His uniform is from the First World War, and my guess is that the photograph was taken in 1916, and he had just been commissioned as an officer. But I don’t know. I don’t know when he enlisted, or what he did in the war. I don’t know whether he was in the trenches, and I don’t know if he was wounded or harmed in any way. All I have is this photograph. It is a large print, and on close looking I can see is the beginning of a soft moustache on his youthful upper lip.
I do not remember seeing this photograph when I was young. I found it in an attic box, and it must have been hidden or put away. The print has also been damaged with what look like accidental scratch marks on his cheek. However, to me the marks on his soft young cheek make me think of deliberate violence.
My grandfather died in 1940. He committed suicide.
Having been born more than ten years after his death I never met my grandfather. Once I heard him being called a “war hero” but I don’t know if this was true. My mother, who was his daughter and born in 1916 herself, hardly ever mentioned him, and said nothing about his time in the First World War. There were some later photographs of him in her bedroom from when she was a child and he was her Daddy, but she told no stories about him at all. There was a family code of silence about both his life and death.
I guess not talking about him may have been part of my mother’s way of dealing with being bereaved by suicide. His death in 1940 came in the dark days of the Second World War, so she was enough occupied by that, serving her country in the war effort, and falling in love with my father who she had met in London.
He was a naval officer, and, on active service, and in the thick of danger too.
Children quickly arrived after my mother and father married, first my older sister, then my older brother born in 1943. He was called Ferrier. It was the same name as my grandfather. I don’t know if the name weighed on him, but I think so. Although we preferred to call him ‘Fred’, as I look back now, I think he was marked out by his name from birth.
My brother Fred also committed suicide. It was in 1973. He was nearly thirty at the time and I was twenty two.
My mother and father did not talk about my brother’s death any more than they had talked about my grandfather’s death earlier. We all shared the same grief and sadness, but we went on keeping the family code of silence. I would even say it felt natural to remain silent, after all I had been brought up with the code since birth. Only after they both died in the 1990’s did I feel that I had permission to begin to explore the shadow spaces of our family code, and face my own deep fear of silence which had bound itself round and round my heart. Naming it over and over has released its hold.
I am free to go back and explore. Entering a shadowy labyrinth, I try to trace back the woven thread to the origins of my family code of silence, and the harm of suicide over three generations of men. But the histories are rubble now and mostly lost in time, and there are only a few surviving fragments of individual stories, broken narratives, a dusty blue atmosphere of men’s past sadness and losses, and a few lasting things like photographs. There are also medals from the wars: a string from my father’s active service in the Second World War, and none, or none that I have ever seen, for my grandfather’s service in the First World War.
I wonder over that absence of medals, that and the scratch marks on the young mans’s face in the photograph of my grandfather. Wars mark men for violence, and their sons, whether they actually fight in them or not.
*Remembrance and Absence: this is the third of three stories I have to tell about men in my family who mean the most to me – Grandfather, Father, Brother. The other two have been published here http://www.menbeyond50.net/