Thursday, December 29, 2011


My poor mother’s memory is going. She’s lived a good many years but these days it’s down to others to remember what she did and didn’t do in her life. Physically she's fine; she was still playing table tennis at 90. She could remember the score but she couldn’t remember my dad’s name or when he died.

It’s very sad, because when I was a kid she was the great story teller in our family, the one who kept our tribe's history alive.

In fact, by the time I was five I felt I had lived my mother’s life. I knew about my grandfather selling his window cleaning business for three pints of beer; about why my Uncle Will was deaf in one ear (my grandfather beat him with the buckle end of his belt when he was eight); about my grandmother being sent off to cook and clean for her uncle and his entire family when her aunt died.

When she was nine.

I didn’t need the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. But stark as these stories were, the little version of me found them fascinating. At six I could have told you exactly what it was like to live in the East End of London before the war.

By contrast I knew nothing about my father’s side; he was one of the most taciturn men I have ever met. I longed to know his stories but his focus was on forgetting. I suspect this had something to do with Adolf Hitler and his part in his downfall.

There was a popular TV show on NBC this year: Who Do You Think You Are? Celebrities like Lisa Kudrow and Steve Buscemi and Brooke Shields went looking into their past, aided by the resources of the TV company. They uncovered things they never expected.

Do you think you know enough about your family?

I know I would like to start shinning up the family tree this year, find out a bit more about what's up there. As an historical novelist I obviously think history is important, but not just the Battle of Gettysburg or the Renaissance. Every family history is important and to each one of us. History makes nations what they are; it makes us, as individuals, what we are.

But these Stories of Us disappear if no one writes them down.

I did a creative writing workshop recently and one of the students apologized because they were there just to ‘write a memoir. I don’t want it to publish it or anything.’ But I think this is such a great thing to do. Writing is not just about getting published by the big 6.

My partner’s mother has just written a book. She had a truly extraordinary love story with Diana’s father, and so she wrote it down and published it - not online, where anyone can read it, and not for the glory; she made fifty print copies, in her native Italian, for family only, so the story would survive.

Understanding the effect of family history on its members is just as important as preserving it. One example; in my mother's stories, all the good men in my family were quiet and reserved; all the bastards were attractive and outgoing. I cheered for the heroes, of course, but inside I wanted to be just a little bit like the villains. But it seemed to the little me that there was only a choice in life between being reserved and 'good' - or charismatic and an alcoholic wife beater.

I have never been alcoholic or violent, but I struggled for a long time to be a good man while also living my life in a more adventurous way. For a long time I was never quite at home in my own skin. The only way I can sometimes explain those feelings of duality are in terms of my mother’s stories. 

But family history is as often beautiful as it is shameful or sad. When my father was dying, he could not talk; a stroke had taken away his power of speech. So when my mother and father came to say goodbye after fifty six years of marriage they had to write their farewells on paper. They passed the piece of paper back and forward between them for an hour. In the end there were pages and pages of the most blistering, heartfelt stuff you could imagine, reaffirming what they meant to each other.

After the funeral I asked my mother where those goodbye notes were. ‘Oh, I burned them,’ she said.  ‘They just made me sad.’


My brother and I are still devastated by the loss of that last amazing document. It would have been ... priceless. 

What do you think of family histories? Some families keep their secrets. How much will your kids know - and how much do you want them to know?

Is it best forgotten - or did knowing more about your family history make life in some way better - or harder - for you?


  1. My grandfather is in his 80s now and his memory is also going. For years he talked about writing down his life story, about growing up in Czechoslovakia and fleeing the country at 16 because the Germans were invading. Unfortunately he never did, and now all the bits and pieces he does still remember are too disjointed. For me, it's a very sad loss because I would have loved to be able to read his whole story.

  2. Wow, this one truly made me think. I believe everyone's story is important and should be told. Mostly. With luck, the story of my early years will pass into the mystery with me, however, the later years are being well recorded. :)

  3. I'm fortunate in having been brought up by my paternal grandmother who knew a great many of the family stores. When her aunt died (well in her 90s) I got boxes of photos going back to the family in Vienna and Prague. What I've found most interest is how certain family "personalities" have worked their way out in different times and circumstances. And the parallels: what was my mother's grandfather, who was a Mohawk, doing when Uncle Basch of the Viennese family was physician to Maximilian in Mexico? I've been working on this in a series of plays.

  4. I think it's best remembered. I have shared with my children all that I know about my family history and, as stories from my childhood pop into my head, I share those as well.

