The idea of Family Quilt came from hearing my father tell the story of how my grandparents met. I had never been one for asking lots of questions about the family and yet in that moment the obvious hit me. My father was 90 and he would not be here forever! And when he would go, he would take with him the stories of his life and the ones of my grandparents. At its most basic, this is why it matters. Because one day you may be left saying ‘I wish I had asked those questions before it was too late’. But there is a whole lot more to hearing those stories.
I am lucky that 18 months later my father is still around. In those months we have asked questions. My father has been my guinea pig with Family Quilt. He has built a lovely patchwork of stories from across his life that he has shared with his children and grandchildren.
And looking back, this adventure has got us well beyond just a bunch of family stories.
We have been able to join the dots of his life. Where was he? when and doing what? Suddenly his whole life lies in front of us and we have appreciated how full it has been. In the stories, we have discovered amazing details that have given us glimpses of what life was so many years ago. My sister and I were marvelling the other day at the idea that he had spent the first 6 years of his life in a home with no toilet ( only a chamber pot) sleeping in his parents room. That felt extraordinary!
Some of his stories have given us an interesting historical context. He lived through the Second World War so he has some incredible memories of bombing raids and going to shelter for safety. Turned out he also had a journal my grandfather wrote when he was made prisoner in 1939.
Most importantly, we have discovered a person we have never met : my father as a young man. Enjoying his bachelor life, being thrown out the house by my grandfather ( and taken back when my grandmother stopped talking to her husband!), up to mischief during his military service… In our eyes our parents only have the life we have lived with them. But they do have another life, the one before us. And that life often shows that their dreams and behaviours were not that different from ours at the same age. When we hear their memories, we better understand why they are the people we know, why they chose to be the parents they were. There is a huge perspective given to our views of them, and with it, comes a mellowing of our judgement towards them.
The final positive of this adventure is that this is a journey the whole family has taken together. His children and his grandchildren have read the stories. Each time a new one has been completed, the grandchildren have been eager to discover them. In their eyes my father was always an old man - he was 68 when his first grandchild was born, 78 when the youngest came along. So for the younger generation the discovery has been even more surprising. My children were amazed to read about a trip he took to London in 1949. The London he describes is rather different to the one they know.
In the past 18 months, there is no doubt that my father has enjoyed telling his stories. He knows the time will come when he will not be here to tell them anymore. He has enjoyed reminiscing and talking about his life. I hope it has made him take stock of the full life he has lived.
But in fact, the biggest benefit is for us - his children and grandchildren. We have enjoyed reading his stories, we have enjoyed talking about them. We have learned so much from them - about him, about our family, about the world years ago. It has made us value more than ever the time we have left with him around. But it has also left us serene to know that when he goes we will know him well and will be left with many more memories of him.