I want to write about them.
Not yet. Hers are still the arms that hugged me when my gerbil died. His face is still the one he kept straight to make me giggle.
I am convinced that my grandparents can tell a story of twentieth-century Britain. Maybe not the story but an important one, all the same. Look, I can explain them. At least three wars marked them. You name it, I can bring it all to the table: migration, law, religion, reconstruction, class, housing, industry, region, transport, technology, education. And then: disability, mental illness, suicide. Babies wrapped in newspaper. Hair gone white with worry. A car going through a red light.
‘You historicise,’ said the therapist. It’s true. I quip about it being an occupational hazard. But it’s deeper than that. It’s what makes me both a good historian and a lousy one, because I can never stop.
Not yet. And yet …
The archive is growing. Mother wants me to have the old photographs – ‘I have all the ones I want on the wall’ – and I have my grandmother’s bible, given to her by her elementary school teacher, with markers of faith, death, fear and love interweaved between the pages. I have the racist ornament in a box, a papier mâché ‘Chinaman’ that was a cheap souvenir from a school trip but that wobbled in a way that mesmerized me. It has a chunk of its head missing.
And now they turn up, unexpected – or, maybe, half-expected – in other people’s archives. They are, there, detached from context; detached from us. A report in the Manchester Evening News tells of an everyday tragedy to go along with the half-truths that were whispers. It was more mundane than you thought, were told. Except, of course, it wasn’t: the ordinary made extraordinary.
Searching for teaching material, I stumble upon a database and half think ‘Grandpa was in India’. And there he is. Digitally restored. A film for my Nana, who he starts to call ‘chuck’ but stops. She wouldn’t like it: ‘darling’ will do nicely. No-one can read this source like I can, I think. How could anyone even try? The prospect is haunting.
If anyone is to add footnotes, it will be me. It falls to me – of course it does! – to tell the half-truths.
He bought me a Wagon Wheel biscuit. I hated them but ate it anyway. Maybe, somehow, somewhere, I knew that he’d survived a civil war to give it to me.