Monday 26 May 2008

Shaking the Family Tree

It's funny how many of us are obsessed about tracing our family tree. I never had to bother because my mother is an historian and has already done all the hard work. I find the exotic connections interesting (I was keen to find out whether I, along with Obama, was related to one Bradley Pitt) but I find the skeletons in the family closet even more intriguing.

Like other fifth generation Australians, my heritage is mainly British (Irish and English). Just for good measure I also have a convict or two lurking in the background. This is a fact which most Aussies feel enormous pride given convicts were packed off to Australia (the colonies) for stealing a piece of bread. These 'so called convicts' did the future generations a big favour (err, tough choice, blue skies and sun or grey skies and rain) so we will be forever grateful.

However, my father's father has a 'different' history. His family are German and Polish. Blue eyed, wavy haired, tall blondes. Apparently my great great grandfather was in the Navy and jumped ship at some point to go gold mining in Australia. As you do. Shame about the wife and four children he left behind in Germany. His wife was Polish and a countess. I am not sure what she did to fill in time while Frederick was off panning for gold but, after eight years, he finally sent for her and the children to join him. Can you imagine this poor woman hanging around waiting and then, after the long wait, ending up in the Aussie outback? According to family folklore, Fred's wife had a bit of a fling with the Norwegian ship captain (I am guessing a relative of Brad Pitt, right?) on the long voyage to Australia (resulting in the later appearance of my great grandfather). It has never been proven one way or the other but my mother assures me that it is not true. She should know but I kind of like the exotic version better. In fact, this story kept the younger generation of this branch of the family in hot discussion on Face Book for some time.

Examining your family tree does teach you a few things. Mainly that we are essentially all the same and, if you trace the branches far enough back, we are all related to one another. In my family, for example, there are Catholics, Protestants and Jews, Germans (and possibly Norwegians), Polish, Irish and English, rich and poor, nobility and convicts, educated and uneducated, farmers, doctors, maids, priests and ministers. How crazy is it, for example, that in World War 11, my relatives would have been fighting against each other (????).

Learning about our families is a wonderful thing to do. However, we shouldn't wait to do it until our nearest and dearest are dead and firmly perched on a branch of the family tree. We should get to know our living relatives a bit better while we have the opportunity to do so. I know that it's not that easy for some people to do and, quite frankly, we all have some relatives we are better to steer clear of.....but...

Take me, for example. I was very close to my grandmother (father's mother). Elizabeth lived two houses away from us when I was growing up (which couldn't have been very good for my mother come to think of it but I was oblivious to what a mother-in-law was in those days). She looked like a nanna should but she didn't act like one. With her, I could get away with murder (too much so, on reflection). She really was my best friend in lots of ways. I have had several clairvoyant readings since her death and she always comes through (I will post about that one day because it is amazing). But, on reflection, I don't know a great deal about her even though she died when I already had a child of my own. I remember asking her questions about what her life was like as the oldest of 13 children. She had come from a wealthy Irish family and had gone to a strict Catholic boarding school and married my grandfather, a poor, Church of England, farmer. She went to live on his family's farm and I guess her life had not been easy even though she had a wonderful husband (Brad Pitt's relation). She told me that the past was not very interesting and that the here and now is the most important thing. When my grandfather died I swear she cried for years. She never wanted to talk about her life (I bet my daughter wishes I had the same view, he he) despite my questions and, many years later, I discovered some reasons why.

I also find it funny that even though we may live with our parents for years and we may talk to them often, we probably don't know a great deal about them as 'people'. They are just 'our parents'. When my parents were celebrating their wedding anniversary I decided to 'grill' them (as if they were strangers) to find out a bit more about them (so I could repeat their more embarrassing stories at the family celebrations).

My parents are opposites in every way except for their religion. One is fair, one is dark, one is outgoing, the other is reserved and on and on it goes. My Dad left school at 13 because his family was poor and he had to help his father on their farm. He loved horses (his father was a great horseman) animals and sport. His childhood dream was to go to America and become an astronaut (I was shocked). He was taught to box by an Australian boxing champion. He met my mother at a youth group while playing tennis and he still claims to this day that the only reason she 'caught him' was because he had a bad knee and couldn't run away. My father has an amazing sense of humor and has the most positive ego of anyone I have ever met. He always sees the bright side about life. His mathematics ability is brilliant and his lack of education never stopped him from achieving what he wanted (except being an astronaut) but I am sure it wasn't easy.

My mother on the other hand, won scholarships all through school and went to college to be a teacher then many years later, after she had five children, really wanted to go to university and became an historian and writer. She is excellent at whatever she does. And, I mean, whatever. She is a published writer and has written a wonderful book about her own father, called Ted. She is a Virgo and that should tell you everything. Interestingly though, I found out that when my mother was 19 she had a really wild 40 year old boyfriend who owned a motor bike and not much more. I couldn't believe it, not my mother. No way! Anyway, I found out so many things about my parents, many hilarious and wonderful stories, that I had never known before because I had never really asked or thought to ask. I began to see them in a whole new light.

Family trees are great and they have their place but I think it's important that we really get to know our 'living' family (where it is possible) a bit better. Go on, ask your parents, grandparents, uncles and aunties some deep and meaningful questions. You may get a surprise to find out things you never knew about them and, in doing so, find out things about yourself. Somehow, it's even more interesting then finding out what some distant family member did or didn't do all those generations ago even if there is a link to Brad Pitt. Don't you think?


  1. Lilly, I just love this post; you have out-done yourself! It is so interesting hearing stories like these about our parents, grandparents or other family members, because it really was so very different for them than it is for us, and will be for the next generation. I agree, we should do more to learn about our relatives when they are alive. For so many years I was afraid to "pry" too much into my father's life because my parents divorced very early on and I knew my father (at first) more as a friend, because I never knew him in his role of father in our household. And because of that I will never know many things about him that we never got around to discussing. It is such a shame.

    You father's mathematics skills, despite his lack of education, is incredible and reminds me of my uncle (mother's older brother) who is an accomplished pianist who never took a lesson, yet even at an early age could listen to a piece of music and then sit down and play it.

    Also, your grandmother Elizabeth sounds like the kind of grandparent every child would want. Sounds like you had a pretty cool childhood. Thanks for some very entertaining stories. Oh! What's up with the clairvoyant readings? Surely, you jest? I can't wait for THAT post. ;-)

  2. very nice post lilly !! But your story makes me sad !!


  3. Lilly: I can’t comment to any one item in your post. All I can say is that you wrote your post in such a way that brought smiles on my face and that it was such a fun read. On second thought, I do have something to say after all. My Daddy’s ancestry is Spanish and my Mama’s is native Filipino. The Spanish blood in me is only one fourth of the total Filipino blood. I’m sure I’m able to find a few bones in my family’s past if I try hard enough. But then again, perhaps, they’re better off buried, for now. As it is, my family is full of drama, intrigue, and secrecy. At the moment, however, I’m having double vision. Haven’t slept yet from working last night. You could say that I’m sleep deprived right now. Have a great week.

  4. who needs brad pitt? your family story is plenty exotic without him...

  5. @ Mohan - thanks for dropping by and sorry the post made you sad. Hey I loved your post on the cricket and the cheer leaders - cricket will never be the same again!!!!

    @ Tashabud - wow now you have an exotic ancestry - beautiful - you must find out more. Hope you are not working too hard and you got some well deserved sleep. Thanks for dopping by.

    @Horatiosalt - who needs Brad Pitt indeed, thought the same when Obama trotted it out in his campaign.


Thanks for your comments.