Written by Jackie Mifflin

I didn’t know too much about my family history until I was nearly forty years of age. That probably sounds a bit odd, but my dad was not one to share many of his childhood experiences with me. Not that he was ashamed or embarrassed in any way. He had left Trinidad in the late 40’s and travelled to England to join the Royal Air Force.

A chance meeting during a weekend in July 1994 changed my life.

My dad was due to retire soon and so to celebrate his retirement, my two children and I were invited to spend a weekend in Butlin’s Hotel in Brighton. My sister Jayne and her husband Mark lived in Brighton. My dad and stepmother travelled from Scotland to join us for this weekend. They were due to arrive on Saturday morning and chose to stay in a seafront hotel.

I was extremely excited to be joining my family for the weekend because at the time, I didn’t drive and being a single parent with two young children I did not travel much outside of Somerset.

We arrived at the hotel on Friday afternoon, unpacked and arranged to meet up with Jayne and Mark in the evening. The hotel had a small ballroom and dancefloor with a couple of bars.

We chose a table close to the dancefloor and had a good old family catch up. During the early part of the evening a middle-aged couple walked onto the dancefloor and began dancing. Their obvious enjoyment, bright clothing and early participation had everyone watching them.

After about an hour, Mark said “I think that’s Denise over there at the bar”. On hearing Mark I just naturally assumed that Jayne and Mark had a friend named Denise and so I did not pay much attention to his comment.

That was until Jayne said that it was our cousin, Denise!

My uncle Kelvin (my dad’s brother) and my aunt both lived in London with my cousins Denise and Anthony. We did not used to meet up too often but when my family came down to visit us I enjoyed seeing them. Before I left home and joined the Navy we lived in Hove, which is right next to Brighton. I honestly could not remember the last time I saw Denise, but it must have been at least twenty years ago. So to hear that she was at the bar was amazing after all this time.

I was trying to peer over everyone’s heads to get a glimpse of my cousin – I was so excited! After what seemed like ages, Denise came towards us and sat down. We talked for hours and hours until two in the morning reflecting on our lives and our family, long after Jayne and Mark left for home and my kids had gone up to their room catching up on the past two decades!

I did wonder what had brought my cousin Denise to Butlins Hotel. She was a carer of the couple who were on the dancefloor, who she had brought to Butlins for the weekend. They were special needs and staying at the hotel was part of their care plan to support each other.

What were the chances of me bumping into my cousin in a hotel in Brighton on this weekend in July 1994?

My excited cousin rang her mum, my aunt who said ”Wouldn’t it be great if Jackie could meet her family?”

I was 39 years old I didn’t drive and hadn’t ever travelled abroad, yet within two months of meeting my cousin I would be flying across the Atlantic to New York to meet my family.

My dad was born in Trinidad March 1929 and was the second eldest of eleven children, nine brothers and two sisters.

Some of my family had moved to America and while some stayed in Trinidad, my uncle Kelvin was the only family member to join my dad and travel to England in 60’s. My aunt Glenda was second youngest and lived in Long Island, New York.

This may sound a bit spooky, but it’s true, as I was growing up every time I heard Glenda’s name mentioned, something told me that she was special and would be an important person in my life. At the time, I didn’t know why nor did I know much about Glenda but my heart told me that she was special.

The plan was for me to fly to New York with Denise to meet my US family, pop down to Trinidad for a few days, fly back to US then back to UK.

In a whirlwind few weeks I met aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins. I felt so very proud to meet my family and know more about my heritage.

Whilst in Trinidad I met Uncle Harrod the eldest in the family. He was quite a serious person, self-disciplined and respected by all of my family.

A welcoming party was arranged to celebrate Denise and my visit to Trinidad. About thirty family members attended this special gathering.

I had very little knowledge of Caribbean food, however, in front of me was an appetising array of West Indian food. Nervously, I put a few items on my plate one being Roti. I wasn’t sure of the ingredients, but it look good and I planned to sit down carefully, glance up to see how everyone was eating these items and copy! I picked up a Roti, carefully pulled it apart and watched the entire contents spill onto my skirt and onto the floor. My uncle Daniel who was sat across the room from me reminded me of this unfortunate incident many times since! He was so gentle and laughed each time we spoke about my experience of eating Roti!

My uncle Harrod gave a speech and I felt so proud to be my dad’s daughter and to finally be able to learn about my family. My cousin had made the travel arrangements, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay in Trinidad for as long as I would have liked. After a quick visit we flew back to New York.

During the planning of my trip to America my cousin and I had decided not to tell my dad or step mother. We had spoken at length about our family and chose not to tell them because there was a great risk that, somehow, they would spoil this whole event as they had tried to ruin special events in my life previously. Such as joining the Navy, my wedding day and the birth of my son.

A few days into my holiday my aunt suggested we call my dad to say hello and let him know where I was! I stood beside my aunt and waited slightly nervous at what his reaction was going to be. Not that he could do anything about my being in America. My aunt and my dad chatted for a while and then I was handed the phone. I could sense that my dad was in shock, knowing that I was in America and he didn’t have a clue. But then that’s how I wanted things to be. He told me that he was pleased for me but I wasn’t convinced that his good wishes were completely genuine. He sounded as though he was lost for words. I also thought that my stepmother would be close by. He asked me to hang on and handed the phone to my stepmother. The interrogation began –”What are you doing in America? Why didn’t you tell us? Who is looking after Carl and Michelle? That was a bit sneaky wasn’t it Jackie?” She could never have been pleased for me to be with my family! I was determined that she was not going to ruin my holiday and certainly not spoil my relationship with my family.

The rest of my holiday I spent getting to know my US family and my family in Trinidad. I learnt that my dad was one of eleven children borne to my Grandparents. Harrod, Lenore, Earl, John, Daniel, Errol, Kelvin, Melvin, Pascal, Desmond and Glenda. I was told that Pascal and Melvin passed away at a very young age.

Most of my family lived in Trinidad and worked in the education department, with the exception of Kelvin, Glenda, Desmond and my dad.

Kelvin came to England to join my dad in early 60’s. Glenda and Desmond both left Trinidad and chose to live in America. At the age of 39 I didn’t realise who I took after or who I resembled until I met my family. Apparently, according to all my aunts and uncles I had all the Thompson family traits which made me feel so proud.

My Grandad was a very strict and disciplined man, in family photos he looked very serious. My grandmother was also fairly strict but had a softer side to her. They were also deeply religious and regularly attended their local church, Seventh Day Adventist.

My aunt Glenda is so special to me. There are ten years between us but over the years we have become so very close. She is like my aunt, mum and best friend.

I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to visit my family in America fairly regularly since 1994, it’s been great spending time with them.

My aunt is so special and we are very close to this day. Glenda treats me like a daughter and I am equally as close to Glenda’s two daughters, my cousins; Devalie and Beverley, who are like sisters to me.

Learning more about my aunts, uncles and grandparents has enabled me to know who I am and feel proud.

It’s so important for everyone to know the history of their family and who they are. It’s equally important for parents to pass this information to future generations.

Bumping in to my cousin that day in 1994 was truly a life changing moment for me. For me, meeting my family all those years ago was an amazing, happy and life changing experience.

Meeting my family was one of the happiest events in my life.

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