Thoughts on family and who has the right to family photos and documents?

I woke up this morning feeling upset. It has been so warm in the bedroom that I have been up a couple of times, to the loo, between nightmares and sleeping uncomfortably. The girls have stolen every single hair elastic in the house, even though I have bought several packages for myself. There is no respect for my belongings at all, including the Atkins bar, which E. has stolen from the cupboard, since she is the only person who would do such a thing. I had been looking forward to eating that this morning and my husband just sent me an SMS that he had been tempted all week but made sure not to rob me of the pleasure. Right, it is in my daughter’s belly!

As if that is not bad, that I am raising a thief who will not understand, even after all the lessons on honesty and that “thou shalt not steal” and that we follow the ten commandments in our religion, then my thoughts wandered to my aunt. Don’t know why. I did translate her horrid letter, on this blog, back at the beginning of the year, when I had had the audacity of sending another family photo with a Christmas card and also had included a little letter telling her what we are all up to. Finally the truth came out, that she hates children, meaning she has no interest in seeing mine grow every year, and that she is sick and tired of being asked to help out, by family members. She especially has resented my mother all these years.

Yes, I am HSP, I admit it. In other words, I am a highly Sensitive Person, one of those people who do not really fit in to this world, one of those who feels deeper than others and who can not let go. Not to say that I hold grudges. That is not the same thing at all. No, the pain felt when someone hurts you, doesn’t go away. And you keep on moling the thing over and over and over in your mind. You can’t let go of the thoughts. Why did she write that letter? Why now? Talk about passive aggressiveness. Not telling my mother how she really felt about her actions in the 1950s, 1960s and finally in the 1970s. And all the years after that. If you really dislike a person that much and hold so much resentment, why not tell the person to get out of your life for good? I grew up not ever meeting this aunt of mine. My dad did not want to see her, nor his older sister, until he had had his accident. At this point, I realize that he had his reasons. His family always were a nasty lot.

But my thoughts this morning have not really concerned my aunt’s feelings for her sister-in-law. That is something between them. None of my business really. I am not going to defend any of my mother’s actions since she has always been the worse passive-aggressive person I have ever known. She has messed up my entire life with it, thank you. These two old women will go to their graves with their weirdo personalities and never sort out their differences. Both of them having talked garbage about each other to other people, but not to each other’s faces. Which they ought to have done. Cleared the air once and for all, and then they could have decided what to do next. Never see each other again or try to build something on mutual respect?

No, my feelings this morning concerned the fact of Christmas cards. Do I send one to her this year? After what she said? She obviously sees an enemy in all her extended family, not realizing that with all her illnesses, she has not been able to help ANYONE with anything ever. For heavens sake, she has been retired during all the years I have known her, and that is 35 years. And why? Because she has never ever recovered from childhood polio. All these years she has been on what is called sick retiredness. Quite different from ordinary retirement since you have been declared unfit for all sort of work. So what makes her think that she has  been helping people all these years and that she has been abused by us all? It is just beyond me. What is it she is supposed to have helped us with? And more over, why is sending a family photo and a newsletter, asking for help and being abusive?

What has she helped us with? She has set foot in our house, all of three. The first time, we invited her to spend Christmas with us since I thought it ghastly for someone to have to sit alone on Christmas Eve, when everyone celebrate with their families. But I could tell she was uncomfortable. She enjoyed the food alright. But the children receiving Christmas presents from “Tomten”, was too much for her to handle. Her never having had children of her own and her not knowing that many presents doesn’t have to mean having spent a fortune, depending on HOW one shops and WHERE  and at WHAT time of the year. She was horrified. In her mind, she was still living her childhood Christmases after her dad had abandoned the family and refusing to pay alimony. They were dirt poor and of course hardly received anything at Christmas. But you can not compare can you? Other times, other values. Sad but that is how things are. I regretted having invited her, since I wanted it to be a happy day and evening and I am not happy when someone makes me feel guilty over trying to spoil my children a little at Christmas, trying to satisfy their deepest wishes on a very, very slim budget. I wanted to see their faces light up with surprise and happiness, not look at her disapproving one. We decided to not repeat the invitation for Christmas Eve again, but invited her for Christmas Day, the following year, which she declined.

