I am sorry if that sounds rude, I don’t wish to cause offence but families are so complex and convoluted sometimes and negotiating your way through half truths and tricky situations can be a minefield.
It is both the privilege and the curse of a Celebrant to hear the stories and try to make sense of them and to write a ceremony that brings the subject alive before an audience of those who knew and loved them.
Do you really know or is it a family myth?
I don’t know about you but I love watching the programmes like Who do you think you are? on the television. Little snippets of information that take the descendant on a journey of discovery that can be very surprising.
It is my experience when writing ceremonies that there are often half remembered stories with an element of truth, embellished and retold over the years.
There is an old proverb sometimes attributed to Mark Twain; “never the let the truth get in the way of a good story”. It is important to sift through the tales and retell them with the required caveats, a list of events will not cut it and a few spicy anecdotes will have the audience smiling inwardly.
For years, I had it on good authority, Great Uncle Ted had been a lady’s man with a list as long as your arm of gorgeous beauties that he had entertained and been enamoured of; they turned out, on closer inspection, to be the pigeons in his loft with fancy names such as Dilys and Amy and he had had them tattooed on his forearms in perpetuity.
Ask before it is too late
So often people say I wish I knew more. I strongly advise you to ask the questions and write notes before it is too late.
I asked Mum recently whether any of the family had been involved in suffrage – I had seen a piece of Art Deco jewellery in suffragette colours and knew nothing about the green, violet and white (give votes for women) that denoted its’ provenance and it interested me.
We got talking about her Father’s side of the family, an intelligent and erudite bunch and she mentioned the inscription in her desk.
Nigel Pumphrey was my Grandfather – if you Google Anna and Mary Priestman you will find that they were important in the women’s suffrage movement – I did not know that! But who was Florence Potter and did the bureau belong to her grandparents and if so, why did she feel moved to gift it to her employers’ descendant rather than her own?
So many questions and so many missed opportunities to hear the tales first hand and to foster a relationship with the teller.
I knew my Grandfather well and somehow, I had neglected to ask the crucial questions – this leads me to another raft of questions that are uppermost in my mind.
Courage and bravery
At this time of year, as we prepare to remember those who laid down their lives for us in the World Wars it is particularly important to recall the stories and courage of those who have gone before us.
A great many of those brave men and women prefer not to recall the events that cost them so much; but with a little cajoling they will tell you snippets of the human story that makes them who they are.
Grandfather would talk about his friendships and the funny anecdotes that go along with them. My daughter has transcribed the stories that he wrote whilst convalescing; but I never had the courage to ask him what it was really like to be facing real danger and he certainly did not volunteer to share.
Please do not assume that you have time, when you have a moment take it and use all your compassion and skill to illicit the stories that make the subject come alive.
If you are able to record the information do so, it will be bittersweet to hear that voice again.
To tell the life story of someone is important, it brings comfort to those who mourn; it is respectful and right and it is our duty to celebrate the achievements and the life experiences of those we meet.