I have just spent a few days down in Nottinghamshire visiting family. My mother has been diagnosed with cancer, so had to go into hospital for a lumpectomy- and we wait the news as to what further treatment she requires. All very scary.
Because I went down on my own this time, I stayed with my mother- the first time I have slept in the house that I was born in since the say before we married 22 years ago. This has some disadvantages, as she has no hot water, and no central heating (beyond a few ineffectual storage heaters.) She suffers from a fresh air fetish and even with a hard frost, each room had open windows. I had taken the precaution of making sure I had my down sleeping bag, which I slept in under the duvet!
However, it also gave me time to sit and talk about family. The murky details of my family background are complex, and full of things that most upright folk would rather had been swept under the carpet. Some of it I knew, but some I did not.
So, it goes something like this;
My great grandfather was born some time around 1850 in Lincolnshire, the illegitimate son of a local landowner. His father took some responsibility for his offspring, but not much- he set his son up as a farm labourer. It does not seem to have been a happy arrangement- he was a bitter and angry man, who treated his own sons poorly. My Grandfather was born around 1883, and as soon as he was old enough, left home to go and work in the Nottinghamshire coal mines.
In case you are wondering how I could have a Victorian Grandfather, read on…
He married and settled in Kirkby in Ashfield, in the shadow of the Summit Pit. He had two children, both boys. Unfortunately, his wife was sick most of her adult life, and a large portion of his earnings went on medical bills- this was long before the advent of the Welfare State.
The boys grew- one was wayward, and rebelled against my Grandfather liberal use of the leather strap. He left home, but was killed riding a motorcycle. By then, his mother was long dead.
The other boy had children of his own- one of whom survives.
In the meantime, in the housing shortage during the second world war, my Grandfather moved into a former railway carriage. Quite why he needed a housekeeper in such a situation I have no idea- but such arrangements seemed to be common. So it was that my 43 year old Grandmother escaped her work in a munitions factory and moved into the Railway carriage with my Grandfather- then aged 60.
My mother was born shortly afterwards- into every kind of poverty. Her parents seemed to have little idea as to the needs of a child- particularly in terms of emotional needs. She had no birthday presents, no Christmas presents. The shame of being the illegitimate child of this situation was so powerful that when my Grandfather died in the 1970′s, at the ripe old age of 93, she was terrified at the prospect of the vicar officiating at the funeral discovering that his family name was not the same as her maiden name. So much so that she began hyperventilating as she tried to explain. Such is the power of childhood shame.
The story became more difficult for her- a bad marriage, lots of bitterness, and no small amounts of damage done to my sister and me.
However- what this conversation enabled me to see, perhaps for the first time ever, was a chain of ungrace stretching back 160 odd years. All those damaged people trying to find ways to live better.
And I was reminded of some hard old words from Exodus 20;
…for I, theLord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…
And feel little comfort for how the words go on;
…but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
The sins of the fathers are very human ones. I am not sure about all the judgement stuff in Exodus, but I am sure about the fact that damaged people can easily do damage, and that bitterness infects other people in ways that are hard to understand even in hindsight, even when right in front of our eyes.
May the scars we carry soften. May we not nurture any new hate.