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Open Features: Tending To The Roots, Nurturing The Shoots

...There is an enormous dash of pride too as I trace the line back and discover the daring of some of my past kin. One in particular, a pioneering great-great aunt, packed up her few worldly goods, husband and six of her children and travelled to America in 1872. Not only that, she didn’t let them stop long in New York but also carried on to Nevada. What drove her? What is it that I don’t know? Within a few generations, her great grandson had made it to be Governor of the state and then a Senator...

Mary Pilfold-Allan finds that the whole structure of her life seems stronger as a result of delving into family history.

Clearing out a house happens to most of us. Few escape the experience and although it frequently means sorting, packing up or selling off someone else’s home, quite possibly a parent’s, it can also mean discarding our own past and making a fresh start – if we are brave enough.

As the sole remaining branch on our family tree until I managed to put out four new shoots, I have personally undertaken the task of house clearance a number of times. On each occasion it has been harrowing, not least because it has meant looking into someone’s very private possessions.

When I had to clear my father’s house I found it just too distressing to deal with at that moment and went for the denial route, cramming boxes with papers, books and artefacts to store in my garage until I felt capable of being more objective. It took years, in fact, more than quarter of a century later I am still unearthing items that have not seen the light of day since they were packed away.

Coming at last to family papers, I discovered a number of photographs, annoyingly without identification. Smiling faces in clothes that could date them to pre-war or even post-war years. They must be relatives, but who? I have spent endless hours on genealogy websites of late piecing together the various strands to try and find the answers. If only I had asked more question when my grandparents and parents were alive.

Having run out of options for discovering my long lost relatives, I turned to a special section on the web and discovered that other people were trying to trace the same names. Emails flew back and forth and distant relatives came to light in all sorts of places; the family tree was not just down to me but has strong branches in other quarters. I feel a sense of amazement at this after so long believing I was the only one.

There is an enormous dash of pride too as I trace the line back and discover the daring of some of my past kin. One in particular, a pioneering great-great aunt, packed up her few worldly goods, husband and six of her children and travelled to America in 1872. Not only that, she didn’t let them stop long in New York but also carried on to Nevada. What drove her? What is it that I don’t know? Within a few generations, her great grandson had made it to be Governor of the state and then a Senator.

And what of the odd pieces of jewellery that have come my way, wrapped in tissue paper or carefully laid out in their original boxes. Who gave what to whom? I am the now keeper of these gems but what can I tell my own children about them. Precious little, for they remain what they are, pretty baubles that once graced the neckline of my grandma, or the collar of my aunt’s best frock and I never asked the questions I should have asked when I could.

Strangely enough, it is the books that have come down to me that puzzle me the most, among them a beautifully bound volume of Lavengro by George Borrow, and The Pigeon Pie written by Charlotte M Yonge, published in 1905. The latter was given to my Uncle in 1908 for being second in class at his Sunday school. Did these books ever get read? Were they prized possessions, handled, admired and cherished for their words and beautiful binding? My particular favourite is a 1907 edition of The Chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelond, a Monk of St Edmundsbury, a picture of monastic and social life in the 12th century. Inside are notes and paper cuttings; someone clearly loved the book as much as I do, but who?

Trying to engage the interest of the next generation in the family history is like attempting to pin jelly to the ceiling, very little sticks. That was certainly the case with me; I was too busy living to worry about the dead or even those still alive that seemed even then to be well ‘past it’. One of the things the years have taught me is how valuable it is to have a sense of belonging, to know your roots.

If I could sit once more on the three-legged stool at the side of my grandfather, I would listen and learn, not fidget and fret about getting down and going out to play. If my Father could only tell me again the family sagas and the origin of some of the object d’art I would take some notes, not be so hasty with my “not now Dad, some other time perhaps”.

Am I doing any better with my own children? Maybe, and maybe not, but I am passing on odd family pieces at birthday and Christmastime, accompanied by a letter with what I know of its history. Will they keep the objects, the letters, even read them, how can I know? The one nugget of wisdom I would like my children to grasp though, is that as time goes by the roots of the family tree seems to increase in importance, and the whole structure of life seems stronger for it.

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