Researching Family History

This morning on my second trip of the week to get my car fixed I took April’s edition of Writing Magazine to the garage for company.

I read an article titled ‘Climbing the Family Tree’ by Nicci Fletcher, part of a series of tips on researching your family history and it jogged my memory.

A couple of summers ago I was sitting at a family garden party talking to my cousins Mum, my cousin had not long had a baby and we were talking about old family memories. I remarked how sad it was the baby never got to know its grandmother, the woman I called Auntie Lil.

She was larger than life, dying at the age of 92 I think (she knew everyone elses birthday and age but hers was a closely guarded secret), a week before her birthday.

I remember rushing to the hospital the night she was admitted to sit with my Mum and my cousins Mum waiting to see how she was. I think she might have been aware we were there that night but the subsequent visits over the following couple of weeks I doubt she knew much of.

She died on a Sunday morning after most of the family took shifts to sit with her on the Saturday. Maybe she knew we had all said goodbye and she felt she could let go, we’ll never know. I remember feeling relieved at the time as she would be the last person who would want to just lie trapped in her body in a hospital. That’s not to say I was glad she left us, because I’m not, or to say in any way she has been forgotten, because she hasn’t.

Whenever the family get together there are a handful of stories I know inside and out but always love hearing. Where my Aunt is concerned no story ever reaches its end without someone ending up in a pub. Even on the day she moved home, the whole world packed in a van they left it in the pub car park while they had lunch, never mind getting moved in first!

In order that these stories and the wonderful people I was lucky enough to know (being the eldest and having far more contact with the family when I was younger), I decided following that garden party to start a journal of everything I can remember.

I started a new page for each person and began listing everything I could remember about them, what they looked like, who they were and things I knew about them. With a caveat at the beginning for anyone to add stories to the journal as they remember them but that no story is to be edited. Everyone remembers different parts of their experiences and its not for someone else to edit your memories.

I had an Aunt who died when I was 3 years old. She looked after me when my Mum went back to work after having me. I have some vivid images of her in my mind and I started with those.

Her throwing my Uncle out as he kept calling me by my Mum’s name (everyone does it we look so alike) “You can stand out there till  you remember her name.” She shouted as she pushed him out the door.

Her letting me wear her earrings as they clipped on, telling me she was too afraid to get her ears pierced. I hated having to give them back so I begged my Mum to let my get my ears pierced. The day before my third birthday she gave in, telling me how much it would hurt but I was adamant.

The first person I wanted to tell was Auntie Peggy and my Mum took me to her house. She picked me up and kissed me and said how I was so much braver than her and that made me feel so grown up, I never forgot it. Or my Mum crying when the lady was piercing my ears, or my Dad shouting at her for getting it done.

I also remember her catching me pretending to smoke one of her cigarettes. She snatched it out my hand, stood me on the table so we were eye to eye and said “If I ever catch you smoking young lady I will haunt you for the rest of your days, you will never ever be free of me, do you understand me?”

I was completely petrified, it was the one and only time she ever raised her voice to me and as soon as she finished she enveloped me in a hug and kissed it better. Needless to say to this day, with the exception of one peer pressure cigarette, smoking has never been something I considered.

At the time I don’t know if she knew she was ill, or how bad it was but her scaring me with love that day is one thing I will always be grateful and remember her for.

As for my poor Uncle, he always struggled to remember my name. He taught me how to pull weeds clean out from the grass using a butter knife “clean as a whistle” every time.

He also taught me how to play cricket. He could have been a professional cricketer if his Dad hadn’t considered it a waste of time. Not that it means the same today as it did back then. When he died we found his cricket ledger, in one match he caught and bowled 3 men!

He had a lovely garden filling it for years with my Aunts favorite flowers to keep her memory alive. After some years he gave up with it and it grew into a jungle. We’d laugh at it when we visited and he’d take his lighter out and set fire to it, how it never burned the house down I’ll never know.

His last Christmas with us he said he didn’t want to put us out by visiting, in our family no-one spends Christmas alone. He was told in no uncertain terms if he didn’t come for dinner I would drive over there and drag him.

I remember him and me sitting alone at the table talking, he was critiquing my mince pies and telling me what I needed to practice for next year when he said “you wouldn’t really have driven over to get me would you?” “Of course I would, we wouldn’t leave you on your own would we!” He looked at me and smiled.

