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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 14-May-15 14:12:26

The things we should've asked

As the self-confessed owner of a 'mini museum' filled with Items of Sentimental Value, Iona Grey was surprised to come across boxes of (neatly organised) memories while clearing out her godmother's house. She wonders whether conversations about important documents were the ones she should really have been having with her much loved godmother before she died...

Iona Grey

The things we should've asked

Posted on: Thu 14-May-15 14:12:26


Lead photo

Iona Grey - proud owner of a 'mini museum'

I am not an organised person. While I like nothing better than a soothing hour on Pinterest, browsing boards filled with photos of neat shelves and cupboards and under-stairs office spaces where everything is ruthlessly ordered in rainbow-coloured boxes, admiration never quite gets translated into organisational activity. I have a large box in the bottom of my wardrobe which is the official home for Items of Sentimental Value, but as I can't bear to throw out anything that holds a memory or tells a story - no matter how short or incomplete - my whole house is in danger of becoming a mini museum, its drawers and cupboards stuffed with crumbling Hama bead creations, drawings, receipts from happy days out, and sweetly misspelt notes. ('Do'nt forget: I DO NOT want maynays on my samwich')

Two years ago, my elderly and much loved godmother died and, as she had no children of her own, it fell to my brother and I to clear her house. We had known her all our lives. She and her husband had lived next door to our parents when we were born and provided a sort of local grandparenting service, as our real relatives were spread out between Dorset and the Highlands of Scotland. Their home, with its china figurines and 1950s furniture became part of the landscape of our childhood. We went there on Mondays after school, and were sometimes allowed (it always felt like a treat, though I suppose it must have been because our parents were going out) to stay the night, lying beneath the rose-patterned bedspread on the Old Charm bed as she sang us a lullaby (a service that was never offered at home!).

I might never know the stories, but there's one thing I have learned from the tins in my godmother's garage and that's to be a more careful curator of my own museum of memories.

When we sorted through the little house, we certainly didn't expect to find anything we hadn't seen a hundred times before. Unlike me, my godmother (who was always known to my brother and me simply as Auntie) was ferociously tidy, and everything was neat, orderly and familiar. Except for the row of Walkers Crisps boxes (circa 1977) on a shelf in the garage, which were neat and orderly but not familiar. We tackled them last, assuming that they would just contain rusty old garden tools and tins of paint and would go straight into the skip in the driveway.
Luckily we checked first. Some did contain tins of paint, and cans of slug pellets and weedkiller (the immaculate garden with its dazzling rows of geraniums and marigolds had never been an homage to organic methods.) Others contained tins of a different kind. Tins that eighty years earlier had contained tea, toffees and biscuits but were now stuffed with photographs, diaries, telegrams, receipts and letters; the names and faces and words and thoughts of strangers long gone.

Over the next few weeks I studied them, piecing together the fragments to make a story, trying to work out connection between people and events. (Was the angelic little girl in the photograph the same child who sent a homemade Easter card to Auntie Sarah and Uncle George in 1934? Was Henry John Skitt, whose black-edged 'In Memoriam' card has the words 'my brother Harry. Died of wounds' poignantly written inside it, one of the fresh-faced boys in the 1915 photograph?) One of the things I loved most about Auntie was listening to the stories of her life, which had become as familiar as the well-polished treasures in her house. Here was the tantalising evidence of so many more that I would never know.

I wish we had looked through them together. I wish that, after the fall that began her slow decline that summer, instead of her telling me where to find her will and the paperwork pertaining to her pension and mortgage, we’d gone through those tins in the garage and she'd told me about Henry John Skitt and Sarah (whose engagement ring I found, along with the receipt for its purchase in 1925) and explained who had travelled on the White Star Line's MV Georgic in 1932 and where the photograph of her on the beach in the extraordinarily glamorous Mad Men style sunglasses had been taken. I could have worked out the pension and the mortgage stuff myself somehow.

I might never know the stories, but there's one thing I have learned from the tins in my godmother's garage and that's to be a more careful curator of my own museum of memories. To be better at filing and organising and more selective about the things that I keep. Goodbye Hama beads. You were fun - sort of - at the time.

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey published by Simon & Schuster is out now priced £8.99 and available from Amazon.

By Iona Grey

Twitter: @simonschusteruk

soontobe Thu 14-May-15 16:22:21

I definitely know what you mean.
I had to help clear out an aunt's house fairly recently[my uncle died just 6 months before her].
Trying to piece together who was who[lots of photographs unmarked], was impossible in some cases. Such a shame. Though as I write this, I have just realised that there is one relative left who could shed some light on a few of them.
And we could have talked and learned more about great grandfather. And great great grandfather.

Grannyknot Thu 14-May-15 16:37:59

I loved reading this piece. I would feel the same way as you...and I kick myself for being so ruthless about chucking things out, never considering that long forgotten school reports would piece together a picture of someone as a child, perhaps much more so than oral family history.

