I am continuing to participate in the monthly Bloggers for Peace series which is the brain child of the the lovely Kozo. I say “lovely”, but he’s pushing his luck this month, because Kozo has asked for posts about family. To be precise, making peace with family. You know, the people who messed you up, broke your heart or mind or body, who know the buttons to press or the words to use.
This month, I want you to focus on your family. Is there anyone you don’t fully embrace in your family? Do you feel resentment, shame, or anger towards someone blood-related?
Yep, I went there. Let’s deal with it. This months challenge is to make peace in yourself with someone close to you.
I have been thinking about this and struggling to know what to say.
My family is not particularly traumatic. I am blessed. I had a reasonably happy childhood. If anything, my family is in fact more notable by its lacks. It is not large. In general it is not fond or close or very emotional. (To be clear, when I say “family” here in this post I am referring to my ancestry, as it were, and not to Sigoth or the Offspringses.)
I am an only child. My mother was an only child. My father had brothers (living) and a sister (died as a child). I grew up knowing I was loved in general. We didn’t see many relatives except aunt, uncle and cousin (also an only child). Half the family was abroad so we hardly ever saw them at all. I was the only girl and younger than my English cousin by more than 12 years. We had nothing in common.
We never talked about family. I was intrigued to know more about the shadowy relations occasionally mentioned, but then hidden again. Pretty much anything I heard was about family arguments and disagreements. Generally speaking my family has a poor track record at living peacefully. Perhaps it’s not surprising that they didn’t keep in touch with one another. They were too tired and worn and poor.
I remember very clearly, when I complained about having to visit my aunt and uncle, what dad told me: that it didn’t matter if you liked your family or not. You had to do your duty.
My mother’s view was different and more unsettling to my child self. She always said that because her parents had argued so much she would never inflict that on me. If she and dad didn’t get along, she would leave. She didn’t believe in staying together for the sake of the children.
It’s not a loving environment, is it? We didn’t have rows or thrown china or slammed doors. That was too dangerous. We just had duty and the possibility of leaving or being left.
Once I was older I had a chance to start doing family tree research. My own family wouldn’t tell me much about the photos we did have, but the documents have told some tales and sometimes I have teased out more from my mother in years gone by, none of it reliable but sometimes indicative.
My maternal grandfather lost his mother when he was a toddler; she died giving birth to a brother who also died. Granddad was sent away to live with his maternal grandfather until he was about five. He wasn’t wanted there. His grandfather wouldn’t speak to him; I’m assuming the reminder of his dead daughter was unwelcome. When he came home there was a stepmother and things didn’t go well. On censuses he is variously with his grandfather, his aunt and then on his own. He left home when he was seventeen and went to London. His own marriage, as my mother explained, was disastrous. My mother not only had to survive the Blitz in the East End but then had her parents break up and live separately until her mother died in her arms a few days before her 15th birthday. She moved back with her father and again a disastrous stepmother was introduced. She left home when she met my father and my grandmother found her a place to live with a neighbour.
My father had a better time of it, but his own father was brought up by aunts because his mother had apparently died in childbirth too and his own father was unable to cope with caring for a child. However, it turns out he was actually illegitimate, and this was just the kind cover story he was told. His mother moved away from the area and later did marry but died in her 40s from cancer. It is not clear whether she kept in touch with her sisters and son, but possibly she was disowned. His father was seemingly unaware of his son and is known to have lived a life regretting that he had no children (he later married but the couple remained childless).
My grandmother had a large family, being one of 12 children, but was scarred by the loss of brothers in Somme trenches and later her little girl.
These are common tragedies to family historians, but it seems to me that they reflect down the generations. The thoughtlessness and hardness of lives lived in poverty and grief affect the fortunes of unborn children. Looking at my grandparents, only one of them had anything like a reasonable family life and that was one of constant struggle, fear of bailiffs and desperate projects to earn enough to feed the children. My grandmother made jam and sold it to earn a little extra money because her husband’s wage was low. She told me when I was little and had to stand on a chair to help stir the fruit as it bubbled on the cooker, that she used to sell her jam. I was very proud to think she made such good jam. Now I am proud that she was so resourceful.
