Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Great Unknown

As daunting as it was to have leapt into the great unknown, and into exploring the genealogical mists of time, I took my first steps towards finding that particular magic bag of genealogical answers in the spring of 2005.

I started out just like most people do. I had asked an occasional question of both my parents, my uncles, cousins and aunts, and had listened to stories of family history as I was growing up. I had listened intently, and was easily drawn into the romance of both history and discovery. However, at the same time, I’d also sat on my backside and I did very little to satisfy my curiosity and a growing thirst for detail. It was all too hard, and would be too costly, and I probably wouldn’t get very far. You know the story. These were the fleeting and typically ignorant thoughts that plague most people who have yet to bother, and are unaware of the joys of family history and genealogical research.

Even now, I type those words “joys of family history” and it still sounds a slightly bizarre sentence. Perhaps because I, like most people, had been conditioned to not care enough about history and our past, other than via what Hollywood and our schools deliver in generic, bite-sized, non-consequential samples. There are after all, more pressing matters to concern ones self with than knowing where we came from, even though I can certainly guarantee that watching “reality” TV and updating facebook to notify others of your boredom, are not among them.

So, into the mists I threw myself. I started out slow, having ordered my mother’s birth certificate and my paternal grandfather’s death certificate from the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths & Marriages, and I really had no idea what to expect.

My mum’s history was a complete blank and I had a lot of catching up to do. I didn’t know my maternal grandparents names, and I had no idea what had ever happened to them. Ordering my mum’s birth certificate enabled the both of us to confirm a faded memory, of my mum’s original surname being FISHER. This had been muddled because my mum had been raised in an orphanage at Lane Cove in Sydney, and under the name SMITH which had been the only surname’s she has ever used prior to marriage.

I’d asked mum a few times when I was a kid what she remembered of her parents. The answer then, as it is now, is one of a few hazy memories. None of which have been particularly helpful as yet.

Both my mother, Margaret Ruth (b. 1943) and her younger sister Joanne Dell (born in about 1945), were raised at St. Anthony’s orphanage, in the Sydney suburb of Croydon, under the surname of SMITH. Mum recalls that on occasion that both girls were able to visit with their “father”, a man by the name of Jack SMITH, who lived at 4 Kettle Street, Redfern. There both would also see their brother, John SMITH.

I’ve never met my Aunt Joanne, or Joan as she is listed in an occasional record. I have no idea if she’s still alive. So asking her for clues, or asking her anything isn’t really currently viable. The last time that mum saw her sister was in the late 1970’s, before I was born. The last time that my mother saw her brother John, was when she was in her teens and he was living with his “father” at Lane Cove.

Basically, on my mother’s side of the tree – mum is all I’ve got!

Well, that’s not entirely true. Since having started my research, I’ve met a 5th cousin face to face, spoken to a 4th cousin over the phone, and had a number of highly enjoyable conversations via email with my 2nd cousin, once removed (I’m getting closer!). There are other researchers as well, who have been for the most part a friendly and helpful lot, but whom I haven’t exchanged much more than a few documents, kind words and data. I am after all, still a somewhat disconnected stranger, and one whose dominating background would seem quite alien to most researchers.But I digress. Let us return to my maternal ancestry!

My mother’s memory is pretty good. She remembers Kettle Street and her time at the orphanage just fine. She remembers the hardship of life when she turned 18 and was turfed out by the Nuns, without any viable career skills. She also happily recalls going off to work at the old “Pick Me Up” sauce factory in Sydney, and her time working in childcare. She can even break my heart, relating how time spent with Dad at their lowest ebb, living on the streets for several months and calling home to a cargo container, whilst waiting for my dad to have an operation in Brisbane became a reality.

Mum went through a lot of hard times, and so has my Dad. I don’t ask about the harder times much and I don’t ask about my mum’s first marriage. But I do ask about perhaps the hardest subject, that of how my sister, Susan-Marie, my mother’s first born, had been stolen from her by the Nuns hours after giving birth, when Mum had returned to their “care” at 21 years of age. My sister’s out there somewhere still, I hope and both my mother and I want to find her, but as can be imagined, my Mum finds matters terribly daunting.

As can clearly be seen, my Mum’s story is a bit of a rollercoaster. But there are as many happy highs to match the terrible lows that I’ve mentioned, and life for my parents since finding each other has seemingly only gone from one joy to the next. They have a happy home in the mountains, two sons, a dog, cat and two strong, cheeky, nappy/diaper-filling grand-children.

Still, when looking back at my maternal genealogy, there are still a few questions that burn brighter than others, and I’m not convinced that I’ll ever truly be able to have those questions answered. They however do remain as a constant challenge, and as prominent reasons among many, to keep pushing forward.

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