Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Family History

I've been researching my family history for well over twenty years, and I have learned a lot about my background in the course of those years. I started with the great grandmother who was talked about a great deal in my childhood, although she had died before even my mother was born. She was very unusual for her time, having been one of the first ballet dancers, working in both the respectable establishments such as the New York Metropolitan Opera, and the music hall. Unusually for her time, she had travelled all over the world, and I was given photographs by my grandfather that were taken in New York, Sydney, Glasgow, London. Despite his pride in her, he often said that he didn't really have a mother, and pictures of the family show him, aged about 10, dressed in a crumpled blazer that speaks eloquently of maternal neglect.

I started my family history with a significant advantage, as I had spent a considerable amount of time with my grandparents as a child, and had asked questions often, and remembered the answers. I wish - oh how I wish - I had asked more questions when my grandparents and the other people of their generation were still around. But I have been lucky to have so much information to start with, in my mother's family.

I was contacted recently by a descendant of my great-great-grandmother's sister, and reflected that while I have very little photographic evidence of that generation and the one before, as the 21st century passes it will be commonplace for people to be able to look at photographs of their direct ancestors... colour photographs, showing people who look very similar to living people. I wonder how that will change people's perception of the past and of their ancestors.

When I look at the pictures of my great grandmother Spivey, she is posed in a studio, in black and white, wearing a variety of outfits for dancing, including a gypsy, ballet, ethereal greek, or in her day clothes, looking oddly Victorian (although she was an Edwardian as an adult) and other worldly. I wonder whether I would see her differently, regard her differently, if she was in colour, and in clothing which I could imagine wearing myself?

As the century progresses, people who die will not only be available in colour imagery, but in video. They'll have myspace and facebook pages. Both the things they are proud of, and their inconsequential tweetings will remain after they have died. Will people feel that they know them better? Feel more connected to them, once their late great grandparents have a website or a blog?

It is something which fascinates me. Apart from the photographs my grandfather gave me, and the odd family document, I have very little beyond my great grandmother's generation, most of what I have, I have researched and discovered myself. Although you can work out the facts of someone's life... who their parents were, who they married, what they did, how many children they had, there is very little way to discover who they really were. Will we know more when someone's facebook page remains after their death? Sometimes it seems to me that there is more and more data available, but it may be just so much noise. How long will pages remain, and what sort of memorial will they be?

I've always tried to keep up to date with the current events in the family, recording marriages and children for future generations. It amazes me how quickly families fall out of touch. Children who grew up together, grow apart, set up families of their own and cousins lose touch with cousins. Will that happen less now that we can all keep in contact through our social media pages?

Trying to think about what sort of legacy you will leave to future generations, will they want the unvarnished truth, that their great great grandmother wrote erotica and had a virtual life which ran alongside her real life... or might they rather not know that? Hard to say, and hard to know what the impact will be of the unvarnished truth. I have been distressed in the past to hear of diaries censored or destroyed, because for most people those sorts of things are the ony trace of ourselves that we leave behind currently... and I feel that honesty and openness are the only ways to make sure that sort of legacy means something, even if it might be embarrassing to learn that Uncle George liked to wear women's clothing, or Aunt Emily once used to be a stripper.

On the other hand... who really tells the truth about their life? It takes a rare person to have enough self-knowledge and courage not to rationalise and justify the things they do, not to put a spin on the events and happenings of their life. Even if they manage it personally, unless you put a publication embargo of at least 50 years on the naked truth, it means that you maybe revealing secrets from other people's lives too, when you speak the truth about your own.

I like to think that some essence of myself will live on in the things I have written, and in the things I have composed... but actually, the lasting effect of my presence in the world must be the contact I have had with others, and it is hard to know what difference that may have made to the world, good or bad, positive or negative.

Maybe in the end it won't matter what photographs or facts are left behind, it is the person that you are, and how the person that you are has changed the people you have lived with. In the end, the main memorials to who you are, are the people who grieve your passing and in whose hearts you live on after your death.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments on this blog are now post-moderated. Please comment in English, because I will delete comments I cannot read or understand.