Week 15: Chair’s Blog – What makes us who we are?

What makes us who we are?  How much do we diverge from our familial roots?  Where do we call home?  What is community to each of us?

These are all questions I’m sure we ask ourselves from time to time.

I’ve said before that one of the reasons I felt a calling to this charity is my local family history in the area which dates back to around the time when the WCA was first set up.

My maternal grandparents moved to Wimbledon from what was Mandatory Palestine just after the Second World War. My grandmother was German, and her family had settled in and helped develop Haifa almost a century earlier when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. She was part of the quite strict Templers community, that had separated from the Lutherans in the 1850s. My grandfather, who was originally from Thornton Heath (and a Crystal Palace fan) had been posted to work for the British Palestinian Police Force that was tasked with policing the territory after the First World War.

It was a bit of a Romeo & Juliet romance, as you can well imagine. They were married just before the rise of the Nazis in the mid 1930s, after which many of my grandmother’s relatives were interned and deported as POWs to Australia. I find the current problems in Israel, Gaza and the region, entwined as it is with my family history and the previous conflicts in Europe, upsetting. Lots of thoughts there.

My mother and my twin uncles were all born in Mandatory Palestine, but they grew up locally on Cromwell Road. My grandmother’s religious roots remained very strong and it’s very likely that she attended the old Baptist Church in Queens Road when Cyril Black was there back in the 1950s.

My mother met my father at a local drama society in Wimbledon (not our members Carlton Theatre Group) and my grandfather was a budding amateur thespian as well. I have found programmes of old WCA Drama Festivals at which my family was probably represented. My mother went to Queens Road (now Priory) School and was fortunate to get a scholarship to Wimbledon High School, although she left at 16. Soon after she and my father married, they departed the UK to head back to the Middle East, this time for Aden, another British controlled territory (now part of Yemen), which is where my middle brother and I were born.

When British involvement there came to an end, we came back to the UK and soon after settled in Guildford for a couple of years, where my youngest brother was born, before my father departed. My mother subsequently took us to live in a 1-bedroom flat in Bath for a few years before the chance came to live downstairs from my grandparents back in Cromwell Road in 1969. I was 8 years old.

When I was 13, my mother remarried and we all adopted my stepfather’s surname. Shortly after, he got involved with Trinity URC, where he became Deputy Minister. However, my stepfather, like my father, was a troubled man, and it didn’t end well. Both my father and stepfather died some years ago, both under very difficult circumstances – stories for other times perhaps.

As you get older you start to piece together the roots of your family history and as I said at the outset, you wonder what it is that makes you who you are. My mother, who has been through some very challenging times during her life, has since become an even more devout Christian and later on changed her surname back to my father’s, as she felt that in God’s eyes her second marriage was not valid.

I left Wimbledon after going to University in Kent and then lived in North-West London for ten years before returning in 1993, but have settled here ever since. Despite my family’s travels both abroad and in the UK, this feels like home. As for how all this has influenced my values, I do reflect on that regularly. My grandmother’s German heritage and work ethic, my grandfather’s interest in sports and local theatre, my father’s and stepfather’s own different challenges, my mother’s deep religious beliefs; lots of factors. Most importantly I think I’ve realised that whilst this is my home I am ‘of the world’.

Where do our boundaries lie? So many of us are a mix of different origins.  My subject for next time.

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