My dad turned up on holiday with mountains of black and white photographs along with paperwork relating to my grandparents and the odd letter written by me when I was four thanking them for birthday presents. Of course hardly any of the photos had anything written on the back and we had no idea who some of them are. It got me thinking how sad it is that a photo can be all that remains of an unknown ancestor. If someone was investigating our family in 100 years time, they can see photos of most days in my life if they are so inclined. They could even read my blog if they could be bothered and they’d find out I was a periodically anxious woman with a lovely family who had a problem committing to exercise. But what do I know about my 5th Great Grandfather? Not much. Apart from he was a blacksmith, was married and had seven children. I don’t know what he looked like. Was he ginger? Did he like birdwatching and dream of being a writer? Probably not.
And that’s it exactly. It’s the thoughts that are missing. We don’t know someone’s likes or dislikes, their hopes and dreams, their regrets. We can see that perhaps a relative lost babies and even multiple husbands so assume their life was sad. We can see the job titles and can imagine being a coal miner wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. But we don’t know how they dealt with it every day. With good humour? With anger and frustration? With resignation?
Our ancestors on the whole were poor. Agricultural labourers, miners, weavers in the mills of Wakefield, servants. We had the odd carpenter, greengrocer and pub landlord and a handful that emigrated to New Zealand or (to be agricultural labourers…) but that’s as exciting as it gets. There’s a petty criminal or two – I imagine because they were so poor they pinched something which wasn’t smart but was probably necessary. Oh and my 4th great aunt married into a family that made waterproof golfing trousers. But on the whole pure working class heroes. On paper they were salt of the earth. In practice would I have even liked them? Who knows.
Although we now have a digital footprint and our facebook history can probably indicate a love for vegan food or a penchant for running or reading detective novels, I’m not sure it tells our future family how we really felt. While it’s great for anything from the last 10 years, before that not so much.
I feel liked everyone should sit down and ask their relatives just a few questions. What do they remember about growing up? What were their parents like? What did they do for fun? What did their siblings love to do? Who was the funniest member of the family? What did they eat for dinner? Write down the answers. Put a photo with it – maybe one from their childhood and one older. Because memories are only there inside someone’s head and then they are gone. We are left with an unnamed photo and an awful lot of questions.