Previous Challenge Entry (Level 2 – Intermediate)
Topic: Grandparent(s) (04/03/08)
By Fiona Dorothy Stevenson
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Ancestry.com – would this web site find me information about a grandfather of whom I knew nothing? My father’s father died when he was a young boy. Granny remarried and Dad had several stepbrothers, but somehow Hector Mac did not become a grandfather figure in the few short years we knew him.
Granny Mac was an elaborately coiffured and made up lady in whose presence children were preferably unseen as well as unheard. When we visited her home my brother and I wandered disconsolately through the garden, afraid to touch anything in case it withered or broke. Indoors, the rooms were filled with knick knacks and laces. Everything was polished to fire brightness. Indoors was out of bounds.
Years later, when Granny Mac visited our home she was less exclusive, though almost deaf. At this time she attempted to establish a friendly relationship with us, but the situation was too well cemented to change. She died after an operation for cancer when I was in my teens, and it was many years before I realized that she was probably singularly lonely toward the end of her life.
My mother was the youngest daughter in a large family. Her father died when I was a toddler, so that I have no actual remembrance of him. Nonetheless, with the aid of one or two photographs, anecdotes, and my knowledge of his sons, my uncles, I was able to build a mind picture of this tall, angular man with a large, droopy moustache. He was a farmer in the remote Loteni valley, and he walked the Drakensburg mountains surrounding his home until he knew them intimately. The farms in this valley held, quite literally, the roots of my existence.
Granny Root died in my tenth year. She is the grandparent I most clearly remember. She was a small, round person, her hair worn in a bun on the top of her head. In later years I saw a fancy bread loaf – a large round topped by two consecutively smaller rounds, finished with a small knot of dough. It reminded me so much of my grandmother who was just that shape! Her fingers were often busy with a crochet hook. She made exquisite collars, cuffs and table linen.
Most precious in memory is the cold, rainy forenoon when we sat before the kitchen stove, my brother and I on either side, leaning on Granny’s knees while our younger sister nestled in her arms. Outside, the sky was gray and dark. We had no electricity – it was the day of lamps and candles. The only light in the room came from the open grate of the stove where the firewood crackled and glowed. In peaceful companionship we sat watching the flames. She didn’t sing to us, or tell stories. She was the most completely peaceful person I have ever known.
Today I am a grandmother, and a great-grandmother. I do not know my older grandchildren, or any of the great-grandchildren. They live on the other side of the world. They know as little about me. A few photographs. A handful of anecdotes.
So it was that I could not miss an opportunity to learn something of my long dead grandfather. Ancestry.com gave me a name – a series of names, from which I learned that my father was the last of a long line of Matthew’s. I learned grandfather's birthplace, his occupation. I learned that my grandmother’s name was Isabelle, not Isobel. I learned that my great-grandmother was named Eliza. Ghosts, written on paper, living once in a world of long ago and far away. Living in a town I will never see, at an address I cannot imagine.
Memory takes me back to a long valley, with a river running through, enclosed by tall mountains. A place where small children could wander in the security of always being in sight of the farmhouse. The place where grandfather knew all the paths, where Granny controlled the family; the place where their knowledge and authority was passed to the next generation and life was safe in consequence.
Ancestry.com was unable to give me more than very basic information about my paternal grandfather. But because of my enquiry through the web site, I received an email from someone else who was researching that branch of the family, enabling me to make contact with a younger cousin twice removed. My visit to the web site was not altogether a loss: it became a benefit.
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