Saturday 17 January 2015

TO BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING . . . by Penny Dolan

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?

Penny Dolan


Pippa Goodhart said...

You're going to have a fascinating time with this search! And, if it all proves really interesting, you must write it into a book called A Family Of Silences! My mother has done a lot of researching and recording of some bits of my not long past family, and there are great stories, although none connecting us to royalty. Farmers turned industrial weavers on my father's, Yorkshire, side. His grandfather couldn't write even his own name, but had a son christened Cavendish because, apparently, we have some of the dukes of Devonshires blood after an ancestor was a maid at Holker Hall and had his illegitimate child!

Lydia Syson said...

Yes, what a great title that would be. It makes me think of Alison Light's new book, Common People - though I've only read reviews.

I've got too many papers and great guilt about never having had the time to sort things out - I have boxes of papers in a shed from a most beloved story-telling, journalist great aunt. But I have learned a lot, tangentially, through writing my books, which have all been inspired by ancestors one way or another. So I suppose my solution is to find out a little, and make up a lot! A World Between Us was the world of my mother's parents, That Burning Summer relates to my father's, and the new one, Liberty's Fire, directly inspired by my anarchist great-great grandmother. Now I somehow need to get to the archives in Dublin to find out more about her. But it's back to time.

Good luck in your hunting!

Spade and Dagger said...

I completely understand your predicament. We're a tiny modern family and no one knows the real names, dates / places of birth of the huge previous generations. Add in an attitude of family silence that just didn't talk to the children about family matters, and you end up with absolutely no information about your family tree that you can use to search.

Sue Purkiss said...

Love this post! Lydia, I thought of Alison Light's book too - will definitely be buying that when it comes out in paperback. I know next to nothing about my family either - one of these days!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

We had a rare meet-up with family recently, and talked about the family only to find much of what I thought I knew was wrong. A fascinating topic, Penny.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Been there, done that, bought the t shirt, Penny! My parents were teenage Holocaust survivors who not only lost almost their entire families, but the records are long gone. Dad had a book somewhere - in Yiddish, a language I speak but only read painfully slowly - that had a small bit about his grandfather, one Zeligl Melamed(probably in Wales this would be Zelig the School or Zelig the Teach). Dad was terribly proud to have a schoolteacher in the family and just about burst with pride when I became one. But that was as far as it went on his side, though he did know that his family had come from Spain in. 1492, when the Jews were kicked out of Spain, due to a family heirloom, a silver cup, which the Nazis got. Mum doesn't even have that much information; she says she never met her Dad's parents, about whom the family never spoke.
When Dad got hold of the Internet, he immediately dropped all his first draft memoir and happily spent the rest of his life surfing the web. He did sometimes look for records online so I know that there's nothing for me to look up, though I have tried.

Good luck with your own research, Penny!

Joan Lennon said...

You may be short on hard evidence, but the picture you've drawn of these people in this post is evocative indeed!

Susan Price said...

A lovely and moving post Penny - wishing you the courage to shake off the ghosts and start researching (there's loads accessible on-line now.) Hope you share your discoveries with us.

It makes me grateful to have had a family who, though often difficult, were always ready to tell stories - though, like Marie-Louise, I'm always finding that what I firmly believed was true, in fact, isn't.

My Great Grandfather Savage, for instance. I was always told he was Irish. There was no doubt. Francis Savage, the Irishman, who grew shamrock in a German helmlet on his windowsill... But research shows that he was born in Wells, the son of a stone-mason and, as far as we can tell, had no connection with Ireland at all.

Gavin McL said...

I would second Susan Prices advice to use online resources. I've found ancestry very useful. I put every last person I can identify on the tree and their marriages even if they are not on your "line". If you make your tree public then the little fine branches catch with others and I have made contact with rather distant cousins who have often been lucky enough to have photos of people like my 4th great grandfather and they sent me scans of his master mariner certificate and apprentiship form. So even if your branch of the family didn't keep anything somebody might have

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for all your own stories and suggestions (and titles, Pippa) as well as for reminding me that family tree research is as much speculation as plain facts. Love that description of your voluble family, Sue Price, (Think one of our mottoes must have been "Least said, soonest mended." As well as an aversion to telling stories.

People rarely travel to another place because of happy circumstances, and that's a sad story, Sue.B. History is full of terrible happenings and separations.

There's also your own hopes to consider: I recall an early "Who Do You Think?"when an actor - John Hurt? Jeremy Brett?? - had always felt in his bones that he was Irish, even setting up home there and was astounded to discover he wasn't.

Carol Drinkwater said...

I agree with all the girls above. This is such an evocative post and must touch the imagination of every writer. I hope you find the courage to peel open all those silent layers.
I have never seen "Who Do You Think" but I think it might have been John H because he has set up home in Ireland.

Catherine Johnson said...

Loved this Penny x