Principles of Provenance

By Laura Millar


Arriving in the Archives Monday morning, Emily hung up her jacket, still needed in the early May air, and started a pot of coffee. Emily was Booth Harbor’s first professional archivist, and this was her first job after receiving her archival studies degree. Everyone was struggling to adapt. Her boss in City Hall expected her to digitize everything right away. The volunteers were chafing at the loss of their autonomy. And Emily lamented not having enough time for “real” archival work. She longed to puzzle over documents and to immerse herself in questions of provenance and original order. But most of the time she puzzled instead over budgets, volunteer rosters, and a frustratingly large backlog of unprocessed archives.

Sometimes, after a reprimand from Mary that she worked too hard, Emily would join the volunteers for afternoon tea. Mary Burnside, the Volunteer Coordinator, was the longest-serving member of the Archives. She was also a multiple winner of the Booth Harbor Citizen of the Year Award, voice of the Archives in the local media, and an 89-year-old force of nature. When Mary scolded, Emily had learned to listen.

“You have to remember, dear,” Mary would declare, tapping her arthritic finger on the table, “that the business of archives is not archives. The business of archives is people. Archives are a means to an end, but they are not the end.”

This morning, as Emily poured her coffee, she thought about Mary. “Just a small heart attack,” Mary had said when she’d called in a couple of weeks ago. “No big deal.” At 89, Emily thought, a heart attack was a big deal. At 89, any health problem was a big deal. Emily didn’t want to lose Mary. She had become like . . . well, not a mother really. More like a favorite aunt. Full of good advice but without the guilt trips. Emily had grown awfully attached to Mary. And she needed Mary badly, even though she hated to admit it.

Emily was expecting a visitor this morning, a Dr. Eric McMaster from Chicago. He had phoned to make an appointment a couple of weeks ago, asking specifically for Mary. Emily had been a bit annoyed. Every researcher who came to the Archives asked for Mary. But Emily was Booth Harbor’s Archivist. When would people ask for her?

Emily had not expressed her frustration to her caller, just saying that Mary was away from the office for a while and that she, as Archivist, should be able to help. Dr. McMaster had sounded disappointed. But he agreed to meet Emily. He was only going to be in Booth Harbor for a few days, he said, and he really wanted to see someone who knew Mary. Emily was determined to answer any questions he might have, if only for the satisfaction of demonstrating her archival credentials.

While she waited for Dr. McMaster to arrive, Emily looked over the projects underway in the volunteers’ workroom. The Community Day displays were in progress, and the half-finished invitations for the Community Day banquet were sitting on Mary’s desk.

Started as Pioneer Day some 80 years ago, Community Day had evolved into one of the most important events in the Booth Harbor calendar. The day began with a parade, followed by a craft fair, tea party, and banquet at the town hall. New archival acquisitions were displayed in the hall, as a way of acknowledging donors and promoting the Archives. At the dinner, the Mayor handed out civic awards and thanked local citizens and businesses for their contributions over the year.

Community Day was still weeks away, but the pressure was building to get everything ready. And since it was Emily’s first Community Day, she badly wanted the day to go well. And now Mary—around whom all the Archives’ planning seemed to revolve—was at home, recovering from this “no big deal” heart attack.

Emily heard the knock on the door and went to greet her visitor. Dr. McMaster was at least six feet tall, well dressed in slacks, blazer, and golf shirt, with a neatly clipped beard and silver hair. He could have been a naval officer, he looked that sharp. What struck Emily most, though, were his eyes: crystal blue and penetrating, but welcoming and kind. Like Chinese porcelain, or blue poppies, one of Emily’s favorite flowers.

They introduced themselves and Emily showed him into her office, offering him the guest chair and a cup of coffee. He was carrying a briefcase, which he placed between his feet. As she brought his coffee, she asked if Chicago was home.

