Capturing memories

This was going to be one very long post, so instead my original writing has been split into two – the second part being ‘Freeing the memories‘. Dip into them if you are interested, if not come on by another day. These posts are important for me and my personal journey, rather than something that others may find resonates with their own story. The writing has prompted such a mix of emotion: warm memories and sadness at opportunities lost, but resulting in a promise to myself for the future.

In my blog post “Reaching in, reaching out” I explain that I am on a rather lonely journey of self-assessment; an exploration of my identity and what it means to be a black, mixed-heritage woman. I have chosen some companions to try and make sense of my continuing journey, and my floor, my computer, and my book shelves are scattered with books, articles and video clips by people exploring the same issues. I see many similarities to my lived experience in their words, particularly those authors of mixed heritage who were born or raised in Britain. However, so far, in stark contrast they hang onto their black culture of the Caribbean or Africa and talk of that as an important part of their identity. Some come at this after a period of denial, having been brought up in a white place, as was I, before returning to their black culture as a defining part of who they are. Many talk of the impact of Britain’s empire-building on their parent’s home place, and the shadows this casts on their own lives. Most talk of the impact of slavery with its deep roots, which has left a poisonous legacy on the lands of their ancestors, and Britain’s hand in this in the quest for riches, with humans with darker skin paying the real price. This legacy is in the very fabric of British culture, yet often denied or ignored. I read of people the same as me, yet cannot help but see the difference. I am missing the stories of the place my black parent calls home. There are similarities to stories of the Caribbean or Africa, stories that I see repeated within the words I read. They are largely freed spaces – if not free from the legacy of being a colonised place. However, my mother’s homeland, St Helena, as a British ‘Overseas Territory’ is still ultimately an owned space.

Whilst the St Helena government makes its own legislation ‘ultimate legislative and executive authority for the British Overseas Territories resides in the British Crown’. The governor, appointed by the UK, represents the Queen whilst he/she is on the island and approves, on her behalf, Bills which have been passed by the St Helena government. This month I read of the inauguration of the latest, 69th, Governor from the UK; and smiled wryly. Another white person there for their 3 year tenure. It churns me up inside when I contemplate the part that empire had on shaping that 47 square mile island, and that Britain continues to have the ultimate say on its destiny. I do of course realise that the island cannot be self-sufficient, and Britain cannot abandon those people on the volcanic rock it laid claim to for over 180 years. I realise the dilemma for the government. However the cynical part of me wonders whether the construction of a new airport funded by the UK was a bid to begin to shake of the ties to this small island, rather than the commitment to access that it is described as. The island appears to be an amazingly beautiful place, with a diversity of people, landscape and seascape, and it has been working hard to promote tourism with its new (limited) air access. There is hope for many that tourism will bring about new revenue and a step towards self-sufficiency – who knows what economic self-sufficiency would bring and what difference an influx of tourists will make to the island culture…

My squiggling thoughts brought back in check, I realise the fact that I understand little of the culture of St Helena. What I read describes a mix of people, none indigenous, with different countries laying claim to its discovery even before the Portuguese in 1502. I have read the horrendous tales of how slavery shaped the people. The culture of St Helena is a result of the footprints of so many different people bringing with them their own brand and accoutrements of culture, with some more dominant than others. The only way for me to understand more, other than reading, is to hear the lived experience from my mother. I have discovered through my lifetime that this is easier said than done.

My mum has Alzheimer’s. We, her family, know that her memories will disappear one by one, or in heart-wrenching clusters. Since I was small I have longed to hear stories of her home on St Helena, but these memories were shared too rarely. It hasn’t just been the Alzheimer’s that cut off memories of her home. A question would often pop into my head as I was growing up, and I would ask some question about her younger life, only for her too often to declare, “oh Ann, I don’t remember”. She couldn’t seem to understand the thirst I had to find out more about my heritage. I had a gaping space in the black part of my identity which I yearned to be filled. I could never work out whether it was actually that she could not, or did not want to remember. After all she was only 16 when she left St Helena so perhaps those memories were foggy with time, or perhaps it was the protection against home-sickness that stopped her from digging deep to remember a loved place she couldn’t return to. I know that if I am too long away from my home it feels like a physical pain – I love that feeling as I enter East Sussex after being away, “Nearly home”. I never get tired of looking as if anew at our beautiful countryside – the rolling downland, the cloak of greens that shroud the small winding country lanes, far-reaching views towards the sea. I don’t know how she said goodbye to her home, never to return and can understand why her brain buried those memories deep.

Occasionally however, something would spark a memory and she would begin to tell a childhood tale. I knew I would have to bide my time. I learned to sit quiet and silent, almost holding my breath – if I went in too quick with a question, my mum’s memory would seem to be scared off, fleeing it’s capturer. There was at times success at this ploy, and I would listen enraptured as a picture unfolded for me. I now realise that once my mum’s mind has escaped us because of her diagnosis, those wonderful memories of St Helena will be gone. Some sit within my mind, but will also dissipate with time. Who knows whether my future holds her present state, and whether those stories will be lost to my descendants. So I have decided that I need to write them down as I remember them. Some recollections are vivid in my memory and I can remember the telling: place, sight and sound alive in my mind. Whilst other descriptions of St Helena are more general and instead I feel and understand these things as what my mum has told me, without being able to pinpoint when or where the telling took place. The process of remembering has enabled threads to be woven, and connections made. My writing thus far has made me stand taller and find more confidence in who I am inside, and a pride in my heritage. Recalling memories has been a balm to my questioning soul.

My next posts ‘Freeing the memories‘ tells my story of capturing those memories whilst recognising the importance of not holding onto them too tight, but instead setting them free.