15 February 2010

Four generations

A happy family portrait? Not quite. This photograph tells a thousand family stories and it has made my mother take a step back, such was her amazement when it was uncovered.

My dad, in the 1960s and 1970s, took thousands of slides and only now is he starting to get them uploaded to his computer after buying one of those snazzy objects that transfer them to hard drive. When I was small, he would occasionally set up his projector and screen and show us all the family stuff from my earliest days and before, but the slides had, until recently, been in a cupboard for pushing 30 years without being touched.

This photograph was taken in the summer of 1973. I'm the baby and it's my maternal grandmother holding me. My mum is on the right, my maternal grandad on the left and my brother, aged three, is standing up in his purple tank top. However, it's the old lady standing above him which has prompted a few sharp intakes of breath.

This is my great-grandma, mother of my grandma on the photo. She would have been in her 80s when this was taken, and died in her mid-90s when I was a teenager. Yet I doubt that apart from this introduction to her new great-grandson, we were ever in the same room again, as she was a pariah in the family.

She was the daughter of an Italian immigrant who came to Hull in the 1880s. She married a Hull man and gave birth to my grandma in 1911 and my great uncle Jim a couple of years later.

Then she left them.

She just walked out, on her husband and two very small children, and hooked up with another man. There were no mitigating circumstances; she was just not cut out for family life, and just swanned off to live on her own terms.

Now this is something that would cause a few raised eyebrows today. So, imagine the sort of reaction it got in 1914.

My grandma and uncle were fortunate in that their father's elderly mother, and his numerous siblings, took them in, fed them and got them to school and so on while he carried on working. Single fatherhood was most rare, almost wholly unheard of, and had it not been for his extended family then the workhouse would have beckoned for those two youngsters.

A whole lifetime of recrimination followed. My great-grandma barely got in touch, even at Christmas or on birthdays, and despite living close to her children and their adopted home with their aunts. Often they'd walk by each other in the street without a word. She did attend my grandma's wedding but purely to witness, not to celebrate. She was informed of the birth of three grand-daughters, including my mum, in the 1940s but almost never took an interest. My grandma, despite her bitterness, made a point of informing her each time a great-grandson (four of them, including me) was born in the 1970s but it was met with little more than a casual, disinterested acknowledgement.

This photograph is quite an achievement in itself as apparently my mum and grandma made a point of turning up at her house, with husbands and boys in tow, and my dad took the snap. My mum says that an arrangement was made for the old lady to come to ours for her tea a few days later, but having agreed, she later wrote a letter to say that she wouldn't be coming and enclosed ten shillings for my brother and I.

To my knowledge, our family never saw her again. She simply wasn't interested in anyone who was related to her.

She died in 1987. My grandma, who was herself 75 at the time, felt compelled to attend her funeral but my mum couldn't go with her through illness and uncle Jim refused on principle. Eventually, he relented and went along, on the basis that she was there when his life began so he wanted to make sure he saw her life end. A sad but totally understandable view to take into the funeral of the woman who gave birth to you and then lost all interest.

Lately, my mum has been doing the family tree stuff and has even travelled to the village in Italy from where this old lady's father heralded. From her own basic memories of her grandmother, she has discovered ancestors in various parts of Europe, as well as finding out about a host of multiply-removed cousins she never knew she had. Ironic then that my mum's ceaseless quest for knowledge of her family background should begin with the history of a woman to whom family was anathema.


Louis Barfe said...

Astonishing stuff, but the really astonishing thing is that every family has a 'what the fuck?' type story somewhere. Maybe not this magnitude, but enough to cause raised eyebrows.

Kolley Kibber said...

Wow, Matt, that's quite a story. I'm fascinated from a professional point of view, as much as anything else - this woman left her children, but couldn't quite bring herself to sever ALL ties - how on earth did she square that with herself?

Though of course human beings are skilled at self-deception, so she probably came up with some rationale about why it was OK to make those occasional (but presumably heavily impacting) 'dips' into the lives of those she'd rejected. How awful for her children. I wonder at what point they finally gave up hope of any meaningful relationship with her.

LB is right though- every family has it's own jaw-dropper at some level or other. My own family is full of 'em...