Thursday, 19 March 2009

Family Reflections

It was purchased before the war by a balding, stocky man with a warm smile and a booming, resonant voice. His name was Bertram Davis – though his original Russian surname was the more exotic Bolzwinick. He was the grandfather I never knew. By all accounts, he was the life and soul of the party; a witty chap with a story to tell and a joke to crack. Until, that is, life was cruelly cut short by asthma at the tender age of 54.

I was born into this world five years after his departure. According to my grandmother, Bert would spend many happy hours pottering in dusty antique shops in the Mile End Road, and was in the habit of buying things on a whim.

As a young child I remember setting eyes on my grandfather’s purchase and being drawn by its mesmerizing contents and the way it magnified and distorted itself. This shiny, glassy orb with its intricate geometry of bright lapis lazuli, pink and white sunk deep into a sea of solid glass, never ceased to fascinate my young eyes. How did the coloured glass get inside the see-though glass? And how could this iridescent globule of sheer beauty have no more meaningful a role in life than a mere paperweight?

For many years it was the family tradition for all my uncles and aunts and cousins on my mother’s side of the family to descend in droves on my grandmother’s house every Saturday afternoon for tea. It was invariably a jovial affair with lively children, lively conversation, a real fire sizzling and crackling in the grate and, of course, my grandmother’s famous apple and blackberry pie with its delicate coat of latticed pastry.

My grandmother was a fiercely independent woman with a heart of gold and a particularly soft spot for her short-sighted grandson. So when she passed away quite suddenly and unexpectedly when I was 14, Saturday afternoons never quite felt the same again.

I can recollect helping my father clear her large Victorian house and standing on the threshold of the sitting room where the fire once danced and laughter once filled the air. All that was left was a bare room with bare floor boards. A room stripped of its personality; stripped of life itself.

Some weeks later the paperweight that had sat for so many years on my grandmother’s sideboard, now found a new home on my bedroom desk. Sometimes I look into it and try and make out fleeting reflections of those joyful childhood memories.

Today, 35 years on my mother, now showing the early signs of dementia, lets slip the darkest of family secrets. Her father with whom she was incredibly close did not die from asthma. This jovial man who still laughs and smiles to this day from those black and white snap shots from yesteryear, actually took his own life – following a serious bout of depression.

It explains a lot. It explains why my grandmother’s top floor was always occupied by lodgers – since life assurance policies are never honoured in the event of suicide.

More significantly, it also explains our family tradition and why every Saturday afternoon all her grandchildren would descend and fill her house with laughter.

If you are affected by this article and would like to speak to mental health experts for support and guidance, please contact for free advice.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant and chilling piece. It has given me goosebumps!