Are We Now Our Parents' Generation?

This past week my family received the sad news that my Great Auntie Babs has passed away. She was well into her nineties and had a full and long life. She was well loved and respected and, while we will mourn her loss, we will celebrate her life. This is as it should be, of course, for someone of any great age. But, as the family gathers in Lincolnshire – the Rippon homeland, if you like – for the funeral, it will mark a significant change for all of us. Because Auntie Babs was the last survivor of my granddad's five siblings. And, for me at least, she was the last of my grandparents' generation. With her passing, we all move up a step. My parents and their cousins become the oldest generation and I, and my cousins and second cousins all move up a generation too.

Great Auntie Babs

 I'm sure being the last of her generation was  something that was not lost on Auntie Babs because family was very important to her. And for many years she was the centre of the family. The matriarch, if you like. We still have countless letters that Auntie Babs sent to my granddad, keeping him in touch with the latest family news. And she must have done the same for her other siblings, who had by this time moved away from Lincolnshire with their spouses and families.

Of course, Auntie Babs wasn't alone in the world. She had a son, and two grandchildren, and a large family of nieces and nephews and great nieces and great nephews, many of whom will meet up once more this week. But this week I've been thinking about what it must be like to know that you are the last of your siblings. In truth, I can't. Although as an only child, I know I'll get to it at some point.

And yet, what has also occurred to me this week is that Auntie Babs' passing isn't really about the last of anything. It's just about life. It's about what happens to everyone. To every family. Just as another generation is born, one passes away. It doesn't make it any less sad. Or any less significant. But it is part of the natural cycle of life. I think, as a farmer's wife, Auntie Babs would have agreed. 

Sometimes family is just about being part of something, not only much bigger than ourselves, but which has stretched back in time for centuries and which will go forward, even if we have no children of our own, long after we've all disappeared.

 A few years ago the Rippons had a family reunion in rural Lincolnshire. There were dozens of us present, all descended from (or married to someone who was descended from) Norah & Joe Rippon – my great grandparents. We spent time with family, met people we had never met before and chatted to relatives we didn't even know existed. All of us reflected that so many people, each one so different from the others, could all be descended from one couple. And it fired up in many of us a determination to find out more about our extended family, to meet up more often. Of course, in common with probably every other family, this has happened seldom, and if we're honest, really only at funerals. But that reunion did serve to encourage further exploration of our family's origins. Of the Rippons from the Fens and the Todds from the Cotswolds and from Fife. And it's remarkable what we've dug up. From village ratcatchers in Warwickshire and farmhands from Scotland to grooms, cooks and hairdressers.

Joe & Norah Rippon my Great Grandparents, and Auntie Babs' parents. Dozens of their descendants met up a few years ago.

What has also emerged is the realisation that our reunion gathering was really very small, at least when you compare it to the 'greater family' we'd have should we choose to go back a generation and ever meet up with the descendants of Joe Rippon's seven brothers and two sisters, and Norah Todd's nine siblings. These days I'm in contact with several of those branches and some live as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

 And that's just it – even the most apparently small family has countless branches, even if we don't know about them. Somewhere, not so far away, I know there are other Rippons right now. They probably don't know we exist. They almost certainly don't know our names, but they are there. They are getting married, having children and eventually passing away. As someone who's both an only child and has no children of her own, I find that comforting. And this week, as we gather to say farewell to Auntie Babs, it's something I'll be thinking about. The cycle of life. The vastness of family. And being just a very small part of something more enormous than I could ever imagine or know.