I only met two of my grandparents: my father’s mother and my mother’s father. My Grandma lived with us, so I saw her every day. My Granddad lived in Croydon, caring for his step-son and daughter-in-law. His step-son had learning difficulties (we used a different term in the 1960s which wouldn’t be acceptable today). He dribbled but was really nice and taught me to play chess. His wife, who was disabled from polio, was mentally very able indeed, and she made sure he was safe and secure. However, she was quite bad-tempered and not fond of children, so she didn’t really teach me anything except that being disabled is no excuse for being bad-tempered.
However, I heard lots about my other grandparents, so they were quite real to me. It felt like I had just missed them; that they had popped out for a minute but maybe I’d see them next time.
My dad had mementos of his father which he occasionally showed me. There was his medal, for a start. I used to think it was for being a hero in the war, but it turned out to be a tug of war team medal. He was quite sporty, it seems, because I have photographs of him on the football team and cricket team. However, he lost an eye in the war, so was definitely a hero.
My mother’s mother died terribly young, of cancer, in my mother’s arms, just before my mother’s 15th birthday. It was awful. Her photos show her was young and beautiful, although she was 50 when she died so I suspect they are a little misleading, like Mary Queen of Scots who was old, wheezy and rheumatic on the scaffold rather than the young, beautiful heroine people like to think. Not that it matters. Death is death, and usually early.
I started researching my family tree because I wanted to know more about my family, the ones who had just popped out as well as the ones I knew in person. It turns out that family history can reveal polite fiction or cherished beliefs as the shams they are. I have found out a couple of truths by looking into the records over the years.
One of them I didn’t share with my father because it would have been a bit of an upset for him. My grandfather had lost an eye, and my dad always thought it was during the war (I am talking about the 1914-1918 war). One day I managed to unearth his military records and discovered he already had a growth on his eye when enlisting, and that he was discharged because he needed an operation and lost his sight. Given that my grandmother lost a number of brothers to the trenches I don’t think anyone in the family was upset by this. It must have seemed a fair price. But what do you tell a small boy about his daddy during the war, when he wants to know?
The other thing I discovered about my grandfather was that not only was he interested in bell-ringing (I knew that from day one, as my dad used to listen to church bells and tell me about his father), but he had a couple of plaques for ringing a peal of Stedman Triples, and a peal of Grandsire Triples, with his friends. All I can add is that over 5000 changes were involved for each. It sounds a lot.
The bell-ringing fascinates me. I happen to have some friends who are keen on it, and they are all computer geeks. They claim it’s common for that to be the case, something to do with the patterns and sequences being like code. I don’t know if it’s true, but I do know when one of them showed me the pattern for a Stedman Triple it made total sense immediately, and apparently not everyone has that reaction. On the other hand coding bores me to death; I’m a hardware girl. Give me a router or server, and I’m happy.
Still, I like to think of my grandfather, the lesser known, shadowy one, as a computer expert born a couple of generations too early. That is where myth starts to intrude on truth again.
Once people are dead they have defence against our prying. I suspect a black hole of documentation will follow our generation as computerised records are deleted and the faded, dog-eared old accounts of births, deaths and marriages fade away. We may yet be more shadowy and harder to know than our own grandparents; and if family stories are anything to go by, our blogs are as unreliable as our stories for children.
My grandfather was illegitimate; I am not sure anyone knew. I don’t care about such trivial detail, but somewhere my grandma is spinning her ashes into a storm over my casual reference to it in public. If she has her way I’ll be in trouble tonight. Likely I’ll be sent to bed without supper.
My grandfather’s father, apparently unaware that he had a child, died regretting that he never had a family. He married late and they didn’t have children of their own. It is of course possible he wasn’t actually the father, but as his name is a little unusual it was probably true, or, if not, one of his brothers was a conniving bastard (also possible). It is equally possible he did know but had to maintain another polite fiction for the sake of the missus.
Some things paperwork cannot tell you.
It is even less likely that the Internet is a reliable resource.
But least reliable of all are fond memories which may have been created to paper over cracks and shore up esteem.
My family weren’t psychopathic liars; they just had to cope with the values and morals of the day. They did nothing unusual in protecting their good standing, and in giving the next generation self-respect and pride. How far do little white lies stretch until they become recorded truth? They portray us as we want to be remembered. Even what I have told you here is circumscribed by my perceptions and interpretations.
In making peace with ourselves, do we inadvertently do so with smoke and mirrors?