“Born and raised,” he smiled.” I’m a pediatrician. Not yet retired, though my wife thinks it’s well past time. I’ll be 70 next year, and she has plans for me.” He laughed, and his China blue eyes got even brighter. “I am not sure I quite agree with her plans, so I am putting off the day as long as possible.”

He sipped his coffee. “I’ve never been to Booth Harbor before,” he went on. “My mother was born here.” He gave a sad, almost apologetic smile, and added, “She died this past winter. Cancer.”

Emily offered her sympathies, and Dr. McMaster continued. “It was for her that I wanted to meet Mary. Is there any chance . . . ?” His voice trailed off.

Emily explained about Mary’s heart attack. “She says she will be back at work soon, but she is 89; she may have to slow down someday.” Emily laughed. “She shows no signs of it yet, though. She’s a dynamo, our Mary.”

As Dr. McMaster reached for his briefcase, he said, “If Mary is 89 then I expect she knew my mother. They would be the same age.” He brought out a thin manila envelope and lay it on the desk. “When my mother died, she left instructions for us to scatter her ashes in the ocean at Booth Harbor. We all loved sailing,” he explained, “but I was surprised she chose Booth Harbor instead of Lake Michigan. Then I found this envelope with her will, and I think she wanted to ensure I had a reason to come here myself. I think she wanted me to meet Mary.”

Scribbled on the outside of the envelope, in spidery handwriting, was: DELIVER TO MARY BURNSIDE AT BOOTH HARBOR ARCHIVES. Dr. McMaster took out the contents: a photocopy of a newspaper article showing Mary receiving the Booth Harbor Citizen of the Year award last year; an obituary from two years ago for a Constance Coleman—“beloved wife of Thomas”; and a photograph, showing four teenagers standing in front of a banquet table. There was also a note on a small sheet of writing paper, saying, “Dear Mary, I’ve missed you. It’s time to make this right.” It was signed, “Love always, Edith.”

Emily gazed at the photograph. The two girls, in party dresses, the boys, in suits, were laughing at the camera. Other tables could be seen in the distance, showing more people, young and old. A banner on the wall read “Pioneer Day.” The pictures were clearly from a Pioneer Day banquet, many years ago.

“I recognize my mother, Edith,” Dr. McMaster said, pointing to the tall, regal woman on the left. “But I don’t know anyone else. Do you think the other woman is Mary?”

Emily nodded. The short girl was Mary; her impish face was unmistakeable. Emily didn’t recognize the boys.

“My mother,” explained Dr. McMaster, “was very private. And like your Mary,” he smiled, “she was a forceful lady. Very loving, but very strong.” He took a sip of coffee. “I was born in 1946. She never married, and she raised me alone.”

He hesitated only for a second before gazing at Emily with his steady, calm eyes. Emily felt he must have inherited his mother’s strength of character.

“I think she left here around 1944,” he went on, “but she would never tell me about her past, or about my father, except that he was a good man. All she would say was ‘someday you will know, but not until the time is right.’ I can only guess that Mary must have the answer, and that my mother wanted me to find out now.”

Emily looked at the photograph for a moment, then she turned to the computer on her desk, opening up the Archives’ database. This was the joy of archives, she thought with satisfaction. They could provide answers when there was no one to tell the story.

She searched the database for “Pioneer Day” and found dozens of scanned photographs. Some showed parades; some showed people receiving awards. Several were from 1943, 1945, and 1946, but none from 1944. Some depicted the actual banquet but, frustratingly, the tables, tablecloths, and even the banner seemed to be the same from year to year. Without a verifiable date, it was impossible for her to distinguish between one year and the next.

Emily was soon immersed in her search, opening file after file. She was debating whether to search through the backlog in the storage room when a gentle cough reminded her of her visitor. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s an absorbing puzzle. I know that this photograph was taken on Pioneer Day, our annual civic celebration.” She explained the history of the event. “I was looking for some other archives to help confirm the date,” she went on, “but I don’t see anything else from Pioneer Day in 1944.” Looking hopeful, she added, “If your photograph had been taken in 1944, it would be a wonderful addition to the Archives. We don’t seem to have any other records from Pioneer Day that year.”

