How do you know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you’re from?

When people ask me why I do genealogy, my answer is invariably, how do you know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you’re from? 

The future need not be a preoccupation for the past to be relevant to your current life.  For me, genealogy – family history – is not a dry, dusty or obscure hobby.  It informs the very life you lead today.

To one degree or another, we are the products of our family.  Whether we like it or not, our parents inform a very large part of who we are.  Our beliefs, our fears, our ambitions… all have been influenced in some part by them.  In turn, their beliefs, their fears and their ambitions were in some part influenced by their parents and so on.

My grandmother was in south London during World War II, when the Luftwaffe taught her to fear.  Fear the sound of sirens, fear the future, fear for her parents.  She and her sisters were sent to Wales while her parents stayed in London during the worst of the bombings.  They spent time in an orphanage and the girls never knew if they would see their parents again.  I heard this from my great-aunt, as my grandmother has never talked about the War.

My grandmother is not a woman who talks of consequential things.  She does not hug.  She doesn’t speak of emotions.  She is a friendly lady but keeps things ever so proper and light… when she’s not creating a new drama around herself.  I love her but, like all of us, she’s a complicated personality.  My great-aunt, her twin sister and polar opposite, said many years later that some of this was to do with their experiences as children.

My mother,  not knowing of my grandmother’s experiences, only knew that she had a mother who didn’t show love in a conventional way.  Growing up, she saw a capricious woman, who played favourites with her children, who kept secrets and stayed remote.

Myself, not knowing my mother’s and grandmother’s experiences, could never understand why, when I knew my mother loved me, she would laugh when I came to her with a problem.

Today, I often find myself a self-deprecating personality who often makes jokes at my own expense to make others comfortable and who finds it very hard to tell people how I feel.

I agree it is a long bow to draw to say that my personality shortcomings can be laid at my grandmother’s feet due to her War experiences but I can see that we are all the product of our upbringing to a degree and, with hindsight and history, I can see that my grandmother probably still holds great fear, particularly of losing family and perhaps has kept people distant for partially that reason.  That my mother, with an undemonstrative and unemotional mother has in turn found it hard to process emotions herself and, to this day, is not the best person to speak with when you have an emotional crisis.  And I, in having at least one important person in my life laugh nervously at my various attempts to talk to her about my emotional crises as an adolescent have found it difficult to share them with others in my adulthood.

This is not a blame game, more a fascinating line of inquiry.  I am the way I am partially down to genes, partially down to environment and partially down to chance.  But, in pursuing my hobby, I’ve learnt how my grandparents grew up, and how their parents grew up and how their parents grew up and this context allows me to see them and their personalities in a whole new light.  My other grandmother is a ferociously strong woman, independent to the point of belligerence – did it have anything to do with the fact that her father left them when she was young?  That she had to practically raise her younger sisters because my great-grandmother had to work so hard to bring in enough money?

One of my great-grandfathers loved the army life so much that, even after surviving the Great War, he signed up for the Second World War – even going so far as to lie about his age and claiming to be 10 years younger, so as to be accepted for enlistment.  He was having a difficult marriage, which was probably more than half the reason for his going, but was his love of a structured life also in any way informed by the fact that he was an illegitimate child of an unknown man, whose mother married and had another family, sending him away to live with his grandmother?  That kind of uncertainty… was purpose and security something he found in army life?

This is rank speculation but something I find fascinating nonetheless.

In my research of family history, I’ve found ancestors who were wounded in the Crimean War, who went as missionaries at the turn of the 19th century to India to convert the Indians and who, in 18th century London, held up a carriage at gunpoint and were tried for highway robbery – and only escaped the noose because they were 16 at the time!

I’ve “met” ancestors who lost their father, husband and siblings all in one year, who plied the waters of the Thames as Watermen, families who worked meagre lives in tenements of 19th century Birmingham and then emigrate to a new life in Australia.  Mothers who saw all their children emigrate to Australia and America, fathers who saw sons follow in their footsteps and children who failed and succeeded.

