Suppose it was possible to meet relatives who have died.  Would you seize the opportunity and, if so, how would the conversation go?  It’s easy to assume you’d find meeting up with them fascinating and enjoyable.  But might it be awkward?  Perhaps they’d resent your prying.  You might be shocked to find that, other than your genetic relationship, you had little in common.

I must admit I’d be particularly curious to meet my paternal great-grandmother who died in 1923, aged 68.   Apparently she had a particularly hard life after her husband died of pneumonia at the age of 33.  Her oldest child (my grandfather) was only 10 when his mother became a widow.  I was 11 when he died so I do remember him.  He was a tall, grumpy man, and, of course, it never occurred to me to ask him anything about his childhood (or even to imagine he had had one!).  

Still, even though it isn’t possible to meet relatives who are dead (well, at least not when we are still alive!), we can imagine what it would be like.  So, I’m going to imagine meeting up with Harriet, my great-grandmother.  I have arranged to meet her in a pub in Little Clarendon Street in Oxford, close to where she used to live.  I’m hoping that she knows this pub of old and that meeting her in a familiar environment will help to put her at her ease.  There are no known photographs of Harriet, but my aunt Joan, who was only 8 when Harriet died, once told me she was a tall, gaunt lady always dressed in black.  That’s all I know about her appearance.  I wonder if I’ll even recognise her?

The day for our meeting duly arrives and I feel unexpectedly nervous.  I have done some homework but the information I have is scant.  I have seen a copy of her marriage certificate online, dated 13 November 1875.  She was 20, a domestic servant, and the groom, John, was 22.  He is described as a ‘college servant’, a gate-keeper at New College.  They both signed the marriage certificate with crosses, not signatures.  I have also seen records from various censuses and that’s how I know where she was living when her husband died, and subsequently. 

Not much to go on, a great deal less than meeting someone on a blind date!

I get to the pub in good time, choose a seat in a corner with a commanding view of the door, and wait anxiously, sipping a pint of bitter.  It occurs to me that I don’t really know whether I’m going back in time to meet her or whether she is coming forward in time to meet me.  Perhaps there will be aloud whooshing noise and Harriet will step out of a Tardis. I have decided to record our conversation on my phone.  I thought that if I took notes she might find it off-putting. 

After a short while, Harriet shuffles in using a walking stick.  It’s obviously her, about 60 (but looking older) and dressed in black.  I stand up to greet her, uncertain whether to give her a hug or shake her hand.  I offer my hand but she doesn’t take it. 

Here, typed out verbatim, is our recorded conversation.     

‘Thanks for coming.  I thought you might have had second thoughts.’

‘I did, but ‘ow could I resist visiting me favourite pub again?  Anyways, I was curious to meet ya, dearie.’

‘Well, as you know, I’m Peter and I’m very pleased you agreed to meet me.  May I call you Harriet?

‘That’s me name, dearie.’

‘I think, you’ve been in this pub before?’

‘Many times, dearie.  We used to live near ‘ere.’

‘Yes, I saw that you once lived in Little Clarendon Street’

‘’Ow would you know that?  Yeah, in a terrace ‘ouse just roun’ the corner.  All been demolished now, you’d never know they’d bin there.’

‘What would you like to drink?’

‘Thanks, dearie.  Me usual: a nice stiff gin.’

I paused the recording while I went to the bar.  I had to wait my turn to be served and I was worried she might scarper.  She certainly seemed a bit uptight, not at all at ease.  I glanced over to where she was sitting, looking down at her hands.  I noticed they were chaffed and looked sore.  I went back with her G&T — a double, hoping it might help her to relax.  The recording continues.

‘I heard that after your husband died, Charles, your oldest, used to search for you in pubs and try to persuade you to come home.’

‘You mean Charlie, we call ‘im Charlie.  Anyways, who told you that?’

‘Your grand-daughter told me.’

‘Wot, that scamp Joan?  Wot she know about it?  She ‘adn’t even been born then.  Even when I died, she was still only a kid!’

‘I suppose her father must have told her.  How else could she have known?’