I'm about to go and see an old auntie of mine and I plan to ask her something that has been at the back of my mind for years ... who was that little boy who was always introduced as my granny's "brother" when he was clearly many years younger than his two "siblings", his "parents" were way past child-bearing age, and he didn't look like anyone else in the family. Nothing unusual about that, and as a young child I just accepted that, but, why did he just vanish after a time and was never spoken about again? Never any mention made of fostering, or adoption. He's a mysterious part of my family background.

ionagrey Thu 14-May-15 18:41:10

Soontobe, it's so frustrating that the photos aren't labelled in any way. It would have been a simple thing for someone to do, but we never think of ourselves as being history to anyone else, do we?! I really hope you have a chance to take them over to your relative and have a good look at them, and perhaps catch up with some family stories.

Thank you Grannyknot! I have to confess I got a shiver reading about that little boy. What an intriguing story. I wonder if your auntie will be able to shed any light on the mystery - and if she'll be willing to. These things are often hushed up because of old notions of shame, or because they're just too painful to talk about, but for the little boy's sake it would be good to know who he was and what happened to him. You've really got me wondering what the truth could be now!

leurMamie Fri 15-May-15 16:27:13

This is interesting reading. There are two things here: an individual's memory and life stories, and their family history. I only began to wonder about my family history after all those I could have spoken to had died - like so many, it was after retirement as I just didn't have the time before that. Now I have been doing proper genealogy for 5 years and learned many things about my ancestors, as well as discovering some cousins, but my family tree will be of interest to no-one as my daughter is adopted and lets me know that all my research is a waste of time as far as she's concerned. (She is interested in my life and my stories, thank goodness!) She isn't interested in her birth parents' family trees either, although that may change. I just hope that some yet-undiscovered cousin will be interested in all my research because it is also their family tree.

You mention being a curator....I call it memory-keeping. This is for my grandchildren and I have small mountains of keepsakes, photos, etc. for each of them. Must get that organized - and get around to doing THEIR family trees!

Elrel Fri 15-May-15 20:53:43

I always heard a lot about their family from my mother and grandmother and met many relatives including quite distant cousins. Now, to my surprise, I seem to be the holder of the family memories and need to get as much as I recall recorded before it's too late. With the help of my daughter a family tree is also gradually emerging. It's rather like disentangling tangled wool but there is a feeling of triumph to recognise great and great-great aunties Jennie and Lizzie as Martha Jane and Mary Elizabeth. I now so regret not writing down the stories I heard and asking more questions while I could nor carefully labelling every old photograph while relatives of previous generations were still here to tell me who people were!

ginbins Sat 16-May-15 14:18:53

The dresses on offer seem remarkable for one thing only a total absence of waistline. !!

loopylou Sat 16-May-15 17:32:51

We have a strange relative in my father's family.
He recalls as a little boy (c1928) visiting a posh lady in a very sumptuous seafront house in Brighton who had a boy the same age as him.
No father evident and she didn't need to work.
He often wonders whose 'kept woman', as she was referred to by his parents, she was. Definitely a relative but who? No one ever knew what happened to her or the little boy either.
Complete mystery in what was a very small family.

ionagrey Sun 17-May-15 12:16:05

LeurMamie, it seems to be quite common that our family history becomes more interesting and relevant to us the older we get. (I suppose one of the joys of youth is self-obsession and it's only as we get older that we gain perspective of ourselves as a small part of a long story!) Perhaps your daughter's interest will grow in time? Families aren't just held together by bloodlines, and often the more complex ones have the most interesting histories. I love the idea of being a memory-keeper. Much more romantic than being a curator!

Elrel - disentangling wool is a great way of describing it! I can really identify with your feeling of triumph as you put the pieces together, and also the frustration of wishing you could go back and find things out from the people who knew. That's how I feel about the things my godmother left behind. All the answers were there if only I'd thought to ask for them!

(Ginbins, possibly the wrong thread, but I know the problem of an absence of waistline!)

That's an incredibly intriguing story, Loopylou. (There's definitely a book there!) How fascinating. I'll be pondering that mystery myself now...

grandMattie Fri 24-Jul-15 14:36:39

So sad that so much history had been lost and those knowing about the daily minutae are now gone.

I have the great good fortune that a) my grandparents in the early 1900s were ferocious letter writers (and I am in posession of them), b) my mother rescued said bound letters from the fire. But, having enjoyed her mother's letters to her father and vice versa, my own mother burned her own letters when she moved house on the pretext that they were "too intimate", as if one couldn't promise not to read for the X number of years. I have kept my own letters from the time i left home to now for my DGCs, and have made my DGS promise to be my "literary executor". Nothing is to be read for at least 5 years after my death.

I regret not having asked my grandparents more about their fascinating lives, but was terrified of them; my parents weren't interested in me; my children aren't interested in my upbringing in a Third World country - so I'm writing a memoir for my DGCs.

History matters; one's own even more.

Tegan Fri 24-Jul-15 15:24:30

That's why I found Melvyn Braggs book 'Speak for England' so inspiring when it came out years ago.