Dr. McMaster nodded his head and said, with a patient tone, “indeed. But it’s also important to me to know the story behind these items, don’t you agree?” His eyes revealed his regret. “I know Mary is recuperating, but if you get a chance to chat with her, I would appreciate it very much. I suspect she will be able to shed some light.”

Emily, chagrined at the gentle rebuke, agreed that she would get in touch with Mary and that she would contact Dr. McMaster if she learned anything new.

Emily suspected Mary would indeed be able to provide answers to this puzzle. And Mary would want to be involved. But the news of Edith’s death could be upsetting, and Mary didn’t need the shock. Emily decided it was best to wait until Mary returned to work. But during afternoon tea with the volunteers, as Emily listened to them reminisce about life in Booth Harbor, she began to think that maybe it was not fair to Mary, or to Dr. McMaster, to wait.

That evening, Emily called Mary and arranged to visit on Saturday. Mary’s demand was simple: Emily must bring some of Mary’s favorite cinnamon buns for breakfast.

On Saturday morning, Emily arrived at Mary’s home with cinnamon buns and the envelope. Mary prepared a pot of tea, and they settled at the dining table. After catching up on events at the Archives, Emily said, “I had a visitor Monday.” Then she hesitated, unsure how Mary would receive the news. “From Chicago. A Dr. Eric McMaster.” She paused again. “He says he is Edith McMaster’s son.”

Mary looked startled.

Emily took a breath and went on. “Edith McMaster has died.”

Mary’s eyes misted with tears. Emily knew better than to offer comfort. Instead, she poured more tea and sat quietly, waiting.

After a few minutes, Mary settled in her chair and said, “Tell me.”

Emily recounted the story and brought out the envelope. Mary looked at the photograph and the note. Her eyes widened. “Ah. Finally. Long past time. But she had her reasons.”

Mary pointed to the young man next to her in the photograph. “Edward Burnside; my husband. My fiancé then.” She paused a moment, looking wistful. Then, pointing to the other man, she said, “Thomas. Thomas Coleman. A doctor. Spent most of his career in Boston, but he came back to Booth Harbor a couple of years ago, after his wife died.” She held up the obituary. “Married Constance late in life. No children. I’ve only seen him a couple of times since he returned.” She sighed. “He was always a lovely, kind man.”

She went on. “This picture was taken on Pioneer Day in July 1945. Not long after V-E Day. Everyone was so happy.”

Emily looked confused. “Are you sure it’s not 1944? Dr. McMaster thought that his mother left Booth Harbor in 1944. So the picture can’t be from 1945.” Emily’s voice brightened. “If it is from 1944, wouldn’t that would be great for the Archives? We don’t seem to have any pictures from that year, at least not in the database.”

Mary’s voice was sharp. “This is not about the Archives’ database, dear,” she scolded. “This is about people. I keep telling you, archives are a means to an end. They are not the end.”

Emily, chastened, looked down at the table.

Mary went on. “It was 1945. You can see the ring on my finger. Edward and I got engaged the week before. The end of the war spurred him on.” Emily could see the ring, the same one Mary wore now. Despite her arthritis, Mary never took off her rings. “A 61-year honeymoon,” she would say.

“Besides,” Mary added, “there was no Pioneer Day in 1944. That was the year we lost the Carson brothers in the D-Day landings. The City agreed it would be disrespectful to have a party so soon after.”

Mary looked at the photograph again. “The four of us were always together,” Mary explained. “Best friends. But then Edith left. At the end of the summer of ’45. I knew why, but she said Thomas must never know. I think she felt that if he married her, he would never go to medical school, which he wanted so badly. She loved him that much. He assumed she’d lost patience, not wanting to wait for him to graduate. But he was heartbroken.”

