Family stories: the stories my mother has told me, the stories I wish I had kept

Listening to my mother talk about her childhood, I am reminded of how much I do not know of my past. Explore my essay on listening to stories from my mother, on my blog, ourstorytime.co.uk    storytelling family history family history research writing memoirs personal narratives

(A photo of my parents. It was taken sometime in the late seventies, before I was born.)

The week before Christmas, I sat in front of the fire in my mother’s house, the house where I grew up, willing my feet, my bones, to warm up just a little. It was late. It was cold (for the house had been empty for a while and it felt like there were icicles suspended in the air). It was quiet, too, apart from the hum of the refrigerator and the occasional rattle from the pipes as the heating lazily woke up, taking its sweet time to drip into the radiators. The children were asleep, worn out by the novelty of their grandmother’s playroom and their routine trip up the ladder and into her loft (something of a ritual whenever we go). R was working, catching up on some hours he had missed while we travelled the two and a half hours north out of town to arrive.

And so I found myself alone, sat by the fire, cold thumbs flicking through some old paperback I’d found in my teenage room, when my mother came in to join me. It was her first night sleeping in her own bed again after some long and sad weeks away seeing her siblings in Pakistan (she buried one of her brothers while she was there). I made her hot tea and as she sat by me, tired and worn, I thought of all the sadness she must have seen. Her mother, a grandmother I never knew, died when my mother was fourteen. Some of her siblings, both older and younger, have passed away. When her father died, I think I was about seven or eight, she did not go back to Pakistan for his funeral. She watched her husband, my sweet father, fade away piece by piece in an illness so cruel it still cracks my heart to say the word stroke. Though I have known some loss, I don’t quite know what any of this, any of this cumulative loss my mother has been through - losing a mother, a father, brothers, a husband - might feel like.

My mother’s story is not really for me to tell. But that night by the fire, she told me about a letter that her last, remaining brother showed her while she was away. It was a letter my grandfather had written to my grandmother, only many decades after her death. He wrote it while staying with my uncle, his son, the noise of his grandchildren running around the house no doubt in his ears. He wrote to his dead wife and told her, in his letter, that all their children were grown and married and that she would be so proud. He told her how much he missed her. How much he wished she could have shared in their life. Apparently, when he wrote it, my uncle went to call my grandfather in for food.  “What are you up to?” he asked. “This,” my grandfather replied. “This is what I’ve been up to.” And with that, he handed the letter to my uncle and brushed past him (or so I imagine) and they never spoke of it again (at least not that my mother knows). My mother only just discovered the letter existed.

That night, sitting by the fire, on a cold December night, my mother talked and talked about her girlhood. Things I didn’t know, or perhaps I did know but had not paid attention to before, like how her father built a house and named it Taaj, for my grandmother, or laughing, how my grandmother demurely never spoke my grandfather’s name - Ameen - and so never even said it in her prayers, sweetly glossing over it instead.

I sat and listened to these stories and it occurred to me, then, by the fire in the house where I grew up, that these stories from my mother might not be mine to tell, but they are mine to know, and they are my children’s to know, and for them, I should probably make the effort to know a little more.

Because time passes.

Stories fall along, little bits scrunched up in someone’s pocket, crumbs tumbling here and there each time they are told.

All that remains is the present, and I suppose, all we can do is snatch a little bit of the past before it pops away and learn to keep it safe somehow. I’m not quite sure how but I imagine writing it down is one way to start.

I left it too late to sit down with my father; we didn’t get to gather our moss. He stopped talking about eighteen months before he died, his voice lost and knotted and dried up someplace deep inside him. I wonder what he would tell me, if I could sit with him by the fire in my childhood home, his home. I wonder what we might talk about and even though I’ve not heard his voice for so long, I still remember it. I think, though this will sound loopy, I think if I thought hard enough and sat long enough, that I could probably hear him right now if I tried.

We’d have a lot of catching up to do. I’d tell him about Obama - he’d have loved Obama - and then I’d tell him how the Tories have made a right hash of things. I’d show him a picture on my phone: this is my husband, these are my kids. This one looks like you. And then maybe we wouldn’t say anything because there’d be too much to say, because I wouldn’t be able to say it, because we’d both know he’d have to go again. Maybe I’d just hold his hand, put my head on his shoulder, whisper in his ears bits of all the things I’d have wanted him to know but didn’t have time to tell him because time is cruel like that.

So I guess what I’m saying is, I’m going to try to collect the crumbs I can find. I’ll try not to sweep them aside but follow the trail. I’ll gather them up on the tips of my fingers and maybe when I have millions and zillions of them, I might shape them into something I might hold, something I might pass around like a parcel in a childhood game and hold it out for us all to share.

Footnotes

How to write a memoir

One notecard at a time

Recording Dad

Another thing my mother told me

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