What specifically brought this post on is a letter I read today.  Sometimes, in your search for your family, you are given a very rare and special opportunity to meet them for real.  Primary sources are usually in the form of birth certificates or marriage registers.  In the case of my convict ancestors, I can read their trials, which is very special.  But letters… they are gold.

I want to share a letter I read, written by my great-great-great-great grandmother, Rebecca Caroline.  She was born by the Thames in Deptford and her father was a Waterman.  She married a greengrocer, John Morris, and all of her children – bar one – emigrated overseas; most to Australia, but one to America.

At the time of her writing, only two of her daughters have left – she does not yet know that within the space of a few years, she will have seen them all go (save for one daughter) and will spend the rest of her days worrying for them, pleading for letters from them and trying to be part of their lives through the tyranny of distance, in a world where Australia is not a 25-hour flight away but months by boat.  Such are the limitations, she has to tell her daughter Sally, who is in Australia with her sister Betsy, about their father’s death by letter…

October 22, 1850

My dear Children,

I received your welcome letter Sept 28th and it has much added to my grief to find you was there without a friend or any one to assist you or a home for you to go to and a thousand times I wish that you had not left us.

I am extremely sorry to inform you your dear Father from the accident he met with in the Minories never held himself up again, his side under arm was much hurt and formed at last into a Black Cancer from which he never recovered.  I buried him at St. Georges Southwark.  He was eight months ill and kept his bed six weeks and I am happy to tell you the Almighty wrought in him a blessed change.  He never ceased praying for six weeks night or day while he was awake his prayers were nearly always about his Girls and that he should never hear from them again while he was alive nor he never did for he died on the 14th November 1849 and I received your first letter the 26th December 1849.  

My dear Children I am happy to find that you have seen the roughest of your days and I am happy to hear that you have now a home of your own.  My dear Children I am now left with nine to provide for and a very hard struggle I find it as I have been very ill myself suffering from a wounded leg and am under the care of a third physician.

But thank God I am much better but you would have been a great assistance to me as the books is half my trouble as the business has increased and would be more so if it was better attended to.  I still keep the six cows and still carry on the shooting business as George your brother is the strapper, John Morris have left home before his Father’s death, his treatment was worse and worse.  My dear Children – you seem to wish us to come out, how could I come out with all my children as I am getting a crust here for them and a hard one it is almost more than I am able to bear.

My dear Children I live in hope to assist you if I have good shooting orders this season as it does not lay in my power or as you must know you and Besty leaving home and your dear Father’s death in one twelve month.  When your father went up stairs I had only £2.10.0 in the world and out of it I paid the physicians one pound, so I leave you to guess what position I was in.  My dear Children I should like to have you over if I thought I could get you a living as I could look up to Henry [Sally’s husband] as a father and instructor to the children.  I shall put William and James to a trade if it lays in my power next summer as Betsy says that no one is any use much at your Colony without a trade.

Do write as soon as possible my dear dear Sally, I am glad that you have got out of your trouble as it caused me great grief when I heard you had no one but strangers about you.

But that Great friend above us the Almighty which I hope my dear Children you will both look up to as I have found him a husband to the widow, and a Father to the Fatherless I shall remember 1849 while ever I live first you and your sister were torn from me and your poor Father died and your Aunt Olett’s youngest boy with Cholera, poor Old Gray Chapman and Mr Chapman.  Mrs Frederick Phillips of Consumption, her two children are very well.  She was ill 12 months.  Robert Leakey’s wife’s confined and got a nice girl.  Polly Smith is still staying with Capt Jones at Peckham.  Mrs Sterry and Mrs Greenwood are sorry to hear of your troubles and think you ought to have gone on to Port Phillip with Mr Whitby.  My dear Children I wish I could once see you in England again as I think you might do better.  I conclude my dear Sally and Henry with the sincerest love that a mother can bestow and I hope you will have health wealth and prosperity so no more at present, from your Loving and affectionate Mother, R Morris.

