The Ghost of Esmerelda

 

One of the disadvantages of being a late addition to my family is that I never met any of my grandparents. None of them survived  into old age and so they were all gone by the time I was born. They weren’t talked about much—in fact I don’t ever recall my father saying anything about his childhood—and as my parents had moved many miles from their roots, there was barely any connection to this earlier generation; just a few black and white photos. These were kept in a bureau drawer, jumbled in with all kinds of other things and I’d occasionally open it and see my mother’s parents. Her father, Ernest, beamed, almost bursting out of his waistcoat with bonhomie while her mother, Hilda, stared at the camera, neither friendly nor severe, giving nothing away. Their world of London pubs, the Blitz, and masonic dinners was a long way from mine and I looked on them as a curiosity from another age. 

It was only after I had my children that I wished for more connection to my family history. After all, if you grow up knowing your grandparents, there’s a reasonable chance they might tell you stories about their parents and even grandparents, scooping you up in a continuity going back several generations, and providing a sense of where you come from. There was none of that in my family. I didn’t even know where my grandparents were born. 

By the time I’d become curious about this, my parents were dead and like so many of us, I regretted not having asked questions while I had the chance. So I took out a subscription to Ancestry and began to excavate my family history, starting with my maternal grandmother, the inscrutable Hilda. I was by then a harassed mother of four and as I was always in a rush, I was amused to recall one of the few childhood stories my mother told. Hilda would make elaborate party dresses but she always ran out of time, and so my mother and her sister would have to be pinned into their new clothes at the last minute. Many a party was spoiled by silent torture from invisible pins. Fortunately for my children, I don’t sew but I’m definitely of a slapdash, last-minute persuasion. It may have been a tenuous connection to my grandmother but it was better than nothing and I treasured it. 

I searched online for birth, marriage and death certificates, as well as census entries and as I did so, I became increasingly perplexed by Hilda. Not only was she inscrutable but she was also proving to be extremely elusive.  It took a while to work out what was going on, but eventually I uncovered a trail of secrets and false information. I think my mother would have been surprised to discover that Hilda was really named Esmerelda and that she was quite a few years older than she claimed to be. On the other hand, maybe those things are not that unusual; people are often coy about their age, and it’s not uncommon to go by another name. But I do think my mother would have been amazed to find out that Hilda was already married when she met my grandfather. And I think she would have been absolutely astounded to discover that Hilda had four children from this first marriage. When she fled to London in 1919, newly-divorced and leaving no forwarding address, she took her youngest child Winifred with her but left a boy and girl behind in Brighton. There had been another little girl, Phyllis, but she had died several years before from gastroenteritis. By the time she ran away with Ernest, Hilda was already pregnant with my mother, and they later had two more boys. So although my mother went through her whole life thinking she was the second of four children she was in fact, the fifth of seven. I think she would also have been stunned by the news that her parents did not get married until 1943, by which time she was twenty-four. This was done in secret as presumably everyone assumed they’d been married all along, and I surmise that with bombs falling all around them, it seemed wise to put their relationship on a secure footing. 

When I felt I’d found out as much as I could, I wrote an account of the key events in Esmerelda’s life and distributed it around the family. More recently, when the 1921 Census was released online I checked it and saw that she’d stayed true to form. There in her entry—one simple line—were four false items of information; her first name, surname, age and marital status. Oh Esmeralda! I thought with a mixture of fondness honed by growing familiarity, and indulgent exasperation at her elastic attitude to the truth. 

Because I never met Esmerelda, it’s been easy while rummaging casually through her secrets, to think of her as nothing more than a fictional character. And I can’t help feeling uncomfortable about that and wondering if in exposing the basic facts, I’ve betrayed her because what I can’t do is to put flesh on the story and understand her life. I can come up with plenty of theories about why she left her children: she was ashamed at being named the guilty party in her divorce…she was scared of her first husband…she was emotionally frozen after the death of baby Phyllis…she was lonely while her husband was away in the war…she fell helplessly, crazily in love with Ernest… 

Any or all of these may be true and I’ve no way of knowing. But what I do know is that my own mother was full of fear and insecurity and often lacked empathy, and that this in turn impacted on me. Michelle Obama talked recently about her fearful mind. She says she’s always had it and calls it a life partner she didn’t choose. I’ve always had a fearful mind too and know I didn’t choose it. I’m sure that none of us do. In his book It Didn’t Start With You, Mark Wolynn argues that we all carry unresolved traumas from previous generations. We may not know where they come from but they live with us like ghosts and show up in our deepest fears. As St Augustine said, the dead are invisible; they are not absent. I’d never given this much thought before—after all, my family has not been directly affected by atrocities like the Holocaust or racial segregation which have quite rightly gained attention in relation to intergenerational trauma. My family’s upheavals have been more domestic in nature but these can still leave long-lasting scars. I suspect that Esmerelda was stressed, conflicted and secretive as a mother and that this contributed to my own mother’s problems. But then again Esmerelda herself didn’t get off to a good start as she was the youngest of ten and her father died six weeks before she was born. What kind of mothering did she get from an impoverished widow in poor health? There is currently a lot of research in epigenetics which is investigating how trauma might become biochemically encoded. Thinking like this reminds me that as humans we are all links in our own family chain and we involuntarily inherit all kinds of encumbrances. It makes me more empathic towards my parents, and at last I feel able to forgive some of the mistakes they undoubtedly made.

