Questions to Ask Older Family Before It's Too Late: Short Story; What Stories Could Your Grandparents Tell? Ask Now!
Set out in Sepia
Both sets of grandparents still occupy spaces in her heart; different spaces, different sizes. Set out before her in sepia, they watch her as they used to, with love, interest, enquiry and protection. A little later they gather in black and white, then later still in colour, just as they are in her mind, set for ever in those poses, in her memory, in her heart. They are dependable, they never change.
Why is it that she feels more for some of them than the others, guilty that she didn’t share out her love equally to all four? She has compensated in her mind now, understood the characters better, but she didn’t when it mattered, when they were there in her life, in reality.
GrandparentsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Memory throws arbitrary scenes at her, flickers of film from the age of 3, one or two frames from babyhood, but it’s her father who throws reality at her now through his passion, his skill with the lense, the composition, the exposure. Some, later ones, spring from her own time-stopping push-clicks of the finger. Rarely, her father appears in front of the lense; more rarely, they are both there, together, as they were in interests, enthusiasm and spirit.
She sits and looks; she is not here, at her desk, when she looks. She is there, with them, asking all the questions that come too late.
Father & Daughter
She visits the street of houses all weary,
Victorian terrace with dark steps down,
down to the dungeon, dark and dreary,
up to the ‘drawing’ room, cold and brown.
Or bungalow airy, garden of flowers,
carrot tufts and dark green beet
She sees the furniture, the clocks, the silver.
She recalls the smells of meals to eat.
Cakes in the oven by the grate,
tripe in milk which stayed on the plate,
toasting fork holding bread to the flames,
bring back the joys, the tears and the names.
She revisits the freezing Victorian outside loo with the huge wooden seat which involved mountain climbing. The pantry is almost as cold, with a meshed window to the back garden, an area for keeping food fresh. Grandma M tells her only grandchild to eat the fish to improve her brain, to eat her greens so that her hair will curl. There are no remembered cuddles from Grandma M, though she was pleasant enough.
She watches Granddad M’s smoke rings after he drags his pipe, as she sits on his knee aged three and he tells her stories. He carries her out to the garden, attentive, loving, quiet and kind.
What was it like in the Home Guard, Granddad? What was it like to have breakfast on the seafront with Canadian soldiers who had ‘real’ eggs rather than egg powder? What was your childhood like, Granddad, with your brother and family?
What can you tell me?
She laughs with Granddad C at his sleight of hand and antics. He calls her ‘Fanny fernacklepan’. He tells her stories, though not about the part of his life she now wishes she’d asked about.
Tell me about your interrogation of that German soldier, Granddad; the one whom you befriended with a kind word and a cigarette. Tell me if you were an undercover agent in the Home Guard and how you learnt to speak German.
Little Grandma C fusses about by the stove, always gardening or making cakes, chuckling as she talked about this and that, entertaining her second granddaughter, sharp-eyed, dishing out lots of cuddles with the steaming bread.
What did you Do?Click thumbnail to view full-size
Darkness & Light
She remembers the bus ride from the village into town; smelly, smoky bus, throwing them this way and that, to visit Grandma and Granddad M. She can feel the reticence to go down into the basement (front steps to the first floor were only for special occasions, for important people). Dark, foreboding rooms, sad for a child, dismal and cold.
She was scared to go in the front room; that was where grandma’s brother and his wife lived. He always had a fag on the go, you had to part the curtains of smoke to see anything, even then all was shrouded in pale grey. Aunt E was ok, quite perky considering but a little sharp, always spruce.
Why did they live with you, Grandma? What’s the story behind two so very different siblings?
The upstairs room held special objects. Silver teapot with pineapple top, ugly china dogs, beautiful deep blue vases. Best of all, a picture of her mother; long, fair, flowing curly hair to her waist, a serene face and mona lisa smile; the only photo in the house. She’s just realised the significance of that; she guesses it (she) was Granddad’s pride and joy. She knows they were close, that her mother adored him.
There they are, sitting with her, taking her as a baby out to the park. She has no idea where that is. Where did you take me, Grandma? Where did you like to go, Granddad? She can’t remember ever going out with them.
Granddad used to be there but not for long; when he went he took his gentleness and his piped smoke rings with him.
In the Park
Flowers & Fun
She remembers pushing through the gate of the bungalow, into the back garden to see vegetables and flowers. She anticipated the smiles, the laughs, the cuddles and the tricks; the fun.
How did you learn to garden, Grandma? Why do you like it? Do you read much? What are you interested in?
The smell of the cakes and bread always pervading the small kitchen, she smiles as she’s with them once more.
Memories of people who were always there, unquestioned; well, always in her memory at least.
Fun with Granddad
A Time Long Before
Then the sepia takes her back a little further, into time unknown. Grandma & Granddad C, yes, but such a formal pose, when photos were taken only for special occasions; weddings and Christenings.
Where did you meet? What were you doing? Did you ever have a job, Grandma? What was it like in the Navy, Granddad? What was it like at Zeebrugge, Granddad? Where did you live before you were married?
She picks another from her desk; a Christening photo. Baby ‘Daddy’ sits on Grandma’s knee; proud parents gaze out at their granddaughter. How were they to know? Did they hope? Did they plan? They took care of their son and his sister, she knows that. She recalls both; open-hearted people, happy, fun and kind.
Emotions overcome her, tears blur her vision, the collection in front of her is cleared away. Enough for today. One day she’ll find at least some of the answers. There are papers to search, old notes to read, mysteries to solve.... maybe.
Wedding & Christening
Part of a Time Continuum
Why is she so compelled to search those faces for answers? Why does she have a need to know. Is it pure interest or is it a thirst for knowledge of her roots? She looks into those eyes that she knew so well and begs to be given some information.
They are her DNA, her background, her fibre, part of the reason she is how she is, where she is, what she is. She is part of a time continuum.
She should have asked more questions but how do you know when you’re a child? Answers can be handed to the future, to interest, to encourage, to enlighten, to teach; she wanted answers, to enrapture her own girls and boys.
They weren’t watching her any more, tucked away in her drawer, tucked away in files of the past, files of the future; not directly at least, though she felt their watchfulness and protection as she weaved her own life from the thread they handed down.
Four Generations before Her
Have you envestigated your family tree?
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Ann Carr