Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ancestral aspects

My sister Carol, who lives in Wales close to where our Mum is in hospital, just took a small vacation and went to our home town of Sheffield, Yorkshire, to see relatives and take her friend around the sights.

She took pictures, which pleased me to see.

The end terrace on the left is the home where our grandad Arthur was born in 1899, where his family had already lived for probably fifty years, and where they would continue to live for almost exactly another hundred years after that, until the death of grandad's sister Jessie.

One family living in the same home for 150 years is nothing in the UK. neither is it unusual that they never owned this home. It was always a rental, or as they say in the UK, a "let."

For most of the time my family lived there it was owned by a "gentle" family, not a knight or lord, but an ordinary kind of British upper-middle class property owner, who used it and other investments as a form of predictable annual income. When you read in Austin or Dickens that a landowner has so many hundred or thousand pounds a year, this is the kind of investment they are talking about.

And of course, my grandfather and his father and all my family would have been expected to show them deference.

Eventually the property fell into the hands of the Sheffield City Council and became publically owned. I'm not sure why. It might have been taken for back taxes. It might easily have been taken by eminent domain because of its location. The cottage is very nicely positioned on a trail head into one of Sheffield's many city parks and greenbelt open spaces, a place called Whitely Woods, and there has always been much public interest in it since it is in such an idyllic setting. There are even these great Edwardian postcards of the place. In fact you can hike on trails from the house right up to the moors without having to do much more than cross a couple roads.

There's a old waterwheel dam close by, called Wire Mill Dam, with a monument to master cutler Thomas Boulsover, who used the cottage at one point in the 1700s. Family tradition has it that the experiments leading to the creation of Sheffield Plate took place in the kitchen, but like a lot of family traditions, there's a formal historical version that denies this.

In any case, this house was home for my people for long enough that it's come to represent home to myself and my sister. This is the place where my great grandfather grew prize roses and hydrangeas, where my grandfather played as a kid with his brothers and sisters in the dam, the place he returned safely to after the First World War, the place where my mother lived for safety during the Second World War, the place where mother's cousin Ron, an RAF Bomber Command navigator, came home to between postings, and the place where my sister and I would be walked, alongside our mother who is now so very old and sick, but then could out-hike us any day, to see our older relatives.

In the 1960s and 1970s this house seemed like one permanent old folk's afternoon tea party to us kids, with all our great aunts and uncles hanging out there most days whether they lived there or not. It was home to Uncle Bert and Aunt Jane, as well as their unmarried sister Jessie. You could always rely on being teased by Jane, or that Uncle Tom would show you the place where his eye used to be (shot out in the war) or that there would be milk, or later when we were bigger, tea, ham, salad, cake, or if we were really lucky, trifle.

Of course they're all gone now, at least the old folks are. In fact there's a second generation of old folks that are now dying out. My mother is living out her days in her hospital bed full of memories of this place, while her cousin Barrie still lives a few hundred yards up the hill, very frail but still walking around the block each day with his two sticks.

And I live in a house in America that is nicely positioned on a historic site on a trail at the edge of the woods. I grow roses but not hydrangeas, and a lot of tomatoes.

But I own this house with my wife Aimee, and indeed we own another one at the other side of the forest ten miles away, one I built with my own hands.

And I am not expected to defer to any man or woman by reason of accident of birth.

I think the old folks would appreciate all that, even though I had to come to America to make it happen.

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