My family is small, and in an odd way, I’m grateful for that. I have a grand total of three first cousins, two aunts (one of whom I’ve never met), two uncles and no siblings. And while my extended family are both lovely and intelligent – actually frightening how clever the cousins are – so often I hear tales from my friends that makes me grateful that they are also limited in scope.
Take, for example, Christmas. A time of festive cheer and relaxation? Not so, it seems, if you have a large extended family. For on Christmas Eve it is your duty to drive to Small Piddle to see your paternal Grandparents, your disgraceful Uncle, (for every family has a disgraceful uncle) your friendly Aunt, your two cousins with their mewling children whose relationship to yourself you can’t really solve, particularly while they’re dribbling on you. After five hours of driving and more tea and biscuits than you can conceive, you struggle home in time for Christmas Day, where more relatives await your attention. Parents bicker in the kitchen, while a mother-in-law dismisses the effort of whichever parent isn’t her offspring, and a father-in-law reads the Times and grumbles about how hungry he’s getting; and no sooner have you finished digesting than you swing over to the home of brother/sister/cousin who’ve been snowed in or are have produced yet more infants that you’re supposed to buy presents for every year, just in time to fail to watch the Queen’s speech.
But! Even if your desire, after all this, is a nice sit down on a thermonuclear device, wait! For Boxing Day comes round and should you be rash enough to be in a relationship, then Boxing Day is when you go to see the extended family of whichever partner hasn’t yet done the rounds with their side of the equation. Cue – more uncles, more aunts, more cousins, more brothers, sisters, children who’s relationship you can’t quite solve and inexplicably, more time stuck in traffic on the M25 as you wonder where your life went and why Dotty Great Aunt Doris decided she had to live in a lighthouse.
I am therefore grateful – so grateful – that my family is contained. There for me, should I need them, but there is a handy, south-of-Northampton, not-too-demanding kinda way.
That said, there are some interesting tales in my family. For example, I am not really a Webb. (For anyone wondering, I’m DEFINITELY not a Griffin, but even more importantly, I’m not a Webb.) My great grandmother was, by all accounts, a formidable woman. Finding herself pregnant in the 1920s – a decade when it wasn’t good to do anything out of wedlock, let alone give birth – she sent out telegrams to four of her most promising admirers. ‘I’m ready to marry you now,’ it said, or words to that affect. ‘Come at once.’ The four gents raced to claim her not-so lily white hand, and the first to make it was a man by the name of Webb. She took his name; he took responsibility for the child that was born, right up until the moment he decided that the hugely tall, dark-haired child growing up before him really didn’t fit with the neat, short stature of his family, and the marriage ended. Thus, I am a Webb by name… but definitely not by DNA.
On the same side of the family, the genealogy becomes even more shady when you look at my grandmother. She is a German-Jewish refugee, who came over to England on the kindertransport – a train organised by the British government in the late 1930s that evacuated Jewish children from Berlin, just before the outbreak of war. Aged 13 years old she said goodbye to her family on the platform of Berlin station, and none of them – not sister, parents or grandparents – were ever seen again. Decades later, and I’ve been in touch with the Holocaust Memorial Museum, trying to track down information, and what few bits we can find are heart-breaking in their simplicity. A list of names, a tick by each one; there, my great grandfather on his way to Auschwitz. A deportation document for my great grandmother; a couple of numbers, a name, a tick saying that yes, this deed – it is done. These are the few traces that still remain of an entire family, struck off from the face of Europe.
Thankfully, my mother’s side of the family offers in its own way, a little light relief. From my Mum I’ve inherited good eyesight, blond hair (with a genetic inclination towards ginger that keeps re-surfacing generation by generation) and the dubious privilege of being my own great aunt. By marriage, I hasten to add. The story goes like this:
My grandfather, Frank, had a sister, Doris. Doris married a man who’s name I genuinely don’t know – so we’ll call him Bob. Bob had been married before, and was much older than Doris. By his previous marriage he had a daughter, Zoe. By marrying into the family, my grandfather became Zoe’s uncle-in-law, and Bob became his brother-in-law.
However, Frank then fell in love with Zoe, and the two married. Now Frank was in the interesting position of his brother-in-law, also being his father-in-law, and his wife, also being his niece-in-law. And since that union, any children born of it are also destined to be related to themselves, since Frank’s offspring were both his children, and his great nieces and nephews; and so it shall continue unto the nth generation.
I suspect this complexity, more than anything else, is something which has, ironically, steered me away from investigating my own family too seriously. I fear it’d just give me a headache. Never-the-less, the stories which run through both sides of my family are both exciting tales in themselves, and an inherent part of how I came to be, and thus I shall preserve them, cherish them, and as now, maybe even go so far as to write them down.