This last 3 weeks I have been on a trip to Sheffield. In part it was to take a break for myself and I could have taken it anywhere but I chose Sheffield so that I could do local history research for my new project ‘My Darling Janie’; the story of the love letters of my great great grandparents courting in Sheffield in the 1870s.
What it became was not only a chance to discover my family past but one to firm up friendships and reconnect with my living family in the shape of my maternal grandfather (who is still with us at 97) and my paternal cousin, who I had not seen for over 30 years.
With having moved so many times as a small child, I’ve spent my life feeling rootless and disconnected, not ever really feeling like I come from somewhere. In many ways, I feel like I come from everywhere and after I made my home in Wales about five years ago - the valley I live in feels more of a home than anywhere else ever has.
My cousin has done some amazing work on our shared family tree and the other side has been researched mostly by my mother who has been working on it for over 50 years, in the middle of which she took qualifications in local and family history research. Because of their combined work, I am in the rare position of knowing the names and origins of all 32 of my great great grandparents and more than three quarters of my 64 3 x great grandparents. Among my ggGrandparents are people from Cambridgeshire, Wales, Ireland and one from Jamaica, but the vast majority are from around that fuzzy border between South Yorkshire and Derbyshire.
I’m not sure how I got to nearly 50 myself and it only now dawn on me that I was the first one on my family pedigree to have been born outside the Sheffield area in four generations. As I discussed with friends and my cousin, when you come to visit relatives as children, the car journeys between Aunt Marion’s, and the cousins, and Grandad and Grandma, aren’t paid attention to. You’re too busy scrapping with your sibling about who’s sitting on who’s side and wondering if ice-cream is going to be in your fairly near future. No map gets made in your head. So when I got to Sheffield, a place that I visited countless times before, I had no idea how everything was connected, which way was east or west, or what district was near another.
While I was finding my way round and visiting the old family pub in Handsworth, everything was initially a delightful adventure. Staying with friends who had recently moved there and seeing the place through their eyes, making new discoveries about ancient family history, and seeing my cousin for the first time in years. But then Jo Cox was killed.
I only knew Jo professionally when I worked in Oxfam. I doubt I would ever have seen her again and I think I had probably almost forgotten her. I do remember that the times she turned up by my desk it usually meant a late night or two for me or for members of our team - she was so driven but you couldn’t help but like her.
I was paying my bill in a cafe and flicking though twitter when I heard the news she’d been attacked - everything drained out of me. I found myself floundering in the pouring rain across the Peace Gardens as I sobbed down the phone to my wife while I tried to find a bus back to my hotel. When I got to my room the news said she had died.
The next day, I was still shaken and everywhere I walked there were pictures of Jo. That evening I was staying with friends who were so kind, and on Sunday I had an adventure with my cousin while we tried to track down the house where my ggGrandfather had lived and another former family pub. We had a great time, she drove around Attercliffe and Darnall like a pro and while we had lunch in a v trendy cafe in a warehouse in town, she made me laugh and was sweet when I got sad about Jo.
As the week went on I knew I was feeling anxious about the EU referendum and while I was poking about in the Sheffield archive office or the local history library I could distract myself. However waking up on Friday was hideous, full of fear and full of tears.
By this time my mother had come up to visit - we had planned to visit my Grandad but we got a call from the paramedic to say that he had fallen and had been taken to the Frailty Unit at the Northern General. More studying of bus maps ensued and in the end we gave up and got a taxi. He was fine. He’d just turned a bit too quick and got dizzy but they were concerned about a minor chest infection and were giving him antibiotics through an IV. He was not impressed in leaving the EU (he believed it was for peace - he’d served in the Navy as a medical officer/nurse) and he was delighted that I was doing my bit on the family history front. All this bellowed at volume due to the crapness of his hearing aid. He was safely back home the next day and we went to check on him on the Monday.
By this time I was suffering from a ridiculous level of anxiety - falling into exhausted sleep with difficulty, waking up with a start after only four hours and getting weepy because I didn’t know if I wanted jam or marmite on my toast. I realised I was overloaded and that I needed to break my journey short from the original four weeks I’d planned. I cancelled my last airbnb (they even gave me a partial refund) and I started to clam down.
On my last full day, before meeting up with friends for a ‘so long and thanks for all the fish’ lunch, I found myself walking into Sheffield Cathedral. I hadn’t planned to but when I got off the bus I was outside it and I felt drawn in. I walked up the aisle and stood in the spot where so many of my foremothers, on both sides of my family, had been married. Then I walked up to the alter where my forbears would have knelt to be blessed before joyfully (hopefully) processing out into their new lives.
I walked back down the aisle to fill my eyes with what they must have seen but then realised that the west wing of the cathedral had been completely rebuilt after it had been lost to bombing in the second world war. The font was not the one that my forebears had been baptised in but a huge silver modernist cauldron made of finest Sheffield steel. Near the font was an area set aside for praying with candles and seats. My eyes stopped at a small stack of cards that had been printed up with ‘A prayer following the EU referendum'. I was very moved. I am no longer a believer but the thought that someone had taken time to think of comfort in the shape of a prayer was touching.
I picked one up. I sat down. I whispered it. I cried. Oh no I thought I can’t do this, but then I realised that this was probably the one place I could. I can fall apart in this space just for a minute because you are allowed to here. We don’t have a secular equivalent of a place where you can been still and be yourself in a safe space.
There was one big candle on a bench next to me, with a printed sign. I read, “In the memory of Jo Cox”. I cried more.
I felt comforted. This old old building, the very bricks, felt made of my family. I was allowed to sit here and fall apart for a moment because I belonged here.
The cathedral was broken but then it was rebuilt after the war, symbolising the old medieval Sheffield and the new industrial and modern Sheffield. The stained glass and the carving and concrete and the stainless steel representing Sheffield far more closely than a perfectly preserved cathedral ever could. It is not an elegant perfect building but it is real, it is authentic, it is valid.
My family got broken, disconnected. We shed the connections in our lives almost as quickly as hair. Sometimes we don’t know what we have lost - such as a photograph of a person that no one living can remember the name of. Other times great chasms open up and we cannot begin to imagine how we will cross them. All that pain. All that loss.
But we can rebuild. It won’t be as it was before. But it will be whole in a new way. It will be ours.