I’ve been contemplating some ancient family photos of late: a grandparent wedding photo of a rushed union due to pregnancy, the grandfather I never met in his defence force uniform on the eve of the German invasion, the other unknown relatives standing with unsmiling seriousness and poise and cigars, their general underweight pallor (except for the father of the bride whom they called the Kaiser Uncle, seated behind his stomach), and only the bride with her duo of tulips smiling happily. Most of the people in the photo have already departed, but I can claim some degree of kinship to all, some distant scrap of relation which only seems more meaningful for never having been actuated.
Also some photos of said grandfather in his school days: a teacher in a boater, a class of shabby kids, some sprawling symetrically on their sides at the bottom of the group, some in typical sailor outfits like the kids of Russian aristocracy. These are people that experienced the poverty of Holland in the 30s. And in the far left corner, as far as I can be certain in judging his features, said grandfather with no more than eight years behind him and an impossibly deliberate folding of the arms with attitudinal stare. Wilfulness.
Also an illustrated magazine from the occupation period, with ads for household products and pilot’s bars and coal heaters and photo stories of the victorious German armies quashing the communist forces on the Russian front (note the superimposed V on the final photo). Yes, a slightly detestable propaganda medium; but several pages in, a baby photo competition with none other than my father at six months looking calmly angelic and distinctly Aryan. I didn’t actually get to clear up whether he won the prize or whether my grandmother explicitly shunned it due to collaborative associations, or whether nothing ever came of it and was hushed up anyway, like so many other little things which seem trifling but go a long way to explain the mosaic of attitudes that shaped much of the familial structure and norms of my parents, and how they in turn transposed these in their parenting.
Anyhoo, another observation from my recent visit was the amount of (relatively young) people having kids, or trying to conceive, or lighting the buzz of expectancy in their soon-to-be-grand-parents. Lots of defacto couples and lots of second or third marriages gunning for that extra kid. (And, as an aside, a whole lot of houses and flats for sale in forced- or settlement-disposal circumstances). Mothers and fathers caught in the flush of parental celebration and fussy obsession (vis. my father’s snide comments to the effect that everyone has super-babies these days) and basically plugged in to the great circle of life, or whatever you want to call it. I know it’s a terrible cliché to say that everyone goes through the fixed stages of life more or less consistently, and that you can either be cognisant or blissfully unaware of being in that (vicious) cycle, yet still lead a life of supreme individuality or proud heritage or sheer reproductive thrill (vis. Anna Brangwen). It’s all a rather humdrum matter of choice, for sure, and yet I don’t mean to play the individualist card any stronger or more deliberately than others who feel it’s a normal part of life to spawn directly and often; but above all this, and possibly filtering through it, the active knowledge and awareness of past generations, in intimate detail and intimate distance (I wonder, what did his voice sound like? How much of that attitude came out in his speech?) should somehow correct or balance our understanding of the present. Not so much an inoculation as an information in the most literal, syllabic sense of the term. They all went through the same shit we do, I mean in the broader way of things, personal crises, difficult relationships, stubborness and guilt and jubilation and warm summer days. Those crisp black and white pictures with their posed solidity and faces seasoned with time’s expressiveness… Their attitude to having kids was more a matter of conjugal duty and churchy sanction (as well as sheer normality). But still those faces stare into the distant present that is my interpretation in turn, and it does feel heartening to see, so closely, the long line and cycles of my descent and extrapolate some projection forward, and of how little and how much can be left behind to speak to them. How time is like a bubble…