Friday, 26 June 2009

Who Do You Think You Are? Part 2

I hit the "publish" button by accident on yesterday's post, and couldn't figure out how to un-publish it without deleting it. I hadn't really wanted to finish on quite such a glum note, so here's a final thought on family history and the Grand Guignol theatre of history. Consider this remarkable family snap from my collection:

The picture was taken in 1946, in rural North Hertfordshire. The man standing at extreme right is my father, returned from six years at war, rescued from Dunkirk to fight in the Western Desert and Burma. Next to him is my mother, pregnant with my sister; she has been a sergeant in the ATS, commanding an ack ack unit, including service overseas at Antwerp. Next to her is an ATS comrade on a visit. The man on the left is my uncle, returned from a truly gruelling war as an 8th Army infantryman -- El Alamein and the invasion of Italy. Next to him is his wife, my mother's sister, who has also served in the ATS, mother of the little girl in the front row, my cousin, the very first baby boomer.

Moving to the front row. On the left is my maternal great grandmother, born in 1872. Her first husband and father-in-law, both labourers in a local brewery, were killed in the same drey-cart accident in 1902, when my grandmother, seated next to her, was five years old. She was a devout Baptist and, according to my mother, used to wash and lay out bodies for burial. Two of her brothers-in-law and a cousin were killed on the Somme. On the right is my great aunt Alice, born in 1885 to a woman who was disfigured in a fire, but married a retired soldier who fathered six children and promptly died aged 50, leaving her (my paternal great grandmother) to raise them all on a charwoman's income. Daughter Alice went to London to work as a servant, and was made pregnant by a man who abandoned her. She returned home to raise the child as a single parent.

An ordinary story of ordinary human lives, with perhaps a little more tragedy than is strictly necessary in one family, but constructed from the same elements as a million others. A great war has just finished. Food is short. Friends and family and neighbours have died, and not just in the fighting overseas: houses in the village were destroyed by jettisoned bombs. So why do they all look so happy? Because, despite everything, life is good, and in 1946 it had probably never looked better. They are healthy, with much to look forward to, and (above all) alive.

And the unseen photographer, making everyone laugh so cheerily for the camera? That would be my grandfather, I suppose, the subject of the previous post, the abandoned orphan in a tale of Victorian melodrama. Though quite how he turned up in rural North Herts, where the soil is good for digging, and the women are handsome (and all the children are above average) is a mystery I have yet to solve.


Bronislaus Janulis said...

Yes, sounds much like my own family history, US, midwest, immigrants from far worse, and tragedy seems a minor, constant companion.

Hey, the next time you write a post, look around; you can do a lot from the so-called dashboard. Blogger makes me crazy sometimes, but there is a lot of (free) capability.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Bronislaus, I see from your site you're a man for the tools, I'll try to pay more attention!

The interesting thing about families is not only how commonplace "ordinary human unhappiness" (Freud) has been, but also how little of this stuff gets talked about or passed down. It's only when you start digging that the story starts to come together. I find the perspective helps me see who I am, as opposed to who I thought I was.