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Bonzer Words!: Family History

...My paternal forebear, known to all generations of her family as 'Mama', was the very essence of a lady. Despite the family falling on hard times during the Great Depression of the late Twenties and early Thirties, she maintained the same elegance of manner which was always so much part of her...

Val Jones delves into family history.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing a family history is finding a starting point. For many, it might be jotting down events, well-remembered places and the different characters who have peopled our past life. Memories may be dulled; on reflection, we might recall different versions of particular events and wonder which is actually correct.

If one is unsure of certain facts and wants to avoid conflict with other family members, it could be wise to state, 'I believe this to be factual from the information passed down to me, however there may be other versions of which I am not familiar.'

In my own experience, I found the most satisfying approach was to go back as far as I could in memory and recall the events and people who first impacted on my life, apart from my own parents. In so doing, I found I had a mountain of subject matter projecting itself into consciousness. I had no living paternal grandparents, but two very significant grandmothers. The lives and personalities of these women were so different that one could have thought they really belonged in a different space in time.

My paternal forebear, known to all generations of her family as 'Mama', was the very essence of a lady. Despite the family falling on hard times during the Great Depression of the late Twenties and early Thirties, she maintained the same elegance of manner which was always so much part of her. Domestic help once employed in running the large household was undertaken by Mama's daughters. Amazingly, the tasks were undertaken in such a way that Mama was still treated as a lady of means. The family home was situated on a large block of land which had once boasted a much-admired garden. With a gardener no longer affordable, the sons of the family were expected to help with its maintenance.

There were numerous fruit and nut trees bearing crops from which Mama would make jam, chutney or other preserves. Her pantry was always full of goodies, my favourite being the jars of pickled herrings. I don't remember seeing her prepare a meal, though I am sure she often did. Visits to the family home usually meant large numbers of adults and children gathered for afternoon tea on the surrounding verandahs to exchange news, share the assortment of cakes, pastries and scones brought for the occasion by the daughters-in-law. These were always plentiful, even during wartime rationing.

Main meals were popular for the variety of dishes, the ingredients of many having come from the garden and chook shed. The table, extended to accommodate the large family, featured dishes of Mama's pickled horseradish, glasses of celery 'for the digestion and refreshes the mouth,' Mama would say. There were jugs of water and sometimes grape juice, made from the grapes which grew at the back of the kitchen, but never any intoxicating beverage. Desserts were usually made from fruit in season which I enjoyed, providing I was not expected to eat the lumpy custard or the milk puddings which had been created from 'secret recipes', so we were told!

Because we had quite a distance to travel to my grandmother's home, we would spend the weekend there, sometimes with the other families. There was always plenty of room. It was on these occasions that my Grandmother expected us to assemble in the music room and perform our special talent, be that playing the piano, reciting poetry, singing, or making some other choice from the banjo, zither or violins, all of which had belonged to her children.

My grandmother, sitting in her place at the table, or reclining in her special chair, always exuded her wonderful graciousness. She spoke very little, listened with great interest, amusement and intelligence, drawing us to her in a remarkable way.

She would sometimes tell of some incident from the past which had remained a source of amusement to her. One in particular was of newly arrived overseas relatives who, when visiting the beach, wearing long dresses and canvas beach shoes, would run to the waters edge, then quickly run to escape the waves chasing them. I always pictured those scenes from her past with great fondness, imagining the young woman who had enjoyed the sport of fencing, a love of horses, show and racing, and an overwhelming sense of family.

Despite the shabbiness which slowly overtook the old home, that very regal ancestor never lost her dignity or family pride.

Val Jones

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Val writes for Bonzer! magazine. Please vist www.bonzer.org.au

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