The second time, she came, she did so uninvited. She just came walking down the street one day and I was in shock. The house was not cleaned and I do like to prepare for someone’s visit. We sat and talked. She had sewn a ball for E. which she kept throwing to E. and I thought she was having a nice time. Till a year later when she phoned us and asked if we wanted an old cupboard of my grandmother’s, which she was going to throw away. She was moving and did not want to bring it along. We drove up to her place and met her ex-husband. A man she divorced over 40 years ago. He was mentally unstable, so she did not want to be married to him, which is understandable, but they did socialize from time to time, picking berries together and making “saft” from them. I had always been curious about him, since I had never met him before, but I was not impressed. As soon as we walked in, T., the children and I, he and my aunt put on helmets. He turned to E. and said “so you are the one who hits people on the head!”. E. looked at me and I had no idea what they were talking about. She was only about four at the time, and from the discussion that ensued, I found out that E. had hit my aunt on the head with a toy, to get attention. A year earlier. And they put on helmets! Honestly, she wasn’t seriously injured but people do get odd when they have never had children of their own.

The last time we saw my aunt, was when she came home to us, to help us build stairs leading in to the house. T. had bought all the material, with the help of expert advice at the local hardware shop. They had counted out everything for him. He had rented the tools. And why? Well, we had used building gratings for years, since we never had the money to pay for ready-made, two steps entrance stairs, in stone. She had suggested she come and help, since she had built many stairs before. So that time she did help. A little. She stood beside T. as moral support, as he did all the work. And this she calls abusing her? And all the while she stood there, she wore her helmet. After that visit, she never came here again and we have never gone down to see her, since she does not want to catch anything from our children. She lives in a two room flat, crowded with furniture, so it is not really the sort of place that you bring active children to either.

imageThe only thing I have ever asked her for help with, is answering questions about the family. When I asked if I could borrow some photos to have them copied, she would not allow it. She told me she would have them copied which has not happened. And of course she has strange ideas about family. I just wrote to my British penfriend who doesn’t own a computer even, that when my grandmother died, she left behind her a very big correspondence. Something she had kept because she wanted it saved right? At the probate, Alva asked that she get all the letters and my mother, being there as my guardian and frankly was not looking out for my sister’s and my interests, did not oppose, nor did the two sisters. So Alva took the letters, ripped off the stamps and threw away ALL the letters because my grandmother’s life “was noone else’s business!”. I will never forgive her for that, nor will her mother beyond the grave! My grandmother cared for history and to preserve the old. She had saved the letters for a purpose! Her whole life was thrown away by a daughter who believes in re-incarnation and says she has lived eight of her nine lives as a nun. Yes, Alva definitely has a screw loose.

Maybe I have started to think about all this since I just finished Nurse Edith Appleton’s diaries from the WWI war front. If she and others had not written diaries, that war would have been just numbers of dead and strategies during the different campaigns or battles. Noone would have know what the soldiers really went through and how they felt about things. Nor would anyone had known what women felt about men dying like flies around them, creating a new social situation never seen before. At the end of her diary, her family begs people to send them missing parts of the diaries, if they happen to have them among their belongings. I can understand them. Nurse Appleton never had children of her own, marrying at the age of 49, but her siblings’ children and grandchildren see the value of her experiences and her diaries. Their parents and grandparents might not have left a trace of themselves, but she did, and she becomes the link to their own families.

That is why Alva did not have the right to throw away those letters. My imagegrandmother is a great mystery to me. As a trained professional genealogist, I know that dates of births, marriages and deaths means nothing. It does not say a thing about the person. What we all want to know, is what that ancestor of ours was really like. What they felt, believed in, what they tought about things happening in their own lives but also in the world around them. As a genealogist I know that we are always grabbing at straws. Some have proliferate ancestors who have left diaries and letters behind. Others have struggled through life and not bothered to write down the slightest thing. They will only ever be a name in the statistics of a country, a name on a paper. Nothing more. A lot of us want to be more than that.

So, the only thing I ever asked of Alva, she did not help me with. And yet she accused me in her letter to be just like the others. Abusing her kindness. Every time I put out sausage and macaronies, a standard dish in all Swedish homes, her words ring in my ears, how my mother had the gall to feed her with this food, that lacks all nutrition. So the entire Swedish population is feeding their children food without nutrition. Every week those words come back to me and then the rest of the letter and my offended feelings. What am I to do? How do I get it off my chest? Write her a letter back? What is the point? She is set in her mind. Her helmet-clad head was proof of that if nothing else. Perhaps she is not as lonely as I thought. Perhaps she quite hates the rest of the world and just wants to be alone? Maybe letters and cards from relatives are offensive to her, because she does not want to receive anything from anyone? Is she a martyr who wants to sit and feel sorry for herself, for being abandoned, and if we send her things, then we ruin her image of herself?

