On the floor in front of me are dozens of pieces of paper, carefully torn from a note pad. On each piece of paper, a name. At the side of some - though not all - are back and white photographs. Men, women, babies, wedding
groups, engagement photos. I am in my element.
Family history is one of my (many) hobbies. It is arguably the most obsessive of them all, taking over my life for long periods of time as I struggle with Censuses
from 1840 onwards, Parish Registers and Military Records. There are few things more annoying than seeing how simple a process this all appears to be for those stars of stage and screen featured on programmes like Who Do You Think You Are. It's a whole lot
harder without a team of researchers behind you - though much more fun, of course. It's like a giant jigsaw puzzle, with inexplicably missing pieces, and any number of odd ones. Well, let's face it, no family can be complete without an odd-ball or two.
The make-shift family tree, set out on the living room floor, is that of Mr B's father's family. He was one of 13 children, hence the fact that the family tree spreads right across the floor in front of the patio doors.
Hopefully Mr B will not feel the need to venture out into the back garden this afternoon or he will find himself stepping over several generations of his own family. All 13 of the off-spring of Arthur Ball and his wife Elizabeth, apart from poor Leslie who
died in childhood, married - two of them twice - and had assorted off-spring, many with the same names, like Bert, Lilian, George, Dorothy.
I have been encouraged in this exercise having taking temporary possession
of an amazing collection of photographs loaned us by Mr B's cousin Doreen. I have written about Doreen in a previous blog - she is a truly remarkable woman who is an example to anyone wanting to Live Long and Well. Not only has she written out the details
of each family on separate sheets of lined paper, she has also written names on the back of each photograph. Thanks to Doreen, piecing together this particular family is relatively (if you'll excuse the pun) easy.
I call on Mr B for some help on Who's Who. It is, after all, his family, not mine. He can't understand how I can possibly fail to remember that visit we paid to Auntie Lil in Chatham in 1965, before we were married. I am ashamed to admit I can't remember
anything about it though, given we are talking very nearly fifty years ago, I feel personally that I can be forgiven. I wish I could remember because I rather think Our Aunt Lil may well have been a bit of a gal. I am basing this opinion purely and simply
on a photograph of Lil, wearing a truly enormous flowery hat framing the happiest of smiley faces. On the back she has written: "35 shillings this hat cost me, don't you know!" The sub-text is clear:"And why shouldn't I!?" Good on you, Auntie Lil.
Doreen's notes tell me that Auntie Lil's life wasn't without its sorrows. Her first husband, Walter Boys, died in the First World War, eleven days before the Armistice, leaving her with two small children. How
cruel that must have seemed. I'm glad to learn, from Doreen's careful summary of family history, that Lil married again, to the gloriously named Herbert Bottle. There's a wonderful photograph of their wedding day - and, yes, she is wearing yet another fabulous
hat, though there is no indication how much she paid for it. Her smile is as wide, as sunny as ever. I wish I'd known Aunt Lil when she was a young woman, I think we'd have been kindred spirits, as Anne (of Green Gables fame) used to say.
This is why I love family history, whether it's my family or somebody else's. You meet up with characters from the past who come alive in some way or another so that you feel you really know them. I am absolutely sure that
my great grandmother, Fanny Dawkins, was a "salt of the earth" type, the one family member who could always be relied upon to be there. I love the description of her on an identity pass which allowed her to visit her son in law, serving on the Isle of Wight.
"Stout build", it reads - unkindly, you may think but I reckon it was stout of build and stout of purpose.
My other great grandmother, Sophia, was undoubtedly a flighty one, as different from Fanny
Dawkins as could be. She was on the stage in the 1880s, had an illegitimate child, deserted one husband, married a second - and was carried to her final resting place in a glass carriage drawn by high-stepping black horses tossing white plumes on their heads.
Way to go, grandma Sophia!
I might have them all wrong of course. Fanny Dawkins might have been a rolling pin-wielding martinet and Sophia a shrinking wall-flower. But Aunt Lily - no, I refuse to believe that
she was anything but her sunny self.
If you want to get ahead, get a hat. Even if it costs you 35 shillings, don't you know!