For years now, I have had in my possession a box with rolled up family trees, copies of sepia photographs and postcards, my great-grandfather’s pince-nez spectacles, copious notes in my father’s handwriting – and letters. Photocopies of letters, many of them, which I have started to transcribe as the writing is often almost illegible.
My Welsh great-grandfather fought in the trenches during 1915, received a head wound and was invalided home. Over the next nearly three decades this would slowly paralyse and kill him. Very few of my family on my father’s side are still alive, but apparently a fragment of my great-grandfather’s skull still exists somewhere, kept by his eldest grandchild, himself now an old man. My great-grandfather wrote several letters from the trenches to his wife, and many more from the various hospitals he spent time in around the UK. They are full of reflections on the people he meets, his religious faith and preoccupation with that, and his sheer relief and gratitude at being alive. The sentence that always floors me, however, is the one that I have used as the title for this piece. The primroses themselves are long gone; what remains is the juxtaposition of the horror of the ‘rather hot’ day, so briefly mentioned, when he was hit, with the tender inclusion of flowers, picked in a blasted landscape of destruction and sent home to the wife and children, the youngest of whom he hadn’t yet met.
I never knew my great-grandfather but my great-grandmother, who brought up my father as her own, lived into her nineties and held me as a toddler on her lap. Mother of 8, family matriarch, she emigrated to America and back again in the 1900s as well as negotiating pit disasters as a miner’s daughter and wife. My sister and I are named after her and I’d like to think something of her lives on in me. While her husband fought in the mud, she carried her babies ‘Welsh fashion’ tucked in a shawl, and crocheted around them, fine lace edgings for tablecloths.
Remembering is complex. My mother and her family, German, lived through the same world wars but from a rather different perspective. Here, what comes filtering down to me is trauma and horror; my grandparents trying in vain to flee a conquering, occupying army in 1945 – the close misses of the bombs – the brutal stories of that night when the town fell – the days spent with no home, no food and a toddler and very young baby, unsure if any of them would be there the next day, unsure if a desperate request to a soldier for milk would be met with kindness or violence. And then afterwards, the years of guilt and silence, the unspeakable memories and knowledge.
There are so many with similar stories, so many with far, far worse stories.
I don’t think it’s surprising that traces of this still swim in my nervous system. That I project my family’s past terrors into the future and superimpose them on to the world that might be coming. I read about climate collapse and I see visions of an apocalyptic scenario that my children might face. Brutality and horror, society descending into chaos just as it once did around my family.
How do I step back from the brink in my head, without minimising the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in? How do I find the primroses in the wasteland of my imagination?
To remember is to know the loss and the pain. To remember, surely, surely, is to realise that this has to stop? To remember war should only be to ensure that wars do not happen any more. The ‘war to end all wars’ clearly didn’t. And our world faces ongoing human-made destruction through conflicts and environmental damage.
To remember has to begin to imply change – and to find the threads that can be allowed to continue unbroken; the strength, courage and persistence of our ancestors, the acts of kindness, the love. To know that our ancestors would wish for us to be free and safe, to not have to endure what they did, to do it differently.
I know that my intergenerational trauma has to stop with me. I am the break in the line, I am where it gets processed and healed – I bear the cost of that. Every scar and wound I carry is testament to the sacrifice of my healing.
I know that the parenting I have undertaken is radical – to raise my girls differently, outside of ‘the system’, to enable them to question, to know themselves, their integrity, to think, to empathise. To be consciously present to and with them and their feelings in a way unknown previously in my family. To contain my body’s remembering of memories that are not mine. To equip them with resilience for whatever they may face. This is my act of remembrance – remembrance for change. This is my activism. This is my hope.
This morning I marched with other families to raise awareness of climate change emergency. The adults encircled the children and sang “we hold you in our circle, in our love”. This is our call especially as parents; in the face of hopelessness, consciously choosing hopeful love. Hope as a behaviour, not an emotion.
And our ancestors stand behind us in this – we are their hope and dream. From the fire of their lives we came; we are the charcoal – rich, dark, crumbly treasure.
And our children? They are the feathers of the phoenix, rising from the ashes into something new, strong, beautiful and unimaginable.
One of my great-grandfather’s letters, from a hospital on the coast, recounts how he stood on the beach; “the waves come in like great white maned horses and I was glad to be alive this morning to see and enjoy it all”. Here I start, here I stand; in gratitude for those who went before, in gratitude for my life and in gratitude for this beautiful, threatened world. Gratitude mingles with pain to become the thread of remembrance stretching forward towards transformation; the flowers in the wasteland.