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.