Today, right now in fact, I’m looking at a copy of a birth certificate. It is the birth record of my paternal grandmother. I know this sounds very middle-aged, but I have developed an interest in researching my family tree. I was very close to all of my grandparents, while they were alive. I used to sit and chat with them for hours, when we visited each other. I developed a fascination with the 1920’s – 1940’s as a result. This, coupled with my love of Hollywood movies of that era, fuelled a desire to learn about the lives of my grandparents over those years.
I also had a third grandparent! A Granny, who was Granny to two of my cousins through their mother, my aunt. She wasn’t really my Granny, by blood, but she allowed me to call her Granny and she and I wrote to each other over many years.
I still have many of the letters that I received from all of these wonderful people. When I pull them out of the box I keep them in, I read their words and I get to hear their voices and see the world through their eyes. Memories come flooding back, not just of the times I spent with them, but of how they would sound. Some of their sayings and expressions, the things they would chuckle at and the poignant things that they felt deeply emotional about.
So many of those things are peppered throughout their letters. These and many of the simple day to day details that one might otherwise lose among the sands of time. Perhaps it is not only that I used love to sit and speak with my grandparents but that we also wrote to each other, which is why I connected with them. I always wanted to know more and more about them.
I have always been able to look at an elderly person and see the young person inside. I think it’s in the eyes. That we develop lines on our skin and that lines become wrinkles, like the ripples on a deep lake of life experience and knowledge, is something I find beautiful. I feel sad about the need, that some people feel, to have surgery to stretch away those beautiful signs of who they are.
I am reminded of one of the pubs in my village. A few years ago, it shut down for a period of time. It had been the heart of the village and many a raucous night would be spent in the company of friends and neighbours, sat at old tables which were scratched upon, carved into, weathered and worn and yet which looked rich with character and warmth.
One day, new people took over the pub and, with much anticipation of the villagers, the pub re-opened. Within minutes, the look of shock and sadness hit everyone who walked inside. The beautiful centuries-old pub tables were still there, but they had been sanded down and given the thinnest white-wash, to make them look blemish free and immaculate. The gasps of shock from everyone were audible.
Our rich cherry-wood coloured tables, with old scratched-in graffiti from people long since gone, the blemishes from where many a glass had been lifted and sat back down, the dark and grubby metal fixings that were dank with the breath of many a villager revealing the latest gossip or village scandal, the tacky feel of the wood from years of layers of polish and beer being added and the history of it all, was gone.
The rosy warmth of the tables had depicted the rosy faces of centuries of locals who either huddled together with their ale around the fire on chill winters evenings or who were simply cherry red from too much summer festivity. What remained was characterless. History had been wiped away and all that remained was a mask that revealed nothing and which looked somehow unfitting.
My grandparents were wonderfully lined and wrinkled and yet the youth within them was evident. They were among the youngest hearted people I have ever known, in some ways. This is something I discovered simply through having learnt about their adventures, their mischief and their fun. All that was required was to talk with them and to see their vibrancy alight in their eyes.
As I now learn more about my family history, through researching my family tree, I see the names of many people who reached different ages in life. They all went before me and I am here because of them. Yet, in all that I am learning about them, I cannot help but see the young adults that each of them were as they set out on their lives and, today, I am holding a certificate that represents the very day that my Gran was born. My dad’s mum. The name, the date, the place and the names of her parents. A mere snapshot in time but a massive landmark in the lives of three people in 1913.
(C) Dean Parsons. 2019.