A few months ago, my mother and I went on a road trip to Horsham to visit my Auntie Patty. At 92, Patty is my oldest living relative. That’s a grand old age no matter how you look at it, but when I think about the fact that she was born in 1920, and has lived through such massive changes in the world, those defining moments of the twentieth century – the Great Depression, a World War, the sexual revolution and even the advent of the internet, all in one lifetime – well, it begins to make clichéd phrases like ‘a living link to history’ resonate anew.
As a kid, I always remembered Auntie Patty for her carefully cultivated jungle-like garden and her enormous collection of books. Back then, I was more interested in her copy of Anne of Green Gables than her books on ballet or the opera, or indeed, the boxes of old photographs and history books sitting on those shelves.
She has a collection of family histories – self-published hardbacks by some fastidious distant relative who traced our long and complicated genealogy three or four centuries back. Those books are hard to navigate: a sea of names and dates and cross-references from one coupling to another, made all the more difficult because of the tendency to name sons after their fathers, so Johann Gottfried begat Johann Gottfried and Johann Wilhelm and Johann Friedericke. God forbid if someone married twice.
My mother’s side of the family are of German origin, the first lot of Liebelts to arrive in South Australia. Persecuted for being what they call ‘Old Lutheran’ and refusing to join the Prussian Union of Churches, they came to South Australia in 1838 on a ship called the Prince George. Their trip to the colonies was sponsored by a very wealthy man named George Fife Angus on the proviso that they come out to work the land.
The way Patty tells the story, Grandpa Liebelt (her grandfather, my great-great-great-grandfather) came to Victoria from SA in 1878 with a moving party because he wanted to marry a woman named Hanna Ampt. The Ampts settled and Grandpa Liebelt went out on his own to look for land. He eventually settled on a block right next to the Ampts farm, and called the place ‘Greenfields’. In 1880, he and Hanna married. They had two daughters: Irene (my mother’s grandmother, who everyone called ‘Min’) and Hilde.
I don’t know if I became interested in these stories about my family’s past because I wanted to know where I came from, or whether it was because Auntie Patty is so old that her childhood feels a universe away from mine.
There was the story about Judith, Patty’s niece, who hated boarding school so much she climbed out the window one night and trekked home over eight miles from Horsham to the family homestead.
Or how Auntie Patty scraped the back of her leg while riding on the back of the horse-drawn cart on the farm and ended up in hospital with blood poisoning. This was before penicillin, and the remedy involved hot compresses and squeezing massive amounts of pus out of the wound. I can’t help thinking she was lucky not to die because of it.
Or how Cousin Bruce’s mother came home from her chores around the farm one day to discover that the boys had let the fire in the hearth go out. She had wanted a cup of tea so badly, and Cousin Bruce – who must have been about six or seven at the time, and always a kind-hearted boy, says Patty – was determined that next time Mother would get her tea. So the next day he sat by the fire and made sure it was stoked up all day, and when Mother came home the kettle was hot, the teapot was ready, and there was a tray with her teacup and a plate of biscuits perfectly laid out for her. This is one of my favourite stories, perhaps because it’s such a sweet, simple and thoughtful thing for a child to do. From here, more than half a century away, it still suggests days that were busy, long and hard, but it also a household full of love.
In her book, Searching for the Secret River, Kate Grenville discusses a conversation with Indigenous writer Melissa Lucashenko about the difference between the terms ‘took up land’ and ‘took’. For Grenville, this was a pivotal moment in her personal research into her family history and, while poring over those books and photos in Auntie Patty’s living room, I felt some glimmer of sympathy for her. There’s no mention whatsoever of the Indigenous population in any of those stories written down by my relations. My family history effectively erases whole peoples – and yet I am fascinated by it. With no hint of how they might fuse, I found myself conceiving of two streams of narrative coexisting in parallel: the Indigenous history of the country I was in and the white history. (Later, after I’d read James Boyce’s fantastic book 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia, I felt I had a better understanding of why this might be the case.)
Still, the stories Patty has in her head and the knowledge of the past that they bring with them seem so incredibly valuable to me. In them, I get glimpses of a whole series of adventures and passions and love affairs and tragedies of people long gone – stories that transform those few old photos and a couple of names in a notebook into living beings with aspirations and ideals, people who had arguments and petty squabbles, who made mistakes, who worked hard and who experienced joy. And in a way it reminds me of why I write: because I want to treasure those stories, and keep them, and pass them on, because somehow it feels like they make life richer.