My ancestor was Sally and Betsy’s brother, George, mentioned in the letter.  He later emigrates to Australia, followed by a sister Carrie who comes to Australia on her own at the age of 17 as an indentured servant to a family in Tasmania (the only way she could afford the trip to Australia – she is later freed).  They are followed by another brother, James, and then another brother William.  Finally, their younger brother Andrew comes to Australia – again, on his own – and spends his months searching for news of his family by posting wanted notices in the local Melbourne papers.  He makes contact with Sally but has no news of his brothers.  At the age of 17 and working at a slaughterhouse in Victoria, he accidentally shoots his leg and dies of infection, alone – stranger in a strange land.  His mother would a year later write him, still unaware that he had died.  Rebecca herself remarries and gives up the grocery and shooting business (they provided pigeons to hobby shooters in London) that her first husband established.  Her children do mostly well and George eventually grew up to own significant land and interests in northern Queensland.

For me, the letter offers a fascinating insight into a family far removed from my present and yet connected to me nonetheless.  Even more so now that I have experienced emigration first hand.  I used to work on Minories and, until today, had no clue that one of my ancestors suffered an accident there that would ultimately lead to his demise.

Her concerns are so real and so modern – she worries for her children and how she’ll pay for the bills.  She works to provide for her family, works to set up her boys in trade so they’ll be of use in Australia and have a better life, even if it means she’ll never see them again.  As a student of history, her letter reminds me again that life has not significantly changed in the millennia we humans have walked this earth.  Only the details.


So if 42 is the meaning of life, what does that mean?

My good friend The Flat-Footed Adventurer recently wrote a very thought-provoking post that asked some very big questions.  I’m in no position to answer any of them but thought I’d add my voice to the questioning, too.

Adventurer was talking about faith, free will (or lack thereof) and, basically, whether anything means anything.  I hear you, buddy.  Human existence and our understanding of it seems – ultimately – to be reduced to a belief in some variety of godly oversight and/or a handful of time-worn statements such as ‘it never rains everyday’ or ‘when one door closes another one opens’ and lets not forget that old faithful ‘God works in mysterious ways’.  Dress it up in as many philosophies as you want but basically it boils down to the thought of, “boy, today sucked – hopefully that means tomorrow won’t”.  I guess that makes us, as a species, perennial optimists (who knew?!).

Recently, humans have been infected by the idea that only a lack of enough positive thinking (self-actualisation? focussed goal realisation? whatever the new buzzwords are?) stops us from having Everything That We Want.  It’s a seductive philosophy – power, free will, choice, having it all.  In fact, I loosely subscribe to this kind of thinking.  However, it also presents two problems:

  1. we actually have to figure out what it is that we want (not as easy as it sounds), and;
  2. how to manage the confusion when we don’t get it.  Were we not wishing hard enough?  Not focussed enough?  Not choosing the right goal in the first place?

I spend a lot of time thinking about these things and why life is the way that it is.  Mostly because I’m just arrogant enough to think I’m only an insight away from Getting It (and then global domination will be mine! Mwah-hah!).  Of course, if you ask me, I’ll  protest that I have no idea how life, the universe and everything works.  But, deep down, I suspect my psyche is working under the assumption that if I just think about something hard enough, get enough information on it, mull over it long enough, the mystery will be revealed and I’ll succeed.  I use this approach in all aspects of my life (resulting in chronic worrying), so why should existence itself be any different?

