Thursday, 7 August 2014

Listening to my grandfather

Last week we posted the ancestral research tip: interview your grandparents. This applies as much to any elderly relatives, anyone who can tell the stories of your family. In my case, I interviewed my grandfather. It wasn’t quite as formal as it sounds – we sat in the living room of his new house, with cups of tea and the Commonwealth Games on the television in the background, and we chatted. Granddad has boxes and boxes of old photographs, papers and letters. I spent hours jotting down the names of the people in the photos and learning about their lives, until I was finally dismissed to walk the dog and allow him to get some shut-eye.

Listening to his stories, leafing through old photographs, reading letters – it was as though these people, my family, were characters in a book. I began to feel affection for these relatives I’d never met – my great-grandfather, leaning with charming insouciance against the Blackpool pier, or later, clad in a soldier’s uniform and holding a puppy to his chest. My great-grandmother, remembered by my uncle as an old battle-axe, had cycled around Europe, taken snapshots of Alpine mountains and laughing friends. Her father – my great-great-grandfather – had sailed the North Atlantic – smoked a pipe – doted on his youngest daughter. These fragments build up pictures of the people who came before. It’s fascinating – full of both joy and sorrow, and of course, bringing home the reality of our own mortality. What stories will be told when we are gone?

I pored through old letters – it seems my tendency to store precious moments is inherited, I come from a family of hoarders. Letters of sympathy, on my great-great-grandmother’s death. Letters of congratulations – to my great-grandmother on my grandfather’s birth, then on the birth of his brother Clive (‘I wonder if you weren’t rather disappointed to have another boy? But of course, the clothes will come in useful’). It seems she had wanted a daughter. Letters from friends – postcards from relatives – one note scribbled on the back of an envelope: 
‘Darling, I’ll call you when I finish work – around eleven. Love, Isaac’.
A loving moment from long ago, immortalised. It makes me wish we wrote more letters nowadays. I’ve resolved to try – perhaps one day I’ll be found in a box-full of photographs, old letters, drawings and someone will put these puzzle pieces together.

I’ve found something rather lovely in connecting to the past – knowing who my ancestors were and what they did. I feel that I know my Granddad a little better now as well. I’m keen to find out more – my grandmother came from Scotland, and I have an idea that I know a company who may be able to help…

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