My new relation found through a DNA website has constructed a family tree which in turn has had me ruminating on my forebears, or at least some of them.
My Grandad Harry died when I was very young, my recollections of him are sparse & would fit on the back of a postcard ( a postcard for young people who may read this was an early form of social media, with an image printed on a small sheet of card on one side and blank on the other, with space for an address and a post message, it was used as a location indicator for friends or relations or your workmates to let them know you were on holiday/having a better time than they were – or in the modern parlance ‘living your best life’). The reality though in those bygone days was that you were most likely on holiday by the sea somewhere in England in August, freezing your tits off and sheltering from the rain whilst eating chips from soggy newspaper.
Anyway, I diverge, as I was saying, my sketchy memories of Harry are but few, and as his children (my father and his sister) passed away some years ago I never had the chance to talk about my Grandad with them. The little I know about him goes something like this:
The family tree told me that Harry was born in 1904. He was one of nine children, his siblings were Elsie, Lizzie, Annie, Clara, Laura, Edith, Ellen & Marion, yep that’s right, EIGHT sisters. What is it like growing up with eight sisters, I cannot begin to imagine. But I think that women were big figures in his life, maybe this was why he married Alvina, my Grandma a rather fierce old battle-axe when I knew her, but always quite kind to me.
When I was maybe seven or eight I was occasionally left with my grandparents during school holidays whilst my parents were at work. Harry & Alvina lived in a street called McIntyre Road, in a big old Victorian semi detached house, maybe it wasn’t so big, but to a youngster everything seems big, in my memory that house was very different to my home, it was full of big old furniture, all dark wood, thick drapes, old fashioned carpets, there was a clock with a pendulum that ticked loudly, otherwise all the sounds that I thought a house was filled with were absent, it was a quiet place, there was a front room for best that I think I only ventured into once, I remember none of its contents as it was off limits. The adjoining sitting room was the centre of the house, the most used, with a dining table and high backed chairs that reminded me of church, armchairs either side of a fireplace, my Grandads chair had as dent in the cushion from where he sat, when occupied he most often was hidden behind a big broadsheet newspaper. The fireplace always alight, big lumps of coal smoked and glowed away regardless of season, summer and winter they worked away filling the house with that now rare odour of carbon.
Next to his armchair was an ashtray on a wood-turned stand, a fag often smouldered, he smoked Player’s Navy Cut or Woodbines.
The kitchen was next door to the sitting room, at midday my Grandma would begin cooking, potatoes and meat and a gravy as thick as engine oil but tasty as hell, which had a heavenly aroma that grew in strength until by one pm it filled the downstairs of the house. She would then bang a small brass gong which was my Grandads signal to come from wherever he was hiding to eat. We feasted on Vegetables boiled to oblivion, in the way only true Brits can, a chop or some other piece of meat and gravy.
In the afternoon there was always cake, big hunks of home made sponge cakes served in slices the size and weight of house bricks.
Upstairs were two bedrooms, or maybe it was three, I remember huge old fashioned beds that I would have needed a step ladder to get on to covered with candlewick bedspreads.
My favourite part of the house was my grandads workshop. To a youngster it was a place of wonders, it was a wooden lean-to at the back of the house with a big bench, the air thick with the scent of oil & wood shavings, filled with all manner of tools, off- cuts of timber, jars of nails & screws & bolts. I think Grandad used it as a hide-away – a place to find a little peace from my Grandma, I had endless hours of joy in that place, sawing up bits of wood and banging in nails. As I look back it is regrettable that these early forays into woodwork never developed into lifelong skills – I am a D.I.Y. disaster. Likewise the other sad fact that during the long purgatory of marriage that I subsequently endured all of it without the boon of a garden shed, ah well, maybe in another life.
My grandad was a working class man, he never went outdoors without a cloth cap on his head, he worked as a butcher, though his career came to an abrupt end when rather foolishly he wore slippers behind the butchers counter for comfort, until one day he dropped a meat cleaver on his foot – seriously injuring himself. Silly Grandad, though on reflection this might have saved him from military conscription in WW2 so maybe he wasn’t so stupid after all, his war was spent as an ARP Warden.
On those days when I was palmed off on my grandparents Grandad made a ritual of pressing coins into my hand and taking me to the corner shop to buy sweets.
