Who Am I?

I was watching “Who Do You Think You Are” and was struck how it usually starts with the celebrity talking to their parents about what they could remember about their family history and it occurred to me that I am too late to have that conversation.

blog04My mother and father. I have no idea when this was taken or where. I know nothing about it all. Which is sad. I didn’t even know it existed until I was helping my mum move into her care home and I found an album of old photos. My Mum, due to her illness had no memory of them. She did try to be helpful and made up little stories to go along with some pictures.   Still, my dad cuts a bit of a dash doesn’t he? As he never smoked a pipe I suspect it was a prop. In other pictures he affects a George Raft gangster persona, in others he favours a Frank Sinatra look. 

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My father died almost 10 years ago and my mother has recently died from Alzheimers. She had lain in a care home bed for around 2 years in an unresponsive almost vegetative state. Before that she was very confused, but being the sort of little old lady she was, very polite. I didn’t want to distress her any more than she already was. It must be horrific in the early stages of that terrible affliction knowing that you are losing your mental acuity. So having me ask “tell me about when you were young” when she can’t even remember what day it is or how to make her breakfast or indeed what the word breakfast means would have been cruel.

 

My problem is that when we were still a family we communicated primarily by arguing or, if we were feeling softer and a little more caring, by sarcasm and ridicule. Feelings were only things that could be hurt in others and definitely not for sharing. So delving into my parents past was never ever considered but now that to all intents and purposes they are gone and so are most of their generation of friends and relations I now have a great hole in my history.

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My grandparents. My maternal ones are the nearer pair. Interestingly, both of my grandmothers were very similar. Forthright, strong-willed and very sure of themselves women, if not a little”eccentric.”  Both of my grandfathers were quiet and kind, but not meek, men. I have to admit my Mum’s mother looks a little dramatic. The bizarre glases and hairpiece do add a certain something. Just to top it off she was called Jemima.

When I was young my grandparents were no use. My maternal grandfather died when I was very young, my maternal grandmother too (though I’m thinking she may not have been much use anyway. It was difficult to tell the truth from what the “spirit voices” that talked to her said). My paternal grandmother had a form of dementia that was spectacularly entertaining to a small boy but of little use in getting to the truth. My paternal grandfather was reticent to the point of almost being mute (my Gran also filled every moment available to her with caustic observations about everything and I mean everything so he had little chance to speak even if he had wanted to)

Another problem was having a young mind was that it was not what you would describe as well trained. I was only too willing to fill in gaps with flights of fancy. Like when finding out my dad was in the home guard when he was young I decided he was in Dads Army. Because I was so young I didn’t know the difference between sitcoms and real life. So no matter what dad told me I just wanted to know what it was like being with Cpl Jones and Cpt Mainwaring et all. Dad would have to dredge up all sorts of bits from the programme to keep me amused.

I suspect that his true life tales from being in the home guard on the Isle of Cumbrae during the Second World War would have been more informative and entertaining but I’ve always been a slave to TV.

Consequently I know almost nothing about my family history. What is really bothering me at the moment is knowing nothing about my parents lives before they were married. I don’t know how they met. I don’t know if they had other boy or girl friends before each other. I know so little about my parents lives it seems that I have been either neglectful or neglected in the past.

The problem has become worse now as our children don’t know anything about their grandparents, they were all pretty much gone before the children were old enough to really be aware of them. Now, however, whenever they see photos they ask questions, and some I can’t answer.

Some of our childrens’ class mates even have great-grandparents! But we, selfishly, had our children a bit late in life so ours’ don’t even have grandparents. So to make up for it they create fictitious back stories for our parents. Apparently one grandfather taught our son kung fu in the croft behind our house. He must have been rather poor at that as our son can only manage a couple of energetic kicks before he tries something too ambitious and ends up on the floor in a heap. Our three year old daughter is starting to do the same, with outlandish tales of her grandparents.

Once, during an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are” which involved someone’s ancestors who fought in the first Word War I leapt out of my comfy couch and rushed into the office to look up the War Graves Commission website. Our son is named after my father who is in turn named after his uncle who died in the First World War. One of the uncle’s medals was my key ring for years until it started to wear away and it was returned to safe keeping. His service number is committed to my memory so it only took a moment to bring up his final resting place in a small cemetery in France. I burst into tears when I read it. I have no idea why.  Have we become conditioned by programmes like WDWTWA to blub the instant we find out something sad in our heritage or is it genuinely moving? I’m hoping for the latter (I did mist up a bit, well a lot, at the National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle when I found my great uncles name in the book of the fallen for his regiment).

I sat in my Mum’s room in her care home talking to the unresponsive little, frail living body but dead mind in front of me. I asked all the questions I wish I had asked years ago and got no answer. My mother hadn’t uttered a word in her last year. She hadn’t known who I was for longer than that.

So what I am realising is if you are a parent, tell your children your story. They might find it boring now but in the years to come they may come to treasure the memories you have given them. If you are a child, keep asking the questions, you never know what you might find out.

A couple of wedding shots from way back in 1953. I never looked at these while my parents were both still around as it would start an argument. It would be pointed out that I never bought my parents a wedding anniversary present. I would argue back with the stupid premiss that it was nothing to do with me as I wasn’t even born at the time and then the pictures would go away for a while.

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