Photographs of dead relatives

This is you and your daddy

My Mother is a keen curator of what M used to call ‘photographs of dead relatives’.

Sepia miniature of unidentified raggy-arsed forebear? Mother’s all over it like Old Etonians in Parliament. She’s got the census from 1743 and worked out it’s a great, great, great uncle’s love child. She’s been on a pilgrimage to an outpost north of Inverness to visit the grave.

The significance of this ancestor differs among family members – most couldn’t give a monkey’s, but for others (well, my Mother), they are an important part of the jigsaw of family history.

I’m doing some historical research of my own at the moment, for a piece of writing I’m doing about Newcastle. This morning I’ve been in the city looking at other people’s raggy-arsed forebears in a collection of photographs from 1860. In one or two of them I thought I recognised myself – the bone structure of the face, the slightly hooded eyes. It is possible, I conceded, that I may be looking at a forebear without realising it. It is certainly conceivable that I am related to a Geordie fishwife, somewhere down the line.

Being in Newcastle always brings out a yearning for M, but I have begun to notice that He has started to take on saintly, almost mythical status in my mind. Thoughts of Him infuse everything I do.

It struck me today, as looked at the photographs and wandered around the Quayside, trying to absorb the history of the place, that M is now ‘a dead relative’. All that remains of Him for my daughter are scant memories (if any memories at all), photographs and some personal effects. I can record, recount, curate and archive His life until my fingers bleed, but for her, He will always be in 2D.

Yes, she looks like Him. Her kids will probably look like Him. Her kids kids will probably look like Him. He ‘lives on’, as people keep telling me.

But the fact is that He has already become a photograph of a dead relative to add to the pile.

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Please send back my leg-warmers.

leg warmers photo from flickr by iluvrhinestones

leg warmers photo from flickr by iluvrhinestones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sudden death of a spouse is fucking rude.

It waltzes into your life without invitation and gives you no opportunity for recourse. I want to tap it on the shoulder and say, excuse me but…fuck off. Can you come back in, say, 50 years time? And give us warning next time?

It brings to mind those excruciating moments when one ‘breaks up’ with a boyfriend. The build-up. The announcement. The returning of items which held so much weight at the time:

“Please send back my leg-warmers and the Belinda Carlisle album, asap.”

Sudden death affords no such luxury. One minute, the love of your life is alive. The next, they are dead. You have no chance for discussion, no build-up, no demands for significant items to be returned. Indeed, you are left to look through things belonging to your beloved and decide what is significant or not.

When M died, there were a couple of boxes of memorabilia I’d never seen. Not that He’d hidden them from me – we just hadn’t got round to them, as a couple.

I asked my oldest friend in the world to come and sort through them with me. Contained within were photos, letters and pictures that revealed a whole other side to my husband.

“What’s this photo of?”

“Who is this?”

“What does this mean?”

We spent an evening trying to decipher His life ‘before me’. Of course, we reached no conclusion. There were no answers, because the only person who could provide them was gone. So I have boxes full of unanswered questions in my loft.

I wish I had a few moments just to ask Him about the contents of those boxes. What? Who? When? Where?

But this is the nature of sudden death. It gives you no time.

Fucking rude.