My father, his father, his mother and my aunt, about 1923.
Having just spent a weekend with my last remaining aunt, at 83 the elder of the two surviving children of my father’s family, I’m more conscious now of what we lost when my parents moved my brother and me to New Zealand in April, 1950. Yes, there were gains and who could regret them (I don’t), but in making the decision to emigrate back then, it was pretty much a one-way ticket.
My grandfather, seen in the photo above, a gift from my Auntie Pat, was already dead. I was only a few months old when he died in 1948. My grandmother who lived on until 1961, came to Waterloo Station to see us off on the boat train to Southampton, along with Pat. She never saw us again, nor her son, her firstborn, who sits with them in the picture, somehow so vulnerable now in hindsight, about the age I was when Nanny Holman waved me goodbye.
Pat described the tears that she cried, having to go back to work at St Pancras Station, not knowing when she would see us again, especially my mother who she had come to love dearly since Mum’s marriage to my sailor father in 1943. Behind these tears and these scenes were other hidden faces: aunts and uncles, cousins, great aunts dead and great uncles and second cousins still living – that whole network of family connections all emigrants lose when they uproot themselves and go.
Over the weekend in Poole just past, my aunt brought out these pictures and talked about the faces in them: most of them dead, most I had no real idea about except her sister Doreen, my late aunt who I had met on a return to London in the late 1980s. The gap, over thirty years, and the troubles their brother my father had been through made connections difficult. I am only just now, over sixty years later, meeting my cousins. I’m also coming across characters I would love to have known, like Flo and Lizzie, my Dad’s aunts, his father’s sisters.
Here they are at Pat’s wedding in 1950, Flo beside the her bossy older sister Liz, both turned out in their best for the great occasion. They look to be such characters, as I’m told they were; how rich it would have been to be part of this network. Like any kid, I guess, I would have taken their presence for granted, but I would have felt it somehow, as they would have been woven into the pattern of our lives had we stayed in London.
This is not a complaint, but a sigh of grief, I suppose: grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles all leave us in the end, but if we have known them in our space somewhere, how much richer are we? Just meeting my Uncle Geoff, now 81 and the younger of the two, and sharing Pat’s space for two nights has reminded me of how necessary family networks are to our wholeness, and how they teach us something about the wider connections we have to society.
Of course, we made many new and valuable links to friends and neighbours in New Zealand and there was plenty of surrogacy in small mining communities – women we called “auntie”, my mother’s friends, and my father’s workmates. But they had no underlying story of us to give; they were like us, but yet not of us, nor we of them.
Auntie Pat and me in a selfie.