Off hand in hand we would go, up the street, him in his cloth cap and a tweed jacket with leather pads on the elbows, I remember his big black boots with toe caps, charcoal grey trousers with turn ups. Then coming back home with pockets stuffed with penny chews and a mouth reduced to silence by gobstoppers the size of billiard balls. The sugar of affection trait he passed on to son, I distinctly remember being taken by my Dad on my first trip to the dentist as a youngster to have a tooth removed, it was bloody painful. My Dad rewarded me afterwards ‘for being brave’ by immediately taking me to the nearest shop and buying me a box of maltesers, chocolate after dental work? Well it’s the thought that counts. I have always had a sweet tooth, quite literally now I have only one tooth of my own, (those that remain are implants) but it is a sweet tooth. Ingrained in me may quite possibly be the idea that sweetness is like an expression of love, I am rarely happier at the end of a meal than to be presented with some honeyed confection.
Grandad, despite the battle-axe wife was a jolly soul, he was always whistling around the house, old fashioned tunes whistled with a kind of vibrato, sometimes he would sing, Flanagan & Allen numbers were his favourites,
He would often trot out phrases which I learnt much later were from comedians on Radio shows from the thirties and forties,
Have a go Joe, your brother won’t know…………..
I was ten years old, in 1973 when Grandad died, I have a vivid memory of being in the front garden when my Dads car pulled up outside. Of him parking and then coming towards the house, a raincoat under his arm, of him stopping to talk to the neighbour, then heading towards the back door, stopping half way, crumpling & leaning on the wooden fence for support, then he threw up. Later I saw him cry for the first time. I had no idea what was going on, but he had just come back from his parents house where his father had died during the night.
My grandfather never wore a suit, but on the morning his wife found his body he was lying on top of his bed (Grandad and Grandma slept in separate bedrooms ) dressed in his one and only suit, the bed was unslept in. He also wore a collared shirt & tie & had polished shoes on.
The family tale grew that somehow he had gone to bed the previous day knowing it was his last. Whilst his face apparently looked peaceful & contented there was speculation about his dentures, they were never found – had he gone to bed convinced that he was going to meet his maker and then actually succumbed because he chocked on his dentures? The truth we will never know.
As I grow older I find the thought of ancestors and inherited DNA quite fascinating, what do we bring with us from our forebears, what do we pass on – when I’m happy I whistle, did I learn that from grandad? Or is there something deep down in my DNA that makes me just one in a line of whistlers?
I like the company of woman, feisty, strong, intelligent women, my grandad was also I believe enamoured by similar company, my son I’m convinced likewise, coincidence or simply a trait shared by a swathe of men?
Traits have a habit of being passing down, sometimes they skip a generation, sometimes they’re altered and transmuted when combined with a different gene pool.
My grandfathers life is a fast fading memory, after my generation nobody will remember him, he will be no more than a name in a family tree. But in that is a kind of beauty, in the forgetting, of lives lived out before ours, of one generation leading on towards another, lives that can now only be imagined.
Amongst my kin there are or have been teachers, drug smugglers, doctors, musicians, butchers, agricultural workers, publicans and even peers of the realm. Some stayed in England, others went to Australia & New Zealand, to the US & Canada. I have a ninety year old relation in Central America, of a very dark complexion, also discovered through DNA, I’ve ancient ancestors from Sardinia & Sweden and somewhere far far down the line from Iran/Iraq, these people’s stories I will never know but I carry fragments of them with me.
I whistle, sometimes I don’t even realise that I’m doing it, it just kind of starts up without me realising. I whistle when I’m happy, maybe that’s a bit of my Grandfathers genes right there.
I’m no believer that we are determined by our our past, or driven by DNA, unless we let it happen that way, instead I’m convinced that strands of history simply echo & resonate, infinite building blocks that we come with – we put together for ourselves, we craft them with our own thoughts and experiences. It is really not that important where you came from, though it’s good sometimes to use it as a way of working out where you are heading.
The last thing I remember being told about my Grandpa was by my Aunt, just a few words – Your Grandad was a lovely sweet man. I think as memories go that’s about as good as an epithet as a man could have, that’s there in my genes & maybe I am passing it down along the line.