Annie: for my brother & sister

Who will tell your family story? Will it be the fishing-stories uncle, the one who lives on sausages and budget beer, opening the fridge for more several times before lunchtime? Will he tell your family story, with his accent of bitterness and remembered insults? It was always the old people who let him down, until his sons grew old enough to join the stories, the litanies of complaint.

Should it be him?

Do you prefer something more respectable? Ask Grandma. Some names and dates, a few pale stories if you push. It is not a family of storytelling. Lots of men; few women.

The men will tell you some stories of grass and cows. A few beers and the usual jokes about the priests. The priests left these boys alone and as the stories come out of the woodwork, the altars and surplices, more and more, the men profess their amazement that they escaped.

There are more stories of the men in cow country. The same stories of the same mad drunk buggers every year.

There are few stories for the women to tell, for there are few women. Our matriarch, the who has her father's manner and her mother's looks, the only daughter and the only sister, narrates lineages of marriage and death and farm ownership, corrects all errors.

There are no blood aunties. Fifty years ago there were no blood great aunties either. All dead. Dead just out of nappies, dead and virtuous, dead and abandoned by a bigamist husband.

I can tell you a story though. A made up story which might not be made up at all, but no one knows because no one spoke.

They were two brothers and they were handsome enough. Left from Dublin. What do you think their mother thought? Other side of the world. Gold, fortune and bodies lost to a woman who wanted to stroke the heads of her grandchildren one day. Maybe they would read to her; she certainly couldn't read to them. The cocky one got his photograph taken in Dublin before he left, with hat and gloves and a small classical statue on the table next to him. They must have had a couple of pennies, even a pound. Surely they wouldn't pay for a photographer if his mother was starving?

I don't know what they did on the boat. I don't know if they got drunk or gambled on cards or lingered on the ladies with their eyes of their hands or their penises. I imagine the racy brother, the one who prospected for gold here on the West Coast adn then shot off to Australia, well I imagine him as the racy one, he moght have been a smooth talker, the one for the ladies.

Do you know about Bill? You've seen the photographs? Do you imagine him, too, to be the bearer of a family habit for correctness, authoritarian orders, an intolerance for fools?

He was the boss. The cocky one from the Dublin photo. I don't know if his brother invited him on the trip to Australia. The brother had the Emerald Mines on the West Coast. Just up the road from here. The cocky one from the Dublin photo set up the Emerald Stables in Chertsey. Bought a piece of land there. It was going to be the town. Poor investment, it turned out. They built the town in Ashburton instead and Chertsey wouldn't revive for more than one hundred years, not until the wealthy lifestylers with their flexible working hours and broadband bedroom offices moved in.

They got married in 1880. Bill from Dublin, about 30, married a teenage servant girl from Cork. Annies signed with a cross. When Bill registered the births of the children who arrived every few years, he signed his name and everything was spelt just so. Her paperwork was randomly spelt, dependent on the official scribing for her.

Bill was a barman in Christchurch when his namesake arrived. I guess it was a homebirth. Where else would you go? I wonder who attended her. She had some sisters or cousins, women, yes women, but even when I was young and keen and curious, when I got the old people talking before they died, before AI wargued with my mother about family trees and family history, and what the boundaries of enquiry should be for a 19 year old Catholic girl of a good family ... even then these women were shadowy, remembered so distantly it was hard to be sure they were relatives.

Still, 1884. Different shadows, living people, a woman almost or just out of her teens risking her life pushing out a son, an heir to a country recently stole from Maori. Would he rise to the life of opportunity? Possibly. Fought for English king and kiwi country in 1915 and died in the mental hospital forty years later, a prisoner of death in his lifetime. Liked the bottle apparently.

Did Annie's sister or cousin or neighbour boil the water and keep the room warm and guide the baby out? Useful if she had some female relatives. If you needed a midwife in colonial New Zealand, she migth be a drunk prostitute. A woman used to the intimate parts of strangers.

There were more babies. Birth, loss, silence. You've heard the whisper that Annie wasn't so nice, that she might have liked the bottle? You'd have to listen carefully for that one, and not when the bosses are in the room.

She died young. Not quite the half century. Survived birthing all those babies but not long enough to see grandchildren, mostly boys. Not long enough to see the baby, or the youngest to survive, up the duff with a bigamist. Of course he weaqsn't a bigamist when he met her. Then he was a philanderer who had deserted a family in Australia. The bigamy part came out later, after the first generation were all dead. I don't imagine Bill and the brothers asked Mr Bigamist if he had a family when they found out Aunty France was pregnant.

A few stories. Still no knowledge of Annie. Annie, wife of the more respected Bill. Annie who crossed wild seas to bear children and crumble to compost in the soil of Aotearoa. I nearly named my daughter for you Annie, my great great grandmother and the first female Irish New Zealander in my family. My husband said she couldn't have the initials of a bag lady. Later I found out she has her Irish great great grandmother's name on her father's side.

Annie your silence doesn't yet talk to me. You are not in my dreams. Perhaps it wouldn't be pleasant.They keep dying, the old people who were born after you were buried. I no longer look in newspapers and birth records for your story, but keep writing, wondering if I can catch your story some other way. Writing, the gift you never had. Your name on the page and a woman who still wonders about you.


Sharonnz said…
Thanks, Sandra. You certainly have more of a grip on the stories of your women, than I do mine.
joanne said…
Thanks. My thoughts are more recent, wondering about Dorothy, thinking about the little comments dropped about how she didn't like crowds, was so gentle and delicate - all such positive but such slender information. Something makes me wonder about her wellness, not just the asthma. So strange not knowing, to be in that generation with keeping family secrets on one side of us and the open book on the other. I guess telling stories is how we make sense of it all. X
Cheers Sharon.

Joanne interesting you mention Dorothy. We went to her grave yesterday, sat on it while I cleaned lichen from the headstone and told stories about our grandparents. I have been thinking about Cornish Emma and hopefully will post on her later this week.
Johanna Knox said…
What beautiful writing Sandra!!! Do you still do a writing group there?

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