how do we hold on to history?

me and Mum Birkenhead May 2010

copyright: Colin Falconer

My mother was 92 today.

Her memory is fast vanishing and with it goes much of her history. Her history is something I carry with me; they were the first stories I have ever heard. I’m not sure she should have been telling a five-year-old stories about violence and cruelty; but I suppose she had to tell someone.

Let’s pull no punches; my grandfather was a bastard. One of my uncles was deaf in one ear where he hit him with the buckle end of his belt. He was a wife beater. One of the first stories I heard was how he came at my grandmother when my mother was ten and, terrified, how she reached for the nearest thing at hand – an iron skillet. She belted him it. He sat down hard on a kitchen chair. My mother watched the blood drip off the end of her father’s nose as he murmured in disbelief: ‘Ada, you hit me.’ Like all bullies, he was a coward. He never touched her again.

My bedtime stories.

Snapshot 1 (07-05-2012 10-00 AM)

copyright: Colin Falconer

At the time domestic violence was even more widespread than it is now. My mother was one of thirteen, raised in the east end of London. My grandmother scrubbed the front doorstep on her hands and knees. They all did; they may have been poor but you couldn’t have a dirty doorstep.

She was a downstairs maid. She knew how to cook a lobster but she’d never tasted one. She was used to being in service; when she was nine years old her aunt died and she was sent off to look after her uncle and his four children. She’d been washing other people’s clothes and cooking other people’s dinners ever since.

Life didn’t get any better when she met my grandfather; he once family sold his window cleaning round – his sole means of income – for three pints of beer.

Dinner on Friday night was haddock water; haddock was a kind of fish. Granfather would get the haddock; the kids would get the water it was boiled in together with a bit of bread to dip in it.

Snapshot 2 (29-12-2011 11-32 AM)

copyright: Colin Falconer

So this was her life; it’s history now. If you want to write about the nineteen twenties and thirties in London you have to get this stuff out of books or old newspapers. For my mother it was her life.

Some of her history still stands. Hackney Town Hall, where she met my father. My mother saw him watching her from the other side of the dance hall; that’s how they did things then, guys on one side, girls on the other. There was no acid house or disco biscuits in those days. No one night stands either. She saw him and thought, there, that’s the one for me. He never had a chance and he didn’t want one.

A fortune teller told her she would be married at 21 and widowed at 28 and she was right. She was in labour with her first child during the Blitz. They took her to the Salvation Army hospital and when the air raid siren sounded everyone rushed out of the room leaving her there on her own. Then the lights went out. Her baby was born still born. They told her it was a boy, but she only had their word because she never saw it. That was the way they did things back then.


copyright: Colin Falconer

There was no television and no internet. Flying in a plane was something people did to shoot down Germans. If you wanted Mexican food you went to Mexico and nobody did. Spaghetti came in a tin. Bathrooms were outside. Good football players ate fish and chips before a game and often didn’t get paid. They did it because they loved it. There were letters instead of emails, telephone boxes instead of mobile phones. A three penny bit (pronounced (thrup-nee) had eight sides and if you gave someone a bit of ‘how’s your father’ it meant you punched them. If you’d been to France on a day trip you were considered sophisticated. If you could speak Italian you were probably homosexual.

My grandmother could never have imagined my life now, getting on and off jetplanes, working on a machine that never even existed when she died. Mention a lap top to my mother and she would have blushed.

She could not have imagined the lives her great grand-daughters lead. My daughter manages pubs. My grandfather used to get thrown out of them.

Sometimes history is a long time ago; sometimes it’s as close as our grandparents. And unless they write it down for us, it is so soon and so easily lost. What history have you managed to preserve; and what history have you lost?

About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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18 Responses to how do we hold on to history?

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Colin. Reading this made me think of something my mom said yesterday. My grandmother, her mother, is almost 90 and she has dementia. She doesn’t remember anyone. It’s very sad. Well, yesterday my mom said, “I wish I would have asked mom why she gave us the names she gave us.” My mom’s first name is Bonita and her sisters are Cheryl and Frederica. They were given each a Spanish, a French, and a German name. I said to her, “You never asked her that?” She didn’t. I’m kind of surprised that she never had asked because I have known where my name came from since I was very young. So that is something that will probably be lost forever. What a shame. I know a lot because my mom has always told me about her life. I guess it’s something that we need to make sure we pass on to our kids. They just may forget to ask.

