Ancestral moves

MY seven year old grandson in California has a project this term called “Ancestor Days.” The children in his class have to talk to their grandparents and to learn about where they come from, how they came to America, their cultures and food, culminating in work to be shown at the school and an Ancestor meal for which a parent or grandparent will prepare a dish.

My daughter and her family live in Sacramento, which was founded in 1848 by John Sutter (son of John Sutter senior of Sutter Mill fame, where the California ‘49 gold rush began). The Spanish had long been in southern California, where they founded many settlements, mainly around the Catholic missions which remain some of the state’s most atmospheric and important historic buildings.

Most non-indigenous people in California have only been there for one or two generations, some (like my daughter) were not even born in the USA, so Ancestor Days is an opportunity for the children to discover their family backgrounds.

The results are likely to be fascinating, if my grandson’s origins are anything to go by. On his mother’s side, he has an English grandfather and a grandmother (me) who is part English, part Scots and a little bit French. On his California-born father’s side, he has a grandfather who was born in San Salvador, whose own father was a Palestinian Christian who travelled to the Americas between the two world wars and settled in the central American country, and a grandmother, the oldest child of a large family who were first generation emigres from Puerto Rico.

Talking to my son-in-law while they were here for Christmas, I realised how little he knows about his family background – he is Californian, American, and has never really thought about where his parents come from. He knows that his grandfather had a successful business in San Salvador before deciding to come north to the USA in the 1950s. He sent for his family after he had established himself in the Bay area. The first time that my son-in-law’s father (Jose, known as Jo) saw “black-top” (tarmaced roads) was when they crossed the border from Mexico into southern California. My son-in-law knows virtually nothing about the background of his mother, Maria.

My grandson and his class-mates have to choose one of their grandparents to talk to, to find out more and to make a dish for the Ancestor meal, and he asked me (his sister next year will ask one of her paternal grandparents). We made a start while they were here, filling in a questionnaire that ranged from the changes I had seen in my life to the circumstances that had taken me to America. Of course, I don’t live there, but I was able to tell him about his great-great-great grandfather (my great-grandfather, on my mother’s side) who sailed from Dorset to Newfoundland to fish the cod on the Grand Banks, where he died of what was known as “galloping consumption” in the 1880s. His widow took her very young son and travelled from Ilchester in Somerset to north Devon and eventually to Bristol, where in due course he began work for a successful businessman who owned several hairdressing salons, and eventually married the boss’s daughter, my grandmother Annie.

My parents met during the Second World War on a Cotswold farm where my mother worked as a Landgirl – some of my father’s ancestors came from Scotland, but one (probably his great-great grandfather) was a master mason from the Cotswolds who worked on the Prince Regent’s Brighton Pavilion. During his years in Brighton he met and married a local beauty called Priscilla – I have always wondered what sophisticated Priscilla made of life in the rural (and to her, doubtless backward) Cotswolds where she spent the rest of her life.

My grandson cannot imagine life without mobile phones and tablets, central heating, 24-hour multi-channel television or satellite navigation in cars. But when it came to choosing the dish he wants us to make for the Ancestor meal, his choice was unhesitating – Toad-in-the-hole. You can’t get more traditional British than that!

Fanny Charles