Digging up my roots

Jack and Margaret ShortJack and Margaret Short

These are my paternal grandparents. I didn’t know them very well and don’t have many memories of them, because they died when I was about seven years old.  It’s a sad story – my grandfather was dying of cancer and my grandmother was knocked down by a car and killed on her way to visit him in hospital.  My dad and the rest of the family kept her death a secret from him, inventing an illness that was stopping her from visiting,and my grandfather died two days later.  They were buried together.

When I look at this photo what really strikes me is how happy they look together. You can put on smiles on for the camera, of course, but look where their hands and arms are – they’re so physically affectionate with each other.  I compare it to photos of my mum and dad together – there’s always something a little strained about the smiles and the body language backs it up.  I wouldn’t have said that my parents had a happy marriage and our family unit was pretty dysfunctional.

After years of cutting myself off emotionally from the idea of family and all the bad connotations it has for me, I’ve changed in the last little while and am now trying to reconnect with my roots.  I’ve started with Jack and Margaret (who I think was called Peggy) because I feel the strongest tie and the most affection for them.  Jack was a homeopath, at a time when that was a very unusual occupation, and I feel my own interest in alternative health and therapies must have come from him.  We were often given little ‘pokes’ (Scottish for paper bags) of benign sugar pills to eat and cuts and abrasions were routinely doused in Calendula tincture, which we hated because it stung like hell.  We longed for the tubes of Germolene that other people used.  He lost a leg in WW1 and I remember the horrified fascination we felt when we saw his ‘wooden’ leg propped up in the corner of the room.  He didn’t wear it all the time.

I have some vague memories of my grandmother – I remember being very impressed because she took the kitchen table and some blankets outside to the garden so that we could play at making tents.  That would never have happened at home.  And I remember she kept a large pillowcase full of all sorts of toys that we could play with when we came to visit.  Most of all I remember that she was fun, and that I always liked to go there.

As was probably common in those days, my parents kept us kids out of it when Jack and Margaret died.  We weren’t allowed to go to their funeral and I don’t think we were told at the time exactly what had happened.  I don’t remember much, but I do remember lying in bed at night feeling confused and missing my grandmother, but knowing it wasn’t something I could talk about.  I don’t know exactly where they’re buried, but I plan to find their grave and visit it as soon as I can.  I have a feeling it’s going to be very therapeutic.

What has struck me most in the course of these explorations, is how precious these old photographs are.  There are stories contained within them.  The one at the top of the post is a poor photo, with some light flare/ghosting that leaves my grandfather looking rather faded, but it’s the only one I have of them in the same shot.  The technical quality doesn’t matter; what matters is that I know what they looked like and that I have a pictorial record, and I’m so thankful they didn’t throw it away because of its technical defects.  I have a whole album full of old pictures of the people in my past and without those photographs many of them would just be names.  I wonder if the tradition of the family album is still alive and well, or if digital storage has replaced it?  There’s definitely something about having a tangible print in your hand, and knowing that the people in the photo have probably held that print in theirs, that feels both satisfying and necessary.