My poor mother’s memory is going. She’s lived a good many years but these days it’s down to others to remember what she did and didn’t do in her life. Physically she’s fine; she was still playing table tennis at 90. She could remember the score but she couldn’t remember my dad’s name or when he died.
It’s very sad, because when I was a kid she was the great story teller in our family, the one who kept our tribe’s history alive.
In fact, by the time I was five I felt I had lived my mother’s life. I knew about my grandfather selling his window cleaning business for three pints of beer; about why my Uncle Will was deaf in one ear (my grandfather beat him with the buckle end of his belt when he was eight); about my grandmother being sent off to cook and clean for her uncle and his entire family when her aunt died.
When she was nine.
I didn’t need the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. But stark as these stories were, the little version of me found them fascinating. At six I could have told you exactly what it was like to live in the East End of London before the war.
By contrast I knew nothing about my father’s side; he was one of the most taciturn men I have ever met. I longed to know his stories but his focus was on forgetting. I suspect this had something to do with Adolf Hitler and his part in his downfall.
There was a popular TV show on NBC this year: Who Do You Think You Are? Celebrities like Lisa Kudrow and Steve Buscemi and Brooke Shields went looking into their past, aided by the resources of the TV company. They uncovered things they never expected.
Do you think you know enough about your family?
I know I would like to start shinning up the family tree this year, find out a bit more about what’s up there. As an historical novelist I obviously think history is important, but not just the Battle of Gettysburg or the Renaissance. Every family history is important and to each one of us. History makes nations what they are; it makes us, as individuals, what we are.
But these Stories of Us disappear if no one writes them down.
I did a creative writing workshop recently and one of the students apologized because they were there just to ‘write a memoir. I don’t want it to publish it or anything.’ But I think this is such a great thing to do. Writing is not just about getting published by the big 6.
My partner’s mother has just written a book. She had a truly extraordinary love story with Diana’s father, and so she wrote it down and published it – not online, where anyone can read it, and not for the glory; she made fifty print copies, in her native Italian, for family only, so the story would survive.
Understanding the effect of family history on its members is just as important as preserving it. One example; in my mother’s stories, all the good men in my family were quiet and reserved; all the bastards were attractive and outgoing. I cheered for the heroes, of course, but inside I wanted to be just a little bit like the villains. But it seemed to the little me that there was only a choice in life between being reserved and ‘good’ – or charismatic and an alcoholic wife beater.
I have never been alcoholic or violent, but I struggled for a long time to be a good man while also living my life in a more adventurous way. For a long time I was never quite at home in my own skin. The only way I can sometimes explain those feelings of duality are in terms of my mother’s stories.
But family history is as often beautiful as it is shameful or sad. When my father was dying, he could not talk; a stroke had taken away his power of speech. So when my mother and father came to say goodbye after fifty six years of marriage they had to write their farewells on paper. They passed the piece of paper back and forward between them for an hour. In the end there were pages and pages of the most blistering, heartfelt stuff you could imagine, reaffirming what they meant to each other.
After the funeral I asked my mother where those goodbye notes were. ‘Oh, I burned them,’ she said. ‘They just made me sad.’
My brother and I are still devastated by the loss of that last amazing document. It would have been … priceless.
What do you think of family histories? Some families keep their secrets. How much will your kids know – and how much do you want them to know?
Is it best forgotten – or did knowing more about your family history make life in some way better – or harder – for you?