Family stories

No one lives in a family group, of whatever composition, without learning the family stories: who we are, how we got here, what matters really.

Some of the stories are fresh enough to refer to people in living memory, some so fresh that they may refer to living people/ Others are of a more mythological status: about somebody (noone is sure who) or something (no one is sure what) which happened or was true (no one is sure when).

My mythology included the story that my mother’s family had Dutch ancestry somewhere on her father’s side. There were also comforting tales which upon closer inspection, and following some research for my family tree, turned out to be nothing more than that: comforting stories told to or made up by small children in difficult situations. So, for instance, my mother’s father believed his own mother died in giving birth to him, whereas in fact it was to a younger sibling, who also died. More confusingly, my father believed his own father had been brought up by aunts because his mother had similarly died in childbirth and his father could not look after him alone. In fact, he was illegitimate and his mother moved away, later marrying and dying in her 40s without any other children. His putative father did not seem to be aware of his child, later married and was known to have regretted often that he had no children. What we choose to disclose and what we keep secret or warp to fit our own designs, can affect the lives of others without our knowing.

What stories are also lost! I have ancestors who were coast guards and revenue men going back to the 18th century, or were London city missionaries at the end of the 19th century in the sinks and stews of Whitechapel. One ancestor was apparently a defence solicitor for the men of the Pentrich Uprising in Derbyshire – a story which I hope to prove one day and be able to trumpet to the world. Another ancestor was an engineer on steamships, yet another a police officer before and during the Peel inception of the Metropolitan police. Ancestral siblings established settlements in Australia, worked in India and Canada, were miners, engravers, farmers, governesses, dressmakers, National School teachers, farriers and shopkeepers. Fortunes were won, inherited, lost, and yet of these struggles there is no whisper.

My own family spoke of its history very little beyond the stories outlined here. The other abiding story was of the loss of brothers in the Great War; again I had been told it was almost all of grandma’s eight brothers who died, but in fact five survived. This does not diminish the loss of the others, nor make the sacrifice less. It is why I am moved emotionally when thinking of them despite never having met; to me they are real through the stories and my grandmother’s quiet tears and faded photographs.

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