‘Be that as it may.  It’s no one else’s business.’

‘I believe your husband worked as a gate-porter at New College and that you had to get married because you were pregnant.’ 

‘I’m not going through all that, dearie.  If yer going to insult me, I’ll skedaddle.’

‘I bet your parents weren’t best pleased.’

‘I’m warning ya.’

‘Sorry, I was just trying to establish the facts.’

‘Why yer prying into all this anyway?  It all ‘appened a long time ago.’

‘I’m really interested in to find out about your life.  How did you meet your husband?’

‘Never you mind, yer saucy devil!  It’s me own business and that’s ‘ow it’s staying.’

‘Is it true that when your husband died you were expecting your fifth child?’

‘No, ‘arry was born in January and me ‘usband died in July.  Pneumonia took ‘im.  ‘e were only 33.’

‘So you were left with four children and the youngest was only six months old.  That must have been really tough.’

Yeah, Charlie ten, Emily nine, Kate seven an’ baby ‘arry.’

‘And you’d already lost a child?’

‘Yeah, Archie, ‘e only lived for a month.’

‘How did you manage?’

‘Wot d’ya expect?  Just got on wiv it like everyone else.  We was evicted ‘cause I couldn’t pay the rent.  We ‘ad to move to a cheaper place round the corner in Juxton Street, all slums in them days.  We lived in one room, shared a kitchen an’ an outside lav.’

‘How did you make a living?’

‘Took in washing from all the toffs. Plenty of ‘em in Oxford, dearie.’

‘Yes, I saw they recorded your occupation as a laundress in the census.’

‘Been checking up on me, ‘ave ya, dearie?  Bleedin’ cheek!’

‘Another gin?’

‘I wouldn’t say no, dearie.’

I pause the recording again.  Surreptitiously recording our conversation feels a bit sneaky but I know that if I showed her my smart phone it would be beyond her comprehension.  I get served quicker this time and the recording continues.

‘Why was your husband buried in Sandford-on-Thames when he lived and worked in Oxford all his life?’

‘‘e was brought up there and ‘is parents were buried there, dearie.  But ya seem to know everythink so I ‘spect ya already knows that.’

‘Yes, I’ve visited the graves, but why Sandford?  There can’t have been much to do in such a small village.’

‘ ’is dad were a farm worker.  Lived there all ‘is life.’

‘And I believe your husband was one of eleven children?’

‘Yeah, my John was their third.’  

‘Must have been a bit crowded.’

‘Lived in a cottage on the estate.  They managed.’

‘How did your children turn out?’

‘All this prying!  Charlie did alright for ‘imself.  ‘e got a job as a junior clerk at Trinity and worked ‘is way up.  Emily, she got married when she was 21 and moved to Bristol.  Kate never married.  She worked as a cook in a big ‘ouse outside Oxford but ‘ad a breakdown.  She was in the asylum and didn’t want to see me.  My youngest, ‘arry, ran away to sea and I never ‘eard from ‘im again.’

‘I remember your Charlie, my grandfather.  I was only a small kid but he never played with me, always seemed a bit grumpy.’

‘I’ll not ‘ear a word said against me Charlie. ‘e did well for ‘imself, considerin’ ’

‘I’ve got a photo of your husband but none of you.  Would you mind if I took one now?’

‘Wot for?’

‘To put in the scrapbook I’m compiling along with notes on the family history.’

‘I weren’t ‘specting this.  No pictures, no!’

‘What a shame.  I might sketch you from memory after you’ve gone.’

‘Up to you.  Nice meetin’ ya, dearie.’

And, despite my begging her to stay, she upped and left, leaving a half-drunk G&T.

I sat finishing my beer.  I’d certainly made a hash of things, definitely a wasted opportunity.  I should have spent longer putting her at ease and backed off when she made it clear that  she found my questions impertinent.  And I suppose it was predictable that she’d see me as just another ‘toff’ — the sort she’d spent her life doing the dirty washing for.

Perhaps meeting dead relatives for a chat isn’t such a good idea after all.    

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