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Family Album

Being the keeper of the family history weighs on me.  It's not just the stories, it's the stuff I have whittled down a lot of it over the years, but I'm still the keeper of so many heirlooms. They' have no intrinsic monetary value, they wouldn't be even worth a trip to the Antiques Road Show, but they are something.  


Objects help us connect with people, ideas, stories.  They  help us travel through time, our own time, someone else's.  That's why museums exist.  There have been times when my home has felt like a museum, when my life wasn't even my own, it was so entangled with my family's past.  I've whittled down the objects over the years.  I've taken a deep breath and given stuff away. It was hard at first, and sometimes I regret it, but mostly it's freeing.  What I am left with, along with the photographs and the documents, is a ridiculously large (for a person who lives in a normal sized house rather than a museum) collection of textiles.  I have tatted lace mats coming out of my ears.  They pop up in drawers and cupboards when I'm least expecting it.  

So here's what I'm doing with the mats.  Digging through photos of ancestors, remembering people and stories, stitching.  I can't promise each individual mat belongs to the individual ancestor.  I'm not that good an archivist!   This is an ongoing collection that I will add to over time.

Young Mary3_square.jpg

My cousins keep asking me to write down everything I know about our family history.  It's a funny thing, family history.  There's facts - birth certificates, census returns, and so on.... but wait, are they even facts?  (My grandfather's birth certificate shows the wrong date.  His father, in his grief, registered the wrong day.  His wife had died a few days after the birth.)  There's memories - and we know how fickle they can be.  There's the stories, passed down, half told, embelished, edited.  And then there are the mysteries, the gaps, the inconsistencies.  


Why was my Great Aunt Mary so supportive (she gave a lot of money to charities) of young single mothers and children 'born out of wedlock' at a time when being supportive was radical?  I think I found the answer to that after her death: the 1891 census shows my Great Grandmother with a child (Emma) but no husband and bearing her maiden name.  Ahh.  Now obviously that wasn't rare, but it was rare to be open about it.  I don't know who knew about it.  I think if my mother knew, she would have said so.  

Emma was the oldest of 7 children in that branch of my family.  She died before my mother was born, and my Great Aunt Mary - the youngest sibling - only had vague memories of her.  I know very little about her.  But just look at her, she looks kind and loving, if there's such a look.  And perhaps that's just because Mary told me she was.  If she was anything like her younger sisters though, I bet she was stubborn and held her ground.


I will write all this down.  I will somehow record it for future generations.  But that's for another place.  Right now, I'm trawling through old photographs and remembering, or embelishing, or reinventing the lives of the ancestors. 

Stitching into their images has been interesting and at times emotional.  The photograph of Mary at a young age, showing her so beautiful.  I cut it up and stitched it back together, feeling guilty that I'd imposed Bells Palsy on her decades before it had  ravaged her self esteem in real life.  I found a stunning photograph of my mother but somehow couldn't face printing it onto fabric and sticking a needle into her face.  It felt wrong.  I'll come back to her.  

I will keep adding more as I work on them.   




Family history is intriguing.  It can give us a sense of who we are, where we come from.  But I don't like to get bogged down in it.  I think when you go back beyond the memories and the stories, the imprints, it becomes a bit meaningless.  I don't care whether or not I'm descended from someone 'important' or famous or royal.  The important people to me are the ones who've left their mark on me. 



Young Mary1_square.jpg

My mother's family were ordinary working class folk.  They worked hard, lived through difficult times and circumstances.  But they were also extraordinary.  Extraordinary ordinary people.  They didn't always follow the rules, or at least the rules we think we know about 19th and 20th Century society.  They forged their own paths, created lives that others might have thought strange.  But doesn't every family have extraordinary people?  Is anyone really ordinary anyway? What the heck is ordinary?    

Of course it's these ordinary people who are so difficult to find in the history books.  They don't get to write their own history.  To discover the lives of working class people we have to delve into court records, employers' records, hospital records, to get a glimpse into their lives.  But who wants their story told by their boss?  Or their arresting police officer?  Those stories are only a snap shot of a moment in time.  When we are lucky enough to have the stories from the people themselves, they are not ordinary.  Whatever ordinary is.  They are filled with joy and adventure, with trauma and grief.  With struggle and achievement.




My father's family were a different kettle of fish.  On the one hand, farmers, servants, tradesmen.  On the other, wealthy middle class academics, teachers, scientists, doctors, engineers.  But even then, it's not straightforward.  Because my wealthy London great grandfather married the local barmaid.  And my Grandfather, of working class Sheffield, got a scholarship to Oxford.  It's complicated.  It's always complicated.  No-one is ordinary.


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