Touching on Ancestors

The cardboard boxes looked unpromising – battered and scuffed at the edges. When I cut away the parcel tape, I discovered a stack of old photograph albums in one box and what looked like the random contents of an emptied desk in another. I guessed this had come from my late mother’s bureau, a piece of furniture that she had inherited from her own mother and which meant a great deal to Mum.

My elder brother had warned me the boxes were on their way. When I called him to ask what to expect, he was evasive yet teased me about a surprise. I told him I already knew about Mum’s flirtations with romance in the years following my parents’ divorce. And, in the end, I found nothing in either box that shocked me. There were Valentines, postcards, and correspondence with pen pals and old friends. I was unexpectedly moved to find a couple of early letters from my father; to read how there was once a time when they were very much in love, and to discover a vulnerable side to Dad as a young man.

No, what did take me by surprise related to my maternal grandmother. My memories of her are characterised by the musty smell of face powder and red tang of Strepsils lozenges; her horn-rimmed glasses and waved white hair; the way she sent us comics each fortnight when we lived abroad, and her flat in Southport with the outside loo. Mum had told me how Nanna came from an Irish family and said she’d changed her first name from Sarah to Sheila because she thought it sounded posher. Nanna’s maiden name, I had been led to believe, was O’Shaughnessy. However, there was no mention of that name in any of the surviving pieces of paperwork. On her crumbling nursing and midwifery certificates her name is given as Sarah Annie Elizabeth Anderson, with one certificate giving her title as Miss, the other as Mrs. Until I saw those fragile documents, I had never connected the surname Anderson with anyone in our family.

Nanna on a day out…

I vaguely recall Mum mentioning that Nanna might have married twice, her first husband dying in unknown circumstances. The dates on her certificates suggest that Nanna trained as a nurse in her early thirties and she must have been in her mid to late thirties when she had children – old, by the standards of her generation. Her twenties remain a complete mystery. She was born three months before the end of the nineteenth century and, while she was the first woman in her street to learn to drive, she belongs to an age when the term ‘digital footprint’ hadn’t even been dreamt of. Yet I still have a copy of Gulliver’s Travels on my shelf that she gave me for my eighth birthday. Inside the front cover, she has written in blue Biro: ‘To Darling Susan, Wishing you A Very Happy Birthday. Fondest Love, Nanna xxx’ – a few lines of handwriting that act as a portal through time, linking back to her physical presence in the world.

The year 2020 has challenged us to revisit the ways in which we connect with each other. Perhaps it is the prohibition of close proximity with others that makes handling items once touched by the hands of my mother and grandmother such a poignant experience. I will never know all their secrets, but neither will I suffer from the delusion that I do: there are no carefully curated screen presences to navigate. Instead I have inherited a jumbled box of old diaries, faded photographs, notebooks and handwritten letters folded carefully into envelopes, jottings of congratulation and condolence reaching out across the decades, connecting back to those loved and lost.

Wishing you well in 2021, wherever it finds you.

The Heart of Winter

Yesterday, a male bullfinch landed on the bare branches of the rose by my window. A ball of crimson, puffed up against the cold that had enticed him into the garden, he was a handsome and cheering sight.

For some reason, I always associate bullfinches with my late father-in-law, Mib; maybe it’s because, for such inherently shy birds, they appear plucky and defiant (or maybe it’s just because their colourful plumage reminds me of his trousers). Likewise, the wrens that hop along the wall remind me of my mother, who died nearly 18 years ago. One of my nicknames for her was Jenny Wren.

With the cold days and the long nights, the garden has become a hive of avian activity. The starlings that fledged in the summer are now bossy adolescents, pushing to the front of the feeder, the jackdaws stand sentinel and even the woodpecker has made a return appearance. I admire them for the ways in which they survive against the odds through the grey months of winter.

I’m writing this at the Winter Solstice, the shortest day – a time to muster up resilience and positivity for whatever lies ahead. This time last year, I had no idea that the next 12 months would see me write and publish Down to the River and Up to the Trees, or record an audio book, or give talks to strangers who would actually pay to listen to me.

Nor did I know of the heartbreak that 2017 would bring, with terrible loss experienced by dear friends.

While we can consult the stars and read the omens, who can predict exactly what 2018 will hold? Like little birds, it’s time to show resilience, to puff up our feathers and seek out whatever nourishes us – and to be prepared for whatever comes.