To begin at the beginning – although it’s rather more the opposite – this year I am thinking about investigating my family tree. Of course, I should have started at least a decade or more ago, but the task seemed haunted by silent ghosts and their conflicts.
I suppose I’ve envied those mythical family gatherings: those occasions when, over the clink of tea cups and glasses, and possibly with a flickering fire in the hearth, Great Aunty Somebody starts gossiping about her childhood and then Uncle That - known to be a great storyteller – takes up another tale and everyone murmurs “Well, I never knew that!” or “What an amazing character!” and the stories almost tell themselves.
This "family story" daydream has a companion: the old attic – of course - when one carefully searches dusty, half-familiar boxes in the attic, uncovering all sorts of interesting documents, photographs, diaries, travel journals and more. (Beware. If this fantasy comes from the Agatha Christie school of narrative, a murder may be about the happen)
I do enjoy such romantic idling, but the truth is that my family, on both sides, was a family of silences, which has stopped me putting more than toe in the muddy waters.
First, there are complicated documentation gaps: the Irish record office blown up during the Uprising; Fulford Barracks. York, where the army marriage records were destroyed by fire, let alone all those semi-official relationships that weren’t what one was told. Among my dozen grown-up relatives, I had at least two named “Aunties” who weren’t married to my related Uncles. What name does one search for then?
Personal silence hasn’t helped – these were generations bound by the tradition of the stiff-upper-lip: tragedies and bad behaviour often stayed hidden. Also, as I’m currently reminded inmy reading of the Cazalet novels, the lives of men and women were often quite separate, no matter what class or wealth. So how can you find those absent ones? My war-damaged grandfather died when my father was about two - but in which county? or country? - and my father’s birth is registered somewhere – but where? Someone else holds that certificate, so I'll have to start searching for myself.
Besides, the lines aren’t always straight. Families - of all sizes - can be riven by feuds or estranged by long distances or mistrustful about inheritances. Relatives don’t always want to relate, or to share documents or stories. Some, in fact, take a perverse pleasure in not doing so. This blocking rarely happens in “Who Do You Think You Are?”, where distant relatives are always pleased to see each other, although perhaps it happened for the celebrities whose family trees didn’t make it all the way to the screen.
That family attic isn’t much help either, because the army wasn’t sentimental about personal memorabilia. Ordinary army families got into the habit of travelling light and shedding things as they moved between postings. My grandmother, born and married in India, probably kept the habit, destroying all her wedding and family photographs when she moved in to live with my mother. One family photo - my grandfather as a twelve year old boy soldier, playing a fife - only lives on in my memory. Even my “army” cousin recalls packing all her things – clothes and toys - into one small suitcase whenever they moved from one Mediterranean posting to another.
I do, however, have one large suitcase from my mother. I’ve tried peering at the contents and peeking into the letters but, up until now, the ghosts have come too close. Maybe 2015 will be the year for being brave and starting to unpick the mysteries, just so that there can be stories for others in time to come.
How about your own investigations? And are you descended from royalty yet?