We are, in all our complexity of being, part of our family history. Even if we were too young to remember traumatic events that happened in the past, some echo of the unhappiness they caused will stick, somewhere.
Long before I was born, my mother lost two children. I cannot imagine what that felt like. There was a sister born in 1926, who lived until she was just two years old. She died in 1929. Then, there was a brother, born in 1938 who died in 1940, again just two. My mother was born in 1900, so she was a young woman when her babies died.
The circumstances of their deaths was so sad. My sister died of a combination of whooping cough and diphtheria – no antibiotics in those days. My brother died in an accident. Looking through a website that gives you information on births and deaths, all I could find out were the names and dates relating to these awful events. How poignant and sad to read the one simple line, telling me that these children had been born and had died. No sense of the agony, the loss, the grief that such catastrophic deaths would have caused, nor the joy when these babies were born.
I know where my siblings are buried but I have only visited the family grave once, when my mother was interred. Again, just some carved names on a headstone; nothing to describe the short lives of these precious little ones. I can remember, as a child, seeing faded photographs of my brother and sister. There was a large photo in a black frame that hung over the mantlepiece in my childhood home. My sister looked so sweet, her chubby legs so adorable; her serious little face staring out at me. The little blouse she was wearing was passed on to me when my mother died and I keep it in tissue paper in a bag at the back of my wardrobe. Occasionally I take it out and look at it, imagining the sort of person she might have grown into, had she lived. No, this isn’t me being morbid. It’s just curiosity and love for someone I never knew.
There are only a few photographs of my brother as a baby. As he was born in 1938, at the start of the second world war, I suspect there was little time or money to pay a photographer to take pictures of him. In one black and white snap, he is just a tiny head protruding from a shawl in my mother’s arms. The look on her face says it all. She could never have imagined that two years hence, he would be taken from her.
Both of these children died between the months of April and June – Spring time, when new birth is everywhere – one of them, on my father’s birthday. When I was born, years later when my mother was in her mid-forties, I sensed as I grew up, that there had been tragedy in the past, although it was never spoken of and even though I asked questions, it wasn’t until I was an adult that other family members told me the stories of their deaths.
I was not to be protected from tragedy in my own life. My father died when I was eight and latterly, I lost an elder sister and a young nephew. By the time I reached my own middle-age, I was no stranger to bereavement. But the feeling that the deaths of my two baby siblings engender, haunt me more than any of the others.
My mother married at 23 and gave birth to five children. Only two of us are left now. Somehow, she managed to survive until she was 96. Her childbearing years started in 1926 and ended in 1944. She also managed to run a business in her early marriage and hold down a job later on. She was always cheerful and was a very loving and affectionate woman. However, when I was a teenager, she suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalised for a few months. The cause? Unexpressed grief. Underneath that cheerful exterior, her heart remained broken for years. I know she never got over losing her babies or the death of my father, aged just 58. But she lived on; she lived a productive life and was a wonderful mum to me. If I can be half the woman she was, I’ll be happy.