I am quite small, hiding under the table in a kitchen filled with big people all talking but not loudly, a hushed kind of murmuring. They are drinking tea and eating. The room is warm.
Scottie, my Gran’s Highland Terrier is with me under the table, he is a black dog which seems appropriate seeing as everyone in the room seems to be wearing black too.
The radio plays quietly in the background. Scottie and I are happy to be left alone underneath the table, but I am soon to be called and told to come out. I don’t want to come out, I was comfortable there.
I am helped up onto a chair to peer into a small white box. The first thing to catch my eye, is the white satin, lining the box. Then I notice the small doll wrapped in a silken shroud, from neck to foot. I am handed a red rose and told to put it on his chest. Someone says, ‘Now kiss your brother goodbye’ so I lean in, and kiss his cold forehead then scramble down from the table to crawl underneath again to play with Scottie.
I recall that all the curtains in the house were drawn, night and day, a big black wreath was on the front door and all the mirrors were covered, and everyone in the house wearing black armbands. Hushed conversations which abruptly end when I come into the room.
I am three years old, soon to be four on 20th of November 1948 and this is the occasion of the death of my baby brother born on 18th October 1948 and dying on 21 October, 1948.
Years later I learn that he died whilst nursing in my mothers’ arms on his third day of life. Christopher’s birth, as was the custom in those days, was at home, whilst I stayed with my grandparents, who lived five doors away in the same street. Many years later I learn that my mother, whilst she was in her ‘confinement’ watched my ‘blond bubble-curled head bob past her window every day’. then, Mum, tearfully telling me how one minute Christopher was nursing then he stiffened, and started to turn blue and went limp and in layman terms, she said: “He was born with only half a heart”.
Now in middle age, I think of him often. How he would have turned out, what kind of student he would have been, would we have been close friends? Indeed would my parents have ever divorced if he had lived, as death either makes or breaks a family.
For the past 30 years, I have been doing family genealogy so recently I sent off for his birth and death certificates, as his birth and death was something I wanted to know about in more detail.
As soon as the birth and death certificates arrive, hands trembling I open them and try to read the certificates, but memories flood back of the day of his funeral, with such clarity I am dizzy for a second. Seeing the certificates, brought back the memories and some more tears.
I have no photos of Christopher but then, handling the certificates, I remember that day of his funeral with vivid clarity, and how black his hair was – our fathers’ Cornish heritage – but those memories are so vivid only because I now have his birth and death certificates in my hands
I start to read the two documents, His birth first, but then tears make me stop. Now a mother of two boys myself, I cannot imagine what my mother went through on those three days. I pull my self together and try again. I read the official account of his too-short life and the reason for his death: ”Congenitally abnormal heart. Heart consisted of two chambers a common auricle and a common ventricle” and then the memory of my mother, telling me he was born with ‘half a heart’ and realising that it was surprisingly accurate.
I hurry to write down what I remember of his death, that day in Granny’s kitchen and the memories flow.
Of his birth, I have no memory; however, I would like my future descendant’s to know a little about my brother and to remember him as I did on the day his Birth and Death Certificates arrived for me to read. How the memories I had of his funeral, events still so clear over 72 years ago.
Once again, I am reminded of how handling documents, photos and memorabilia of a family is so important in our lives, especially when we are documenting our family histories.
I wonder how our future descendants will manage now most information is digitized? I believe like most of my genealogical friends, that we will keep our memorabilia in paper form to bring back memories like mine, which were so vivid and clear.