I knock on the door and when it opens, I see a pair of eyes so similar to mine that I am a bit startled. My maternal cousin Hope, with whom I have corresponded for 30 years since we last saw each other, is welcoming us into her home. She lives in Hove, a town right next door to Brighton. It is compact, as all English towns seem to be, and has been her home for many years. We exchange stories, and I listen to family history that fills in some blanks and provides some surprises. She is the child of my late grandfather’s brother and tells me that most of the siblings were musical, the patriarch played several instruments and his wife worked in the theater as a “dresser” (costuming, I think) and also sold antiques on the side. This is amazing to me, as my grandfather did not demonstrate any interests along these lines. He was a rather good writer and perhaps this has passed to me.
I think about my other maternal cousin, Karen, whom I met for the first time in London earlier on our trip. She shared photos and stories of my late grandmother’s family. In Karen’s family photo albums, I see the face of a boy of about eight – the same face that is in a locket I’ve brought with me to England in hopes of learning his identity and that of a toddler girl in a companion photo. The locket was among my grandmother’s things after she passed away. I discover that they were grandma’s siblings, their names were Billy and Pat and they died shortly after the photos were taken. Billy is fair haired with a sweet smile and reminds me of Karen. Pat has a head of dark curls and for years I thought she was my grandmother. I think that Grandma must have felt those losses deeply to have kept the locket all of her long life. Another sister, Hilda, died as a young adult. Other photos show dark-haired men and women in their prime, my great aunts and uncles before their metamorphosis into elderly people filled with memories and stories. I can see that in their youth they were somewhat bohemian, unafraid to be unusual and unconcerned about social norms of the day. Karen tells me about her creative life – she paints, sings and writes. Streams of creativity and independence flowing through my DNA.
The vines of life and death are weaving through our travels and we feel the tug of our personal histories around our hearts. We are nurturing our family trees, giving them deeper roots and, hopefully, richer dimensions for the future.