The Past is Personal

IMG_4813‘What do you think?’

It is a cold, wet morning in October last year and I am standing in an old Jewish cemetery in Hackney, looking at a newly unveiled sign, formed out of an old steel beam. On the plaque are etched the words:

Here lie Helena and Lehmann Glückstein.

Matriarch and patriarch of the family,

who founded the catering firm J. Lyons

and the tobacco retailer Salmon & Gluckstein

Whose legacy was:

Find a safe place. Love your family and friends.

Give back to society. Savour the good things.

Tell your story.

Pass it on.

What do I think? To be honest, I don’t know what to think. I am experiencing one of the worst weekends of my life. A carefully constructed complex of plans – to visit family, meet up with one of my mother’s oldest friends, attend this unveiling and deliver a keynote address – had all but foundered on the shoal of sudden family illness which had sent me pelting back from Doncaster to Hebden Bridge for a night, before trying again, with a revised schedule, the next day.

So here I am. My toes are freezing and I am fathoms deep in grief for my mother who had died two months before. She is the one who should have been here. This bit of family history was her project, the words on the memorial one of the last things we know that she heard, read out by my sister so that she could give her approval. I am here as her representative, and trying to express what she would have thought about this – the ceremony, the memorial – are beyond my ability to articulate or even, I realise, comprehend.

But if I am here to stand in for my mother, I am also here in my own right, both as a descendant of Helena and Lehmann, and as one of two professional historians present. The other is my interlocutor, Thomas Harding, my third cousin and the prime mover of this memorial project and the gathering we are at. He is also the author of the book, Legacy: One Family, a Cup of Tea and the Company that Took on the World, which was the original basis for both.

Nine months later, after the birth of my niece and nephew in the US, after the second memorial celebrating my mother’s life, after grief has had a chance to work its way into my heart and become part of my day-to-day life, I will read the book.  It will take me several weeks, read in gulps and dribbles between my commitments to work and childcare.

And what do I think of the book?

I’m still not quite sure I know. I cannot make the judgement as to whether or not it is an informative, perceptive, well-written history; I simply do not have that objectivity and, purely based on accepted professional ethics, I shouldn’t be reviewing it as all, as I, along with my siblings, appear in the acknowledgements. With my professional hat on, there are definite quibbles (is it really fair to quote an Orwell essay published in 1952 to illustrate a description of the Trocadero in 1897?), but this is a very different sort of history form that which I have written to date. As I try to write a more general ‘trade’ history of my own research, seeing how it can be done is extremely useful. And yes, I learned a huge amount, much of it absolutely fascinating, about the history of J. Lyons & Co. and its place in the social history of nineteenth and twentieth century Britain, as well as about the personal relations within the family. If the sign of a good book is the need to share it with others, then the many, many snippets and interesting facts I read aloud to my husband in bed in the evenings stand as testament to this one’s quality.

But in the end, I cannot read this book as I would any other history, academic or trade. It is, after all, the history of my family, or at least a partial history. As Thomas notes in the conclusion, the Salmon and Glückstein dynasties have, over the generations, developed an extraordinary number of off-shoots and ramifications, ranging across the globe. The impossibility of writing a comprehensive history of a family which contained 12 siblings in each of two generations and 14 in another (even if many didn’t survive childhood) means that strategies are needed to tell the family history of a family business empire. The one that Thomas has chosen is to focus on the lives and work of five men who form his own ancestry, Sam Salmon (his grandfather), Sir Isidore Salmon (his great-grandfather), Monte Gluckstein (his great-great uncle), Samuel Gluckstein (his great-great-great grandfather) and Lehmann Gluckstëin (Samuel’s father and the family patriarch).

In many ways, this strategy makes sense. Samuel was the entrepreneur behind the founding of Salmon & Gluckstein, Monte the moving force in turning the family firm into the empire that was J. Lyons and Co., Isidore the great example of the family’s assimilation into the British Establishment, Sam clearly Thomas’s closest personal tie to the family history as a remembered and clearly loved grandfather. For me, however, it was frustrating on two counts. Firstly, it left me with many questions about my own branch of the family.  Through my mother, I am descended from Julia Gluckstein, Samuel’s daughter, mother of Kitty, Isidore’s wife, and twin sister of Lena, herself Isidore’s mother (there is a notable tendency for cousins to marry in this generation of the family). Julia married Abraham Abrahams who, we are told in passing, drank whiskey, even in the mornings, and could be violent. This is not a comfortable history, but one I feel I should know more about than this book has (or perhaps can) give me.