I just can’t understand how someone can miss the spirit of Christmas, so utterly and entirely? People who have no contact with each other during the rest of the year, dig out their address books and start writing Christmas cards to those old friends from the past and family members. It is a family oriented holiday. We, most of us, is filled with a happy feeling, the waiting for Christmas is almost over. The time of the year, when God so loved his children that he sent his only Son to us, as a gift. Without him and his life, his sacrifice, we would never be able to come back and live with God. And even if most of the Swedish population does not even believe in this anymore, or sadly enough, are clueless about it, we all share this warm happy feeling. We do know that it is a time of sharing. A time to show love for our neighbour. And it starts with those Christmas cards, the simplest way to say that we are not so fully absorbed in the Christmas shopping, the making of the ham or turkey, the baking, the concert going… that we do not have time to think about our fellow-man and sending them a thought. Such a small gesture. It doesn’t cost very much. A good deed in many cases. And even if someone has gone through a lot of trouble picking the right card, or even making one, a simple card off the supermarket bargain bin, still is saying something. I care about you.

So how can Alva think that a Christmas card is a burden? A demand for help? How can she read something ugly in to a Christmas card, a family photo and a newsletter? How is it possible to read anything in to it except a niece caring for her, wanting to tell her that she is not alone in the world, that some people actually think about her, and that family is the most important thing we have here on earth. Our family is so small. It was never close. My sister lives in Australia, and I can’t really accuse her of caring for us more than her friends. She even wrote me an e-mail two-three days before D. graduated (11 June) and said she was coming to Sweden the day before his graduation, to see if my mum has had a stroke. She added that she would contact me. That was almost a month ago now. We all assume that she did not come after all, that she came to her senses, and made some phone calls instead. After all, they would have contacted me if something had happened and they have not. But it is just typical for our family. People avoid each other, do things out of duty instead of genuine love, and why? What makes some families close-knit and others like strangers? Our prophet says, or one of the ones now deceased, “a family that prays together stays together”. I don’t know if it is that simple? But I do know that my mum has a sister and two nieces and two nephews. And all contact with them was basically broken in 1992. My dad had three sisters, one niece and three nephews, and there has not been any contact with them since 1979, when my dad and grandmother passed away, except with the above mentioned Alva. Some family.

But, we did not pray together, that is for sure. And, nor is my new British penfriend, who contacted me through an ad I put in on a penfriend site, a year ago. The problem of family history and who has the right to documents and photos, is not a problem restricted to my family. She is fighting hard to become the custodian of the family photos, since she is the only one interested in family history and genealogy. Why it is, that people do not understand that ONE person interested in preserving the family heritage, should be appointed to be the guardian of the family “heirlooms”, is beyond me. It doesn’t mean that the person becomes the owner of the items. A custodian, a guardian, a safe-keeper, that means something quite different. It means a preserver of things which are intended to be passed on to future generations! The things should not go to someone who throws things away. Nor should it go to a “Gollum”-like person who sits on the items, treasuring them and not sharing them with the world. In this day and age, a custodian of heritage items, really has no excuse for not putting them on the internet for all to see. Photos, diaries and letters are there for sharing. Nurse Appleton’s siblings’ descendents have the right idea, when they have set up a site for her. The history of our ancestors, do not belong to one person. It belongs to everyone in the extended family and in some cases, to the world.

My husband’s mother was of the opinion that all family photos belonged to her. Months before she died, she wrote a testament which cut my husband out of inheriting a single thing from her. Him being the only son, the only remaining family of hers, except her mother’s siblings, made this a very tragic thing. Every little thing of hers, went to her stockbrokers Jeff and Kathryn Hobgood.  They took what was of value for them and then had a car boot sale. All family photos went in to a bin, no doubt, because why would anyone have bought them? People in church, found out too late, so they could not help my husband and go and save the photos or buy them for us. All gone. No photos of his family nor his dad, remain as far as we know. Is this right? And when my maternal grandmother died, the two daughters split the albums between them. Is that right, since we now have no contact, so the photos can’t be shared? And my sister having secretly ripped out some photos from my mum’s share of the albums, to make copies for herself. Are the originals back in the albums? Haven’t a clue! It seems, that I am not one of them who are going to be able to write my family’s history, because my family consist of possessive people, who rather own, than share our shared heritage, and who more and more remind me of the seagulls in “Finding Nemo”: MINE! MINE! MINE!




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