SusieB50 Fri 24-Jul-15 22:29:30

We were very fortunate that my father, a few years before he died aged 86, put all his and my mother's old family photos into albums labelled neatly so we know who is who - fascinating to see all our old relatives right back to the 1880's !

Granfran Mon 27-Jul-15 21:44:59

Suddenly we are the older generation and the people who had the answers to our questions are gone. I just didn't realise I would be interested one day! I have loads of photos I can't identify but can't bear to throw them out ~ bet my children will though.

rubylady Wed 29-Jul-15 14:16:03

Grannyknot What happened? Did you find anything else out of the stoyry?

I do wish I had asked more about older family members, great grandparents and their parents etc. Now all I have is my family history which my son and I did while home schooling but only names, no indication of what the people were like. It would have been wonderful to know. And now with my dad having dementia, his memory of certain things is going too, so still no clearer. Why don't we thing about things like this as a younger person?

I intend to write as much down as I can about my life and then my children, if they want to read it or not, will still have some account of things I did they don't really know about and they will have a lasting memory of me. I do think children think that parents are just parents and didn't have a childhood of their own etc. It's lovely to hear my dad go back to when he was a child and playing out with his mates on the park, playing tennis. He must have loved this time because he keeps going back to it in his recall. I'm going to take him to the park he played at, with a flask and just spend some time together there. smile

Sugarpufffairy Thu 30-Jul-15 22:44:52

Sometimes delving into family history, especially if there seems to have been some dispute way back in the depths of time, has to be handled very sensitively. I have had experience of this and it eventually brought out deeply buried memories of upsets etc. A person may be happily living their life without having bad bits intruding in their thoughts and then a keen family history amature pushes for information long forgotten and a can of worms is opened causing distress.

NanaRayna Mon 03-Aug-15 14:10:20

Very moving, you made me cry! But thank you for the prompting. I missed so much by not knowing to ask such things of my parents before they were lost to me.
I have lots of sentimental items from my own offsprings' childhoods - and their children's. I'm losing my memory, so often, if the family are here, I'll go through items while I remember their provenance. (It is upsetting to see a photo of a baby and not be able to tell which child it was of possibly dozens!) So I hope my daughters and son are paying attention on these visits. I may have to ask them to explain it all to me later, and won't it be a good idea if they can!

jinglbellsfrocks Mon 03-Aug-15 14:23:41

When we had carpets fitted upstairs last summer I went through all the bedroom drawers and threw so much stuff out. Including birthday cards from the children's age one year old ones. And other sentimental stuff.

I try hard not to think about it now.

jinglbellsfrocks Mon 03-Aug-15 14:25:07

I do not believe I would have thrown out that peice of plastic work DD2 made at secondary school! Even if she couldn't find it when she was looking through the remains of the stuff in the drawers.

jackiekiel Fri 07-Aug-15 15:55:27

I wish I'd asked who my father was. After my mother died I discovered that he wasn't who I thought he was but an American GI she'd met at the end of the war. Now i'll never know.

Nelliemoser Fri 07-Aug-15 17:02:01

It was apparent to my sister and I that our Dad b1915 was brought up in a foster family. It was something just not spoken about.

In Christmas 1995, I gave my parents a restored picture of their battered wedding photograph and seeing this my niece then about 24 dared to ask my mum (in a whisper of course) if she knew anything about my dad's mum.

That conversation spilled the beans and it took me about 7 mnths and a good deal of pure luck to find his mother had died about two years earlier in a care home in North Wales at the age of 95.

Illegitimacy was a terrible thing in 1915 and remained a stigma well into the 1960s/70s. My dad's situation was just not spoken about in our house, in one of the processes that happen in families where you never really remember learning that it is not to be "spoken about."

If this issue had not been swept under the carpet for so very long we might have had a chance of meeting her and asking the right questions.

My MGM was 18 when she had my dad. She had been sent away to stay with her stepmother's half sister until he was born. My dad was brought up by a lovely family. I think the foster mother was found as she worked in service in the same house as the step mums sister. My dad thinks some payment for his up keep was made. Given the times my dad was very lucky to get a really loving home where he thrived.

Nelliemoser Fri 07-Aug-15 17:04:35

Whoops! That last paragraph should have read. "My PGM was 18 when she had my dad." I knew who I meant.

TwiceAsNice Wed 19-Aug-15 08:10:31

I have not been really interested in doing family trees and only have some photographs of my maternal grandparents who I saw a lot when I was a child. My paternal grandmother was a .very distant lady and died when I was 14, my paternal grandfather died before I was born. However since my twin granddaughters were born six years ago Every time I see them I write a diary of what has happened whether I stay with them at their house or they stay with me or whether we have gone on holiday together. I hope they will be interested in it when they are old enough to read it.

starbecklass Sun 18-Oct-15 15:30:47

What a lovely idea, Twiceasnice. Having just become a grandma, I shall endeavour to keep a diary like you of our times together - unfortunately they'll be few and far between as he's in California.
I joined Gransnet a while ago when first informed of the future event and I've noted down lots of useful tips from you all, especially the long distance grandparenting.