Lost families

A very bizarre thought popped into my head when praying for my Nana earlier, not the most seemly of thoughts and indicative that I need to focus more, but interesting nonetheless. She was born in January 1913, which makes me wonder whether or not she may have been conceived in the aftermath of the Titanic disaster. Though I haven’t been able to find any evidence to corroborate whether or not there may have been a surge in the birth rate following the tragic sinking, there is a known phenomenon of minor surges and fluctuations in birth rates following national disasters – sex is an affirmation of life, when faced with our own mortality, a theme aptly explored by Albert Camus.

Why would I be thinking about the circumstances in which my Nana was conceived? Though I had always associated her birth with occurring shortly after the Titanic, I had never previously made the connection, however the circumstances of her birth are somewhat mysterious and tragic. During the 30 years that she lived with us, she rarely talked about her childhood or her family, which were all veiled in secrecy. Whenever I had to complete any family tree projects at school, she always clammed up when asked to assist, angrily shouting that it was none of anybody’s business.

My mother confided that there was some kind of mystery, Nana had not in fact been brought up by her birth mother, but by an “Auntie and Uncle” in rural Devon, two very lovely, kind and caring people, but it was not clear what blood relationship, if any, they had to Nana. This couple had children of their own and brought my Nana up as if she was part of their family, but she was always aware of being different, of there being some kind of stigma. Apparently her mother was a “grand lady” who would occasionally come to visit, my mother noted that clearly there was money there: Nana often talks about the fact she had rickets as a child and was sent to specialists in London to correct the bows in her legs. ‘When you see photos of children in leg braces, they always look terribly uncomfortable’ says Nana, ‘but mine weren’t at all. They were made of the softest leather and sheepskin. I can still remember how soft they felt even now’. Maybe I’m playing amateur detective here, but one thing that has always struck all of us in the family, is that specialists in London and high quality orthopaedic braces would not come cheap, they would not be the preserve of a farming family in pre-war Devon.

A few years ago Nana was on a nostalgia trip, unwrapping and showing me all the trinkets and knick-knacks from her wedding, incredibly enough she still has the decorations from the top of her cake. One of the things she painstakingly unwrapped was some exquisite solid silver photo frames and candle sticks from Mappin and Webb, which had never been on display. She explained that her mother had not attended her wedding, but had instead sent her some silver as a wedding gift.

All of which has led all of us in the family to ponder who my great-grandmother and my mother’s grandmother was. We have a surname, but that is all. We assume that there was money in the family and some reputation. We have no mention of a father and the subject has always remained strictly taboo. It has always been a source of great sadness to my mother, she lost her own father at the age of 22, and though she has maintained close relationships within her paternal family, there has always felt as though there was something missing. Though I try not to dwell on it too much, my curiosity is piqued, all of us like to know our identity of our forefathers, from whom we hail, it helps us in terms of establishing our own sense of identity and context in relation to the world around us. The BBC programme, Who do you think you Are, has proved enormously popular for that very reason.

With the advent of the internet and the rise in genealogy websites, it has occurred to us on more than one occasion that some amateur sleuthing might be in order, although not in the period of Nana’s lifetime, as she is incredibly touchy about this subject and it would seem, rather ashamed. It was only a few years ago, at the age of 95, that she finally admitted that she had no idea who her father was, she no longer had a copy of her birth certificate, but that the father was marked as unknown. It seems to have been a source of great shame, stigma and sadness.

I would love to know about my maternal family, but have to concede that this will be lost in the mists of time. Perhaps one day I’ll investigate more as to the identity of my great-grandmother, just to satisfy my innate curiosity. But it would certainly seem to fit that some clandestine relationship may have taken place in the Spring of 1912, almost certainly in the aftermath of the Titanic disaster – not that I am claiming any link whatsoever or hinting at any James Cameron style story, merely noting a historical fact. Perhaps the two events were entirely unrelated and it’s just a fanciful whim?

So what does my Nana’s history have to do with the price of eggs? Not much really, other than personally I am glad that the stigma of illegitimacy has largely been wiped out. Children should never be blamed for the circumstances in which they were born, nor the indiscretions of their parents. Having seen how my Nana has suffered in many ways as a result of never having known the love of her biological family (she was cared for, but knew she was different), I am glad that mothers are no longer routinely forced into having to give their babies into the care of someone else in the name of respectability. I can understand the physical need for contact and close loving relationships with both biological parents and the damage that can be done if a parent is deliberately withheld. This happened also to my father, whose parents divorced in 1945 upon my grandfather’s return from the war. My father was brought up without any contact with his own father until he reached the age of 21, this being deemed in his best interests, in an era in which divorce was still a dreadful scandal. Both my nana and my father, whose knowledge of his paternal family is scant, feel somehow incomplete.

I am relatively sanguine about it all, but there is some innate desire in me to find out more about from whom I hail. I know that my maternal grandfather was Italian and my father’s family were King’s Lynn fisherman and Norfolk agricultural labourers (I think) but that’s about it.

When I think about my Nana’s circumstances in particular, I give thanks that abortion was not an option in 1912. Though my Nana has missed out in many ways, she had a happy marriage, a child of her own, 2 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren. Though I am sure that my great-grandmother, whoever she was, must have endured a lot of suffering, she also brought forth much joy and happiness. One ‘mistake’, one clandestine relationship has borne much fruit for which we are all grateful. It made me wonder how many other potential families are now wiped out before birth as a matter of routine?

4 thoughts on “Lost families

  1. As ever, written with a total grasp of the issue. And I really enjoyed reading about your family.

  2. Caroline, I know what you mean…the circumstances of someone’s birth may be tragic or sad, but they can still have a wonderful life and do much good! I remember saying to my mother-in-law (when she told me my husband was the result of birth control failure, and ‘a mistake’) ‘Well, he’s certainly the best mistake you’ve ever made!’ I can’t imagine life without him, and without him I wouldn’t have our two beautiful daughters! I’m sorry for your Nana, that after all this time she still feels shame for something that isn’t her fault, and that doesn’t in any way reflect on her as a person! And…her mother must have loved her to visit, send her gifts, have her treated by the best London doctors…in a different age (i.e. now) she would have kept her baby and been proud to be her mum…it’s a tragedy for both sides really. Yes, in that respect it’s good times have changed…

  3. I do not know how I found your blog but suddenly I was reading it. I have a friend who was in a childrens home then adopted by a couple. He never felt close to these parents and his whole life has been a lonely one, after 60 years he still feels sorry for himself. It is not surprising your Nana lost her birth certificate. I have been doing my geneaology and on the early birth certificates ILLEGITIMATE is printed in large letters. Knoiwng her date of birth you can of course trace the birth certificate. However there is another part of the story you have not mentioned. The original mother may have had other children who will be your cousins. It would be nice to meet them. I will pop in again. John Kearney.

  4. How wonderful that she is still alive! Perhaps you should try to find her relatives now rather than after her day.

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