Spilling the beans: Family secrets

I’ve been on a hunt for my family. For our history and our culture. The names, the dates, the places. But most of all I have been hunting for the secrets. The juicy stuff.

I guess every family has them, but I reckoned there were a fair few secrets lurking in our past. The rumour mill was rife with them. A family name change that swept a generation, Romani roots and the silence of the older generations.

There is a freedom that comes with being part of a new generation. However complex the family setup, as a child it just seems normal. We can play an important role in demonstrating acceptance of situations that the previous generation experienced. We do not know how things were before, not first-hand anyway. We are at arms-length. For us secrets are not a threat- they are a mystery for the amateur genealogist to solve.

The ancestors that I have never met are like minor celebrities. I can learn things about them online without meeting them, and I can be interested in their lives- who they marry, how they died- without feeling the same elation or devastation. Through a hundred years and a laptop screen I can conjure up emotions about who my family were and how they lived. But they are fleeting. There is nothing to pin them onto. Without knowing their sense of humour, their hobbies or their adventures; the birth, marriage and death records lack humanity.

To uncover family secrets there is only so far you can get with online genealogy. It can show you that your family changed their surname, but it doesn’t tell you anything about why, or about the personalities and experiences of those involved.

My sense of family identity is partly shaped by the passing on of names. My two middle names are a tribute to two grandmothers and we carried on the middle name tradition with my son. These names are tangible evidence of our connections, but my sense of family is rooted in the love and experiences that these names represent. My dad’s nose, our family stare, our stubborn nature, card games, football matches, toad in the hole.

In oral cultures like the Roma, history is often passed on orally rather than written down. I am on the opposite side of the world from all of my extended family, but us 21st century types have email. I contact a couple of my dad’s cousins. And I wait. I lie. I don’t wait. I’m not very good at waiting. I should have added impatience to the family list of traits. A month goes by and by the time I had lovely, long and thoughtful replies I also had contributions to make from ancestry.com. I can trade my ancient history for their modern history. In searching for history I have found the present.

There is too much to take in when I am up with my toddler at 4am as I read the reply. There are anecdotes of specific moments, family rivalries, cultural heritage, a great-aunt troubled by the burden of family secrets locked away. But what is this family secret (one of many it is hinted) that led the family to change their names en masse? What could possibly have been so terrible? This is my emailed reply and my party piece pops into my head. It’s the census in the early 20th century, but by the next census the neighbours have disappeared and my family have taken their name. What else did they take? It’s 4am but I’m wide awake.

A reply pops back hours later when I’m at work and it’s obvious. It’s devastating. A shiver runs down my spine and I stand perfectly still. I don’t know how to process this news. Except that it’s not news. There is nothing new in the email. Nothing that I don’t already know.

They were Romani. They changed their name to hide the fact that they were Romani.

Somehow this is worse than bumping off their neighbours. I feel robbed. I feel robbed of my culture and my heritage that I can only ever be an outsider to. Prejudice robbed me of that.

The vision of my family in the 1920s and 30s now has some colour to it. It’s not prettier, but it’s honest. My family were made to feel ashamed of their culture, of their traditions and their name. Sadly you don’t have to look far today to see what that looks like. I guess if they had stuck with the traditional lifestyle I would have a better sense of what that feels like for myself. Instead, I have been spared this but can’t regain the personalised Romani family culture passed down proudly through my ancestors. In previous posts I have talked about police prejudice, urban dictionary definitions of gypsies and societal perceptions of Romani. This revelation has made the political personal for me.

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