Mary continued. “He became a doctor and eventually married Constance. But he never came back to Booth Harbor. Not until Constance was gone. He’s back now, and I’ve so wanted to explain. But I never felt it was my story to tell. So I’ve avoided him. But now, Edith has given me permission.”

Mary looked at Emily. “Tell me about Edith’s son.”

“Well,” Emily said, “he is about six feet tall. Very handsome. Silver hair. And his eyes. Such bright blue eyes. Quite shocking, really.”

Mary’s eyes welled again. “Like a robin’s egg?” she murmured.

Emily looked at her with surprise. “Like blue poppies. Or beautiful Chinese porcelain.”

“Ah.” Mary whispered. “Yes. Good.” She sipped her tea. After a few moments, she tapped her finger on the table, a sign she was about to issue some sort of order.

“Here’s what you are to do, dear,” Mary declared. “Put a copy of this photograph in the Community Day display. Send another copy to me. And send me the banquet invitations. I will finish them here.”

Emily protested, saying she had to put the photograph into the Archives’ database first, but Mary interrupted. “You and your database,” she snapped. “It’s not about your database, dear. Just do what I say. It’s time for the truth. It’s what Edith wanted. She wouldn’t have arranged for her son to come here otherwise.”

“Should I call him?” Emily asked.

“No, dear,” Mary replied. “Leave it to me. You carry on with planning Community Day. This year will be very special.”

Reluctantly, Emily accepted Mary’s terms. Then she kissed her on the cheek and left her to rest.

On Monday, Emily arranged for the photograph to go into the display, and she sent the invitations, labels, and stamps to Mary, along with a copy of the photograph. She also called the local printers and asked them to make a new Community Day banner. Then she waited.

A week later, Emily started to get the first RSVPs for the banquet. Mary had wasted no time sending them out.

Six weeks later, Mary phoned Emily with good news. The doctor said she was fit enough to return to work in a week or so. In the meantime Mary was looking forward very much to the Community Day banquet on Saturday. Emily offered to drive her, but Mary declined. “All sorted,” she replied. “But I want you to bring your camera. We need lots of photographs.”

The night of the banquet, Emily put on her one good dress, slipped her camera into her handbag, and drove to the hall. As she walked in, she could see that the room was decorated beautifully, with streamers and balloons. Some people were taking their seats; others were gathered around the Archives’ exhibits, chatting and laughing. The banner along the back wall, fresh from the printers, read “Community Day 2015.” Emily smiled. No more guess work there, she thought.

Emily made her way to Mary, who was already seated at a table near the stage. Mary waved and gestured to her companions. “We’ve had such a lovely day, dear,” she said. “There’s so much to tell.”

Emily was surprised to see Dr. McMaster there, in the chair next to Mary. Beside him was a pretty, friendly-looking woman. An elderly man, tall and elegant, was just taking his seat on the other side of Mary.

Mary grinned, as happy a face as Emily had ever seen. “We need lots of photographs tonight, Emily dear; this is a special occasion. You know Eric McMaster?”

Emily nodded and shook his hand.

“This is his wife Elizabeth, from Chicago,” Mary continued. Emily extended her hand.

“And this,” Mary said, “is Thomas Coleman.” The elderly gentleman rose from his seat. “So pleased to meet you,” he said, his face beaming. As Emily shook his hand, she looked into his warm, gentle eyes. They were the most remarkable blue. 


© 2015 by Laura Millar.


About the author:
Laura Millar was born in Seattle, Washington, and raised in Connecticut. She is a records and archives consultant, based in British Columbia, Canada, and the author of several books and articles on archival and records management topics. In 2011 she received the Society of American Archivists' Waldo Gifford Leland Award for writing of superior excellence and usefulness in the fields of archival history, theory, or practice for her book Archives: Principles and Practices.

2015 Archives Short Fiction Contest

Winning Entry:

"A Silent Promise" 
by Stephanie T. Vaillant

Honorable Mentions:

"Principles of Provenance"
by Laura Millar

"Coco Mío"
by JoyEllen Freeman