These days I spend a lot of time in my writing room and value having emotionally sustaining things around me. I’ve placed three photographs on the window ledge. The first one shows my mother—a dreamy bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding with Esmerelda standing behind in an awful hat and looking inscrutable as usual. The second is a photo of me on my fortieth birthday, and the third is of my two daughters, arm-in-arm. Four generations of women. I love to see these photos; our birthdates span a hundred and nine years and none of us knows all of the others but despite that and with all the uncertainties, the one thing I know for certain is that we are inextricably connected and always will be. 

13 thoughts on “The Ghost of Esmerelda

  1. So intriguing – and thought-provoking. So much family is mythologised and/or bowdlerised. I loved St Augustine and ‘the dead are invisible, they are not absent’. Family stories are precious. Family histories are even more so.

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  2. Really fascinating, Lynn. Am I right to think that your mother grew up without realising that her older sister was actually her half-sister, with a different father from her own?

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  3. Loved this post as it is my story as well. Being considerably older than you I remember Grandmother Hilda. I was always told she died in my bedroom while visiting me when I had measles. I was three. Ernest died a few years later in the smog winter of 1952. I feel very privileged to have spent so many summers with my grandchildren (and your girls) and sad that the youngest grandchildren never had that as we were away so much or too worn out. I like to think that they may tell their children about their summers in Southsea with their cousins.

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    • Beautifully written as always and what an intriguing story, Lynn – I just wasn’t expecting that turn of events! I also appreciate the link to epigenetics and Mark Wolynn’s book. I’ll be fascinated to read it as it could explain quite a lot in my family too. Thanks so much and I really look forward to your next piece. Xx

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  4. I recently re-discovered the ‘family bible’ from my mothers side, which includes dates of birth and death back to the 1890s. Combining that with old family photos, there appear to be some ‘Discordances’ which may include a remarriage to an older woman, that was never spoken of…Reading your blog, Lynn, has inspired me to go rummaging in the 1921 census, to try and understand my family history. And I’ll try not to leave my offspring similarly bewildered! Thanks for another thought-provoking post

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  5. I really enjoyed reading this Lyn. A couple of thoughts come up for me. I wonder if the secrets that Esmeralda / Hilda held were more commonplace in her time. Is it becoming more difficult to keep such secrets in the age of information and sharing, thus dissuading inauthenticity, or are people just working harder to keep secrets? This post has also made me think about something that I have spent a lot of time mulling over since having my own children; what trauma could I be passing on to them and how do I help them navigate that? It’s a minefield frankly, but I feel fortunate to be able to consider it and trace some of the inter generational trauma in a way that older members of my family perhaps have not been able.

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    • Thanks so much for your comments Abi. I think that people have to work a bit harder to keep secrets these days but not sure it makes people any more authentic in other ways. The question you raise about trauma and helping our children navigate that is such a tricky one, isn’t it, but I do think that even being aware that intergenerational trauma is real is a big step forward in exploring, understanding, accepting, being open, forgiving…all of those important things and more. And if you want to look into this further I do recommend the Wolynn book. It’s not a comfortable read in places but I found it very useful.

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  6. Blimey that’s an amazing piece. It’s most impressive that you’ve done all that very complex research. You’ve uncovered the reasons for some of your parents’ and grandparents’ characteristics. It’s really life changing.

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  7. I suppose many of us, as we get older and more aware of the finite time we have left, start to look back and want to fill in the story of where we’ve come from. An intriguing story, Lynn, showing that you can find out something, and on the way produce even more questions.
    I’m glad I knew my Dad’s parents even a little, having grown up far from them in the Midlands. I’ve come to see the roots they represent for me in – what seemed to a young South African a very odd place – the Midlands.

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  8. I was also ‘a late addition to my family’, also never met my paternal grandparents, and was amazed to discover only yesterday that my older sisters actualy did meet our late mother’s mother-in-law. In fact, we resolved in the autumn to start compiling a family chronology while we still have each others’ support. Even though we have yet to write anything down, I have already discovered that my own father was first ill 25 years earlier than I had always supposed. This wasn’t even a secret, I just wasn’t there.

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