Last night I rang my Auntie Joan. Well, she isn’t really my aunt; she’s actually my grandmother’s first cousin and the most senior member of the family who still remembers the time when my late grandmother was a child, growing up in the rural Malverns. Without knowing it, Joan has been a silent witness of the forging of my immediate family’s recent past, which makes her a gold mine of information for someone like me , as an amateur genealogist, who always needs and wants to know more about the family history. Ever since I met Joan some years ago, she has kindly given me facts, photos and documents which one by one have helped me piece together a family history which, otherwise, no one else alive would be able to tell me.
After talking to Joan I sat down and began to type a long, detailed letter, which I intend to send her next week; in it I am enclosing some facts which hopefully will be of interest to her. Thanks to the Internet, I have successfully been able to fill in some gaps which Joan never knew, even as a child. The name of her father’s first wife, who died at the end of the First World War; and the name of their child, who died young; the sad loss of Joan’s only brother, who was killed at the age of 15 when his ship was torpedoed during the Second World War. These and many more facts will hopefully provide Joan with a clearer picture of what she may have known or should have known, but for some reason was never revealed to her; facts about common link and origins, who was who, and where this and that took place.
I confess I was initially concerned about sending all these findings to Aunty Joan. Happily, when people reach old age they take things differently, more philosophically, as my father said. Obviously remembering her brother’s loss would cause Joan great sadness and distress after the mishap actually happened, but time apparently cures most wounds, and you learn to accept life and live with things, even death itself. I hope my letter to Joan will be revealing and interesting, and not at all upsetting. I will ask for a picture of her father, whom I never met, in order to add to my pile of family heirlooms, which bit by bit I am piecing together. I will also ask her for her own story, about what it was like to grow up on the edge between Herefordshire and Worcestershire in the inter-war era; about what it was like being a nurse in the war, where she went and whom she met (apparently she brought a cousin back to health and the family wanted them to marry, but Joan would have nothing to do with him). I also want to know more about her father, and about her mother. I want to tell her all that records cannot tell me. I think it’s time to make good use of the older generations in our families, who very often wish more than anything that someone would take an interest in their life story and pay a little attention to them. At least that’s how I hope Joan will take it.
I’ll keep you posted.
Hi Dawsr, interesting post. It is so important to ask our elders to share their stories before they forget, or pass on, or they will be lost forever. But it isn’t just a matter of our mining them for information. I think the fact that we care about those early days and those family ties is comforting, even healing to our elders. Often, they are in reduced circumstances, and it makes them feel, and rightly so, that they have something to offer. I address collecting family stories in two of the posts on my blog, Writing Between the Lines. If you care to check it out, click on “The Christmas Gang” and “The Secret Object I Keep Hidden in My Underwear Drawer.” I look forward to your next post!
Naomi, thank you so much for that wonderful comment. I will immediately click on your blog and see the articles you mention. Naturally I totally agree that our elders are there for much more than just feeding our insatiable genealogical stomachs. In fact I intend to go round my hometown (or village really) in NW Spain and ask around for details about what life was about years ago, and maybe turn it into a small book or something. I find it is essential to preserve the more humane side of things in order to pass them on to future generations, who sadly tend to forget and move on rather fast these days. All the best!
What an adventure! A few years ago my family and I visited the little town in Switzerland that ancestors had come from. You never know what treasures you’ll find. We knew they were potters, and we learned so much at the Little Pottery Museum there. They opened it especially for us gave us a private tour. It turns out they were the first to emigrate, as their trade had been seriously hurt by the industrial revolution. The tour guide knew all about them,told us the town was full of cousins who had stayed behind, and she even photocopied the ship’s manifest with the names of all the families who were traveling to the United States together. The icing on the cake–on the way out she showed us a book–for SALE that traced that branch of the family all the way back to the First Crusade! It was in French, but I could make out the gist of it. For instance, when the author mentioned my ancestor, Jean-Pierre, I understood that he was saying, “As for the ones who left, we do not know what happened to them, and we do not care!” One of these days I will write to him and fill him in on the rest of the story.