According to the BBC (God Bless her) doing family history helps us to understand who we are. The idea appears to be based on the premise that those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat its mistakes (to paraphrase Santayana). Personally I think a lot of family historians are simply very nosy people who enjoy a good gossip.
Anyway, I have been trying to research my family tree more or less since I was a teenager, having got the bug when my father found a bundle of old photos. I wrote the names of unknown ancestors (great uncles and aunts) on the back and tried to draw up a tree in an exercise book. When I compare that tree to the one I have now, I cannot help but notice how wildly inaccurate it was – so much for talking to relatives!
I have spent a great deal of time and effort on finding out about my ancestors, and have spent virtually no time at all in setting down my own memories. They just seem so dull compared to the lives of my forebears – not that they were glamorous, just exotically different.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” (Hartley, Leslie P)
I shall start then with a description of my family, in the sense of “the people I knew when I was little”. Some of those people I never met. We had relatives on both sides of the family who had emigrated to Canada during the 20th century. In fact, their names included their location as well, as in “Auntie Ethel in Canada”. This neatly distinguished her from Auntie Ethel who lived nearby and came to tea every Monday.
My parents were traditional, hard working people, not especially rich, but mostly managing to make ends meet (at least, until the 1970s). My father had two brothers, one locally and one in Canada, and his mother, my grandmother, who lived with us. We also had the ghosts; Uncle Albert, Grandma’s favourite brother who died in the Somme; and Auntie Winnie, Dad’s sister, who died when Dad was about a year old. Both were important to me, because they were talked about occasionally just like the Canadian relatives.
Talking about Uncle Albert made Grandma cry, but she never talked about Auntie Winnie – my parents did. This was because Grandma sometimes thought I was Winnie, and in fact we did look quite similar in the way little girls of five or six often do; we were stocky, blonde and solemn, with shoulder-length hair that wouldn’t curl no matter how many crusts or green vegetables were consumed. I was always very pleased about this, because it meant my hair never got as tangled as my friend’s, making it less painful to have it brushed.
Auntie Ethel, as already mentioned, came to tea every Monday, along with my cousin and my uncle. She wore very bright, thick red lipstick which left kisses on my face. She made most of my dresses and skirts when I was little. My mother, who never got the hang of sewing, knitted all my jumpers.
My cousin was twelve years older than me, and a boy, so was not much good at playing. He collected Dinky Cars, which he kept in their boxes, and I was not allowed to touch.
My uncle and my dad ran a hardware store. I loved to help in the shop as I grew up, taking money and counting change, filling shelves, serving paraffin from the tap in the back. We had a special jug for measuring it out, and the man from Weights & Measures came to check it every so often. We also sold nails by the weight (I still have the scales), wire by the foot, and would cut glass and timber to order. I wasn’t allowed to do that, much to my disgust, even though I promised to be really careful. We also sold batteries, and although we had a light bulb set up above the door to demonstrate they had power, usually we or the customer would just test them on the tip of our tongues to make sure.
My granddad, my mother’s father, lived quite a long way away in Croydon. He was a retired police inspector, and he looked after his step-son and daughter-in-law, Uncle Bert and Auntie Florrie. Uncle Bert was what we now call “learning disabled”, but in those days it was known as “educationally sub-normal”. I always found this confusing because Uncle Bert taught me to play chess, and apart from talking a little strangely and being a little clumsy, seemed pretty much like any other adult. He did seem more amenable to paying me attention though, so I was rather fond of him.
Auntie Florrie was disabled from polio, which she contracted as a child, and used crutches to get about. She was quite short-tempered and not very good with children so I avoided her. She also reminded me of a teacher at school, also disabled from polio, and also short-tempered. The teacher had an unerring aim with chalk, board wipers and so on, which made her more alarming when cross than the able-bodied teachers.
This was my immediate family – parents, grandma, granddad, auntie, uncle and cousin (and ghosts). Like everyone else I had lots of other Aunties and Uncles, who were friends of my mother’s. Any adult who was more than a passing acquaintance was called Auntie or Uncle; for example, our next door neighbours were Auntie May and Uncle Brown. People in authority, like teachers or policemen, kept their titles of Mr or Mrs or Miss. Even when I was a real grown-up and had my own child, I found it difficult to address these family friends by their first name only, and talking about them now, I still call them “Auntie” or “Uncle”.
Our children, meanwhile, have been brought up not only to address family friends directly by name, but also their actual aunts and uncles.