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by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action
It’s been a while.
I was looking at a photograph of my parents’ wedding the other day. Taken over 40 years ago – taken, somehow, from an angle and above -, it was a large grouping that filled the church driveway. In it I spotted two of my uncles; looking only a little like they do now, and my late grandmother, her smiling face (where was my grandfather; was he hiding?). There was the minister that I was later named for; very smart with a black hat and a white collar. And on either side the gravestones and graves of previous generations seemed ‘grey’, even amidst the greys of the print. I doubt that they noticed them, though.
I’ve always been a bit dismissive of family history buffs; why would you want to live your life through somebody else’s? But I’m not so sure any more – they may just be experiencing a different type of interaction. Inside myself, I’m aware that the knowledge of where my great-grandparents lived (or where my great-great-grandparents lived), where they were married and where they are buried, links my life to those places and changes the way that I perceive them; I’m thinking of the unique thrill that I get from the roll of those particular hills, from the heavy growth of the hedges, or from the paths leading up through the fields. My hills, my hedges, my fields – or so it feels. Likewise, tracing your relations, both back and across generations, must link your life closely to all those people, living and dead. And to all those places – the more you discover, the more your ‘tribe’ and your feeling for their surroundings, present and past, must grow.
Theories of ancestor worship, of tribes and territorial markers, of instinct, are common, but I never really understood that power. For me the lonely stone in the meadow, or the circle on the side of the hill, were like flesh built on phantoms; I obsessed over the mysterious structure underneath. But my approach was probably wrong; I only thought perhaps, when I should have thought and felt. Could their link to ‘their’ land have felt as strong as mine does today? Were they told of their lineage for generations past? And did they see this land as if through their ancestors’ eyes?
How heavy must that boot have been, to leave its footprint in stone? Was it left by a phantom? Or was it left by a man?