    Oh, and happy birthday to your lovely mother. 🙂

    • Thanks Michelle – and yes, what you write here about the names is exactly what I mean – there’s so often a story behind a name. There had to have been a story behind Bonita, Cheryl and Frederica! I think it’s so important that these stories are kept and written down – kids often forget to ask. I still wish I knew more about Erica, my Dad’s German girlfriend just after the war. All I know is he stole a motorobike from stores to go and see her and then got busted back down to private when the army found out. Whenever her name came up he got daggers from my mother – even though it was six years before he met her. I also promised myself I’d ask him when i got him on his own. But I never got around to it.

      • You should put these stories in a book. 😉 Yeah, I know all about the daggers from mom at my dad due to an ex. My dad was married for the first time at 16 because he got her pregnant. He had her name tattooed on his arm. We used to always ask, “Who’s Diane?” LOL! Of course, we know that whole story because I have a half brother from that union. Life is so interesting, isn’t it?

      • It IS interesting and everyone has a story. I have a half brother too but the story isn’t nearly as interesting as a father with another woman’s name tattooed on his arm! Mum’s first husband died just after the war, when my brother was about 5. But she would never talk about him (‘out of respect to Dad’) though I don’t think he was the type to get jealous about that. I was so curious and couldn’t get anything out of her. Drove me nuts! Still does. My brother knows a bit more but not nearly enough.

  2. CC MacKenzie says:

    Lovely, lovely post, Colin. Give your mum a big hug from me. My background is steeped in mystery. The man I knew as my father wasn’t and I learned that when I was eighteen and needed my birth certificate for my employer. My younger sister and I always assumed I was a bastard. But then just after I had my first child, my ‘parents’ got married without telling anyone. It turned out my mother married my father but left him when I was eighteen months old because of domestic abuse. She met my ‘step father’ and had my half sister but never divorced my biological father until years later when he turned up after my biological grandfather died (I never met him.) So you can imagine the whispers my mother endured all her life. They ended up moving away from family and friends to start a new life.

    Secrets and lies all through my childhood. I used to pick up bits and pieces of conversations with my mother’s sisters and my grandmother that made no sense and then it all clicked into place later in life. I must say I was incredibly relieved my stepfather isn’t my father because he’s a bastard too – physical abuse was a daily occurrence when I was a tiny skinny girl which meant I had an awful stutter until later in life and gained a bit of confidence – I suspect that’s why I hid myself in books and made up stories of living in a happy family. It’s strange how some women repeat the same mistake like my mother and end up living with the type of person they fled from in the first place. Must speak to Louise Beheil about that!

    No happy ending either since my mother suffers from Bi-Polar brought on by living on valium for years and she still lives with the bastard who instead of physical abuse now resorts to emotional abuse. Needless to say I have three children to protect as well as myself and never see them.

    And you really should put all those stories in a book!

    • That’s a hell of a story CC – and you’re right, Louise has a real handle on that stuff. Domestic abuse is much more widespread than is generally acknowledged and the effects are devastating – my mother, at 92, still sleeps with the light on – ‘in case someone tries to get in.’ She means her father, of course, now dead sixty years. I value Louise’s posts – she talks about all the different ways the effects of abuse can manifest. Fortunately my own mother didn’t marry (either time) a violent man like her father, as many do. My dad was completely the opposite – which could be frustrating at times as he was so passive that it was sometimes hard to get a word out of him. Still better than getting clobbered every five minutes. I still harbor a deep revulsion for any man who uses his fists against women or children. There is never an excuse for it, no way, no how, ever.

