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?