Which relates to the second, larger source of frustration. While Julia and Abraham’s story is mentioned only in passing, as the context of Kitty and Isidore’s relationship, it becomes patently obvious throughout the sections on Monte that Julia’s twin, Lena, had a significant, not to say vital, role in the success and expansion of Salmon & Gluckstein. Lena is only the most obvious example because, although Thomas has chosen to focus on the men, the story of Salmon & Gluckstein, of J. Lyons, of ‘The Fund’ set up to share the profits across the family, is the story of women. It is the story of Helena, the family matriarch; it is the story of Lena, who managed the tobacconist business while her brother developed the catering firm; it is the story of Gluck, the gender non-conforming lesbian artist who flits in and out of the narrative across the twentieth century; it is the story of all the women of the family who were never allowed access to the ‘The Fund’ in their own right, with their dowries controlled by their fathers and brothers throughout the twentieth century; it is the story of Belinda, Thomas’s mother, whose voice provides much of the witness of later generations of the family.  Thomas acknowledges all this, but there remains a story to be told about these women themselves, rather than as part of a story structured around men.

But in the end, the telling of the story transcended these concerns for me. At its heart, as Thomas argues, it is a story of belonging, of finding a place in the world, in society, in a family, even if that place isn’t always secure or comfortable. The loss of my mother, with all its accompanying psychic dislocation, the selling of her apartment, which cut the last physical tie to the city of my birth, had shaken my sense of belonging – to Britain, to Yorkshire, to the academic community. But through this book I was able to at least start to find it again.

It was not just that Legacy introduced me to the history of my family in more depth and detail than I had known before (I had no idea of the important role the company had played in the development of ice cream as a leisure product in Britain). It was also, in part, my mother’s legacy to me, my siblings and our children. In the years before she died, she had, along with her cousin Susan, become deeply involved in researching the history of the family. Through Susan, she had been introduced to Thomas and had become involved in their plans for the memorial to Helena and Lehmann. That scene of her listening to the words of the memorial with us, her three children, gathered around her, is captured in the final pages of the book.

As a professional historian, I long resisted the tug of family history, proud as I have always been of its richness. I am still resisting, in many ways, telling myself that it can wait until the next book, the next project, the next grant application is complete. But now the years of research undertaken by my mother – the family trees which spread widthways across living room floors, the folders of letters, the books on nineteenth century catering – sit in three boxes in my office. My son has developed a passionate interest in the subject, asking to read the book. One day, and soon I suspect, I am going to have to open those boxes. They are going to become part of where I belong, professionally as well as personally.

So, as a historian, what do I think? I think that Thomas was right in the dedication he made in the copy of the book he gave to me and my siblings and, above all, in the words he chose for Helena and Lehmann’s memorial.

The past is personal. Tell your story. Pass it on.

Letters from the Past

It has been a long time since my last post. There is no specific reason. Life has remained busy, but not significantly busier than any other period in the years since I started this blog. But it has been harder to write, not just blog posts but everything – book reviews, articles, conference presentations, even emails. With the official publication of An Equal Burden in February, the pressure to write regularly has been lessened, and there has also been the on-going challenge of dealing with the emotions around my mother’s death.

The second of these has, I think, had the more profound impact on my failure to write here. In the first place, Mum was integral to this blog from the moment I set it up; from the start, she was my imagined audience, the person I so often wrote for. It was her voice in my ear telling me that my use of language was too academic, advising me to write shorter, clearer sentences, reminding to proofread multiple times before publishing. But there have also been other emotions that have arisen every time I have thought about writing here, relating to the points where my private and professional life intersect. Prime among these have been regret that Mum didn’t live long enough to see the book published – although she did get to see proofs of the cover – and guilt about how, as a social historian, I dealt with a very small part of my mother’s legacy.

It feels as if it is probably too late celebrate the book publication on here. There will be a formal launch in September (if I can ever pin down a suitable venue!) which may provide another opportunity. But, after several months of saying that I need to tell and reflexively explore the story of how I failed as a historian when clearing my mother’s apartment, this feels like the right time to do so, and, in doing so, start to revivify this blog.

So, the story. Mum died at the end of August 2018 in New York City. Both my siblings and I were at her side but both my sister (who lives in Colorado) had family and professional claims on us that meant we needed to return home soon after. There was no funeral but we made plans for a memorial service in the city in November, with my sister and I staying on for a week afterwards to help clear Mum’s apartment in preparation for its sale.

