Families out of their trees

I suppose all families are interesting if one writes their details down. My recent reading has featured fictional families who show off the best and worst extremes of family relationships; but authors have the advantage of being able to press their characters into extremes of raw emotion, misunderstanding, rage, bliss and tension, aspects that I can’t say have been a feature of my life within my two immediate families.

I envy writers who have sheafs (sheaves?) of letters found in old suitcases in dusty attics but I have no such resources to help me, apart from a family history my father wrote for his grandchildren 35 years ago. There have also been a couple of letters from remote family members, most of whom I was unaware of, asking me to fill in gaps in their records. They told me much more than I was able to tell them.

On my paternal side, we are said to be related to Robert Bruce, one of whose daughters, perhaps, married an ancestor. My father had an aged family tree handwritten on what looked like vellum, that started with Robert Bruce – probably a bit of a brag. It reflected the desire to hold family lands together and featured entries such as “He was an idiot and bereft of lands and title from birth” or, more commonly “Died at birth”. The second probably reflected a degree of gender control as well as preservation of clan lands. A pharmacist with the same surname, who my father met during WWII, expressed an interest in the tree and my father, who was of a generation that saw no use in things like old family trees, posted it to him and we haven’t seen it since.

The first ancestor to come to Australia was a captain in Governor Macquarie’s regiment, the 17th Regiment of Foot. His career was undistinguished. According to my father, he received a land grant at the mouth of the Hunter River but spent his time whoring and gambling in Sydney and never visited his property. How different my life might have been if he had settled down and profited from the massive resources he had been given. But how unlikely that I should have even existed, let alone been his descendant.

My father’s mother was a Morris, a great niece of William of arts and crafts fame (we’re told.) Her father was an Anglican clergyman in Bundaberg who spent a lot of time helping Chinese workers on the Gympie goldfields. A group of them came to his door and asked for a photograph which they took to China, returning some months later with a large painting of him. He looks thin and quite stern, probably part of the job description for a clergyman in the middle of the nineteenth century.

My maternal grandmother’s family came from Latvia as Jewish refugees. My grandfather was a saddler in Boonah on the Darling Downs whose interests extended to playing the violin well enough to be a member of a Brisbane orchestra. He was the son of Brisbane’s third rabbi who also appears to have worked in the Bundaberg – Maryborough areas. There is no record of those two men of God ever meeting.

The descendants of one’s ancestors are an intriguing. mystery. My parents sometimes talked of cousins aunts and uncles who were parts of their lives but never of mine. I think of my grandchildren who may listen with equal incomprehension to stories of my relatives or even those of their own parents. Being unaware of one’s history may condemn one to repeat it. Perhaps one of the most important parental roles is to ensure for future generations that their history is worthy of repetition.



We have a small house in an insignificant little town on the south coast. So insignificant that when it appears in the news (because of bushfires or the rapacity of property developers), it is often referred to as a “hamlet.” The only hamlet in the country as far as I can tell.

Since the end of March, we hadn’t visited it although we had left ourselves with a list of unfinished work to do. The COVID19 regulations at that stage made it quite clear that travelling to the country for any reason other than urgent care for oneself or a close relative was forbidden. Specific mention was made of not going to a house that was not one’s principal place of residence. It was assumed that any such travel must be for a holiday, something that was supposed to occur only in one’s home or on its balcony.

Reading the latest iteration of the regulations appeared to show that travel between two houses that were our own property had acquired legitimacy since the earlier versions. So, equipped with the most recent council rates notice as proof of ownership and a copy of the regulations with the relevant paragraph highlit in fluorescent green, we set off, prepared to argue the case with the police when they pulled us up to enquire whether or not we were on lawful business.

No-one did stop us. We got down there and worked quite hard for a few days. Of course we went for walks on the local beaches and through the bush to see how much recovery there had been after the bushfires which had come close to destroying our hamlet entirely. P. even spent half an hour in the water, immersed in socially appropriate isolation from friends from the house two doors up our street.

Appropriate isolation

It made us think a bit about what a holiday is. We had a holiday in the sense we were doing something we wouldn’t otherwise have done and not done things we would otherwise have done. Prohibiting holidays seems to rule out an important therapeutic practice, even though their safety or efficacy in treating coronavirus infection hasn’t been established by randomised double blind controlled clinical trials. We’d put our hands up for such a study provided we could be assured that we wouldn’t be in the placebo group.



