Lucy shares how a search to complete her family tree led to conversations and finding unexpected connections.
I sat down and looked at the photos spread on the desk in front of me.
“Do you recognise this man? What about the woman? Are they the same couple pictured outside the post office? Whose is this baby?”
No, I wasn’t role playing some bizarrely brusque line of police questioning – although at times it felt like it. What was really happening was my daughter had embarked on a project to trace our family tree and was – persistently – asking me to identify each of my grandmother’s large number of siblings, spouses and children in the stack of old family photographs we’d brought back from my mother’s house when she began living in a care home.
What started as a mild curiosity soon developed into a consuming quest for knowledge. Stories emerged which were fascinating in themselves but which also provided an insight into everyday family life, social disruption and change, going back around 150 years.
There was another – unexpectedly - beneficial consequence of her hobby. When she realised I really wasn’t holding back secret information but actually didn’t know the finer details of post-war East London life, she started to question her grandmother instead.
It was like turning a key in a door. Despite being blind and nearly deaf, once the door was opened, out came the memories and anecdotes, bringing colour and background to the faded monochrome photos. And each story seemed to prompt another, as the names became real to us as well as to her, and the forgotten were remembered.
It took my mother, her grandmother, back to happy times, allowing her to reminisce with a sense of purpose that gave her high points in her otherwise seemingly endless not-so-splendid lockdown isolation.
It gave my daughter a hitherto untapped seam of conversation with her grandmother and a unique way to connect with her that will become my mother’s gift to my daughter for the rest of her life. My mother may not last forever, but now her memories and knowledge will live on beyond her for my daughter’s children to share and enjoy when they are old enough to understand.
In these dark times, it’s given us all a sense of purpose, shared connection of our family and joy as we piece the pictures and stories together – the best jigsaw ever.
You too may find that reminiscing about family history is a more enjoyable topic for your phone calls and zoom chats with your elderly loved ones than dwelling on the current crisis. Tracing their ancestors could be an ideal way of encouraging younger members of the family to chat more often with grandparents, with potential for teens to take on the family tree as a project – especially since so much information is available online, often accessible free of charge. For the older generation, sharing stories of their own childhoods and talking about special memories can be a healing and heartening experience.
Interested? Take a look at these resources to help you get started:
“Who Am I? The Family Tree Explorer! Anthony Adolph. An introduction for 10 to 15 year olds.
“Who do you think you are?” A magazine associated with the BBC programme of the same name