That week was, without question, one of the hardest of my life. We had moved to the apartment when I was 18 months old. It was the only childhood home my siblings had known, as well as being the place my mother drew her final breath. It had been renovated to suit her taste and was filled to the brim with her things – not only over 6,000 books but a lifetime’s collection of cooking equipment, bedding, family photographs and writings. There was all the medication from her final illness, but also all the audiotapes we had listened to on car rides as children, as well as enough stationary to keep a small company going for several years.

It took the three of us, supported by my brother- and sister-in-law, the full week to sort and clear the bulk of it. The most exhausting elements were the photographs and writings that my mother had stored in cupboards and boxes all over the house, sometimes in multiple copies. Either through a historical instinct to archive and preserve, or because I am naturally more sentimental, I chose to keep a larger number photographs and many of the papers relating to my mother’s education and professional life (although my brother has her computer hard drive, copied onto multiple external drives, a process which in itself took most of the week). I also took the bulk of the family archive, the documents relating to my mother’s parents and grandparents, including all the material she had collected researching her family’s history in her final years.

It was on the final day, the day my sister and her husband were flying out, the day before I was leaving to return to the UK, that it happened. I was going through the last few storage boxes in Mum’s bedroom that, somehow, hadn’t yet been looked at. Most contained books related to her teaching and additional copies of essays from her Master’s Degree course at Columbia. The books would be donated; the papers could be destroyed. But, right at the end, I cam across the two boxes of letters. The first was easy enough to deal with as it contained her correspondence with my father over the course of their courtship and marriage; those would come with me as part of her archive. The second also contained letters, but this time in many, and often unfamiliar, handwritings. Some were from names I knew; others were apparent strangers. It took me a moment to realise that this was the correspondence my mother had received as a young Englishwoman living in New York in the years before not only the internet but even inexpensive international telephony. They were letters from friends about her life and theirs, full of news and names, most of which meant little to me.

For several minutes I sat looking at this collection. I couldn’t face going through it to see what should be kept and what discarded. I could have simply decided to bring it home with me, along with all the rest of the family papers, to put off the task to another day. But could I ever face it? Or I could have brought it home to keep unsorted, preserving these scraps of source material for someone else to examine. Yet so much of the material was from people I did not know even in terms of their relationship with my mother, rendering the letters themselves without meaning. Did I have the space to house these documents. I did not have the capacity, either emotional or physical to deal with them.

Yet I also found I did not have the emotional capacity to destroy them. I am a social and cultural historian. Letters, and personal letters in particular, are the lifeblood of my research. I can sit for days in archives reading just the sort of daily minutiae my mother’s letters contained about total strangers, sifting the in jokes and family gossip for words and phrases that illuminate their lives and experiences. My mother’s letters might, just might, be of equal value to some other, more dispassionate, reader, some day. Shredding them would destroy that capacity for ever – and even if I could have found an archive willing to take them, arranging this in the 24 hours I had left in the country would have been a logistic impossibility.

In the end, the only response I had to this dilemma was the instinctive one of the exhausted child – I fled to the room I had been sleeping in (my brother’s old bedroom), shut the door and howled. My sister, packing cleaning products in the kitchen next door, heard me and came to find out what was going on. I tried to explain through my tears, failed, and begged her to deal with the box. I couldn’t. More practical and less sentimental than I am, as well as a nurse by training and profession, she promptly shred them.

So the letters are gone, but as this post indicates, they haunt me still. As a daughter, I couldn’t give them space, either physically or emotionally. I know this now as clearly as I did that day in November. As a historian, I will always feel guilt that I was unable to do so. Some day a historian will write the quotidian history of transatlantic relations in the late 20th century, and I will wonder what they might have learned from that box of letters, that little bit of lost history.

What have I learned from this experience?  Nine months on I’m still not quite sure. That the materiality and emotionality of archives touches not just the creator of the sources and the historian examining it, but potentially anyone who encounters them in the process of their conservation, perhaps. Certainly I will return to the archives with a renewed respect for all those who, in the midst of mourning, found the capacity to preserve the past simply for the sake of that preservation.

In the meantime, five boxes and two folders of family history, including my father’s letters, sit in front of me as I write this. My ten-year-old son has, since his grandmother’s death, become fascinated by finding out more about his heritage. I have promised him we can open the boxes and start exploring them together this summer. Hopefully, as both a daughter and a mother, I can find the strength and courage to make good this promise.