A recent Norfolk Refugee Week display posed the question ‘what would you pack in your suitcase?’
The query was getting at what you might grab at the last minute before leaving your home forever to embark on a new life in a different country with a potentially alien culture.
It got me thinking about the items that mean the most to me, and the items that might have meant most to my ancestors. Most people would put their family and friends (and their pets?!) before material possessions, but for the purposes of this blog I am only considering the latter.
Real refugees would likely put valuable items first – money and jewellery or small antiques – in order to buy their way to freedom, food and eventually a new life. But what sort of keepsakes might they also take with them to remind them of their families and homes? A photograph, a lock of hair, another small item that meant something to them?
Over the years, the items I might have grabbed in an emergency have changed, but one that has remained fairly steady is Old Bear.
You might think it is a bit ridiculous to be so attached to a teddy bear, but Old Bear has been part of my life since he was larger than I was.
Here is me as a toddler with a relatively new companion:
And here is a hideous picture of me feeling very sorry for myself having just arrived home from hospital. (This was after being knocked out in order for dentists to saw through my jaw to take out wisdom teeth which resolutely refused to grow upwards in the right direction):
While I don’t cart him to the grocer’s or take him to job interviews, Old Bear has been a stable aspect of my life since babyhood, throughout playschool, primary and secondary school. He even accompanied me to university (where he took a less prominent position in my room), student housing and a succession of rented houses before ending up moving into his current home when I got onto the housing ladder a few years ago.
He sat silently through break ups, exams, tantrums, tears, good news and bad. He celebrated successes and commiserated failures, listened to loud metal and cheesy pop music, serenely endured me learning to play recorder, allowed me to practice my veterinary skills and even put up with a string of labradors, cats, hamsters and rabbits invading his space.
Unfortunately Old Bear doesn’t have the movie star credentials of his peer, the magnificent Honey Bear (who recently won the All Bear Tennis Club Championship - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrcsGlYzMXE) but he does have an undeniably special place in my heart.
All in all, things would be a little odd if he wasn’t around, and I would rather save him from a fire than not, and rather take him with me than leave him behind.
What might you take with you as a keepsake if you could only grab one material item?
What might your great grandmother have done as a child?
More recent generations often seem to have connections to soft toys, whose positions are elevated to far more than just stuffed animals. Others wouldn’t hear of car-booting a lego or meccano set or a ride-on-tractor (slightly more difficult to fit into your suitcase) that holds particular memories. Before the teddy bear’s arrival on the scene however - hard to believe they’ve only really been around for four or five generations - children were more likely to have been playing with wooden toys, cards, marbles, toy soldiers, dolls or tea sets. At least, they might have done if they were well enough off to have much of a childhood before being sent into the factories or fields. Poor children would have had many fewer toys, and in common with richer families, probably preloved ones passed from child to child. You could argue we actually have a lot to learn from a more waste-not-want-not society.
If you are lucky enough to have had toys passed down through your family, you will have a better idea than I about the items which previous generations of your family held dear. My brother and I played with a few items belonging to our parents and a couple from grandparents - mostly toy cars which fared the intervening years and intensive play better than other things.
You may even be fortunate enough to have photographs of family members with treasured items. Like forenames, discussed in a previous post, look out for red herrings here as staged photographs might show items which were simply professional photographer props – like today’s plastic scrolls held by thousands of graduates every year.
If you had extra time, what might you add to your case?
I would take a GEDCOM, a chockablock external hard drive, my diaries (the suitcase is getting bigger by the minute!) and saved letters, papers and birthday cards. If I had a little more time, my camera and associated accessories, leopard print guitar and shoe collection might follow, but by then I’d need a horse box!
What on Earth has this got to do with family history? Well, taking the time to find out about the things that mean something to relatives before it’s too late can add all sorts of memories to your research. As is mentioned time and again, a family history is so much more than names and dates. It’s not just elderly relatives either. Ask your children what they would put in their suitcase now, and maybe each year from now on – it will provide a wonderful window into their lives for you, and them, in the future.