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Published August 29th 2013
A while ago I read in a weekend magazine supplement, some active discussion around men who in their later years have been inspired to capture their family's history by writing about it. The article and follow-up Letters to the Editor talked about how without any family records, the history, stories, yarns and facts about families disappear with the passing of each generation.
From what I read, there appears a ground swell among men who acknowledge the importance of capturing in some form, the historical version of their lives and those around them. They realise once they kick the bucket, their stories, memories and secrets go with them.
Men (ok maybe not all – I am generalising a little here), have been notoriously shy of sharing emotions and discussing themselves. With times a changing, a revolutionary movement is happening, helped no doubt with modern technology making it easier to chronicle memories on computers/notebooks or recording devices.
One man wrote about his disappointment his father had not done anything about preserving their family history. This has inspired him into action and at 73 years he is recording his life stories.
This will become a "gift" to remaining family members, keen to read and feel a part of his life. Such documents become a valuable piece of history, to be passed down to further generations.
I think about how different my kids are, growing up in the apple generation, where texting, facebooking and tweeting are all considered normal behaviour. Reflecting on how my father was raised, without television or computer generated technology – his childhood is as different to mine as is those of my children's are to me.
We know story telling, even in this digital age is as popular as ever. Tracing family history using ancestry and genealogical research has become fashionable. We see cleverly produced TV adverts about inquisitive families who found a relative, who owned a pub in a small town in the English countryside. The internet via Ancestry.com and myheritage.com allow curious family members to search their ancestral tree without leaving their house.
Which brings me to my dear old Dad – who thankfully is still on this earth and will happily regale anyone within hearing distance of many anecdotal stories of his childhood. Maybe he was ahead of his time – but before computers were small enough to be in the home, my father sat at one of the old fashioned manual type-writers (with ribbons) and over many months, typed his personal version of his family history. It's a manila folder a few centimetres thick, crammed with many, many pages. This book contains a collection of historical recounts, drawings, family trees (he manages to trace back to 1720) and many vivid memories, written down and captured forever.
At one stage he told his three kids no-one was to read this until he has passed, (so no-one could have a "go" at him he said!) But as time progressed his feelings on this softened and we three siblings were all presented with a copy and his cheeky instructions on how to use it. (You have to know my Dad to understand the "Dad" humour.)
There are so many events and recollections in his memoirs that provide invaluable personal insights into his family members and how life was at that time – during the Depression and post World War two. His many stories, no doubt embellished over time, are written with such passion and emotion – the reader is taken on a very personal journey. No matter how far he has stretched the truth, his words have been forever captured, his thoughts are on paper and his observations and secrets are revealed to those who care to read. The remarkable part is how he has told them with such vivid detail and recall. I am 31 years younger than my father and I struggle with many recollections of my childhood.
There is a sad irony to my Dad's story. My father has two siblings – an older brother and younger sister who are still with us, but very much in a declined dementia state. So my father's thoughts and stories cannot be recounted or disputed by direct family members. It is simply amazing that dementia by-passed him and he was able to document his family history.
Yes I am his daughter and therefore maybe a little biased, but you can't deny the entertainment and the visuals his words provide. I want to share a snippet of my father's colourful ramblings, remembered with such clarity and told in my father's own style:
About his mother: My mother said that she always hated to say good-bye. As a little girl, she would hide in a mulberry tree, when visitors were making their farewells. Mum couldn't explain it, but would always get teary and upset when someone was leaving. As a little girl, someone forced her to say good-bye to a dead Aunt, whose body lay in state before burial. This may have scarred her mind forever.
She was a great mother, allowing us free reign in growing up. She always enjoyed a bit of fun, sometimes laughing until she cried.
I remember her catching whiting once, out of Coffin Bay on one of the Puckridges fishing boats. Mum was catching fish as fast as she could throw her line in, faster than anyone else. She was laughing and enjoying the moment immnensely. A magic moment, it stuck in my mind even though I was only 5 at the time. She learnt to play the piano as a young girl and did not force this encumbrance upon us, thank goodness.
Her cooking was superb, almond toffee, honeycomb and raspberry cordial was often made (during the war sugar rationing did not make much difference as we swapped butter coupons for sugar]
About his Dad:
The horrors of World War 1 are well documented, the mud, the slaughter etc. Dad would not talk of the horrors he encountered. He was most adamant in his advice to me though and that was "never, never go to war." In March/April he was wounded with shrapnel which he took with him to the grave. Somewhere along the way he was gassed, causing his dark brown eyes to turn grey. He would march with the returned soldiers on some Anzac Days but on other occasions it would be too much for him emotionally and he would stay at home.
About his life:
[I]The house in Adelaide was made ready for Robin's (sister) 21st birthday party in May 1958, where guests from the upper Adelaide social strata had a good time. The carpet was rolled back in the living room and the guests were able to dance on the wooden floor. Robin's group of young nurses and school friends were an attractive bunch in their pretty evening gowns.
Towards the end of the party some of the boys found Dad's cache of hard liquor in the laundry and got out of hand and had to be ejected (verbally) from the party. They managed to break the radiogramme, a French wall candleabra and some other bric a brac. Mother was not impressed with the offspring of Adelaide's upper class and was most upset.
Mum always loved to read a good book of family adventure. I know her story would have made good reading too.
I am sure my Grandmother's story would have made for an interesting read. But sadly her tales and stories have gone with her forever - apart from my Father's recollections. Let's not ever forget the importance of story telling. How often have we have heard other people say – that information is gone now, because so and so is no longer with us.
By recording memories, the souls of those left have something to hold onto. Something that captures the essence of a person more than a bequeathed dinner-service or antique candle sticks.
This Father's day maybe we can encourage our dads (and our mums) to take to the computer, or write in a journal to record their observations and memories. This then becomes a gift that keeps on giving. Let's encourage our Fathers who are still in the current world to record their memories, to create an everlasting legacy – a personal piece of history. For remaining family members these make entertaining reading in quiet, stolen moments.
I thank my father for his efforts in leaving myself and in years to come, my children a vivid interpretation of the life and times of W. R. Johnston.