He told me about the day he took me to work with him when I was small, he said he’d never forgotten opening the back of the van and seeing me asleep on the pile of tyres. He said “you woke up, looked at me and said “I had a lovely sleep.”” I should point out this was in the 1980’s before health and safety and seat belts had been invented.

It wouldn’t be a story about my Uncle without a story about his van. At his funeral I realised everyone had one. From the time they jumped in it to celebrate winning the World Cup in 1966 and ended up trapped in traffic outside the Royal Garden’s Hotel in Kensington just as they brought the World Cup out on the balcony to show everyone to the day I helped collect the tyres, everyone had one.

Mine was from when I was about 3 or 4. After my Aunt died he lived with us for a little while. One day he took me out on his rounds in his bright red Transit van. It didn’t have seat belts and with me being so little every time we went round a bend I’d slide off the seat into the foot well with him saying “hold onto the door handle tight” and “what you doing down there” when I inevitably fell off. But I couldn’t have been happier.

We got to the yard and he made me hold out my arms putting a tyre over each as I wasn’t just here for fun I was supposed to be working. Off I trudged with him picking up the weight behind. I remember the lads in the office sitting me on the pile of tyres and making a fuss over me. They had long been family friends and knew my Mum well, remarking how alike we were. They pretended to wipe axle grease off my face and ended up putting tyre grease on it.

Next thing I know the boss is back saying how much the wife would like to meet me (again he was a family friend). So here I am being put in the back of a chocolate coloured Rolls Royce and driven off to see his wife for tea. I remember trying to open the door and Elbie saying “A lady never opens a door, she always waits for a gentleman to open it for her.” I also remember how bouncy the seats were, as I bumped along the road feeling very grown up.

I think that was how I ended up in the back of the van having a sleep. It was a lot for a little tot to do in a day. I also remember the look on my Mum’s face when she saw how dirty I was saying she was going to put me “straight in the washing machine”.

I’ll always be glad I got to go over that day with him. He died 2 weeks after Christmas and that was the last time I saw him. Dropping him back home and looking in my rear view mirror at him waiving me off as I drove back home on Christmas Day.

I’ve been lucky to be brought up around some real characters. Unfortunately there were a lot of characters I never got to meet, my Grandad’s Mum for one. She went to Holloway Prison for 3 days for kicking a policeman in the nuts. He had tried to break up a fight she was having with a neighbour who looked at her husband the wrong way. After having 18 children I bet she had a story or two to tell, I think we’d have got on like a house on fire.

I’ve always been fascinated to find out where I come from. Both sides of my maternal grandparents were told their parents marriages meant them losing a share of a business. My Nan’s family had a greengrocers and were cut out as her Dad married an Italian and my Grandad’s family a laundry as they didn’t like the look of his Mum.

I even managed to find a record of a laundry owned by his ancestors in Kensal Green, but I didn’t manage to track it all the way through the records. I have no idea what happened to it or the woman who ran it whilst employing her younger siblings.

I also find it interesting to see the names keep cropping up, people were an unimaginative bunch. It makes it difficult to find people when your looking for three Charles Sidney’s who were know as Sid or Charlie. Did they not spare a thought for the people who would hunt for them in the future?!

A lot of my family weren’t known by their first names. My Grandad always thought he was named after his Dad until we got his birth certificate for him and found out his Dad’s name was Earnest and not Joseph.

In a lot of cases it seems that when you got married your husband picked a name and that was what you were known by.

I had an Uncle Dodger and an Aunt Sylvie, their real names? Edward and Elizabeth. He was named Dodger as my Great-Grandfather used to shout “tell that dodger to come up here and meet you” up the road after Sylvie.

My Grandad went to visit his sister Ada in hospital and asked at the reception desk where to find her. He was told they didn’t have an Ada but there was a Betty, could that be the same woman? He didn’t think so but went to look only to hear “Hello Bruv,” shouted at him as he walked on the ward. “Why didn’t you tell me your name was Betty?” He asks her. “No-one has called me Betty in over 80 years, I can’t even bloody remember it” was her response.

We all laughed when the 3 of them were together around the hospital bed. I asked about the name Betty only for Sylvie to say “that’s my name ain’t it?” I have no idea who Betty was originally as I didn’t find her in the records but by the end of the day my Grandad was finally introduced properly to his sisters Betty Ada and Elizabeth (Sylvie) Betty, it only took them 80 odd years!

I haven’t written in my family journal much lately but now that article has stirred up the memories, I think I might be picking it up again. Well I’m back to the garage tomorrow so I’ll need something to pass the time!

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