Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What are your ancestors saying?

Do you ever wonder where you've come from? Where you truly get those traits of yours? Your street smarts, your opinions on certain events in the world, your outlook on various things? If not, this post probably won't interest you in the slightest. But if you have, you might feel something begin to stir for you. Just maybe...

I tend to hedge my bets and trust that I'm a little bit nature-made and a little bit nurture-inspired. There. I think that's a nicer, milder way of saying what the title of this book is getting at (brilliant book by Oliver James, by the way, have you read it? It's worth a look).

I have been pondering these past few days just exactly why I get so drawn to particular names on my family tree and then, in turn, what it is I am learning or gaining from getting to know them so long after they lived and died on this Earth. The clues and the lessons they've learned in their lifetimes must surely affect me, even if ever so slightly, because their descendants raised my descendants.... Follow me?

At present, I feel like half of me is lurching back into mid-1800's Australia. One of my descendants arrived here in the late 1850's to carve out a life for his third family before they followed him a little under two years later.

His name was Spencer and he was in his late 50's when he sailed out here (a trip that took over three months and sounded absolutely ghastly from his letters). It was a bold move all round, I think, for someone of his age to come out and work in the new colony. This fact alone made me wonder why they decided to do that - risk not just his life but separate himself from his wife and two little children (they were 1 and 3 and, thankfully, survived the trip with their mother and grandfather). What made them leave England?

Turns out, they were impoverished there. But their union was also not looked upon favourably by anyone much, it would seem....

The only thing I knew of Spencer prior to reading the letters he sent home was that he was the ancestor who settled about two hours' drive of my current location. I had no desire to know any more about him after finding that out early last year. His relationship to me seemed so loosely connected, so irrelevant, that I had no desire to get to know anything about him. Some thirty pages of reading later - pages that have been carefully typed from the originals and saved in Word - and I have my own sense of Spencer now.

Spencer had three 'wives' - I use inverted commas because it's not clear that he even actually married the last woman, Annette (the one who came to Australia bringing their two small children and one of his from a previous marriage to be with him) - and it would appear Annette was neither well received by his family nor made her parents happy at all that she shacked up with a man over twenty years her senior. In fact, she was only a year or two older than Spencer's eldest child from his first marriage.

At first glance of the family tree, the two-dimensional names and birth/death dates were all that I had to build up an opinion of this man and his apparently colourful life. When I realised his first wife was still alive when he married his second, and he hooked up with his third (Annette) the same year his second wife passed away, I was ready to dismiss him as a player.

This is the first thing that I have been reminded of. My first lesson to remember. And it's a timely one (it's always timely). How often do we judge quickly and assume so much on initial meeting of someone? We use visual cues, hear what they are saying and perhaps their body language and - especially if this is consistent each time we see that person - we have an image fairly instantly in our minds about this person. It's the same for me when I scour my extensive family tree. I am being taught, through this process, to suspend all judgement, detach from what I have been told (the family scuttlebutt - so skilfully worked and remastered through the generations, isn't it?) and let that ancestor speak to me themselves.

There are other things come at me, so fast and still forming in my mind that I cannot quite convey them in words just yet. But I hope to with time.

What a thrill and a deeply humbling experience I am finding it, each time one name above any other jumps out at me. Last year, my great-grandmother on my father's side did this "to" me. I wrote about it at the time, on my private blog, but I may just have to dust that post off and republish it here, for her story is equally fascinating (and deeply affected me).

It is apparent from various references to things going on at home that Spencer and Annette were in  favour with the very few. He risked the seas on a cargo ship to come here, where her brother had come some time earlier. On arrival, her brother (Robert) rejected Spencer, whom he had never met. From what I read, rumour and scandal and defamation was alive and kicking in the 1800's!

Interestingly perhaps only to me, I am surprised (pleasantly, of course) by the strong pull I feel towards females down the line - the link I have with the following ancestor, for instance, is at first glance quite tenuous; I'll write it out: Spencer had 14 children (five with each of his first wives and four with Annette). His second-born daughter, Leonora Elizabeth, who was 41 when her father died here in Australia, had a child who bore my great-grandmother. Six of Spencer's children were dead at the time of his death. Very sadly, he learned of the death of one of these children, James, after he came out here and wrote home about it. I feel a tug at my heart having this link in common with Spencer too. It makes the man far more three-dimensional, reading how he felt via his words as they spilled onto the paper from his own hand.

In his 66 years, Spencer was a Reverend, a teacher, he even panned for gold here and grew vegetables on a small plot in the early months of 1858 in order to save as fast as he could for his family's passage out from England. It sounded a deeply lonely and wretched time. Hearing his desperation turn to acceptance and restoring his faith was profound to me.

Spencer basically worked hard his whole life to support his families. I am so glad the discovery of this relative of mine has not been marred by any generational handing-down of harsh opinions. I daresay my great-grandmother, Alice Leonora Mary, who was Spencer's great-granddaughter (her grandmother was his second-born daughter, Leonora, and who she was named after), knew nothing much about Spencer. Perhaps it was one chapter of the family's history that they preferred to leave closed, such was the perceived scandal of the time (one did not divorce so easily, if at all, especially if one was a minister!).

All this makes me wonder so much:  Just what do we think we are doing here? What difference do we think we're making? Will layers upon layers of family pack me down so tightly that nobody in another 150 years will have a clue - let alone a care - who I was? I wonder...

Do you honour your family back through the generations in any way? Have you made your own connections with anybody, despite (or perhaps because of) the family lore that's been passed on to you about them? I'd be so interested to hear from you if you want to share your stories. I will be doing more posts and sharing more from actual letters (not much, though - I have a deep sense of respect.... I daresay my ancestors wouldn't ever expect their loving words would be shared potentially worldwide, so..... without asking them, y'know....) in future posts. Ask me if you want to know anything!

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