On the extraordinary importance of ordinary stories: pondering a family reunion

My story begins at the Mitre Tavern...

My story begins at the Mitre Tavern…

Do you know much about your family history?  Mine is very much the mainstream Aussie story, where various British and Irish folk made their way Down Under in the 1800s, and here we still are several generations later.  We have our share of legends and skeletons, for sure, but I’ve never thought of our story as anything extraordinary.  Luckily for me – and for the generations yet to come – my Dad has never seen it this way.  He understands that every single person has a unique journey and leaves a footprint worth celebrating.   He has taught me that there is a very fine line between ordinary and extraordinary when you’re examining someone’s life.  I’m just back from a weekend in Melbourne with my parents where I enjoyed an historic family reunion – with a twist!

The trip was a celebration of many things:  my upcoming 40th birthday, my father’s upcoming 70th birthday and my father’s enduring fascination with genealogy.  Representatives of my extended family linked up for the unveiling of a memorial plaque at the Mitre Tavern – a funky old pub with which there are ancestral connections.   Over several years and several beers, Dad and a few keen co-conspirators have managed to pique the interest of the Tavern management with stories handed down the generations about the earliest residents  of Melbourne’s oldest surviving, recorded building.  In short, my great, great, great grandparents – William and Elizabeth Astbury – sailed from Plymouth to Port Phillip in 1849 to start a new life in the antipodes. They set up house at the Tavern and raised 6 kids there until retreating to country Victoria some ten years later.  There is now a photo and story about the pair mounted on the Tavern’s wall.  I encourage you to doff your cap if you happen to need a quiet Pimm’s in Melbourne town one day.

The photo, unveiled ceremoniously by family elders, is of Elizabeth, who was 42 when she took her big trip across the seas.  That strikes me as quite old – for that time – to be making such a significant life change.  In many ways,  for her, life did begin in her 40s (as the old adage goes);  and there’s no way she was complaining of my brand of indulgent listlessness as she took her 6 kids – including a newborn – on a three month voyage to the other side of the world.  We took 3 kids to Rainbow Beach this summer; a 3 hour voyage, which was enough to have me reaching for a Bex and a lie down!   As a mother, what looks, on paper, like a run-of-the-mill immigration story now seems extraordinary indeed.  What stamina and selflessness the women of that era must have had!

There are further details of their voyage in the archives:  only two people died at sea, for example, thanks to the ship’s Captain and resident Doctor paying scrupulous attention to cleanliness and diet.  Once again, death at sea is common enough in these early immigration stories,  but this story from my own family history gave me pause for thought.  Did William and Elizabeth know these deceased souls?  How would they have explained the deaths to their children?  I won’t even let my kids watch nature documentaries for fear they may encounter the ugly side of the circle of life!

I’ve always found my Dad’s genealogical discoveries interesting, but I also have no head whatsoever for dates and details.  I can watch a fascinating documentary, pay unwavering attention to it, and yet be unable to recount the details 30 minutes later.  I’m gifted like that.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve worked so many years in libraries, archives and universities: I like to have things on paper!   My Dad, on the other hand, put his knowledge of these stories to work in a detailed welcome speech – beginning with the tale of these first Australian Astburys and moving down the tree with facts, figures and anecdotes. He then opened the floor to other storytellers who added their pieces to the historical puzzle.

The significance of all those small, ‘ordinary’ stories really hit home as I looked around the room at people enthralled, thoughtful, even teary.  The small stories of our lives combine to create the bigger picture of who we are; they are triggers for all kinds of tangential memories and the catalysts for the creation of new stories.   Being a part of a family is not always plain sailing, but there’s no escaping the fact that we are, in myriad ways, a product of those who’ve come before us.  I’m so pleased to have been reminded of my place in this very big, unwieldy, far-reaching, influential and truly extraordinary family tree.

Do you know many of your family’s stories?  How far back can you trace your family tree?   


31 comments for “On the extraordinary importance of ordinary stories: pondering a family reunion

  1. February 7, 2013 at 6:52 am

    There’s something addictive about family history. My mother is caught up in its thrall at the moment. Its part detective story, part soap opera. She’s always regaling me with her findings in great detail. Probably the most interesting thing about my family history is that it looks like we are in fact related to John Lennon. He didn’t pass on any of his musical talent to any other family members unfortunately.

    • This Charming Mum
      February 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm

      Oh Brenda – I knew you were cool, but now I know just how cool you truly are! It is addictive, I think. I’ve mostly been on the sidelines so far as my parents have been doing all the work, but I think it’s about time I paid more attention.

    • February 7, 2013 at 2:06 pm

      Brenda this is very cool indeed!!!!!

  2. February 7, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    My great-grandmother’s brother was killed by the first car in Cessnock. How’s that for bad luck?

    • This Charming Mum
      February 7, 2013 at 1:16 pm

      Oh geez! Bad luck indeed. Good anecdote though 😉

  3. Kasper Beaumont
    February 7, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    You have such a cool family to be celebrating your past in such a manner. In my early 20s, my brother and I went to County Clare in Ireland and wandered around cemeteries and family records. Unfortunately we hit a dead end and didn’t trace any further. It would be fun to try again now that things are computerised. I’ll add it to my bucket list. Thanks for the great story.

