The destination for history

My Disappearing Uncle: A scattered family history


Among the assortment of things I’d inherited from the ancestors - the big fore­head, height, double-jointed fingers, a tendency to sadness, a cupboard full of tins and the certainty of belonging to more than one place (or was it no place at all?) - stories were everywhere.

There was the one about the little boy brought from India in the 1830s to a remote boarding school in Yorkshire and left there by his parents, who were never heard of again. Or the young Jew from Hungary who, at around the same time, walked to Vienna without a penny to his name, made his fortune, built a palace, then lost it all again.

There were my father’s Scottish grandfathers, who made their lives in Chile, trading the length of the Pacific coast in the days of sailing ships, and the one who rode across the Andes on a horse. There was the love story of the young star of the Burgtheater among the writers and musicians of Vienna in the early 1900s. Or, in Ireland, the one about the red-headed girl on the staircase and the disobedient son who wouldn’t marry the girl of his father's choice.

There was the telegram that slipped down behind a Dorset post office counter and the marriage that didn’t happen. There was the disappearing uncle.

And there were my sister and I in the 1960s, packed into my mothers small and overloaded car, trundling across Europe as if it belonged to us, to the accompaniment of more tales, like the one about her hitch­hiking over the Brenner Pass in a fire engine with a drunken driver.

Then theres what happens when you listen to the stories and they start to tell themselves all over again. And the more you hear, the more questions there are, answers unpeeling like the layers of an onion. Every family has tales like these: not heroic, not of victims in a politi­cally correct cause, just themselves, a scattering of yarns from different places, a hotchpotch of the people who made us. Perhaps that's why I find them interesting. Fathers deserted, mothers died, wars scattered families, economies collapsed, people fell in love (and out again), chil­dren were born and grew up and finally we find ourselves here. But the more I heard, the more improbable it seemed that I should ever have been born.

Why the stories I grew up with survived across such distances of time and place is a good question. Maybe because they were the ones that hooked themselves into the experience of their listeners and stuck like burrs, remembered because they fitted. Maybe, in short, because of what happened next. Or was what happened next somehow influenced by the telling and retelling itself?

Whichever it was, in our family they seem to have got themselves told and retold from one generation on to the next without too much difficulty, until one day I woke up and realised that they seemed to have landed on me, and that, being oral stories, they were also as ephemeral as the rain falling outside (and as essential). With a cast of hundreds, all pulling in different directions, if I didnt write them down they might well disappear into the ether.

Thats how it began. It was going to be straightforward. Here were good tales, full of energy and enjoyment and entertainment, a gift from the past to the future. All I had to do was get them down, like an anthology, a disparate collection with a slender common strand.

Of course, a bit of background might be necessary sometimes: an idea of surrounding events, historical context. And so I opened the history books - and nearly drowned. Here was the history of Europe: the twentieth century, the nineteenth, even the eighteenth ...

How to contain all this? To tell these stories in chronological order would probably begin with a medieval myth and finish, for now, in the third decade of the twenty-first century. But as I wrestled with them, another order emerged - a second chronology. This was the sequence in which the stories were passed on or emerged in the course of my life, the way they were told (or not told) during my childhood and adoles­cence and since: the process of transmission. Bit by bit, this became an account of my growing up too, the story of how I learned the stories - a memoir - and a look at the complicated dance between the present and the past.

Its this order, this double chronology, that guides the telling, or should I say assembly, that follows. Because somehow what became more and more interesting is how and why things get shaped, told, remembered and told again - and, equally important, what is not told. How history emerges, creeps out of the woodwork.

As I went, unexpected parallels also appeared, sometimes alarmingly. Was there a connection? How is it that stories work on subsequent gen­erations? Is it possible that the stories might even generate the parallels?

In childhood, the tales came in separate chunks, each one complete in itself and, in that matter-of-fact way that children have, my sister and I took them as they came. They didnt necessarily have to fit together. Over time, different parts of the narrative appeared, like stuff washed up on the shore. It was a slow, accumulative process that brought different pieces of the picture; we took on what we were ready for. Only as I grew up and grew older did I start to try and fit them together, ask questions. And then I noticed the gaps and enquired. This book is the result.

Looking behind the scenes has its own dangers. Its unsettling to find evidence that contradicts the narrative you've grown up with; it can shake you to the core. The narrative has become part of who you are. But then, like all history, these stories had a purpose. With real life far too big to be carried forward complete, they are a way of managing the past, wrestling it into a shape that contains it, makes it safe and usable, useful and, above all, portable. This is rocket fuel for the next generation. Where the facts diverge from the narrative there were reasons for it.

Two world wars stand sentinel here. My mother’s parents married in the middle of the First World War, my mother and father at the begin­ning of the Second and, right on cue, I arrived smack in the middle of the twentieth century and took the rest of it and then some to even begin to understand.

I would have liked to weave the tales of my parents and their very different families into one narrative but the further I went, the bigger it grew until it proved more than I could handle. So, this is about my maternal inheritance, the stories from my mothers family. But they would never have become mine had it not been for my father's interest in and retelling of them.

It is not a work of genealogical research - record offices, censuses and certificates - though I've tried to include the essentials. Instead, its based on oral narrative: stories, anecdotes and the cobwebs of memory stubbornly clinging to objects, books, even buildings. Women of the past are famously harder to trace than men, elusive in the historical record.

They change their names on marriage, seldom have publicly recognised careers - daughter of, sister of, mother of - and, judging by their presence in the obituaries, rarely die. Their records lie in other places, above all in stories like these that are handed down by word of mouth; these are one of the ways we learn ourselves. So, this is also a tribute to the women who came before me: my mother, her mother and her mother before her, each one a woman on her own. Its a tale of to-hell-with-that mothers - matrilineal, a-historic, even without names sometimes, and full of unreliable sources but, in some essential way, true.

That it turned into an encounter with the history books and the relationship between conventional history and oral narrative was a sur­prise. But if theres one thing that stands out from these stories, which loop and thread and cross and knot like a tangled ball of string and have wound themselves around me for a lifetime, it's the richness of it all.

Extracted from My Disappearing Uncle by Kathy Henderson 

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