It’s only as I get older that I’m starting to relax with it all.  Not relaxing as much as I’d like – maybe even as much as I should – but certainly letting go of the reins a little, as bitter-tasting as that is for control freaks like me.  The reasons are threefold (and this gives me an excellent opportunity to use more bullet points, which I do so enjoy):

  1. It’s exhausting.  Trying to figure everything out?  Not possible, babe.  Trying to anticipate everything?  Plan for it?  Pre-emptively work out how you might react to something?  Please.  Unless I work out the secrets of time travel (which I presumably do not because I know Future Me would have visited Present Me by now if she had), then it’s a big waste of time.  Not to mention, you can’t prepare for what you don’t know that you don’t know.  You know?
  2. It’s self-defeating.  By trying to work everything out, I’m expecting – hoping – that it prepares me for every opportunity and, therefore, makes me more likely to have opportunities (and succeed).  I’m growing to realise that it doesn’t seem to work like that.  For some people it might but, for me, what tends to happen is that I think about an opportunity/goal I might like.  I then think of what I need to do to get there.  I then get bogged down in small details and anticipated problems like how I would be able to pay for this course or that hobby or where I would get the time.  I then get disillusioned and despondently think that it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway and then I put the idea away.  So, not only does this stop me from achieving my stated goals but, while I’m all-consumed with the process, I’m actually closed off to anything else that might come along.  Less likely to take a chance on something left field.
  3. It’s actually ok not to be perfect at everything, including life.  For perfectionists like me, that statement is anathema.  Even today, I read Adventurer’s post and rather than sympathising (although I did), I wanted to answer his questions.  To solve the problem.  To give that winning piece of advice that would get everything to make sense.  But, actually, I have no idea what the answers are.  There are so many contradictions in life.

So what’s the point of this all then?  No point, just another person trying to figure it all out.  Who’s trying not to compare herself to others, who tries to make the best decisions with the best information and resources available at the time, who tries not to regret past decisions (because she did the best she could with the information and resources available at the time) and who strives to be positive about the future.  Because the only alternative is to be sceptical about the future and I least know that path doesn’t lead to happiness 🙂

Update: I have stumbled on a very worthy and relevant post by Eclectic Camel, which has some great advice/insights.

Secondary update: You could also take Melbourne Metro’s approach to risk management, which is completely hilarious (PS this is a genuine, officially-sanctioned safety video from Melbourne Metro on how dangerous trains are.  Lesson I learned?  I may suck at life sometimes but even I ain’t that dumb!):

Guilty Pleasures: Encore

Was inspired by a recent post to think about guilty pleasures and, actually, this ties into a conversation I was having with my Mum today.  I don’t know how we got onto the subject but I was on one of my favourite rants of the moment and that’s the culture of envy that seems so common in Western society today.

Lifestyle shows are my particular bugbear – although I love them, I hate the kind of lifestyle they promote.  Take Grand Designs: everyone on that show (both the UK and Australian versions) is either an interior designer, an architect, some kind of CEO, or independently wealthy enough that their job titles are a joke (something ridiculous like professional poem-writer or something).  Basically, the air is rarefied.  They build these (multi) million-dollar houses, yet they’re portrayed as ‘ordinary’ families.  They have money troubles too!  You’re meant to feel for them when they have to downgrade their plans from a marble benchtop to a granite one.  They talk about the ‘space’ and ‘light’ and stress over wallpaper flocking.

I don’t want to get into class warfare here and how people spend their money is their own business.  What bugs me about these shows is  how they present these homes, these lives, as aspirational.  They present these families as ordinary, even though they are anything but.  You finish the show with the distinct feeling like you’re failing at life because your benchtop is laminate, and feeling guilty that you don’t know what the difference between alabaster and ivory is.

TV chefs are another classic example of this. If I were to believe Nigella, Jamie, Heston and all the rest, I should be able to whip up ouefs en concotte (using organic, free-range eggs of course) every morning before work, grow my own carrots and lay out a 3-course spread (with my own homemade bread and butter) for the girlfriends I’m forever entertaining and do it all without breaking a sweat.  Am I a friendless failure if I don’t entertain even once a month?  If I can’t afford organic eggs this week does this mean I’m poorer than everyone else? If I don’t have the energy to cook when I get home after work, am I a failure as a woman and as a human being?  I mean, according to Nigella, it’s just so easy.

