What would you like to ask your ancestors?


“What do we miss when we don’t have an opportunity to ask questions of our family members at critical points in their lives? What do we want to pass on to future generations? What do we hope to learn from those who came before us? How much of our individual strength comes from knowing our family stories, and also from passing these stories and experiences on?”

This is Pandelis Tsoflias, my Greek grandfather, my Papoo.  He came into my mind when I read a recent article in Psychology Today, entitled: “I wish I had asked” about the family stories we never get to know, simply because we didn’t ask. I am magnetically drawn to such articles as my novel in progress, Honor’s Ghost, is all about generational patterns: in particular about the hope that our descendants won’t repeat our mistakes.

When Pandelis was fourteen years old, he and his brother and cousin stowed away on a ship, from the Greek island of Chios.  His brother settled in Lebanon, his cousin in the USA, and my grandfather eventually settled in Barry, South Wales, around 1920, when the town was a flourishing port used by the Greek shipping lines, as it had the deepest dry dock in the country. The Tsoflias tribe now spans the globe, with related families in Australia, the USA, UK, Switzerland, the Lebanon and France.

Pandelis married, raised four children, and established a successful business as a maritime clothier.  He was a bit of a maverick, with Communist leanings: he brought all the sailors out on strike for better working conditions, and was deported back to Greece for his trouble, though was later allowed to return to his family in Wales.   My grandfather died when I was nineteen; but I can’t say I knew him well.  His English was fractured and heavily accented, so he was not somebody you could have a long chat to; but anyway, as a child, it wouldn’t really have occurred to me to ask about his life story.

He was a loving grandfather, always pressing a half crown coin (such wealth!) into my hand when he saw me. He clung to his nationality throughout his life, telling my father, when he was a child:  “Never forget you are Greek.”  My father, Antony Pandelis Tsoflias, (top right in the family portrait) honoured his father’s wish by raising us to be aware of our Greek roots, naming us all with Greek names (Dorothea, Voula, Chrysanthy and Constantine), taking us to the Greek Orthodox Church, and sending us to Greek school where we learned to read, write and speak Greek: echoes of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a film that reminded me a lot of my childhood! My knowledge of the Greek language has two elements: speaking as a child around the tea table, and being able to swear like a Greek sailor. Neither of these has proved particularly helpful to me when holidaying in Greece.  My father’s promotion of Greek superiority was so pervasive that, when my sister was five years old, she asked my mother: “Would Daddy prefer me to meet a Greek man, or Prince Charles?”  To which my mother replied, “I think he’d be happy with Prince Charles.”

I tried, some years ago, to find out more about Papoo, visiting Chios and meeting family there.  Sadly, records were hard to come by, most of them having been destroyed in wars over Chios: the island is close to Turkey, so Greece and Turkey fought over its ownership.  Whilst my Dad has told me many stories of my grandfather, it’s not quite the same as being able to ask questions in person is it?

These are the things I would have liked to ask him:

Why did you leave Chios?  And did you ever see your parents again? (to my knowledge, he never returned)

Did you miss your island?

What was it like to adjust to a new country, a new language, and new customs?

What was it about Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street that made you laugh so much?

If you knew us now, what would you think of the tribe you created?  I’m thinking we’re not as Greek as you would have liked us to be?

What would you like to ask your ancestors?

2 thoughts on “What would you like to ask your ancestors?

  1. I am Italian and have come to London, many years ago, quite legally through the Port of Dover. It is quite right to ask “why did you come and for what reason” because these are two questions I have often asked myself. I wanted a better life; I wanted a job; I did not like the Italian way of life; I did not fit in, somehow and was disafected, the reasons are endless. Maybe, I wanted to a clear separation (not a continuum) between my life and my parents life. Maybe I needed a clean and dramatic break to establish myself. I saw my move away from family and town as a challenge and remember thinking about “burning bridges behind me”. I have now my own “Garavini tribe”: four children and (at the moment) four grandchildren. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing us together, possibly around a table sharing a meal. In some ways, I have gone back to the family I broke away from all that long ago; in fact the family I never really and completely left. I have now a different understanding of my family and therefore my curiosity and interest about my ancestors; I have considered and included nurture as well as nature. I don’t think I have ever said to my children “you are Italian”. I did send them to Italian school, but soon took them away when engagement with lessons in state school became paramount. Also I tended to avoid frequenting Italian people and making Italian friends to the exclusion of others. Of course, I am Italian and inevitably I must have passed on some elements of my culture and upbringing. Now I am putting together family photos, information as well as my own recollections and thoughts (should I say feelings) to pass on as a record to my children, because they don’t think of asking and because, later on they will want to ask just like you and I did.

    1. Thank your for such a moving response to my blog post. It seems a wonderful thing to do, to compile a book of photos and feelings and recollections, ready for the day when your children and grandchildren want to know about your life…… It’s interesting, isn’t it, that we have both spoken of examples of an ancestor from a different country? Maybe they become more fascinating to us, than those who live on our home soil….. Thank you again, I was really moved by your comments.

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