There’s been a lot on my mind lately, and I’m not entirely sure what. I know this reference is slightly outdated now, but my thoughts remind me of trying to tune a radio. The white noise is there but if I sit and concentrate I can try and tune in on a station, although it isn’t perfect, there’s still some static going on. I have often found that writing helps me in times like that, so I thought I’d try and make sense of one ‘station’ as it were, that being our forthcoming trip to Shetland, and the whole family tree thing.
I’ve been unwell recently, my mental health has not been good. For a period last year I could barely leave the house for fear of a panic attack. Anxiety is a terrible thing. It’s better now, but I feel as though something, somewhere deep inside is unsettled. It seems to me that it has always been unsettled, and it also seems to me, that taking this trip is somehow going to help.
Recently we found out that my great grandmother was not the woman we thought it was. It turns out that my great aunt Marion, known mostly as Gracie, is actually my great grandmother, and Rosa is now my great great grandmother, who bought Rosie up as her own.
Since this discovery it has left me thinking a lot about our place in the family. I’ve been thinking about the anxieties my ancestors must have had, as single mothers in a time when it just wasn’t a thing. An illegitimate child was often an embarrassment to the family, many babies were given up for adoption or abandoned. Women often used dangerous methods to try and exterminate the pregnancy. In my direct family line, I can count eight illegitimate births by four women.
Christina Mathewson (1823-1891), my 4x great grandmother had three children by 3 different fathers. The eldest, Christina Henderson (1846-1929) was reputedly William Henderson’s (1827-1908) child, he was a merchant and the sub postmaster in Burravoe, Yell. Christina, my 3x great grandmother had two children out of wedlock, Selina and Rosa, we don’t know who their father(s) were. Rosa, my 2x great grandmother married Andrew Scollay, himself (and his brother Laurence), were both illegitimate. Then Rosa and Andrew’s daughter Gracie, my great grandmother, had Rosalind, and we have no record of who her father was.
That’s a lot of mothers and children being bought up with a stigma and a prejudice. Maybe it was different in Shetland? Maybe away from the hustle of city life and expectation, illegitimacy wasn’t that big a deal. How religious was Shetland at this time? Those long, dark winters, men at sea for long periods of time. These are all big questions I need to research the answer to, and I’m not sure I’ll find them in any book I can read down here in Devon.
I wonder if all this anxiety and stress has been passed down to me, to create the beautiful worrier that I am? Or, alternatively, it was the secret we didn’t know, that meant we were maybe treated that little bit differently, perhaps with out any realisation that they were doing it? Whilst I have no doubt in my mind that my grandmother was loved, surely something must have been slightly off. When Gracie married and had children of her own, what would of happened then? Even now, we are unsure of how our family will react to the news that my mums cousins are now her aunt and uncle. After years of whispers, it is now confirmed, although it seems many already knew, when I told Dannii, she wasn’t surprised.
I have always felt like I needed to apologise for my existence. Loved and happy, but always as though I was in the way. I should be seen and not heard, stay in the background and behave. I’ve never had much confidence or self esteem. Dannii, my now second cousin once removed, told me that Rosie was about 17 when she found out, so 1942. Apparently she wanted to join the WRENs during the war and needed her birth certificate. At this point Gracie would of been married, her daughter Lillian was born in 1943.
I can’t compute the mix of emotions that must have produced. Her first born daughter that she wasn’t allowed to love as her own, then her second daughter. What did Rosie feel? Did this need I have to become a wallflower envelope her? To keep the secret and the peace? I see it in my mum sometimes to, strong but quiet. Self doubt. A desire not to upset the balance. If everyone knew but us, was there tension? Unknown thoughts and feelings seeping out unconsciously. What did Lillian and her brother think of my grandmother, their half sister? What did Gracie think of my mum, or of me? Did she love us like she loved her ‘real’ grandchildren? The fact as well that we are so distant, physically as well as emotionally. Did it just feel better to be away from Scotland? Easier to be away from being in the way? What if it was all in their minds, self imposed doubt from over thinking and poor communication?
So many questions. Questions, questions and more questions. My mind is spinning with them. I thought writing some of this down would help me, but all it has done is give off more of that static I spoke of. I feel lost at sea with a radio that can’t pick up a signal.
For 95% of those questions, I will never know the answers. I may be able to understand what it was like for my ancestors to live as single mothers, but I will never know how Christina M, Christina H, Marion S, Rosa S, Marion G S and Rosie S felt, (I can definitely see some common names amongst my ancestors). I can find out names and dates, but I will never know if the effect of all these acts and secrets created a personality trait that’s severely affected my life.
Despite everything I know I can never know, I still feel like Shetland is calling me. I feel like finally, these amazing women’s stories are being told. The truth is coming out, and the family is slowly coming together again, and I believe this will create some peace, and get rid of the static.