And this gets me, rather belatedly, to my point.  I don’t know about you but lives in lifestyle shows bear absolutely no resemblance to my personal life.  Or the personal lives of anyone I know.  And although we (I) know intellectually that’s ok, I still feel a little guilty that I don’t homemake all my bread and that our kitchen is about 20 years old.  I feel like maybe I’m behind everyone else.  Or, at least,  I did.  Until I really realised just how much bollocks it all is.  And, even if it wasn’t, I just don’t care anymore.  Because, everyone is the same boat – we’re all sitting at home feeling guilty about stuff that doesn’t matter and think we’re the only ones experiencing problems.

We all think we’re the only ones who are tired after work.  Or the only ones who think Zoolander is funny (it is!).  Or the only ones who have a weird family.  Or the only ones who really, really like William Shatner’s spoken-word album (that’s my sister… and actually, she may be right on that score, hah!).

So, guilty pleasures?  As the original poster quoted, there’s no need to feel guilty!  Because we’re all as daggy as each other, in our own ways.  Take me, for instance.  My boyfriend once said that the only thing he worries about is the fact that I’ll run off with some pensioner, since my hobbies are usually the preserve of little old nannas.  I really like preserving (canning).  I enjoy crocheting.  My idea of a well-spent Sunday is sitting in a dusty library looking at old parish records on microfiche and discovering a new branch to my family tree.

Other guilty pleasures:

  • I like Star Trek.
  • I would dress up at a Trekkie convention if I went to one.  And enjoy it.
  • I like Enya.  And not just Orinoco Flow.
  • If you spoke Elvish to me, I’d be impressed.
  • I read non-fiction for pleasure.
  • I watched Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Take Me Out – and loved them both.
  • I was a huge New Kids on the Block fan when I was young… and if they toured Australia, I’d probably buy a ticket.

In a startling display of synchronicity, a friend of mine has declared November to be Noguiltvember, to air all the daggy music you just love.  I think it’s a brilliant idea but lets take it broader and show the world that we’re all the same: there’s a dag inside all of us!

Home again, feeling strong again

There’s a great song by Michael Kiwanuka called ‘Home Again’.  It’s a folksy/country song filled with longing for home.  The kind of road song when you’re weary of the road (do yourself a favour and check it out here).

Getting out there in the big wide world is an amazing experience.  The excitement of a fresh place, the allure of starting again, the exotic “newness” of it all: it’s a heady mix.  But, there’s just no place like home.  This doesn’t have to be the land of your birth (although it is in my case); instead a place that is familiar but not boring, comfortable like your favourite snuggly blanket but not suffocating.  It’s your niche, your native habitat.  The place you thrive.

Having not seen the entire world, I can’t say there’s no other place that might be another home to me.  But, for the moment, Queensland is doing a remarkable job of bringing me back to life (so to speak).  My partner (who’s back in the UK still and who I hope will come to the conclusion – very soon – that Queensland might be a home to him), when he first visited Australia said that, here in Oz, nature rules.

In England, the countryside is best described as manicured – filled with orderly hedgerows, cultivated fields, stately oaks… even it’s wildlife is pretty well-behaved (except for the red kites perhaps).  It is truly beautiful and charming.  Songbirds are gentle and soft (and, sadly, barely heard now) and the only thing you really need to fear there is how heart-meltingly adorable your backyard squirrel and shy hedgehog are (warning: pretty damn cute).

By contrast, Australia has a ‘take no prisoners’ approach to nature.  The local crows (a completely different species to northern hemisphere crows, even though they look very similar) have a deep rattling call, much like the velocirapter from Jurassic Park.  In spring, everyone in my area starts wearing protective hats and looking nervously at the sky, as magpies swoop aggressively from their nest, pecking at people deemed to be too close to their younglings.  There’s the screech of the fruit bats at night and, by day, the jeering laugh of the kookaburras.  Yep, Australian nature is not delicate.  The sun is fierce, the ground is usually dry, spiders abound (as do snakes), when it rains the whole place becomes tropical overnight and you feel as if the lantana will just about overtake the world.  Yep, as a human, you feel your place in the chain here and it’s not as near to the top as you’d think it would be.  I love it.  I feel invigorated by it.  I can feel life around me, rather than the dreary suburbaness (and the cold, cold grey) of England.  Oh, and, full disclosure, I might also have a pool in the backyard here – that helps, too!!

