Living Relatives – Don’t Waste Opportunity

11 December 2009

This week’s blog sees me back in Brisbane at my mother’s. Over the last few months I seem to have spent more time in Brisbane than I have in years. Mum’s illness also means that I have spent more time with her than I have in decades and at a time when she is not able to do things herself. This has meant that I have had to get involved with her finances, what is kept where in the house and we have had time to simply talk.

Like other elderly people she hoards some things (mostly rubbish) and her cupboards are full of a mix of  ‘let’s chuck’ to I can’t believe you have kept this. On my last visit she presented me with an album of birthday and Christmas cards she had maintained from the time of my conception 50 plus years ago. There were cards from my grandmother who died in 1964, all my aunts and uncles and other family members I can’t even remember. It is strange reading these birthday and Christmas wishes so many years later.

This visit, on the first night, as we are eating dinner, Mum casually mentions would I have been interested in the first love letter that my father had given her when they were both aged 12, back in 1946. I would kill to see it was my first response and was shocked when she said I might have to because she had thrown it out. As I tried to stay calm and continue the dinnertime conversation, she said that it was still in the rubbish as that wasn’t collected until Monday.

You see people, usually police, going through rubbish on the television all the time and you think, how can they do that? It’s easy when you are looking for something that you really want to find, believe me. Fortunately Mum doesn’t have a lot of rubbish but it was at the bottom. I fished out the two scraps of paper, she had torn it in two, and pieced it together. There was very old sticky tape all round it, as at some time in the past, the page had cracked and torn and she had tried to put it back together.

As I read the words my father had written back in 1946, 50 years before his death in 1996, images of him came flooding back and I could easily see him writing those words. My parents spent 50 years of their life together and it all started with that note. And of course, Mum agreeing to be his girlfriend!

To show Mum how significant something like that letter is, I brought out my December issue of Australian Family Tree Connections in which an article of mine had been published and I had used a photo of her grandparents. She took one look at the photo of her grandmother and started telling me all about my great grandmother who had lived with Mum and her mother for years before her death.

She remembered how she spoke, what she wore, that she always had lollies in her pockets for Mum when she got home from school and so on. My great grandmother was blind and so Mum had been very close to her, helping to care for her. She recalled the day of her funeral and the service at the Baptist Church and that she was the only one crying (at 10 years of age she would have been the youngest one there as Mum had been born ten years after her other nine siblings).

As I madly took notes, I said that Mum should try writing down some of these memories but she wasn’t interested. I remembered the last time I had seen my tape recorder was years ago when I gave it to my son for his university studies. It’s probably time to buy a new one anyway!

The surprising thing here is that I have been tracing the family history since 1977 and along the way I have told my mother of my various findings and she has shown some interest but not overly so. She could have easily told me about the various bits and pieces I am now discovering years ago but she didn’t because the time was not right. Now she does want to talk and remember.

Mum asked me about her grandmother’s life in England and  I had to say that despite years of looking I had a big blank from the time of Elizabeth Judge’s birth in Brackley, Northamptonshire 1857 (illegitimate) to her marriage to Thomas Price in Moxley, Staffordshire in 1878. Over the last few years I have been looking at digitised copies of census records on Ancestry, Find My Past, Genes Reunited etc as they became available and without any luck. She has to be there somewhere and Mum has now asked me to find her so that she knows that part of her beloved grandmother’s life.

All the details of my previous searches in the 1861 and 1871 census are back in Melbourne but I might start fresh next week. Maybe this time I will find Elizabeth Judge. Stay tuned.

To come back to the original purpose of this blog, don’t waste opportunity when close family members or even distant aunts, uncles and cousins are still living. Sometimes you need to make several attempts at finding out details on the family. The first approach might be the wrong time, they need to know you better, or something changes in their life. In this instance, it was my mother’s illness and as we approach the end of our own lives, we tend to think of those who have gone before us. If you can, get them to share their stories before it is all too late.

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  1. A timely reminder with closer family contact for most of us at Christmas time. That old African proverb is so true -“when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground”. And yet, as you say, you can’t get some information until the time is right.

  2. Thanks for sharing Shauna. I find it sad that your mother did not think to share the letter with you sooner – or give it you, especially because of your profession. We hear too many stories of photos, letters etc being thrown out because someone does not take the trouble to enquire who in the family might like them – even direct descendants!

  3. Genies can be eternally grateful for the advent of the likes of the Queensland Family History Society and its valiant volunteers who have just delivered the Crown Jewel – the 1959 Commonwealth Electoral Roll Index for Queensland.
    Just a moment on this CD database produced the – to me – astonishing finding that my grandparents (both now long since passed) lived in a house (still in existence) just a street away from where my three children would begin their educational journey some 45 years later – Wooloowin State School.
    Indeed at the Kedron Park Road end of Isedale Street, is the childcare centre all three of my boys attended.
    [For a time I was on the Parents’ and Citizens’ Commitee of Wooloowin State School and often wondered why the place was always so “front-of-mind” – to the point of attending a rally to save it and publicising its pleas for a “fair go” in the local press, even though I had no prior direct connection to it.]
    Anyway it turns out that this little, non-descript worker’s cottage in Isedale Street was the place where my Dad and Uncle, in turn, had to await the pleasure of their future father-in-law to ask for a blessing; the house from which my Mum, her sister and brother left for church on their respective wedding days; and where my Grandfather tinkered with his mowers and set out, in his “retirement years”, to mow other people’s lawns to earn a quid.
    In 1959 I was born in the “old” Royal Women’s Hospital wing at Herston (in an era before air-conditioning was available in the wards) and my Mum and Dad were residing in a house they had just built in Masefield Street, Toombul (across the road from the future site of the Toombul Shoppingtown).
    Fifty years on, each one of these buildings – including the Bradshaw Street, Wooloowin, private hospital in which my Dad was born – has literally vanished. Now they only exist as grainy, black and white snapshots – or in elderly locals’ memories.
    With a place as under-siege as the suburb of Wooloowin (the State Government’s Airport Link juggernaut is tearing at its built environment and social fabric while developers can’t wait for the hubbub to die down), no doubt that weatherboard and tin-roofed cottage in Isedale Street will join this ghostly throng of places directly linked to my own past.
    But for now, I’ve taken my boys for a drive-past and introduced them to a house that “belongs” to them in a heritage sense, even though I bet one day one of them scratches his head and wonders, “Didn’t Dad tell us something about some old house in Wooloowin when we were little?”

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