Family history research is engrossing and of necessity it focuses on the past. This is where our elderly relatives come into it as an information source, the African proverb, "when an old man dies, a library burns" never being more apropos. I was "started" on FHR at the age of 12 and so was lucky enough to have a considerable number of venerable information sources. Perhaps because I had no preconceptions about age, only childlike enthusiasm that they told me "cool stuff", I became aware of the casual ageism that my informants suffered, albeit often with the best of intentions, from nearer relatives. But falling into the same trap can cost you dearly. It happened to me:
An elderly second cousin, "Pat" (names have been changed) told me facts and figures and then asked if I knew a family history mystery she'd wondered about since age 5 years: In 1928, she was 5 and living with her paternal grandparents as her mother had left her marriage and her father worked away. One day, a finely dressed couple who "came from China" but were Occidental visited her grandparents and were welcomed. This couple had no children, and wanted to take Pat with them as their adoptive child and heiress. Granddad agreed, but grandma vetoed the idea flatly. Pat always wondered who the couple were and why they were visiting her farm worker grandparents with such incongruous wealth.
But I drew a complete blank with everyone I asked - Pat's brother (a 6 month old baby at the time) knew nothing; her adult son rolled his eyes and said 'she's addled it never happened,' and others, including her husband, daughter, etc., told me that since she was in her mid-70s she would have seen a scene in an afternoon film on BBC2 and got it all mixed up. As 1 year became 2, then 3, there was no hint of this exotic couple in the life of her grandparents, also my great-great-grandparents, so I relegate Pat and her story to kindly but befuddled and it was all nonsense. it is perhaps ironic that 8 years later, it was the day before I was put in my place when I watched the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers, where an impoverished elderly lady is given carte blanche to use the bank robbery cash by police because they, like everyone else, patronisingly don't believe her to be anything other than daffy. The following day, I visited a newly contacted relative, had a good afternoon, then, as we strolled down the drive to my car and I opened the door to get in, I mentioned it in passing, only for this relative to say, "oh that was my aunt and uncle."
What!? Cue back in the house and another hour. The next day I visited Pat with the photograph of the couple in full Lord and Lady Mayoress of Mansfield regalia and she recognised them. The couple were her paternal grandfather's niece and nephew-in-law (hence different surname) who were in the British Empire Foreign Service, posted to the colony of Hong Kong; the 1928 visit had been a trip home to visit relatives! Pat was a genteel lady but I couldn't fault her as she delicately wallowed in the smug of her family's embarrassment that she had been right and accurate all along and their condescending dismissals made them look arrogant. It is a cautionary tale that has stood me in good stead ever since, even with a couple of very elderly relatives who had a diagnosis of dementia-related illness, old people really are far wiser than we will ever be, and never dismiss any anecdote they give you, no matter how outlandish or unlikely it might initially seem to be.
Miss Catherine Stewart
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