Piecing it together: a life story.

(This article first appeared under the title ‘Truly a Life Story’ in Lifewide Magazine, Issue 21, December 2018 http://www.lifewideeducation.uk/magazine.html)

How well do we know the life stories of our parents?

Obviously most of us will know some details of their lives before they were our parents: place of birth, schooling, career etc., and as children – and we will always be their children – we will, of course, know much of the middle and latter parts of their stories. There will also, usually, be some documentary record of their lives e.g. photos, letters, various official documents, kept – perhaps – in a drawer, box or folder. But how often do we have access to the detailed narratives and minutiae of their entire lives?

My mother, Shirley, passed away peacefully, aged 86, with her three sons and daughters-in-law by her bedside, on Friday 2nd November 2012. She was buried, according to Jewish custom, on Sunday 4th November next to her beloved husband Alfred who had passed away in January 2006 after a long illness. She was a remarkable woman, much loved and admired, as testified by the hundreds of people who attended her funeral and who visited the family during the shiva (the seven days of official mourning). But I, along with my two brothers and our respective wives, only discovered quite how remarkable she was when we tackled the Herculean task of clearing her apartment.

Photos of Shirley 1929 – 2012 (taken three weeks before she died)

We always knew she kept a diary, and that no day was complete without her making a diary entry before she went to bed, always after midnight. We could always phone her to ask when a particular childhood or family event occurred. She would inevitably return the call giving chapter and verse on the event in question. She also wrote notes to herself, normally in the form of a ‘to do’ list, usually on small pieces of paper held together with a paper clip, and would fret if she mislaid them.

My mother liked to have things ‘so so’, and disliked causing upset, and so although her was death was unexpected, she had already ensured that there were lists and instructions to cover any and all eventualities.

I ought to add at this point, as the above makes her sound like some sort of obsessive-compulsive, that she wasn’t at all – or certainly not obviously. She was delightful company; always elegant, gracious, a wonderful host, full of intelligent conversation whether discussing the latest book she’d read or play she’d seen. She even suffered fools with regal politeness…at least until they had left her presence.  But when she was alone, and when my father was alive that would usually mean late at night after he had gone to bed, or in the years after he had passed away, she became what might have been her true vocation if her life had taken another direction: a highly skilled and dedicated archivist. 

 What we didn’t know, and what we discovered when we started clearing the apartment, was that alongside the carefully stored schoolgirl diaries  that she started in 1941 when she was 15 years old and the page-a-day diaries that she started in the 1950s, she had recorded, labelled, catalogued and archived what appeared to be the documentation of her entire life: letters, postcards, photographs and slides, study notes, maps and guides, newspaper clippings, certificates, theatre and concert programmes.


Some of it was contained in two huge files each labelled My Life, each of which contained hundreds of documents. There were also dozens of files and folders with labels such as Holidays, Trip to Far East, Film Work(she worked in the British film industry in the 1940s), Family Documents(some of which went back to Russia in the late 19th century). There was one file that was labelled Rememberingswhich really caught my eye. I opened it to find a series of typed pages that were almost a stream of consciousness about my mothers early life. The first one Deptford High Streetrecalled in as much detail as she could remember when in her 80s, growing up on Deptford High Street in south-east London and describing the people and the shops, cinema, goods yard etc.  as she walked to school. Another was a much earlier Rememberingfrom when she had asked her own mother to describe the familys origins in Russia and their early life in England in the early 1900s.

Virtually every personal letter my mother had ever received or written (she always made carbon copies until the advent of computers, when she’d simply print it out twice) had been carefully sorted into either years or particular individuals or topics. Each bundle was held together by an elastic band, and on the top of each bundle, held in place by the elastic band, was a small piece of paper which had the contents of the bundle written on it in her distinctive handwriting e.g. ‘letters to/from Alfred in Hong Kong‘ or simply ‘Letters 1983’.

 There were also small bundles of papers, usually small and clipped together, of what she called her ‘journals’. Whenever she travelled anywhere, she would not take her actual diary with her. Instead she would write her thoughts and observations on any piece of paper she could find, clip them all together, and then bring them home to be transferred into the diary or kept together in a file somewhere. 

