This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.
A&G are delighted to publish a second article here in your free women’s online magazine, by Joanna Meilleur. We think this thoughtful piece is a timely reminder that many of us will be able to relate to.
A while back, my husband and I decided to get our DNA tested. We sent in our samples to Ancestry.co.uk and waited with great anticipation for around 4 weeks until we received our results via email. My husband was disappointed in his, as it didn’t reveal anything unexpected at all.
Mine, on the other hand, was somewhat of a surprise! 60% was as expected… Britain, Ireland and Scotland, plus a small percentage from India. However the balance was kind of mind-blowing as it was scattered across eight far-flung, exotic countries! Seems I’m a woman of the world!
I was excited to share these somewhat startling results with my mother and to ask her if she had any recollection or documentation of relatives who may have migrated to, for example, Norway or Turkey. My mother just turned 85 and was diagnosed a few years ago with Alzheimer’s disease. She’s spent the last year living in a long-term care home, as my father can no longer manage her condition.
In her case, the disease seems to be moving relatively slowly, as she thankfully still recognises us, but her mind is stuck on a seemingly never-ending treadmill of the same questions with no memory of the answers just minutes after hearing them. Like most Alzheimer’s patients, she does have a bit of long-term recall left, but sadly, most of her past is hazy at best.
Still, I sat in the armchair in my mother’s room trying to interest her in the colourful pie chart dividing my genetic background into percentages and regions. I hoped I could jog her memory by asking her about her parents, grandparents and other relatives, but she couldn’t remember much and was disappointingly completely disinterested. Instead, she wheeled around the room, picking up items and putting them back down, checking her calendar every couple of minutes to remind herself that I had come to visit that day.
I realised while I was sitting there, that I’d unwittingly missed a priceless opportunity. I’d missed the chance to document the details of not just her story, but my story and my children’s story. And that after I was gone, it would be mostly lost.
Like most of us, I know a fair bit about my background in general. I’d met my grandparents on both sides while they were alive, and I’m close with my Mum’s surviving sister and my cousins. I know that both my grandfathers were fairly high-ranking government officials during the time of the British Raj. (Hence the small percentage of Indian, not being a total surprise.) My mother lived with her father in India until she was 16 years old, playing hostess to many important world leaders after the rest of her family returned to England. I know that she saw unspeakable horrors during the partition of 1947 and travelled home to England by herself at barely 16 years of age. Unthinkable for most of us, but times were very different then.
As I get older and my memory starts to fade a bit, I truly wish that I’d sat down years ago with my mother, a tape recorder and a cup of tea and encouraged her to let her mind wander back through the years. I could have chronicled some of the anecdotes and the stories that I can now only vaguely remember her mentioning. I could have asked her to describe some of the more evocative details, like the scent of the Champa blooms or the oppressive heat of New Dehli. Or the spray of the ocean on her face during the rough trans-Atlantic voyage from England to Canada on her way to start a new life at age 21. Now all I can do is imagine.
Recently one of my cousins suggested that we start a Google file sharing platform, which enables us to store documents and family photos. We’ve begun to upload everything we can find and even to jot down memories, in the hopes of stitching back together the rich tapestry of our shared history.
I’ll probably never know about my Nordic or Turkish heritage, but I hope that the patches of the story that do remain, will eventually become a garment with many pockets and folds that my children and grandchildren will wear proudly, and like a precious Christening robe, be passed down for generations.
Why not read Joanna’s first article for A&G online magazine.