Ragtag Tuesday: Touching the past

Nothing makes me feel older than looking at these three photos does.  They seem to be illustrations from a history book, but they’re not. I can reach out and touch them, because every one of them features my mother.

This is her christening.  And here are people I never met: her father Charles, the curate, who died long before I was even thought of.  Her mother Annie, from whom she became estranged. Annie’s mother and father Arthur and Elizabeth Pickard, long long dead.  Her sister Blanche and brother-in-law Jack who took themselves off to live and work in Swansea, so I never met them either: though my mother inherited almost all that Blanche had when she died in 1964.

News of my mother’s birth would have travelled by word-of-mouth or by letter.  I communicate with friends in four continents in an instant, by the click of a mouse or a quick call on Facetime.

When my children were small in the 1980s, we went to an exhibition featuring the future – a fax machine.  We got very over-excited sending drawings to one another down the phone line. Who uses fax machines now? They’re nearly as dead as the fountain pen. But even the telephone barely existed for most people when my mother was born. She lived to see her grandchildren use word processors, computers and mobile phones – but she was happier with what she knew.

I guess this photo was taken during World War One. Over the last few weeks our attention has been so taken up  by the horrors of trench warfare that it’s hard to imagine that in a small northern coal-mining town, life would have gone on much as usual.  Clergymen and miners were all exempt from conscription. Though my mother remembers food difficulties. It was her job to run to the shop and get a supply of golden syrup, and then to sit fishing the flies before it could be used  in cooking.

I have little grandchildren  of the same kind of age as my mother and her little brother Arthur in this photo (and for those of you who’ve been asking, Zoë is doing well thanks.  She should now be just under a fortnight old, but she’s three months old instead).

Theirs is a world of babygrows, disposable nappies, easy-care T-shirts and jumpers and the constant background whirr of the washing machine. My mother remembered the dampness and drudgery of Monday and its all-day washing as the worst day of the week.

Here’s another from the war years:

How could life have been so very – well – Edwardian?  Those floor-length clothes for my grandmother in the previous photo! That sailor suit for Arthur and a mob-cap for my mother!  Imagine getting Arthur and Betty along to the photographer’s studio in their Sunday-best, clean, tidy and with immaculate shoes.  These days, family portraits are all about getting out into the countryside with tousled hair then running barefoot through the heather.

I find it unsettling to look at the images.  

I feel strangely unconnected, as though my mother is from some strange unknowable place with which I have no relationship: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between.

Today’s Ragtag Challenge is ‘past’.

25 thoughts on “Ragtag Tuesday: Touching the past”

  1. I think that you encapsulate so well that sense of being disconnected from even the recent past and the previous generations, and the (lovely) photos illustrate that so aptly. I can recall the unbridgeable disconnect I so often had with my English grandparents as they were mired in a worldview so profoundly different to mine. We did reach across it but I now suspect that we misunderstood each other more than we realised. In addition to the technological changes you mention, I had not lived through two world wars (my grandfather’s two brothers and an uncle died during or later from injuries sustained in WW1), a terrible flu epidemic, and a longterm economic depression, while being shored up by a belief in the British Empire.

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      1. On reflection, even changes within oneself indicate growth or rising to challenges, preferable to complacency and stagnation? But for some reason many of us have a tendency to bemoan change and forget that maybe some changes are good. Guess I should be more wary of my tendency to nostalgia!

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  2. Wow what a fabulous post and reflection, it is so other worldly, that time of the early 1900’s and the pictures don’t feel like a life lived, they seem almost like imagination, not real. It would be interesting to listen to their conversation on that day, to hear how they related to each other then. So is Arthur the only family member you ever met?

    I just came across that quote recently too!

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    1. I didn’t know Arthur either. He never married, and moved at quite a young age to South Africa to Save the Empire. Someone showed me recently a family photo of hers, taken in about 1917. It seemed so modern, with the famly members linking arms and smiling intimately at one another. It was easier to connect with them, rather than with these studio pieces.

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  3. These are amazing photos and a wonderful exploration of the daily prompt. I especially like the one with the bike and buggy–they look so somber, like miniature adults. I have photos of my grandmother, as a young adult, from this same era, I think, and I agree, I can’t connect the photos with the woman I knew. I’m very glad to have the photos, though! And that’s good news about Zoe!

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    1. Kerry, Kerry, you’re back! You’re no longer disgraced by being dumped in the Spam folder – hooray! I think Arthur and my mother were often solemn little children. Life was a serious business, and Fun doesn’t seem to have been on the agenda much. More of that later…..

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      1. Another blog friend said it happened to her when she went awhile without commenting on others’ posts and then did a whole slew of them at once. The volume of comments made it look like spam?

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  4. We have similar photos from both families. They are on the wall going up stairs and it is known as the “dead rellies wall”. I feel very connected and can trace physical features of our children and grand children through the generations.

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  5. Such a stimulating post. I was recently given a photo taken in the 1920’s of my grandmothers sister shopping in London with a friend. I knew none of these people nor my grandmother but the image is so candid and joyous. The family features are plain to see.

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  6. I love these photos of yours, Margaret! Such handsome people they are, with faces full of humour. I have no photos of past generations as my mother and her sister and sister-in-law are custodians of the family archive on one side and a cousin of mine looks after the scant archive of my late father’s family. My mother tells me about her family while we are driving to the shops or to her hospital appointments. By the time I am in a position to make a note of these memories I have forgotten many of the details and so has she!

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