Day, with the aim of getting to Alberta by July 5." On July 2, as we crossed the Red River just north of the U.S. border, we saw a crop duster swoop in low over a yellow field of canola, nicely recorded in a sketch by Genevieve. Then details of our stay in the Badlands and seven glorious days in Waterton Lakes National Park. And on it goes.

The original log, I've learned, was a piece of wood used to determine nautical speed. The log, attached to a line marked by equally spaced knots, was thrown from a ship. As the ship sailed, the line was run for a given period of time. Then the line and log were drawn back aboard. Divide distance by time and you've got speed. And of course speed allows you to estimate how far you've gone.

The journal into which this information was recorded came to be called a log. Or, as the OED has it, a log is "any record in which facts about the progress or performance of something are entered in the order in which they become known."

Our family log has become one of our most valued possessions. It's more than a record. It's a family-built artifact, and it contains a wonderful kind of truth – the truth of selective observation, and of thought and feeling over time and place.

Jamie MacKinnon lives in Ottawa.