I wrote this essay-type-thing one late evening in March 2013, when I was in the middle of my first year of university. I recently stumbled upon it when sorting through my computer, and found it strangely odd to see into the mind of myself just under 4 years ago. In many ways, I’ve changed from the person writing here. But in some ways, I haven’t. Anyway, I thought it was an interesting piece, so decided it was worth documenting here, seeing as I’m using this blog as a place to keep all my thoughts and wonderings.
Family history is a very strange thing. You can read the names of family members long-passed, see their photos, hear their stories, yet time will forever impose an irreversible and impenetrable barrier between you and them. I never knew my ancestors. They never knew me. And now my mind is trying to come to terms with that convoluted fact.
I am currently studying history at university. I have wide-ranging interests encompassing topics such as Soviet Russia, Revolutionary America, and Enlightenment Europe. I read and write about the lives of great historic figures who did great historical things, yet – hard as I may try – I can never think of these people as anything more than characters. There’s a reason that the French for ‘history’ and ‘story’ are both ‘histoire’. They are synonymous. You can learn the facts, you can read the texts and you can look at the images, but you can never get to know these people.
And that ought to be the difference between those you consider to be a friend or family member, and those you don’t. You know some people. You don’t know others. Family is a sense of unity, comfort and shared experience. You relate to your family members’ emotions and you care about what happens in their lives as much as you care about what happens in your own; sometimes more so. When you hear the tale of people in history, you don’t – or at least I don’t feel to – have the same sort of attachment.
This is what I find strange about learning about the history of my own family. If my ancestors are people that I have never met, whose life-events are long-since passed, what sort of relationship can I form with them? There is no simple answer to this. Of course, I do not feel the same, arguable sense of detached interest that I feel with the historical figures whose lives I so thoroughly study, yet neither do I feel the same sense of intimacy that I share with my family members. The closest I can come to a decision on this is the loose, potentially disappointing conclusion of ‘it’s something in between’.
My maternal grandparents are nearing their 60th wedding anniversary this year, an astonishing achievement for the couple who I would, without thinking, consider the greatest, most overwhelming inspiration in my life. As the child of a divorced and, somewhat dysfunctional (yet loving) home, I cannot deny the gratitude I have for having such an amazing pair of grandparents. After so many years, they are still as besotted with each other as I can imagine they were when they met. My grandma’s dedication, caring nature and simple devotion to family members spurs me to strive to imitate a level of tolerance and love that I don’t even think is humanly possible for anyone other than her. My grandad’s unbeatable humour, firm mind-set and fantastic brain motivates me to be the best person that I can be and live my life to its fullest potential. Unfortunately my grandad’s health has been deteriorating lately and it has begun to dawn on me how imperative it is that the wonders of such an amazing companionship be captured and immortalised.
As a gift for them, for their Diamond anniversary, I hope to make a compilation video of photos and film memorialising their phenomenal story and, in deciding to do so, I realised that I would have to put in a lot of effort into understanding their background and family history. My family has never produced anyone who history would consider to be of note. We originate in the Yorkshire area and have amongst us secretaries, NHS workers, farmers and truck drivers. We have battled illness, strife and uncertain futures. Yet we are clever. We are imaginativ. We are creative and we are happy. Some would say that there is nothing particularly special or interesting about the family into which I have been born, but I would unquestionably refute that judgement. We may be ‘nothing particularly special’ but that, I say, is most certainly what makes us interesting.
As times have been tough during my childhood, I have been somewhat programmed to not ask questions. I would never be punished or told off if I were to ask something personal but I recognised, early on, that many things made my parents uncomfortable. I, for example, know very little about the story of my parents. I barely know anything about how they met, how my dad proposed or even the exact details of why they separated. But this is because I never really asked. I don’t know if this may have even upset my mum, it may have made it seem like I was uninterested in her past. If this was the case, it was absolutely unintentional. I love my mum but a combination of her illness and my innate and undeniable similarities to my dad have always somewhat tarnished our relationship. While both of us want to, I’m pretty sure that neither of us can deny this to be the truth. I always want to protect her, alienate and distance her from my pain and worries because I don’t want to add any additional burden to her own. I hate that this is the way it is. I presume she does too. But it is the way it is and I don’t think there’s much we can do to avoid it, try as we might. The point here is that I regret not knowing more about her history but I have inferred – perhaps wrongly – that inquiry might cause further upset and further upset is something that I hope to avoid at all costs.
Consequently, my ignorance is something that I wish to remedy. I have considered this for a long time and have reached the decision that, as I don’t feel ready to delve too deeply into the history of my immediate, close family, I should therefore look into the events and people that went before and subsequently brought my present into being. My Aunt had, a year or two ago, compiled a very short family history. Thinking it to be too personal, I have previously refrained from reading this. It was a present for my mum and I did not think that she would want me snooping. But this, I think, is where I have been going wrong all along. Something strangely wired in my brain has meant that it has somehow taken me this long to realise that my mum’s family is my family too. Yes this information is personal, but – remarkably – something had stopped me considering that this meant it was personal to me too.
Tonight I read through my Aunt’s brief history. I was astounded and ashamed by my lack of knowledge of the people that went before the people I love. I barely knew the names of my great-grandparents and could only vaguely recall the terribly sad tale of the early death of my grandad’s sister when he was still an infant. I still don’t know why but I had always considered this my mum’s business not mine. The faces smiling out of the black and white photographs were memories for my mum, not for me. These people don’t know a single thing about me so then, what right did I have to know anything about them? As a student of history, it bewilders me that I have, for so long, arrived at these bizarre judgements. It is beginning to dawn on me that, just because these people were not alive when I was born, they are no more or less family to me than the little sister who I long to protect so much. I feel that, in coming to this realisation, I have allowed myself to form a completely different relationship with my heritage than ever before. My grandad’s parents died within three weeks of each other and I can barely put into words how much that resonates with me today. All I know is that such loving, wonderful relationships are things that must never be forgotten. Those dusty photos show people who, not only were once living, breathing, loving souls, but whose DNA and history I now appreciate that I share.
I don’t know if my ramblings this cold, March evening in 2013 have made any sense. I just hope that I have made some positive steps towards appreciating the rich and beautifully complex history that has been instrumental in making me, me. It is something beyond the facts, figures and events that I may find in the books that I so desperately and stubbornly cling to. Not only do I hope this will remind me that I ought to express more of an interest into the lives of those around me but I hope I will remember that I do, whatever my worries may scream at me, deserve to find out more.