A Whole Lot Of History

A Whole Lot Of History

Last month I talked about family values and making the most of the time we spend with our family, particularly our parents. But it’s not just about shopping trips and eating out, it’s about stories and anecdotes, education and history. Our parents (and grandparents) can offer a wealth of advice based on a lifetime of experience and it’s vital we listen to what they have to say. Sadly, none of us live forever and when our parents are gone, so too is their knowledge.

During the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky to spend some real quality time with my parents. I’ve enjoyed their company immensely and have made a conscious effort to ask about their past and their most memorable experiences. Their accounts have ranged from entertaining to shocking, but all have been precious.

My father is the younger of two brothers. Growing up they were boisterous and mischievous, constantly getting into scrapes. His brother had a shock of red hair and was instantly recognizable wherever they went. They climbed trees, played Hide-and-Seek and, more than once, drew unwanted attention from their teachers. Dad often endured the cane across his hand, not for bad behaviour but for untidy handwriting. Their own parents, my grandparents, were working class people with high standards and strict ethics. They had their own upholstery business and worked hard to provide their sons with a decent education. I remember my grandparents as honest people; as generous with their time as they were with their love. With the benefit of hindsight (and maturity), I regret not taking more time to talk to them about their lives.

My mother had three older brothers. She was brought up on a farm where they milked cows by hand. She was terrified of geese and remembers them hanging on the back of her dress, unable to shake them off. During World War II, the family would rush to the cellar at the sound of the air raid siren; a sound that still haunts her to this day. After leaving school in 1952 she started work in a needle factory and later became a shop assistant in a grocery store before securing a job in a motorcycle factory. It was there that she met my dad.

Dad left school on 31st March 1953 and started work the very next day at Triumph Motorcycles. After dating my mum only twice, he went to join the army and was stationed in three different UK locations before being posted to Germany. They wrote letters to each other two or three times a week for two years. To their knowledge, only one letter ever went astray. I find it heartbreaking that they no longer have these letters (although dad says he wouldn’t let me read them anyway!). What a precious insight into family history they would be.

Before marrying my dad, mum was told she was adopted. Understandably upset by this news, and with her sweetheart away in Germany, she sought comfort from his parents instead. Presumably satisfied by their words of wisdom she returned to her adoptive parents and has not once, in the long years since, been tempted to enquire about her ‘real’ family. Apparently she had suspicions that one of her brothers may also have been adopted. ‘I didn’t like to ask’ was her response when I asked her why she never sought confirmation. How different things must have been in those days. I suspect I may encounter one or two hurdles should I ever decide to research my own family tree.

Mum and dad were engaged for two years before marrying on 6th September 1958. The ceremony took place in their local village church and was followed by a reception in the village hall. They honeymooned in Bournemouth, a popular holiday destination on the south coast of England, borrowing his mother’s Morris 1000 for the 150 mile journey.

Some of the stories they’ve shared with me have been told before. For instance, I already knew that had I been a boy, I would’ve been called Philip. Others, I’ve heard recently for the first time; like the fact that millions of dogs were ‘put to sleep’ during the war because their owners couldn’t afford to feed them. Food was scarce and it was hard enough to feed the family without having to worry about pets as well. Strangely, one of my mum’s earliest childhood memories was hiding under the kitchen table eating coal. Coal?! And my dad recalls his own father returning home from the butcher’s shop with bones which his mother would then scrape, using the scraps to make soup.

My mum used to walk to school – something unheard of these days – and when she was old enough, would cycle seven miles (and back) to the nearest ‘dance’. She drove the tractor on the farm; only ever had an outside toilet; and the first holiday she had was with her brother and his new wife on their honeymoon. She also admitted to having a fight. One of the girls at her school had the audacity to suggest that her hair was longer than my mum’s. The resulting fight saw my mum emerge victorious – in terms of strength as well as hair length! Thankfully, after this minor misdemeanor, her competitive edge was reserved for the sports field rather than the playground. It’s certainly safe to say she mellowed with age.

After leaving the army, my dad started work as a crane driver. I had no idea he had ever driven a crane. The first film he saw at the cinema was Laurel and Hardy; his childhood Christmas gifts consisted of an orange and a pair of hand-knitted socks; and he was once a model in a motorcycle advertising campaign. If anyone ever doubted this particular fact, he still had the poster to prove it!
In 1962, they were involved in a serious road traffic accident. Dad was driving a mini-van when it was hit by another vehicle. He suffered a dislocated hip and a smashed ankle as a result. Mum broke her wrist. Fifty-five years later, it’s dad’s damaged ankle that has led to this article. After suffering with severe arthritis and barely being able to walk, he finally had an operation to fuse his ankle and is now confined to a wheelchair until the plaster cast comes off. I have been supervising his recovery. In other words, I have had the pleasure of his (and mum’s) company 24/7. Rather than being the inconvenience expected, it’s been an enlightening few weeks. I now know where I get my cantankerous streak from. I’ve also learned (not that it was ever in doubt) that I share my dad’s sense of humour and my mum’s fighting spirit; although I draw the line at using my fists!

I can also confirm that my dad’s handwriting is still illegible and that my mum is still petrified of geese.

Ever wondered what stories remain untold in your own family? One thing’s for sure, if you don’t ask you’ll never know.

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