Oh to be in England, now that April’s here …or anywhere else for that matter.

P. and I virtuously practised abstinence from overseas travel last year. We traversed Australia along several axes, promising ourselves that in 2020 we’d visit friends in France and England as well as seeing our children and grandchildren in foreign places.

Talk about the best laid plans! Here we are confined to barracks with two Emirates tickets and deep frozen plans to get moving when the lights go on again. For their part, the far flung family have stepped up to the plate with phone calls, WhatsApp posts and photos to keep us up to date.

The apogee of our online life came on Easter Monday when our enterprising London daughter-in-law arranged an international online hot cross bun bake off for all of our family and various local London friends. Product was judged under four headings, one of which was taste – a challenge for a Zoom get-together — reliant on the cook’s description of the deliriously wonderful experience of eating the bun in question.

P. won the taste piece of the competition on the basis, we were told, of the list of exotic ingredients we’d included (star anise, cardamom, cumin etc) and possibly my description of the eating experience – hints of sour cherries, chocolate, raspberries, subdued tannins and a sustained after palate.

I don’t remember who the other winners were apart from the daughter-in-law’s mother who triumphed in the best looking buns category. I do remember there was a lot of laughing and some very funny looking creations. The runner up in the appearance section was a friend who had bought her buns at Coles. – G.


Looking over the railing and other observations

Our apartment is on the top floor of a three storey building that doesn’t have a lift. Our enforced exercise regime includes (i.e. consists solely of) climbing down and up the stairs a couple of times, several times a day.

On the balcony, enforced internment has allowed us to dig over, fertilise and tidy up the plant pots. We don’t have much left to do in that department. So we’re spending more time in a time-hallowed pursuit – looking into the back gardens of the houses on the other side of our back lane. We hadn’t appreciated how interesting this could be. What adds spice to the pastime is the fact that most of the houses are rented so there is an irregular turnover of dramatis personae to keep up the interest level.

In the house on our extreme right is a young family. At least the children appear to be young. Can’t tell how old the parents are. P., who is given to communicating, called out to the mother the other day who responded warmly but then said she had to get back to her work-from-the-home. It seemed she was telling the truth and not just trying to shake off unwelcome overtures. After all, she wouldn’t know who we might have been.

Next to her seems to be rented out on short term leases. Oh the horror of Air BnB! For a time, it was occupied by two young women who wore short clothes (it was quite warm still at that stage) and lay out in the sun reading. Occasionally they’d roll out those thin foam mats and go into an exercise routine accompanied by loud music. And not the Waldstein either. Seeing that this was daylight hours, it was hard to object. In any case, after three weeks or so, they moved on. That was two weeks ago. We’re waiting with bated breath to see who moves in next.

The next two houses are definitely Air BnB. One hasn’t had tenants for a while but the next one staged a very loud dinner party the other night that went on until very late. There appeared to be at least 10 people crammed into the back garden. Too much for P. who, employing a different communication style, at about 11.00 p.m. leaned over our railing and threatened to call the police. – a hollow threat because we don’t know the houses’ street numbers since we only see the backs of them.

In response we were told to get lost and that everybody there lived in the house (very small) so a large gathering wasn’t against the isolation rules. I didn’t have the presence of mind to say “Yes. And I’m the pope’s grandmother.” Only three people have appeared in the house in the succeeding days. An inventive young man told P. to “Turn off your hearing aid.” But obviously, the threat of calling the police was effective since the assembly went inside and closed the back doors. Eminently satisfactory for us. The noise subsided and the partygoers increased their risk of a lethal infection several fold.

The last is a wicked thought, almost on a par with stripping supermarket shelves of toilet paper, pasta or face masks. Speaking of which, there are signs normality is returning. A couple of days ago, face masks and hand sanitiser were freely on sale at normal prices at our local hardware shop and P., cautiously shopping yesterday, bought a large pack of toilet rolls, enough, she calculates, to last us through to July, by which time things might have improved or, more likely, become a lot worse. We wait.