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  • Writer's pictureTracey Lee


Some of us go through life thinking that at a certain age we will have all the answers and that there is little else we can discover about ourselves or indeed about others. A few times around the block and we think we have seen it all. But this is only true for those who are unable to look at the familiar with different eyes.  Of course I’m paraphrasing Marcel Proust here:

The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

In my writing I create characters that are all about discovery and having fresh eyes on the past. In the last week I have been given an opportunity to experience the power of a different perspective through a serendipitous sharing of information on a family research website.

 I have know that my biological grandfather abandoned his family when my mother was very young, that he went to New Zealand and at some point started a new life. He had simply disappeared when she was a little girl leaving her mother to raise four small children. He was easily made the villain of the story having discarded a young wife and four littlies all aged under nine.

I thought nothing of him. His existence did not merit thinking about. I did have a grandfather who had gallantly married my grandmother and took on parenting her four children. While I can’t recall my mother ever calling him ‘dad’ we certainly called him ‘pop’. He was a grand man, a wharfie by trade, a gardener by calling and a life-long adherent to left wing politics. He was a Waterside Workers Union rep and unless he was talking politics he was quiet, good-humoured and kind to a fault. In his later years he refused to buy new clothes because he thought he wouldn’t be around long enough to wear them out. This led to some fairly snappy 1970s gold satin shirt wearing all the way into the 1990s. He died at home with his wife, daughter and son-in-law all witnessing the massive heart-attack that took him out as he was setting the fire with wood he had just cut.  I knew him and he belonged to us. He was my grandfather by name and deed.

But two things transpired concerning the biological grandfather. The first was an unexpected encounter with him. I might have been thirteen. He appeared at our front door and introduced himself as my mother’s father. I recall nothing of what he looked like, I fled the scene and wouldn’t come out of hiding and my mother’s shock was palpable. She was not one to hold back on what she was thinking and feeling (we’ve always struggled a little with political correctness) but to her ultimate credit she cordially invited him. I believe, in my absence, the discussion was simply about the present, his life with his wife whom he’d married in 1955 and his illness that was to prove life ending. The sins of the past were off the agenda.

I knew he was a red-head and that I was the only ginger-nut in the family who could be grateful for that genetic gift. That he was a World War 2 veteran and that he lost both his legs to arterial sclerosis. He died in 1981. He lived a life I knew so little of until the last few weeks.

A relative, I’ve never met, and never knew existed sent photos of him and his extended family. Of course he had brothers and sisters, they had children and so did they. This web of family connections should have brought a sense of curiosity, maybe even excitement, but it hasn’t. It has bought a ‘disturbance in the force.’ (Sorry Star Wars fans) What I’d failed to acknowledge and lacked a desire to know was suddenly there, in colour. A real person, who despite his genetic connection directly to me, had been a stranger. Pieces of his early life and his siblings are now revealing themselves. His life after my grandmother too. But who he was is not clear. My mother and her three siblings are now dead and those of us who are left had little indication of how he lived his life. But now I have a photograph and some sketchy details about the work he did and where he lived in New Zealand.

Strangely I can barely look at it. It’s not contempt or blame; it’s just a deep sadness that this absent father, grandfather, also knew nothing of us. It was as if he could discard the progeny of his former life and pay no heed to his descendants. It seems that it is an all round loss.

I have always asserted, in my writing, that the truth of the past is not hiding. It’s just hard to find. But someone always knows something and that memory is one more puzzle piece in our personal histories. The things we think are unknowable really only remain so when we don’t look for the facts.

There are things to discover, to uncover and new connections to be made. I may never know more than I do now but at least the possibility exists.

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