Living Through Lockdown, My Family Rewrote Our Shared History

Only by retelling old family stories – even the difficult ones – do we learn something new.
Renata Angerami via Getty / Isabelle Carapella

You’re reading My Black History, a series of personal reflections from Black women in the UK on the meeting point of history and life lessons.

“Have you maybe tried considering it from another perspective?”

Odds are you’ve at some point felt the scorch of this particular hot seat – be it in your therapist’s chair or over drinks with a friend.

Unsurprisingly, the stories we tell ourselves can have little flex; instead of being loose enough to bend and offer up different angles, they burrow deeper into a fixed position with each retelling. We’re not above being seduced by our own repetition – the more we privately pick at a tale, the more resolute we become that our take is the only one worth consideration.

And I’ll be the first to admit it: with stories concerning family – my family – I am predisposed to believing them to be in some way revelatory of everyone’s true character. I’m quick to imagine that our shared stories, or more precisely, my take on them, grants me unfettered access into the underbellies of their psyches, bearing home truths obscured even to my family themselves.

I once heard Lemn Sissay, a poet who grew up in the care system, say when talking about his book, My Name is Why, that “family is a group of disputed memories between a group of people over a lifetime.” The same experience can be remembered and retold in 10 different ways to the 10 who lived through it.

And whether we’re winding back the clock days or decades, the insight feels ageless: my sister’s ruthlessness, for example, never more apparent than in 1998 when she took my carefully curated party-bag at our cousin’s birthday as her own. If you’re reading this in an honest mood, you’re welcome to join me in confession.

Cooped up with my family over the pandemic, stewing in our own boredom, we began to go toe to toe with our memories, breaking them open for challenge and dispute, each of us demanding from the other to just see it from our point of view. But what started as a clash of competing narratives quickly took shape into something more interesting.

One of those stories, according to how I knew it, went like this:

My brother, aged seven, thick rimmed glasses paired with an even thicker smirk stands next to my mum, bag laden and tetchy at the 36 bus stop in Lewisham. The day is fuzzy grey and restless with rain. We’ve just finished a long day of back to school shopping that ended, as per sibling tradition, with a celebratory selection (read: theft) of Woolworths sweets. My brother has dared me to sit on the top deck, against the strict instructions of my mum.

When the bus arrives, spilling at its seams with impatient and damp passengers, I elbow my way through to claim a seat on the top deck, smug that I’ve proved my daringness as the younger sibling. I expect my brother to come and get me when it’s time to get off – after all, he dared me. As the bus passengers thin and the journey eeks out longer than expected, I realise things have gone horribly wrong.

I remember sitting on a stationary bus, side by side with the conductor, my face wet with tears and my chest clogged with anxiety. I remember my brother being unremorseful and unresponsive when, after what felt like days apart, we are reunited at the bus depot. I remember my mum not believing me that I had been dared, not distributing her anger fairly between me and my brother.

Sitting in our living room during lockdown, rehashing this old story, I’m taken aback at the faces of my family, contorted in shock and surprise. My brother tells me how he thought I was among the passengers downstairs, mistaking my backpack for someone else’s. He tells me just how afraid he remembers being that day, how silence was the only response he knew for how sorry he was, how he had run to flag the next bus down so we could get help.

My mum recalls how little she cared to get to the bottom of who had done what, how she was paralysed with fear that day and for subsequent days, having lost a child on a bus as a Black single mother living in Britain in the 1990s.

For so long, I had used this story as a character reference, casting my brother as reckless and uncaring and my mum as partial to favouritism. Suddenly it had gaps, was fraught with tensions and tangents, was still shifting despite being the property of the past.

While these stories can bear the weight of long-held misconceptions, under altered conditions, which the pandemic provided my family, there’s room for relief. And my god does it feel good to be relieved. Now, I’m not saying I’ve evolved beyond the instinct to live and die by my own narratives, but I do think it’s high time I added “partaker of multiple perspectives” to my LinkedIn.