I am in a beautiful corner of the world at the moment: Plettenberg Bay, in South Africa. I’m staying with my great Uncle Alain, and we are going through the family records together so I can learn about my family’s history.
It’s special reading the documents and letters and eulogies, alongside hearing Uncle Alain’s anecdotes and stories about these people I’m seeing in old, faded photographs.
I’ve come to realise that studying family history is actually a study of life.
I’m learning about war, politics, motivations, fears, philosophy, parenting, religion, spirituality, marriage, communication, time…
I’ve been contemplating the best way to share what I’m learning, and have decided to simply share some of the stories in their own right, and then share my personal learnings from this exploration.
My great grandmother, Charlotte, had to raise four children in France during WWII. They lived in the servants quarters of a Chateau (which was owned by a family member), while my great grandfather fought in the war. Once the French army was defeated by the Germans, he was dismissed of military duty and was the only one to come back out of the twelve officers of his regiment. He managed to find work in Paris, but food was very scarce.
At one time during the war, Charlotte journeyed to Paris to see her husband, and to smuggle him some meat. However she came cross a German checkpoint in the underground, and knew that if they found her carrying the meat she would be sent to prison. She also had a bag of nuts, so she pretended to gift them to the German guards, then dropped them on the ground, and while they were distracted, she managed to get away: That must have taken a very cool head!
In 1948 the whole family moved to South Africa.
At one stage Charlotte became very sick, so much so she had to go to hospital. She told her husband how worried she was and how much she didn’t want to go, and to her annoyance, he simply prayed. The next morning she was gobsmacked at how well she felt, and told her husband so. ‘I knew you would be better,’ he said.
Their youngest daughter, Chantal, along with her husband Tom and two children, moved to the US for work. In 1970 Tom was asked to give a lecture at a town some distance from where they lived, and the whole family stayed overnight in a motel room. It was winter. During the night, the gas heater leaked gas into the sealed room and the whole family died. Absolutely heartbreaking.
Fast forward to 1980, and my great grandmother Charlotte, and her husband Francois, are celebrating their 50th Wedding anniversary. Here are some quotes from their speeches:
‘As in every human life, ours has been a mixture of joys and sorrows, but our experience has been that love brings it’s touch of happiness even to sorrow.’ – Francois
‘We took great fun in bringing up our four children. Asked what were her principles for education my wife answered: ‘I try not to take away the qualities they have received at birth’. Our own progress proved more inspiring to our children than recommendations about their behaviour.’ – Francois
‘If there was one thing in life which scared me, it was the idea of marriage. For ever – and ever – and ever. Terrible! But what fun it turned out to be.’ – Charlotte
‘Love is the beginning – the middle and the end.’ – Francois
Their eldest son is my great Uncle Alain, who is a chemical engineer. He started his company in 1958, and it took 15 years of persistence, hard work, and some luck before it took off. Yet he kept at it everyday, doing what needed to be done. When I asked him for advice on running a business, he said ‘it’s just trying to do the right things without doing the wrong things, but not necessarily doing the best things’. I love this. He’s also told me how sometimes, becoming the best (eg making your product the best of it’s type) is very important. And at other times in life, the ‘best is the enemy of the good’.
He told me how in those first years of business he had many failures in developing a product, ‘and that was when I entered the biggest room in the world.’
‘What? Which room?’
‘The room for improvement.’
On one of our walks along the beach, I brought up the subject of purpose, and achievement, and that feeling of not ‘getting there’ (to your goal) fast enough. Uncle Alain said ‘where you are at doesn’t matter. It is the trend. Look to see, are you on the right trend? And if you are, you will get there.’ I can be rather impatient about getting things happening, and he said something I’ve bolded and underlined: ‘You must come to accept that things just happen, you can’t always make them happen.’ And on the topic of money: ‘Use what you need, try not to need too much, and see what other people need.’
On Sunday we met with one of my great uncle’s friends, a Polish woman who is 88 years old. She was 12 when the Russian’s gave her family two hours to pack before putting them on a train to Siberia. (Her mother was very ill and they were ordered to leave her behind. They later found out she had died 12 days after their departure). Yet over coffee and a croissant, she didn’t talk about the horrors they went through during those 3 years at the camp in Siberia. She only said it was ‘terrible’, and then told me how stunning the nature around the camp was; ‘the great fir trees covered in snow, for nine months of the year, it was beautiful’. And she spoke of how much she bonded with all the 500 other children in that camp, ‘we became a family’. Then when Germany invaded Russia, Poland found themselves with Russia now on their side, so the children were released and moved to a refugee camp in Iran. She spoke of how happy they were in that camp, as they now had enough food, and lessons. After five months in Iran she made it to South Africa with the remaining 300 of the original 500 Polish children, sponsored by South Africa’s Prime Minister General JC Smuts. Those 300 children kept in contact for the rest of their lives, everyone knew each other by name.
She said she never bothered feeling sorry for herself for what she went through. She focused on the present and on the future, on living her life. She was married for 66 years, ‘it was a good life, we were good partners, good lovers’. When I asked her for advice on a good marriage, she said that trust is the most important thing. ‘Live and let live, both ways. Have absolute freedom to be yourself. You don’t have to consult with your partner for someone to come over for lunch, you just tell them, and they say ‘okay’. Be free in your marriage.’
I’m 20 years old, so to me ten years is a really long time. Uncle Alain is 83 years old, so his perception of ten years is obviously very different. Hearing that it took his business 15 years to really take off actually gave me a huge sense of relief. ‘Ah, breathe,’ I don’t need to rush, or ‘achieve’ as quickly as possible, or worry that I’m not as far as I wanted to be at 20. It’s okay to take things steadily, let time go by and do it’s magic. And most importantly, it’s worth planting for the future. It’s worth planting trees I know will only be strong enough for me to climb in 40 years time. It’s worth putting in the time to knit a jumper, learn French, learn about investing. It’s worth doing things that reaps rewards in many years time. And of course, I’ve always thought this. But going back through my family history has made me appreciate it properly for the first time, and inspired me to apply it to my life. The time will pass anyway. Ten years can actually go by in the blink of an eye. It’s worth researching, learning, planting, and waiting. In 50 years time I’ll be grateful.
In a conversation over lunch last week, after much discussion about insurance, Uncle Alain commented that ‘some people seem to insure their whole lives, yet it’s the things we don’t see coming that bring us down’. This made me think of Chantal and her family’s sudden death, of financial losses my ancestors endured, of all those who suffered during the war, and afterwards. It made me think of the uncertain times during the Cold War, of the challenges here in South Africa during Apartheid, and after it – including now. It made me realise that tragedy, hardship, uncertain futures, are all common experiences during life. A lot of the time life goes along fine, but really horrible things can happen too. Yet in reading their letters and eulogies I see how they carried on, supported each other through the hard times, and got through it. It’s helped me accept that bad things happen, and that’s okay, when they happen to me I’ll get through it, just like everyone before me has. And it’s made me realise just how lucky I am now. I’m safe, fed, housed, happy, doing work I love.