“Other things may change us, but we start and end with family.”
~ Anthony Brandt
How is that two people can create new people and even though they have the same upbringing, values and family experiences the new people’s lives can all play out so differently?
With so many family catch ups with cousins, aunties, uncles, grandparents, second cousins, extended cousins, etc, etc, lately, the family reminiscing has taken over. Everyone has a story, a memory of some long ago place, time, occasion to share, that then opens the flood gates to everyone else’s recollection of the past and it’s people. The problem with these family reminiscing sessions is that the people with the answers to the gaps in the family history story are long gone by the time the rest of the family realises the significance and value of the story.
Six years ago the passing of my grandfather set off a chain of reconnections with family members I didn’t even know existed and the family story began to unfold. Cousins of my dad that he had spent the majority of his childhood with, long time friends of my grandfather and an house filled with a lifetimes collection of photos, letters, clippings and memorabilia.
We set about the task of sorting through some of the archives of artefacts, preserved in their dark cupboard recesses and tin biscuit tombs, thinking we already knew all about our family what more could be offered up but a pile of dust and mouldy old clippings.
It turns out a lot more.
I had grown up with the distinctly naive impression that it was only books, movies and other peoples families that had alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, rebellious children and any other number of sad stories filling their history. This changed when I met my extended family from the generation before me, a few months after my grandfather passed for a family reunion over dinner. Photos were passed around the table and names and places noted on the back, as different people recognised faces captured on the black and white musty cards. This started the stories. Stories of people I didn’t know anything of, stories of my dad growing up that he didn’t even remember and stories that made me feel proud of who I was and where I came from. Stories that made me laugh and cry. Stories that made me realise how fortunate I am to even be a part of this world. They made the people in photos come alive. Like my great grandmother (who I couldn’t remember, as she died when I was very young) who upon seeing my grandfather standing in the top of a tree on their farm cawing called out “what are you doing up there?” My grandfather called back “I’m a crow. Caw caw” My great grandmother’s response to this was to take out a pellet gun and shoot him in the bottom, while saying “that’s what we do to crows around here.”
Now my great grandmother and great grandfather were two of the most wonderful human beings on the face of the earth. They were loving, caring people with a peaceful nature that reflected the surname they carried. They also had a great sense of humour, liking nothing better than to play a joke or have a laugh with their family. They had a farm where all the grand children converged to chase the milk truck down the driveway and help with the normal farm chores. The cousins thought nothing of collecting eggs, milking cows, boiling and plucking chickens and what ever other jobs had to be done and now 40 years later they relived those days and the simplicity of them. Because while at the farm all the children’s lives were equal. It was when they left the farm that the choices of their parents began to show just how different the paths can be between siblings of one family. One sibling was in a marriage rife with alcoholism and domestic violence. Another siblings marriage was perfect, except that they were unable to have children, so adopted. And on the stories went. Hardships faced and courageous deeds done. These people had been through it all. Now here we all were second or third generation rehashing the stories of our ancestry. The reality of just how different each person’s life had turned out was astounding, considering we all came from the same line. How can it all go so right through one branch of the family tree and so wrong through another?
We still can’t answer that question. There are pieces of the stories missing and the only ones that can fill the gaps have already left us. Instead we sit around sharing the pieces we have and trying to get to know more about where each of us came from. But it’s all of these stories that inevitably pull us together again, as one family.