    • This Charming Mum
      February 7, 2013 at 1:17 pm

      The digitisation of records has certainly made a huge difference. I remember lost souls pouring through the paper-based, poorly alphabetised births/deaths/marriages documents when I worked at the British Library – needle in a haystack stuff.

  4. February 7, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    How amazing of your dad to put all that together! I’ve had various aunties and cousins investigate the family tree on both sides, which is great, but what I really want to know are the details that bring that person to life. What where their hobbies, their favourite foods, their proffesions and pastimes? What books did they read? That sort of information would be fabulous.

    • This Charming Mum
      February 7, 2013 at 8:17 pm

      I know what you mean Lisa. It’s one thing to have all the dates and places, but a whole other thing to know who they ‘really’ were. My Dad has managed to find out a few things about their places of employment etc, but it would be great to know what they did in their spare time. If they had any spare time I guess!

  5. February 7, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    This is very cool! I don’t know much about my family history, but my great-(or is it great, great?? Can’t remember) grandmother came out here on the boat all alone from Ireland when she was 16! Can you imagine it?!?! Other family followed but gosh, what a leap.

    • This Charming Mum
      February 7, 2013 at 8:16 pm

      16 – wow! She must have seen some things eh? There were some very brave women around back then :)

  6. Becky
    February 7, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    Ohh Lara! Lovely read! You must have had a fantastic time. The stories your Dad must have been fab!!

  7. Robyn Cain
    February 7, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    Well put Lara, it was an amazing day and I was so proud to be there.

    • This Charming Mum
      February 7, 2013 at 8:14 pm

      You did so much work to help it all run smoothly. It was a lovely day.

      • Jeanette Harvey
        February 8, 2013 at 10:46 am

        Lara I so enjoyed your story on our family history
        So sorry we were unable to be part of it
        Best wishes as you continue your 40th Birthday celebrations X

        • This Charming Mum
          February 8, 2013 at 7:18 pm

          Thanks Aunty Jeanette. It’s a shame you weren’t able to be there, but at least you can enjoy all the photos and stories. Thanks for the birthday wishes too x

  8. February 8, 2013 at 7:46 am

    I signed up to genes reunited website a few years ago and it was addictive! I met online many of my dad’s family, based in the UK. My dad passed away 8 years ago and this is why I wanted to find out more as I never asked him about them. It was very interesting. I need to find time to take it back up.

    • This Charming Mum
      February 8, 2013 at 7:20 pm

      That’s great that you were able to discover a few family members online. I’m sorry to hear you lost your dad, but I hope you do find time to investigate his family tree a bit further.

  9. February 8, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    My husband is huge on recording family history. I’m not so good. I think it is wonderful that it’s important to your dad. Rachel x

    • This Charming Mum
      February 8, 2013 at 7:18 pm

      At least one of you is doing it Rachel! I’ve never been much good at it either – interested, but not really willing to commit the time to the nitty gritty. Might get more involved now though.

  10. February 8, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    One of my great friend’s from school is an Astbury – I wonder if she is a relative? I love genealogy as well. I want to subscribe to one of those websites on behalf of my parents so they can research and record everything before I lose them and all their stories.

    • This Charming Mum
      February 8, 2013 at 7:17 pm

      Oh that’s interesting! Well she may well be a relative. I agree, it is important to capture those stories while the storytellers are still able to share them.

  11. Enid Bite'Em
    February 9, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    In the last year I’ve discovered (through family anecdotal evidence, not me doing it myself) that I had a 1930s roller-skater in my family tree, and Tassie’s very first bookstore owners descended from the same convict as my grandfather … genetic throwback much :) ?

    • This Charming Mum
      February 10, 2013 at 5:24 pm

      Oh Enid, that’s really cool to think you might be picking up on traits from previous generations. So, a competitive roller skater from 1930? I didn’t even know they did that sort of thing then. My naivety about the sport I suppose!

  12. February 10, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    You are so lucky to know all that history, I know a tiny bit about my parents, but it might be a little easier to trace – one day :)

    • This Charming Mum
      February 10, 2013 at 5:26 pm

      Yes, I’m very lucky my parents have done all the work and I don’t have to! Although I’m sure as more technology becomes available there might be even more we can uncover.

      • Dianne Crossley
        September 10, 2015 at 3:26 pm

        I loved reading this as William and Elizabeth Astbury are also my ancestors.

        • This Charming Mum
          September 11, 2015 at 2:04 am

          Oh, well there you go! What a great legacy they left :)

  13. Rita
    February 10, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    My dad did the genealogical tree of the family. It was so interesting to learn about my ancestors. It’s very important I think to know where we come from and learn about the origins of our family.

    • This Charming Mum
      February 10, 2013 at 5:27 pm

      That’s great that your Dad’s done that. It’s certainly interesting to think about the lives of all those people who made us who we are!

  14. February 10, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    I need to get onto my family history! My parents both have some fascinating stories and I’ve been meaning to do a home movie documentary about it all.
    Imagine, 6 kids on a creaky boat for 3 months…at 42!!! These women deserve medals, I tell ya!

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