Digging up the past

Giselle and Uncle BillIt has been popular for a number of years to trace your family tree, with a variety of programmes on television offering us a window into the ancestors of a celebrity. They often focus on a person with an interesting story of whom little is known about because connections have been lost.

But what if that person doesn’t want their life to be delved into? Some people chose while with us to keep themselves to themselves.

So when they are gone should we investigate their past?

My Uncle Bill was a unique and charismatic man. And, it seems, a man of many mysteries which we are never likely to know the answers to.

My earliest memories include him turning up with my aunt in an array of different coloured VW Beetles – I always found it odd they put bags on top of the engine, only later discovering the engine was actually in the boot! I also vividly recall being allowed to refill their cigarette cases, and I still always associate the smell of their cigarette smoke with Christmas.

Bill in his Tom and Jerry t-shirtMy uncle was a fixture in my life, from the unique mole on his lip to the way he answered the phone with his Devon accent, from his enjoyment of the puzzles I bought him each Christmas to the way he wore a Tom and Jerry shirt – which got smaller and smaller over the years!

He was my uncle by marriage – my mum’s sister’s husband. We were his family.

It wasn’t until a few years before he died, aged 90, that I discovered how little I, my aunt and parents knew about his early life. My parents have photos of the four of them on holiday in the 1960s, laughing, enjoying each other’s company and sharing experiences, yet it seems they didn’t know much about him. I had always assumed that they knew his past but had respected his privacy not to talk about it.

Bill met my aunt at the age of 42 and we know very little of his life before then. He was a similar age that I was when I met my partner, and I can’t imagine not getting to know anything about my partner’s life, his family, his experiences. Yet my aunt fell in love with Bill and spent the next 48 years by his side, seemingly without knowing his history.

Even the name everyone knew him by, Bill, wasn’t in fact his name.

Bill and GiselleI know he saw the Northern Lights while in the Navy during the war. I know he went to India and discovered curry and never learnt to ride a bike. I don’t know what heartache and secrets he bore that meant he couldn’t talk about his young life, his family, his school days, his family, his dreams.

Bill rarely used anecdotes when talking to people so even in general conversation he never referenced his past experiences. It’s now a time that my aunt is moving house and as we clear through the attic and relive family memories there is still no clue to his past.

Giselle and Uncle BillBill decided not to share and although I am curious to find out why, I think there’s no reason now to  try.

I always regret that I never took the opportunity to ask Bill more about his life. I’ll always remember the influence he had on me, the times we shared as I was growing up – so should I really dig deep into what he didn’t want uncovered?

What would I gain, would it change who he was to me? I don’t think it will. He will always be my Uncle Bill and after all, that’s what really matters…

So when we start looking at our family trees should we remember to record who they are to us, and not worry if we can’t fill the gaps?

Giselle Sterry

About Giselle Sterry

I live happily with my supportive partner having spent several years enjoying my travels. A few years ago I discovered the enjoyment of bird watching (but I am no twitcher!). I can be found on a weekly basis at the local pub quiz or volunteering with local wildlfe groups.

  • Nadine Cooper

    I dug into the past and got rather more than I bargained for. I’d been told my great grandmother had died when my Granny and her sister were young, and as their father was away in the Merchant Navy, they’d been brought up in an orphanage. I couldn’t find a death certificate for her, which I though was a bit odd, especially given her unusual name. Then I contacted the orphanage archivist who gave me a whole load of information including the fact that the children had been placed in the orphanage because their mother had gone into a mental hospital. I then discovered she’d died 20 years later in the same institution.

    Through Genes Reunited I was contacted by someone descended from a sibling of my great grandmothers. He told me she’d suffered from depression. It was probably post natal, with two young children and her husband at sea, though I can’t apply for her medical records until 2023.

    This explains why my Granny ducked any questions about her family – in fact we were just warned away from asking. There must have been a huge stigma about it as neither of the sisters told anything to their children. I think it explains why they were such loving, family oriented people. And why my Granny tried at all times to be very respectable.

    I find it really sad that whilst strangers knew our family story we did not. But those were different times and my admiration for my Granny has increased, knowing what she went through. I don’t know whether she didn’t speak of it to protect herself or us, maybe both. But I suspect she just mostly just wanted to get on and enjoy the happier times.

    I don’t regret digging, though maybe I’m more inclined to think depression runs in our family. It’s put context to my life, which helps me grow. Though having gone through this experience I would never research someone who is still alive, or their nearest and dearest, as I wouldn’t what any similar surprises to emerge.