I am currently undertaking a programme called ‘Before we were white‘, led by the US based organisation, White Awake. I am planning a series of blogs that relate to this ancestral work. First up, a sharing from my family tree, first drafted in response to a prompt at a sci-fi writing group I am part of.
Following the family tree
There are some branches I follow, their leaves glimmer in the sunlight. Stories that want to be told. That want to be remembered. There are other branches that feel unknown, why has no-one sought to grow stories here? Others are simply cut off sharply leaving splinters and rough edges. Others wither from being cast in the shadows of shame. Tonight, as we sit around the fire, I am going to tell you the stories that glimmer. Not because they are true. Not even because they are all that should be remembered. But because of what they tell me about what I want to remember. Watch the tree grow from the fire as I tell you the stories, see the branches extend outward and up above our heads, see the leaves grow with each detail remembered.
The first branch, I start with is of my grandmother. Her name was Inge. She was Danish. Not from here. I always start with her. As a child she scared me. Her desire to be English, and upper middle class, were stronger than any of the rest of us. Afternoon tea at 4pm. Clotted cream then jam on the scone. Walks around country houses and enforced appreciation of lavish expansive curated gardens. And yet she brought traditions from some other place, traditions that made me different. Singing round the candles lit on the Christmas tree, singing songs in a language I didn’t understand; eating foods that was not of this place – from islands where cured herrings and potatoes – brune kartoffler – were staples. But travelling up the branch beyond Mormor, as I knew her, and the branch begins to rot… Her father unknown, her adopted father cruel and punishing.
Another branch, another woman – this time a great great grandmother – who became pregnant when she was young. Irish. Catholic. She escaped the fate of being locked away in some laundry somewhere and travelled with her unborn child to London, to the East End and the docks. Where my great great grandfather must have met her, and married her. What were her family like, where were they from? The branch behind her withers. We don’t know. We don’t know how to find them.
Another branch, another woman – this time a great great great great grandmother. She was of Suffolk stock, a farm labourer who worked with her hands in the soil. Who would have grazed her cow on the common land. She, and her family around her, were forced off that land when the enclosures came. And they travelled to London, to the East End. And found work along the river. With rope and water. This branch is well rooted. Its rings thicken. The branches connecting down into the trunk. The family, that settled and stayed in the East End for generations .
Another branch, another woman – this time a great great great great aunt – who was a Huguenot – a French Protestant chased out of France when her village was burned. She came to the East End too, to Brick Lane, and found weavers and makers and met my great great great uncle. How is this known? How is this remembered?
As the branches reach further back into time, they grow faint, edges blur as details become harder to find. But the stories that have grown strong in my family, passed down, are stories of migrants, of struggle, of living with and overcoming adversity. What of the other stories? Those that would prefer to be forgotten? Those that stop being repeated after a few tellings? It is these I go in search of now.