Treasures from an old brown suitcase


My Mother

It’s been a really strange week at the beach. It began Sunday before last when we awoke to no power. This situation continued throughout the day until sometime after 8pm that night, at which point all cell signals died!
As you know by now, this is a small community consisting of only 6 permanently resident families, so when some of them leave the enclave it creates a certain imbalance. When communication ceases it causes a mild form of hysteria which is what happened at the beginning of the week.
Nevertheless we all survived the vagaries of the weather, services and absent members, and by midweek everyone was back where they belonged, for a couple of days anyway. The electricity has been more on than off, but the cell signal has come back stronger, albeit a little up and down. It makes one quite fit as at the first complaint of breaking up you take off towards the signal point, yelling as you go: “Hang on while I go upstairs!”
But none of that is the point of this blog. Confronted with a cold, wet Sunday I thought what better time to start sorting out the old brown suitcase with all those family photographs in it. It would be undignified to tell you for how many years I have threatened to do this. So I settled myself on a cushion near to the big windows to take advantage of what light there was and started making orderly piles of pictures according to family, holidays, houses, Kruger etc.
The best part was when I got to the really old pictures, the ones that were faded and in some cases had bits peeling off them. One caught my eye – it was of a little girl with a long mass of unruly blonde curls. My granddaughter has a mass of blonde curls and we have been wondering who the culprit in her lineage is. I found a few more pictures of this young lass, and then the penny dropped – it was my mother! I came across an old-fashioned portrait of her as an infant, in what passed for colour in around 1928, on cardboard and there was no longer any doubt that her legacy lives on to some degree in her great-granddaughter.
I felt an overwhelming sense of joy as I thought how happy she would be, knowing that her genes did actually count. She always bewailed the fact that I was my father’s daughter and there was little evidence of her involvement in my creation at all!
I went back to the pile of pictures with renewed vigour and tried to identify some of the other family members. I recognised the family farmhouse in Fort Beaufort, but little else. I felt frustrated that for whatever reason I had not spent enough time with members of my extended family who would know all these people and be able to fill in the very substantial gaps in my knowledge of my family history. In the midst of my ruminations, I found another gem. This time a picture of my father when he was in his early twenties. My father died in 1962, and I have no pictures of him prior to his marriage to my mother in 1952, so this was a real find. Again I was thrilled to see the family resemblance passed down to my sons.
Then I happened on a brown envelope and this was the best treasure of all. In it were about thirty letters written by my grandfather to members of his family from the front in World War One. It was strange reading words and phrases that I myself use without knowing how I have come to do so, on paper that is almost 100 years old. The first letter is dated 1917, and they cover his postings in France, Belgium, Germany and his stays in London and Ireland. A maddeningly brief mention is made of his receiving the Military Cross from King George V himself at Buckingham Palace.
As I shared this with my neighbour and fellow writer, Scott (ah, I have yet to tell you about Scott, but not now) he said “Oh well there you go, that’s another book!” As we laughed I thought “Yes, and I am going to have live for at least another fifty years if I am going to get them all written!”
Life is full of surprises and I loved the contrast that on a dreary, cold, and dank Sunday I discovered treasures that caused my heart to soar. Those who have lost close family members early on will understand how I felt, the sudden link and insight into someone who is a part of you but whom you have never met. It somehow gives me additional strength knowing that I have ancestors who led brave lives that are worthy of recording.
There are so many wonderful stories out there. I wonder how many of them are shared. I wonder, too, how many secrets are nestling untold in graves around the world. It makes me a little sad because I think that we are the poorer for it.
The Beach
September 2012

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