My parents and their cousins

I like the idea of cousins, of extended families, but there is no history of it in my family, either on my mother’s side, or on my father’s. I had four great-aunts alive during my life, two on either side, and I met one of them (discounting when I was under the age of five) once, another twice, another twice, and the other, not at all. When you consider that three of them lived well into their nineties, and that three lived ten, twelve and twenty-five minutes away, this is shamefully weird. I didn’t know that one of them existed at all until I was 18. In each case, there was a strong sense of Don’t Go There. And yet I have first, second, third, fourth and fifth cousins with whom I correspond, with whom I have stayed, and who I like very much.

My father would have found this odd (my forays into family did not begin, and probably couldn’t have, because he had the documents which led me to these cousins hidden on top of a wardrobe, until five years after he died). My mother was slightly frightened by it. Her parents had been brought up in circumstances which meant that, bit by bit, they cut themselves adrift from their siblings. Her father had been farmed out at birth to his grandparents; her mother was the youngest, and believed herself to have been left to mind her father by her brothers. They did in fact keep up with about six cousins, by my count, but my grandparents’ death in the 1950s put an end to the contact.

But on my father’s side, the distance was preserved by a degree of animosity which he had inherited from the villain of the piece, my grandfather. My grandfather did not like, in this order, his sister, his brother-in-law, his wife’s sister, and his wife’s brother-in-law (his wife had had an elder brother, who died before I was born). Indeed, he seems to have liked no-one other than his wife and an old army friend. He was also pretty cool towards his daughter. So my father grew up as the golden boy (his mother wept from start to finish throughout his wedding to my mother – all wedding pictures of his mother show a woman who is distraught. Perhaps she realised that life was going to consist more exclusively of her anti-social husband from then on).

In 1952, not long before I was born, my father moved to the family shipyard, a repair-yard in Sunderland at the height of its success – a couple of months after I was born, they opened the largest dry-dock in the world (destined to be filled in only thirty or so years later). At the time, my father, then still only 30, was joining a board of managers which included my grandfather and his brother-in-law, who was called Whit Bowmer. Whit Bowmer had gained the job through the candidly nepotistical route common to all Sunderland shipyards of the day. There’s an American who has dedicated his retirement to linking up the ship-building and – repairing families of the Wear. Incestuous doesn’t begin to describe it.

But it would seem that Whit Bowmer would have been given the honour of making a speech that day, an honour passed straight to my father by my grandfather, and a speech in which a newly-born me gets a walk-on mention: not least since my full name, Thomas William Greenwell, was the name over the gates, and had belonged to the yard’s founder, my great-grandfather. He’d died in 1948. Four years later, my name wasn’t going to be anything else.

The Bowmers – my grandfather’s sister and her husband Whit, and their daughter Rosemary – moved away (although perhaps Rosemary had already moved on. There had been an elder brother, Bill Bowmer – William Henry Greenwell Bowmer – who had been killed in 1942, off Algeria, when his ship, HMS Martin, was torpedoed). The account-books in the Tyne and Wear archive seem to support the idea that this was within a year of my father’s arrival. My grandfather never spoke to his sister again (she was the one I never met).

And in fact, I never met Rosemary, either, until 1993, a result of her having been the last person who knew that there was a family secret – my great-great-grandfather’s indiscretion at the age of 59 (see earlier blogs), and the child – his ninth – born as a result. Now Rosemary, at the age of 81, has also died: another link in the chain, snapped. Only my father’s sister (with whom he did not get on) kept up with her. If I hadn’t turned up one day in the 1990s, the link would have snapped long ago. She held me at arm’s length, to see if she could spot any signs of my father, and, over the next few years, wrote a great deal for me, while still able to do so (Parkinson’s got at her).

If I wrote the tale of my family and focused only on its attitude to cousins, it would seem almost macabre. I am really glad to have unpicked that lock. Here’s to cousins, to Rosemary, and a curse on my grandfather and his petty squabbles.

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