I confess I haven’t really dwelt upon some of the unhappier episodes I’ve come across in my delving into the family archives over the past year and more. It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything, and I have certainly addressed sad subjects such as my grandmother Beatrice’s tragic early death, as well as topics like my ambivalence about my schooldays and my parents’ sense of shame about what they perceived as their position in society. My Mum’s insistence upon never mentioning that my Dad was a bus driver was not a comfortable thing for a teenager to take on board. However, I’ve found myself keen to see the deeper truths and to comprehend the reasons why things may have been the way they were. Two things I have learned in my life are that 1) people don’t generally mean to cause you pain and that 2) we are ALL in need of forgiveness. So, as far as possible, I choose celebration over exposition, kindness over blame.
In my quest to get to the truth – or maybe just a truth – I am perfectly aware that my perception of even shared experiences is exactly that; MY perception. Whilst I might sometimes speculate, I never presume to know what anyone else might have felt. I’m also aware that even touching upon events in the past might trigger painful thoughts and memories in others that I’m not even aware of. I suppose it’s inevitable I won’t always get it right – it can only ever be my best guess as a fellow human being.
Except that I don’t always need to guess. I know perfectly well why I’ve sometimes avoided looking through my own shoeboxes of photographs from certain periods in my life, never mind anyone else’s. I’m sure that most people can look back on chapters in their lives when every single memory seems to be tinged with sorrow and pain and regret.
Old family photographs can take you like that too. Sometimes the people stare out at you with a haunted look in their eyes, captured in a moment of grief or unhappiness which touches your heart and makes you ache to reach out to them even long after they are dead and gone and can’t be hurt any more. This is one such picture (fortunately annotated at the back in case you’re wondering at how remarkably well informed I am, although some of the information also comes from my trawling through Ancestry.com records).
This is my Great Grandfather, Peter MacFarlane, with his seven children. The year is 1893 and the empty chair at the back is to signify the absence of Peter’s wife, Louisa, who died suddenly of cerebral meningitis in April of that year, aged 45. This might even have been the day of the funeral. It doesn’t take much insight to perceive the pain etched in all their faces, or to understand that this could have been a seminal moment determining the further course of their lives and personalities. In particular I look at the little curly haired chap in the front row, my Grandfather George, aged 6, for whom history tragically repeated itself in 1932 with the loss of his own wife, Beatrice, when his own littlest boy Donald, our Uncle Donald, was also 6.
These children would eventually become known to our family as my Dad’s Aunt Ettie (Ethel Sarah), Aunt Lulie (Mary Louisa) and Aunt Winnie (Winifred Grace), sitting at the back and Uncle Jack (Peter John) and Aunt Moolie (Muriel Davenport) to the front. The little child sitting on Lulie’s knee is Anice Jane, and she never grew up to be anyone’s aunt for she died only a couple of years later when she was just 3 years old. Uncle Jack, or Father Jack as he became a priest, died at the relatively young age of 47 in 1931, but the Aunties all lived into their 60’s and beyond.
My father was very attached to these Aunts of his, who would obviously have known him as he was growing up, and I think watched out for him and his brother and sister in the years after their mother died. Dad spoke of them with great fondness and we called in on them once or twice during the years when we would visit Fort William on our family holidays.
But although he would talk endlessly about his family, Dad didn’t, as far as I can remember, show us his family photographs or ever really explain who all the people were that populated his anecdotes. My sister Mary observed that in those days parents never really did explain things to their children the way modern parents do. We were just expected to be good and do as we were told. Asking questions was considered to be “cheeky”. We were good, but perhaps rather ill informed, as Mary says: As a child I remember being constantly surprised and bewildered because things were always sprung on me.
I probably tuned out of the reminiscences, the way children do, but I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered the pictures. It’s pointless to regret it now, but I do wish I had paid better attention when I was young, and asked more questions – in fact the questions I am currently asking all these decades later! Perhaps then Dad might have felt able to share the images with us, if he hadn’t just buried them so deep that he actually forgot the existence of the dusty old cardboard suitcase full of sepia memories.
Neither was my Mum, with her great inner drive to always be forging ahead in life, someone who you would turn to to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of family history. If she became more expansive in her latter days, it wasn’t about Dad’s past which was all tied up with the loss of his mother and subsequent poor relationship with his father George.