The other day I found some new Poor Law Removal records for a previous generation and it turns out that ancestor Daniel abandoned his wife Charlotte and their surviving children in the 1850s. They were back together for the 1861 census, but under what duress I dread to think. In 1855 when Charlotte was forced to apply for parish relief at the workhouse she was living in Digby Walk, as described below in a report from 1848:
DIGBY WALK, GLOBE ROAD, 19.- In fit character with the distressing and degrading scene last visited, is this alley, which is in a state of the most beastly dirt. More than half of this horrid alley is covered with a stagnant pool of most offensive and filthy slime, and mud, in some places, to the depth of a foot. Some of the houses, which abut on it, are unfinished, but the yards of the older houses present a character little dissimilar to the stagnant gutter, or ditch itself. The refuse from a pig-stye drains into this gutter, and adds pungency to its offensiveness. This place is private property, and the landlord of the new houses has built a cesspool, into which to drain his houses, but he will not permit the other houses in the alley to drain into this cesspool, unless the parish pay to him 1l., a sum which it will not pay. Verily, one case of typhus would cost much more than the small sum asked to keep this place clean.
I don’t know why they ended up in this situation. Daniel had a good trade so perhaps he was going through a rough patch, or else he was a gambler or drunkard or promiscuous or violent. Perhaps she left him or maybe they agreed mutually it was for the best. Maybe they thought they were doing the right thing for their fragile family. Nevertheless, such experiences would have been traumatic for the children, one of whom was my great-great-grandmother. She also married a bit of a waster, and her own daughter, my great-grandmother was orphaned and in a workhouse at the age of 11.
How can families live joyful, loving, peace-fulfilling lives with these scars and tragedies? We are losing the generation that was broken by the trenches of France, and whose silence about those experiences is understandable but also permits the perpetuation of the old lie, as Wilfred Owen calls it, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
My father was in Germany in 1945 and 1946 but didn’t talk much about it either except for brief glimpses of camaraderie in the face of despair, and the discovery that some Germans at least were good people who were betrayed. This was not a popular opinion to hold at that time but he was a kind man and only judged people by their actions. He fell in love with a German girl but had to leave her because his mother would not accept her (not surprising but a little disappointing, I’ll admit). He did his duty then and continued for the rest of his life to do so.
What I have found is that for every generation where I uncover some sad or disagreeable story, there is inevitably a reason (although rarely an excuse) to explain the behaviour. This is how we perpetrate the errors of our forebears and continue to suffer.
Despite all this I have some hope. Darkness cannot abide with light; truth told leaves nowhere for lies to hide. With honesty comes the possibility of forgiveness and a fresh start.
I wish I had recognised this sooner, and avoided mistakes in my own parenting; but I did recognise some patterns that I did not want to repeat and I hope I managed to avoid them or at least reduce the strength of them. Worrying about money is one feature of my family. The only time my dad lost his temper with me was when I dropped a bottle of milk. “Do you how much milk costs?” he shouted. So although I worry about money and although we had to be frugal when the Offsrpingses were smaller, I don’t think I have ever shouted at them for such childish mistakes. I have shouted. Just not for that.
Let’s sit down with Philip Larkin for a moment, because that’s a very good place to sit. His conclusion is not for me but he sums up the tragedy of inherited scars.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Very few people are actually evil although they may choose to commit evil acts. Something has shaped them. Be glad, and even humbled, if it has not shaped you too. We can make peace if we want to. Recognising the roots of fear and sadness and pain is the first step to moving past those things to a better place. It is not easy. It is merely possible.
May you rise above your suffering and choose peace and love. I will do my best to keep up with you and we will try to make a better, more peaceful, world, here and now and every day.
The light in me salutes the light in you
Other posts this month include: