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My sister and nephew have been researching the family tree and I've just acquired a great grandfather.

Charles Grist, obit 1897, aged 38.

He died shortly before or after my grandfather was born. I wish I knew the story.

What I'd like now is to establish a link between my Charles Grist (who lived in Erith) and the nest of 19th century Grists (somes of them called Charles) who fill the churchyard at Brookland on Romney Marsh, about fifty miles to the south.

I would love to find I had my roots in Romney Marsh- A "won'erful odd-gates place" according to a character in Puck of Pook's Hill, with "steeples settin' beside churches, an' wise women settin' beside their doors, and the sea settin' above the land, an' ducks herdin' wild in the diks"

"I've heard say the world's divided like into Europe, Ashy, Afriky, Ameriky, Australy an' Romney Marsh."
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When a person dies they become whole.

Talking about Bran yesterday, we started off by remembering his final illness, but soon enough we were talking about his roof-climbing and his heroic drinking and how he had taken his nephew and niece to roll about in the bunkers of a posh golf club (and incidentally help themselves to the golf balls). The last few years, when he was seriously incapacitated, have fallen into perspective. He is no longer the cripple he became (it was typical of him to insist on the non-pc word) but a combination of all the different selves he was in the course of his 50 odd years. It's like looking at a cubist painting. Nothing is obscured. We can see all the different sides of him at once.

Something similar happened when my father died. I got out the old family albums and looked at pictures of him as a curly-haired little boy and shy youth and through them (there were so many!) realised something of the depth of the relationship he had had with his own mother and father (my adored grandparents) and understood for the first time all sorts of things about the dynamics within our family. My father and I were never close. He thought I was a slacker and I thought he was a selfish old brute. But after his death I got to review his life as a whole, from beginning to end, and found, to my surprise, that I loved him.
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I've spent much of the past four days looking at pictures of the dead. Taken before they were dead, I hasten to add. Taken when they were lying in hammocks or walking down streets (there used to be a whole brotherhood of street photographers who earned a living lurking about on busy highways snapping faces in the crowd- unthinkable these days when your mobile phone doubles as a camera) or paddling in the ocean or just watching the birdie.
I was looking for messages. I received a few.

I learned:

That my great great grandfather was an elegant man,
That the fashions of the 1920s were extremely cool; bring back the cloche hat!
That my grandfather, grandmother and father formed an extremely close and loving family unit.
That my father was an unbearably cute little boy,
That I am related to some people by the name of Huggins.

And...?

It's a one way conversation. My grandfather spent months in Bogota- but I can't ask him why. His leather cowboy trousers are memorialized but not the very important work he must have been doing down there. What does it matter now that he traveled to Moscow selling tractors to Stalin or once showed Princess Margaret round an exhibit of earth-moving equipment?

All gone.

I can deal out his life like a hand of cards. I can flip through it in seconds.

Thirteen, fourteen- Maids a courting;
fifteen, sixteen- maids in the kitchen;
seventeen, eighteen- maids in waiting;
nineteen, twenty- My plate's empty.
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I haven’t had a bonfire as big as this in years. All the wood that had fallen off my mother’s trees this past autumn and winter was piled in a heap- and I offered to set light to it.

Whoosh.

My father and I used to bond over bonfires- in a gruff, tight-lipped, manly way.

That was yesterday. This morning I was going through a suitcase of photos belonging to my grandfather and found the draft of a poem he must have written as a young man. I couldn’t make much sense of the middle because of all the crossings out- so I’ve omitted it.

Oh if I knew an enchanting walk
Away from relations inarticulate talk,
A little lone, but far from town
In which I might find a bed of down
Where aching boots and weary mind
Might lie and soliloquize for a time.
……………

One day I am sure I shall find
On this troubled earth of minds
This undisturbed and restful grave.

I showed it to my mother. “Oh dear,” she said cheerfully, “and we cremated him.”
poliphilo: (Default)
My mother brought some boxes down from the attic. The first two contained battered toy soldiers and farmyard animals. Some of the animals had odd puncture wounds.

“Looks like someone’s been shooting at them with an air rifle,” I said.

“Ah,” said my mother. “Your grandmother did have two brothers…”

Which takes us back to before the first world war.

Later we were looking through family photographs- and there laid out on a table at my grandmother’s house were the very same toy animals and there was me in the foreground, aged about four- a mere fifty years ago…

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