  3. Your mother is gorgeous, her story fascinating, These stories would make for a great book, especially the way you have with words.
    Four years ago I took my first writing class “Preserving your Memories.” A woman gave it to senior citizens in a senior living home, but the public was invited. I heard the most enthralling stories: Japanese invasion, the burning of Manila, Bronx stories, children hiding in the forest of the Holland from the Nazi’s.
    After that class I wrote several stories about my mother growing up in segregated California in 30’s, 40’s, her career and college experiences as a single mom of 4, made stories into a small 100 page book and gave it to her for Christmas. She cried, laughed and reminisced. The grandkids had an opportunity to hear, read several stories, and ask her questions.
    She said it was the best gift she ever had and was glad I remembered the stories since she fears she will get dementia like her older sister.

    • Spot on, Alvarado. As you write here, all those amazing stories you heard in that writing class would all get forgotten if someone didn’t write them down. And you did that! Fantastic. Your entire family, especially the grandkids on, now have something they will treasure. We sometimes think of writing in terms of having stories published, but sometimes it’s just for this reason – to preserve. I’ve stuff written just for my kids that will never see the light of day – it’s just for my daughters to have and pass on.

  4. Debra Kristi says:

    My great grandfather had two families. My grandmother may still know some of the story, but my GG (great grandmother) was the one who really knew it and she is now gone. He was a traveling salesman. For the longest time he kept a wife in separate cities and had a family with both. When they finally found out about each other he was forced to choose. I never knew him. I guess that tells you which way he went. Somewhere out there is a whole other line of the family I don’t even know. I think he had a son, but I can’t be sure. He may have had more than one child. My great grandmother never remarried. Your mother is a beautiful women and sounds like an extremely strong woman as well. 🙂

    • This is an amazing story, Debra. Have you ever tried to find them, Debra? I know two friends who tracked down cousins or half brothers and sisters as adults and they both were glad they did. (One friend of my brother’s was the ‘glue’ between a family of 8 and a family of 4 and brought them all together again.) It is astonishing the stories we all have and how they echo down through generations.

      • Debra Kristi says:

        I have not tried to find them, and it hadn’t really occurred to me until now. My grandmother, his daughter, would be very set against it. I think it would have to wait. She has that whole side of the family wrapped around her little finger. Maybe someday. I don’t even know if they know about our side.

      • I had a close friend, her mother never wanted her to look for her father, she said he was a no good drunk. When she did find him he turned out to be the archetypal family man, and his whole family knew about her and welcomed her with open arms! You never know. Of course, it could be that your grandmother’s right. It’s a coin toss in the end, I guess. That TV show, Who Do You Think You Are? motivated me to start digging a little deeper though …

  5. Linda Adams says:

    One side of my family has managed to preserve enough that the historical society has come out to take pictures. My paternal grandfather’s side has a house that was built in 1887 that is historically significant because my great-great grandfather started the Kimberly-Clark Corp. My great-great grandfather picked out everything in the house, right down to the wall-paper, so everything is him all throughout. When he died, the house was inherited by his daughters, who lived there until they died. They left it to my grandfather. And the house was untouched! No remodeling, no upgrades, no installing a wet ball in the hallway. In storage in the house are the ledgers my g-g kept from all his businesses. According to the local historical society, it’s one of the few left in the country in original condition. Most get the furniture sold off, but because the family left it untouched, it’s like walking into a museum.

    • Wow, that’s really something. A house like that is rare indeed. It’s just five generations but it’s living history. I’ve paid to go into ‘historical houses’ in Australia that aren’t as old as that – or as original!

  6. susan craig says:

    Colin, I am anything but a history buff (generally stay as far away from the stuff as possible) but I love reading your posts. Thank you!

    • Well thank you, Susan. I love to hear that. I think a lot of people are put off history (I know I was for a long time) because it comes off as so dry. I try and make history entertaining in my posts and in my books, without ever straying from the facts. So I really appreciate you saying that – that’s what I aim for.

  7. Karen McFarland says:

    I must say Colin how beautiful your mother is! You come from a line of long-livers! 92? Wow!
    Yes, times have changed. We don’t really know hard times like how our grandparents lived. 🙂

    • It’s true, Karen. I don’t think I can ever really appreciate what they lived through. And yes I do have longevity on my side – my old pop was still climbing ladders to paint the raked ceilings when he was 83!

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