Pondering on the past – prompted by a photo

Margaret Bandinel & Frederick Palmer – 21st December 1945

Recently I gave a selection of images to a colleague to choose which ones to use on digital screens in the Library of Birmingham to promote my current series of family history workshops. She chose this one – primarily because it suited the dimensions of the screen but it also fitted well with my upcoming Valentine Day Special on the topic of Marriage.

It’s a photo of my parents on their wedding day – 21st December 1945. You might expect it to be a photo that I’m familiar with but I’m not. It was never on display on the mantelpiece as a memento of a happy occasion -nor even in a wedding album as far as I can recall. I can’t even recall if I ever saw it during their lifetime (suspect my children may recall my own wedding photos in the same way although they have occasionally surfaced and they’ve had a good giggle – I always knew that coral pink suit with the white shoes was not a good look but it was 1986 so maybe I can be forgiven!).

But back to my parents and their photo. My colleagues immediately commented on the size of the bouquet and the beautiful long trail of fern (almost as long as my Mum’s veil) that I’d hardly ever noticed. My eyes are drawn to their happiness in their faces – not unusual I suppose in wedding pictures but I can’t recall my parents ever being so happy in each other’s company. It surprises me that they ever were although they stuck it out together till my Dad died after they’d been together 41 years.  As well as the photo I’ve also got a few letters and a whole series of birthday cards (& even the occasional Valentine) which give me at least a small insight into their courtship and early years of marriage.

But there is so much I don’t know – not only because I didn’t witness it or indeed ask about it but because neither spoke much about their emotional hinter-life. Looking at this photo I wonder if they were always this way or did they slowly shut down. In my adoption papers the Guardian Ad-Litem report describes my Mum as “reserved” whilst my Dad was described as “impatient” and when I first read this it certainly matched some of my memories from their later lives. But I do recall my Mum talking on a rare occasion about my adoption about the post-placement visit of a social worker and her nervousness about the possibility of my being taken away before the adoption was finalised – so maybe her “reserve” was simply an unconfessed fear and my Dad’s “impatience” was simply an eagerness to get the paperwork sorted so that their family could be complete following their earlier adoption of my sister.

In another context this week I was reminded of a quote from a favourite book of mine, L P Hartley’s The Go Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” As family historians we often look at documents, whether they be official records such as civil registration certificates, parish registers, and institutional records; or more personal documents including letters and diaries and photographs, and we try to imagine what our ancestors were really like. What were their hopes and dreams, their characters, their motivations in life? What lay behind the decisions they took? But if it’s hard to do even with those whose lives we shared for many years how much more wary we should be with those more distant to us.  Their lives are open to different interpretations and in the same way I and my colleagues saw, and sought, different aspects of an event in the marriage photo we need to be aware that the past really is not only a foreign country but one that we can never visit.

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