Perspective… I has it too

Memory is a funny thing.  I don’t think I’ve appreciated, until now, how closely memory is tied up to the physical world.  If you have a memory, you always have a memory, right?  I know memories can be triggered by a smell, by a song, etc, but just being physically in the same city that you haven’t been in for awhile can not only bring back a host of old memories, but old emotions, too.  Stuff you haven’t thought about it in years.  Stuff you had every right to believe you had sorted through and had moved on from.  Stuff you had honestly actually forgotten until it all comes flooding back, reminding you that your mind has recesses to its recesses.  Hidden nooks and crannies you didn’t even know about.  How can you be such a stranger to your own brain?


I’ve been thinking a lot about people who have affected my life and, in a new(ish) trend, giving more and more thought to the effect I may have had on other people’s lives.  I’ve never given it much thought in my life up til now – not through callousness but because I have never presumed that I affected anyone.  How could I impact on someone’s life?  I’m just me and barely worth mentioning.  It sounds like false modesty but, really, when you’re young I think you don’t appreciate consequences just yet – consequences your actions have on others, consequences your actions have on yourself.


Maybe that’s the thing I’m thinking of most of all: consequences.  Small decisions, rash ones, decisions you make to prove to yourself that you didn’t deserve it anyway (but, in a very deep part of you, you think will turn out well despite yourself, because Hollywood endings could happen).


Although I honestly believe the world is a place that is basically good, as I get older, I’m more aware of the less-than-stellar things in it.  It doesn’t change my ultimate belief but, quite naturally I guess, things become less black-and-white and more shades of grey.  With that comes the realisation that the world isn’t always a just place and, hand-in-hand, things don’t always work out.  You fight with a friend – younger you assumes that, despite you being a jerk (and them being one too), in a couple of weeks it will all blow over and you’ll go back to being friends again.  Only later do you appreciate that a serious impact has been made and there are consequences.  I’ve lost a lot of friends that way.


One of my grandfathers spent his life complaining, being an absent father, alienating himself from his wife and children.  He now has dementia, has been put in a home and is now sad and alone.  I find it absolutely heartbreaking (and, now that I’m back in the country am visiting him soon!).  From my perspective, I can see that over his life he’s made lots of tiny little decisions, each made on their own merits, mired in his own fears and fallibilites as a human and each one a decision any one of us could have made in similar circumstances.  I have no doubt that he did not anticipate the consequences of the cumulative effect of those decisions.  And yet, regardless, wanted or not, intentioned or not, the consequences are the same and he has to live with them.  Unjust? I don’t know.


So where does that leave me right this minute?  With a full and pressing realisation that I have impacted on peoples lives and the consequences of that.  Sure, I have positively impacted on people, which is wonderful but, right now, it’s the negative impacts that are concerning me.


My own fears and baggage have led to decisions I’ve made that have hurt others.  I guess we’re all guilty of this but it doesn’t make it right.  I’ve burnt some bridges in my day and, right now, I’m trying to repair two of them.  Good friends who I’ve lost, through my actions.  Impacts on their lives that I didn’t know or appreciate until I’ve come back where I left off and it all comes flooding back, only this time with the perspective and (limited) wisdom that 4 years of growing and separation can give you.  Makes you see what you didn’t see then: and I’m not proud of where I left off.  They haven’t responded yet, which brings me back to consequences: just because you want to rebuild a bridge, doesn’t mean that you can.  I’ll be ok if they decide they don’t want to get back in touch and it’s a learning experience for me all the same.  I hope they do, though.


Edit (a few hours later):  I am a lucky lady – I have heard back from one friend and it was very positive.  Can’t tell you how nice it feels to have that chance to improve something you regret!