When we started dipping into the odd diary or two, there were  frequent references to ‘see my commonplace book’. It was a term we were all unfamiliar with, so naturally I googled it. According  to what seemed a perfectly sensible article in Wikipedia:

Commonplace books (or commonplaces) were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They became significant in Early Modern Europe…Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests… the value of such collections is the insights they offer into the tastes, interests, personalities and concerns of their individual compilers. From the standpoint of the psychology of authorship, it is noteworthy that keeping notebooks is in itself a kind of tradition among litterateurs….Some modern writers see blogs as an analogy to commonplace books.”

 We eventually found my mother’s commonplace books, and they were almost exactly as described in the Wikipedia article. Whenever she had read, seen or heard something of interest, whether it was in a book or newspaper, on the radio or television (usually BBC Radio 3 or 4,  she was not a great fan of television unless it was a factual programme), or at the cinema or theatre, she would write it down or cut it out and place it in one of her commonplace books.

 The amount of material we had uncovered was extraordinary, both the sheer amount of it and the quality of contents: my mother wrote beautifully, often with great style and wit, and in great detail.

When we told people about it they all said “what are you going to do with it all?”. There were one or two who said we should just throw it all away. But I don’t think they had any sense (how could they?) of what we had in front of us. The more I read, the more I became determined to ‘do something’.

 The final piece or decider of the ‘what to do with it all?’ question fell – literally – into my hands some weeks after we had started clearing the apartment. I was in the room known as the ‘office’. It was the room in which my parents had worked for nearly 30 years, mainly in their role as editors of their local synagogue magazine which was a large, serious, glossy bi-annual publication. Before he retired, my father also ran his textile merchant business from there, and the shelves were full of files and all the paraphernalia of a working office.

 I had decided to ‘have a go’ at clearing the office, and was sorting through and preparing to put into rubbish bags a whole set of files related to the magazine. As I pulled one box file off the top shelf, another file fell out which I managed to catch. This was not a ‘business’ file. It was one of those ‘concertina’ files with about a dozen sections, held together by a band. The handwritten label on the front said: “Special Letters and Journals”, and it only took a glance at the first bundle of documents from the section labelled ‘1940s’ to realise just how special the contents of this file were.

 It became clear to me that, particularly since my father passed away in January 2006, my mother had gradually worked her way through all the documents she had written and/or kept so assiduously throughout her long and active life, and had carefully arranged them in some sort of order. It was fascinating to see a note or clarification, written relatively recently, next to some diary entry or letter from 50 years ago. It was also clear that she had left it to be read, and what convinced me that something needs to be donewith it was finding something she had written in the back of one her early schoolgirl diaries. Alongside the list of books she had read that year and the list of films and concerts she had attended, was a quote from the writer Giuseppe de Lampedusa:

It should be an obligation upon every citizen, imposed by the state, to keep a record of their lives. Because, if they do not, who will know they ever existed.

I felt it was important not to leave the record of my mothers life hidden away in a cupboard. So I determined to find a way to bring her life story to life. It was obvious from the start that writing any form of linear narrative was out of the question. What I had before me was a giant jigsaw and I realised that notion of a website, with its layers, sections, mutiple entry points etc. offered a real opportunity to slowly – in fact very slowly- define and create the various pieces that, together, formed the picture of my mothers life. So thats what I did and continue to do.

At the present time the website is not for public access, although members of the close family have access. I occasionally, however,  publish various sections when there is sufficient material to justify it, and there have been some articles in newspapers and magazines. Last year (2017) BBC Radio 4s The Film Programme did a feature on the diaries and letters my mother wrote when she worked in the film industry in the 1940s*, and a lot of that material is eventually going to be deposited in the National Film Archive. My mother would have been absolutely chuffed!

Not long after my mother died, a close friend, whose mother had also passed away recently, said to me with a hint of envy, “you don’t just have the things of her life, you also have access to her mind and her heart”. That is certainly and wonderfully true: from the vibrant, idealistic, politically-engaged young woman of the 1940s who looking forward to the future, to the still vibrant, still idealistic, still politically-engaged family matriarch of 2012 looking back on a life not only lived  but also documented to the full.

* You can listen to the programme on BBC iPlayer. The section starts at c. 10.45min, straight after the Stanley Tucci interview. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b0910p23