I come from a small family. The inevitable passage of time has severed us from the upper branches of our family tree, leaving us vulnerable to the wind.
I am constantly searching for connections to the family of our past, hoping to feel a part of something bigger and more complete. Too many links are missing, too many secrets lost or concealed. I wonder who we are if we don’t really know where we came from.
Years ago, I committed hours to the research of it, trying to breathe life into ghosts long passed over. I built the beginnings of a picture through my unearthing of the names, places and photographs my parents had thought lost to us.
Dredging up documents of the births, deaths and marriages of my kin was a powerfully reaffirming activity at a time when I knew only uncertainty. I was trying to start a family of own and the path was neither short nor easy.
In time-worn family tales, I always wait to hear a hint of me, of the family I grew up with, in the character, personality and mannerisms of the now-absent players.
Because I am not so alone if I carry with me reminders of my relatives, both real and imagined. The signs are not visible to others, but what’s important is knowing they are there.
I wonder, do I sing like my mother’s mother, so famous in her day for the beautiful duets she sang with my Pa? In days when people used to gather and sing long into the night for their intimates; heartfelt songs of romance and longing now imagined in black and white, like the images of my grandparents as a young couple.
Or do I look like my grandmother on my father’s side? Is there something in the darkness of my eyes that recalls her to the few people left to remember? Or the fall of her hair in soft waves down her shoulders? I like to think so. I loved her laugh – deep and throaty – but I know it is nothing like mine.
Or is she more like my daughter Amelia, who crooks her pinky finger when she lifts a cup to her lips, a mirror of her great-grandmother’s well-known gesture? I stare at her and laugh when she does it, because it takes me straight back to earlier days, when my grandmother was still alive. Amelia channels her without being aware of the echo her movement creates.
It doesn’t really matter to me if these are just a set of romantic ideas that would not pass the acid test of objective scrutiny. I believe that I can draw a strong, clear line from my grandmother, to me, to my daughter and find that we form a triptych of family resemblance:
We three, to me, are like peas in a pod and our bond stretches across generations.
I also believe in the power of names to create connections that have all but vanished. My father’s maternal grandmother’s name was unknown to us for a long time. Her story was another mystery but I pieced some of it back together, along with her age when she died (46), her name – Annie Isobel – and the location of her gravesite in a cemetery a mere stone’s throw from my house.
A band of us (my Dad, Mum, husband, older brother) picked our way through the rows of graves one April day and found the plot after much searching. It was a rugged spot, neglected, the surface pitted and rocky like the moon. More dumping ground than resting place, it had no gravestone. I went looking for my great-grandmother and found what amounted to a pauper’s grave.
Was that because Annie did not stay married to my great-grandfather and was buried with her lover? Perhaps no-one wanted to draw attention to the scandal of it. Or maybe she caused deep hurt to the people left behind so she was punished with the ultimate act of forgetting. It is impossible to know.
Bland historical documents leave no clues to the pain of broken relationships and the true cost to the families involved, even many decades later.
Regardless, it is depressing to think that there was no-one left alive or sufficiently moved to arrange a decent burial for her.
With no marker to remind us where she lay, Annie was in death as severed as a person can be from their family tree. But I feel like we recovered her that day and brought her partially back into the fold. We found her again because someone remembered and cared to look.
Soon after I found out I was pregnant with a little girl and my husband and I went through the enjoyable ritual of name choosing. So much time is spent worrying about whether you’ll ‘get it right’. What will the name say about you and who you are as individuals, as a couple, as a family?
What I knew for sure is that I wanted to resurrect something personal to Annie and mark it properly this time. So, I took her middle name – Isobel with an ‘o’ in the Scottish tradition – and gave it to my daughter when she was born. They also share the same first initials, AI, and I think that is very fitting.
I don’t know what Annie Isobel was like and I have never even seen her photograph. As far as I know, they’re all gone. But she’s still an important part of my family, and so Amelia – my proudest achievement – is a living reminder of someone lost but no longer forgotten.
[for MA, acupuncturist extraordinaire, who inspired me after our talk of names and what they mean to us]