Thursday, 23 June 2011

Family Trees and Shrubs

Last weekend my elder son wore The Kilt for the first time as formal dress at a friends' wedding, although it was not the right tartan, and he was disappointed to find that the blade of the sgian dubh had been sealed for Health'n'Safety reasons. He and his brother have well-documented rights to their clan tartan, and their father (even though he was a third-generation New Zealander) was always keen that they should know their family history.

I am quite keen that they should not know their family history from my side, or at least not all of it, not the bits of which I deeply disapprove.

Then I think, who do I think I am? What rights of approval and disapproval do I have over my own family background?
When people agree to appear in the BBC television series, Who Do You Think You Are? there are inevitably some shocks in store (which make for better viewing figures, of course).

I do not want to think that I am dependent on my ancestors for being who and what I am today. Certainly there is genetic inheritance, and there are socio-economic factors which have affected me, but their lives were completely different, even one generation ago.

So I am doing what parents always have done and will do....selecting the good bits and giving credit where it may possibly be due. Such as, 'You are so like your Grandfather, he had a photographic memory', and 'Your Great-Grandmother was talented in art and music'.
I edit out the bad bits, the bits I found out about too late in life to challenge the perpetrators; the double-dealing and low cunning, the shady behaviour in War-Time, the general mess and confusion of family life including episodes of what can now only be called cruelty, but which might then have been interpreted as 'character-forming'. Possibly.
Times change, our knowledge and understanding changes with it.

My late husband believed that he had inherited the ability to whisk egg-whites with his bare hands, his father allegedly being able to do so, and no doubt other members of the clan before him. One entertaining afternoon this genetic skill was proved not to have been inherited, but our sons were told of hardiness, endurance and other traits which were certainly needed in days long past; in Scotland, in the days of the early settlers in New Zealand, and on the long sea-journey between the two.

Family history becomes a sort-of myth, where people are mostly well-intentioned and fairly honourable. There are amusing anecdotes, and entertaining sepia photographs. I hope I am not being unrealistic in wanting to keep it that way.
Parts of it are true.


Jenny Woolf said...

I agree. I love my relatives dearly (or most of them ) but don't feel much in common with most of them, actually. But I think it's good to have something to hold onto, and there is also something rather extraordinary in the idea that without those ancestors I wouldn't exist today. I completely agree about cruelty, times changing, etc. After writting a biography of a 19th century character (Lewis Carroll) I know how important it is to put everything in cultural context, otherwise you really, really can't get a handle on it.

gz said...

Write down that of which you disapprove, dispassionately. Then add your reasons. They do not have to have it now, but a record of facts is important.

Because he wrote nothing, memories of my Man were expressed incorrectly by his "nearest and dearest" family who had little contact with him in the past years, comparatively speaking, in their tribute to him at his funeral.
Sad for them, sad for all of us who knew him well these last few years.

marigold jam said...

As you know since you commented on my Wartime Story post I too discovered late in life that my ancestors were not all I might have wished but who are we to judge since we were not there at the time and cannot know what it was like. Maybe your sons will not mind as much as you do about their forefathers so I wouldn't worry too much about it all. As you so rightly said in your comment on my post sometimes things are better left and all this digging around in the past is not always a good thing in spite of what the TV programmes would have you believe.

Relatively Retiring said...

Jenny, GZ and Marigold: thank you for your comments. There are some interesting dilemmas here, and I agree with you all in different ways. However, I feel that my own memories are likely to be as myth-like and subjective as the rest of the other family saga. We all see, hear and interpret things so differently.

Frances said...

Many people are inquisitive about their past, so I think that it is important to leave some recollections to inform and satisfy them.
At the same time, I suspect that discovering wickedness or such in one's ancestors might be very like discovering that one might have a toxic gene.
Your garden is very beautiful. And, so neat!

Relatively Retiring said...

Frances: I feel that the factual information is now so easily accessible that it may suffice, and that my own judgements and opinions are not so relevant.

That's the first time that the word 'neat' has been applied to my garden, which shows how the camera can also tell fibs!

pohanginapete said...

I think I'll skip the attempt to find out whether I've inherited the egg-whisking gene — my kitchen's messy enough already. But why on earth would anyone want to try that?

The question about how much of us arises from heredity and upbringing seems insurmountably difficult. We want to think we're responsible for our actions, that we control them and our beliefs, but philosophers have been wrestling with that problem for centuries and still haven't resolved it (at least not to my satisfaction, nor to that of a great many far better thinkers). As David Eagleman points out in his recent book Incognito, the more we learn about the brain, the less room we have to include free will. Yet it seems inconceivable that we're no more than inevitable outcomes.

Relatively Retiring said...

P.Pete: the making-meringues-barehandedly is but one of the McGregor apocryphal tales told by your uncle. I guess this was an essential skill in the days of the early settlers when you could not nip round to Tescos for a Pavlova.
As for the rest of your comment - yet again, the more we learn the less we realise we know. All so humbling.

Isabelle said...

I've never understood why the first egg-white-whisker imagined that (s)he'd be able to make stiff froth if (s)he beat it for (presumably) a very long time with (presumably) a fork. It would never have occurred to me to try. But then I don't think I'd have thought of eating eggs at all - or indeed anything very inventive. I'd have just sat in my cave and starved, probably.

Your garden is lovely!

Relatively Retiring said...

Isabelle: isn't it interesting that SOMEONE had to try these things first?
Thank you for the comment on the garden. It's a great deal of work, but very rewarding.
I hope you're enjoying your first days of retirement.

Molly said...

Ancestors......secrets and lies and half truths. And lovely sepia photos and some honourable people that I wish so much I could have known! As others have said here, the unvarnished facts should by now stand on their own. It would be a flat and dull world if there were no scalawags in it!
You are a wise and kind lady. I wish I knew you.