    Unfortunately, most of my aged family has passed and those that are left don't share as many stories as I'd like.

    It's an important connection to the people who are the reason that I am here today and forgeting their stories and their lives would be akin to making them disappear. That's just sad, to me.

    I must say, though, that I sometimes wish that I didn't remember all that I do because it's not all sunshine and roses, but I know that they are all important stories good and bad.

    That is all that will be left behind when we all move on to whatever is next.

  5. Colin, how sad that your father's thoughts were lost.

    Family history and stories should be shared, even the difficult ones. I have things I would rather not remember as well, but f we don't share the painful stories as well as the heroic or happy ones, we are not honoring where we came from, how far we've come, and we are allowing the cycle of pain to continue.

    Thank you for sharing this, Colin. It is definitely something everyone should think about.

  6. My Grandfather is 87 and still has all his faculties, but he has never been much on talking about the past. Taciturn, I would say, like your father. My Grandmother, his wife, has always been the storyteller, but with her, you're not quite sure what is fact and what is embellishment. Not because she doesn't remember, but because she has always been one for drama and shock value. *L* I know my grandfather's side of the family did a family history and I'd really like to get my hands on it. I also know, from coincidentally speaking with a fellow Stockard as a customer when I worked for a carpet cleaning business, that all Stockards are descended from one man who came over from Europe in the 17th century. His name was William...or was it Robert...Stockard (now the details are a bit cloudy...wish I would have written it down). I am vastly interested in genealogical history and I would love to find out about my ancestors. I think it's very important.

    So sorry that you didn't get to keep those last words between your parents. I guess some parents don't realize how much it might mean to their children to have those memories. My mom has been so wonderful about recording things about herself and her childhood and about my sister and I's childhood. I'm thankful for that legacy and I hope to pass the same on to my sons.

    Thank you for sharing, Colin. Happy New Year to you and yours!

  7. Incidentally, I thought I should mention since we're on the cusp of a new year...I have not forgotten that you sent me a copy of Silk Road to review. I am so terribly backlogged, but I will get to it. I hope you will bear with me. =O)

  8. Such an insightful post, Colin. Glad Jessica O'Neal led me to it!

    I just returned from my parents' home where I had the pleasure of going through a box of my grandmother's old letters, photos and cards. Doing so did sadden me some, but it also drew me closer to her memory and reminded me of the importance of respecting and understanding our roots.

    PS Your mother is beautiful.

  9. Wow, Colin! What a good post and good discussion. All important considerations. Love this line especially: "struggled also living my life in a more adventurous way."

    My father's rule in what to portray in family history is "Let history be kind."

    Janet Riehl

  10. Still haven't figured out how to slot the responses in between the individual comments so they'll have to slot in at the end ... so first thanks for commenting in, Marcy, and I agree - it's sad how much history gets lost. The West Australian Library actually employed researchers to go round and interview people with histories like your grandfather's so they could transcribe them and keep them on record. Seemed like a great idea to me.

  11. Thanks Prudence. It's good to have your life written down I think - for those that love us. I still think ALL our lives are worth recording in that respect - the parts my Dad did not want to talk about were the things I wanted to know the most. It might have helped me work him out!

  12. Katherine what an amazing background you have! I think it's great you have access to so many of the stories. And so many photographs! There's such a big deal going on about the problems of immigration around the world yet most of us were all from somewhere else.

  13. I loved what you said, Kim, that it's not all sunshine and roses in the past. But yes it does go toward making us who we are. I remember seeing Lisa Kidrow visiting the town in Poland where some of her ancestors were murdered by the SS. It wasn't easy for her to know what happened but she seemed afterwards to appreciate her family and her own life even more.

  14. Thank you for your thoughts, too, Lynette. I really agree that as you say: 'we have to honor where we came from, how far we've come, or we are allowing the cycle of pain to continue.' Well said.

  15. Thank you for your comments, Michelle - and yes, those histories are so important, aren't they? My father in law researched all his side of the family story and gave a copy to all his grandchildren - it was an epic tome going back to the 17th century. The kids (mostly teenagers then) took one look, sighed, and tossed it casually aside - where it was rescued by their parents. They will bless him for it one day. He's in heaven now, probably meticulously researching Saint Peter's genealogy for him!

  16. Thank you so much for what you said about my mum, August. She can be quite fiery, even now, but she has her moments! My brother and I appreciate that she and the old man gave us a much better life than they had as kids and knowing their history made it easier to understand why they did some of the things they did. God bless her.

  17. Let history be kind - wise words, Janet. I think it's something we would all like applied to our own stories. Thank you.