Let me describe how it seemed to me as a child of about 12 visiting Fort William (this would be several years after George passed away in 1962). 50 High Street, the address of both the family business MacFarlane and Son, Chemist and the family house above, had almost mythical proportions in my mind – this was the place where John had been brought up; where Nellie had been nanny to something called the “second family” (I didn’t really understand what that meant); where my mother and father had met and fallen in love. (I must have paid some attention!) I had vague memories of visiting there as a much younger child and had an impression of an attic room with wooden floors. Though I have to confess that I may very well have confused it in my mind with the Alm Uncle’s house in my beloved Heidi books, who knows?
What I remember of the visit in question was of us knocking on the street door beside the shop, waiting a long time for someone to answer and eventually trooping up a dark narrow flight of stairs at the top of which we were shown into the ‘parlour’ where a somewhat stout older woman with an unsmiling face presided over afternoon tea, with various other younger people popping in and out for the purpose, it seemed, of inspecting us. If my Dad ever had a notion of showing us around his childhood home it was quickly dispelled in that frosty atmosphere. I don’t remember whether anyone talked to me, I was too busy feeling uncomfortable and just living for the moment when we could get out of there and breath again. I later understood that the stout woman was Jessie and that she wasn’t Dad’s mother. Of course I eventually worked out that she was George’s second wife and the mother of the mysterious “second family” though it seemed to be something we shouldn’t ask questions about, so I didn’t, though I did manage to become less ignorant as the years went by, mostly by keeping my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut!
It is only now, all those decades later, that I have started to try to properly untangle these and the various other characters who tumble about my brain all interacting with each other like extras in some crazy film. Aunt Clemmie, Morag Arisaig, Archie Speanbridge, Uncle Laurence, Granny Bentley, Ishbel, Sarah, George’s Elizabeth, Sandy’s Pat, Auntie Maureen, Uncle Donald… you get the picture! Of course the keys to bringing some sort of order to the chaos have been there all along had I but known it. Whether it be in memories residing in my own brain or those of my sisters and cousins; old cases of fading photographs; letters kept in black bags for 20 years; a family tree born of 32 years of meticulous research. These are just some of the sources I’ve already mentioned in the pages of this blog.
Another realisation is that, while it’s true about the material being there all along, just waiting to be discovered, it’s probably also true that it’s only the fact that both John and Nellie are no longer with us that has given me the freedom to dig deeper and explore the facts that lay behind what I always knew was a great tragedy in my father’s life, and the feelings of loss he always felt regarding Fort William and his childhood. Sometimes what you’re looking for is confirmation of a childhood impression – it’s so easy for children to get the wrong end of the stick. I have hesitated before now to tell the tale of our visit to ‘Fifty’. It is an uncomfortable tale to tell and one doesn’t want to cause hurt to people who’s idea of what was going on may be entirely different from yours. But I believe it is a true impression – anyone I have ever talked to about it confirms that. I even have some words written by Aunt Winnie, George’s sister, in a letter to her daughter Theresa following his death in 1962:
…there is no place now for the first family…
And so it proved. I do think there are things that happen in our lives that you can never really get over. Such as the death of a parent, or a child, or a grandchild, or a marriage, or our idea of ourselves as someone who will unfailingly keep our promises and be able to always protect our loved ones from harm. Or the notion that we can take anything life throws at us and then come back for more….
I’m lucky, I have always eventually been able to come back for more, albeit sadder and wiser, as the saying goes. I can look back at my old photographs and know that the person staring out at me with that haunted look in her eyes isn’t really me any more. That somehow I did learn to live with what seemed to be unbearable pain or a truth so uncomfortable as to make you want to take to your bed and stay there forever.
It must be a rare person who sails through life without ever feeling that they want to give up. The rest of us just muddle through the best we can, our ancestors being no exception. Some admirable souls share their struggles for all to see in the hope that others can take strength from knowing they are not alone. I think most of us choose to fight our life battles in private.
But whether we shout it from the rooftops, or share our struggles in a more intimate way, we are all more or less battle scarred. I believe that our job is not to avoid the challenges of life, but to embrace them, learn from them, give our children the gift of resilience, teach them kindness to others and never to be afraid to ask for help. If you want my own homespun philosophy, it’s this – whenever I reach the end of my tether I tie a knot in it and hang on, remembering the words of the great Scarlett O’Hara, heroine of the best film ever, Gone With The Wind: