To my extended family

I adore my immediate family, my husband and kids, and although they’re far away it’s nice to have a strong connection with my children’s grandparents too. But I don’t mention much about my extended family. I’m an only child, so I’m talking about aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. This is because I haven’t made much effort to be in touch with them. Actually, I’m going to be honest here, I’ve actively avoided them. And now, at the age of 37, for the first time, I’m beginning to feel terrible about that. So this post is an apology to my family for cutting them out, even if they didn’t notice.

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my family. none of the people in this photo are alive any more and i never met any of them. this is my great-grandparents’ wedding, taken at St Bartholemew’s somewhere in London’s East End, Boxing Day 1923

I didn’t really grow up with my cousins. They mainly lived in Sydney and my parents and I moved to Canberra when I was two or three. We’d visit of course, but it’s not the same. And frankly, I don’t know why, but I always felt different, like I didn’t really identify with my family. On one side, I think the lack of language contributed – they all spoke or understood a bit of Serbian and I knew none at all. On the other side, I felt a little closer to them, but culturally, again, they were more ‘Aussie’ or something. When I was a teenager and even into my 20s I was a real snob. Yeah, this is an honest post. I was so stuck up, constantly comparing myself with others, insecure, immature, unable to accept that everyone is different, with different influences and ideas and desires and strengths and weaknesses.

Having said that, I was very anti-Australia for the longest time, despite having been born and growing up in Australia. I considered myself ‘European’, whatever that means. I think it meant that I didn’t identify with Australian culture and I felt like being European was classier, like people from Europe have more of a world view, are more educated, more intelligent, more refined. I was revolted by bogans. It really was snobbery on my part.

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countdown to departure, July 2007

I think there were a couple of pivotal moments that changed my perception about my cultural identity and where I belonged, but it’s only recently that my familial identity has begun to matter. Just after turning 18, my dad took me to the UK for five weeks. I was so excited as it was my first overseas trip and I was finally going to visit this mythical land of ‘England’ where I felt my cultural heart truly belonged. It was a shock, to say the least. I will never forget the feeling of weight I experienced; all those people, all that history, all mixed up, rushing, spilling, washing over me. I felt claustrophobic, weighed down by the sheer volume of ‘stuff’ that had happened in that place over the centuries of city living. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t wait to get out. I was amazed at how dirty all the London transit vans were, just smog and road dirt accumulating. Some of the roads, remnants of Roman walls, puddles filling in uneven pavement, crowds trying to enter and exit stations and trains, it was all so full and overwhelming to me, a very naive, immature teenager with very little experience of the real world. I’d come from Canberra, the cleanest, quietest city in the world, a population of around 350,000 neatly arranged in suburbs around a handful of peaceful ‘town centres’. This is a city that was planned. The closest thing to a traffic jam occurs when you have to slow down a little bit because the NRMA are jump starting someone’s Datsun in the Parliamentary Triangle and it’s 8am. Everyone in Canberra drives. It’s about as far from London as you can get in every respect.

So at 18, I realised I wasn’t European. I was so glad to be Aussie. We landed at Sydney airport on a warm January evening and I have never been so glad to get into a creaky Falcon with a Lebanese driver and try not to get car sick because the suspension on those things is like a roller coaster ride gone wrong! I was home. But the gratitude for being home didn’t last long. Four years later I embarked on an adventure to take advantage of a scholarship and I studied in Siena, Italy for three months. That was a great experience and my world view expanded quite a bit.

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at Telstra Tower, Canberra, in 2013

When push finally came to shove and I realised how toxic my life in Canberra had become, I went back to London in 2007. I was 28. I planned to stay for six months and I wasn’t there to party it up or take drugs or have fun. I didn’t do fun. So much for that. As I’m sure anyone who knows me knows, my London years changed my life. I met the love of my life, I grew up about 20 years in the space of two and a half, and my sense of cultural identity got a whole lot more complex.

Moving back to Australia in 2010 and having my son in 2011, the pull to find where I belonged, to find a home, was even stronger. But I didn’t yet equate home with family. I was starting a family, sure, but I still had this firm belief that ‘my’ family would be my husband and child(ren), and the extended family, some of whom I’d fallen out with by this point over various misunderstandings and overreactions, were not going to be part of my life. I am a fair person by nature, but I’m also a classic overreactor. If I feel stressed or under pressure, I will back out. I’ll just drop everything, push everyone away; it’s all or nothing. I am insecure, I hate intervening or getting in people’s way. I don’t want to disturb. But often this is interpreted as snooty-ness or rudeness when really it’s the extreme opposite! My worst nightmare is having to ask for something, even if it’s something I’m entitled to, something I own, I just don’t want to confront, I don’t want to state my case, I don’t want to attract attention to myself.

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London. Nuff said

So continuing on from my escape to London, I slowly began to extricate myself from any hint of connection to my extended family. They are all clever, sensitive, aware people, and I’m sure many of them wondered what my problem was, why I was trying to disappear from their lives. I worried that one falling out meant I’d automatically burnt my bridges with others connected to that one person, so I just unfriended everyone on facebook and set my profile to private and got on with life.

As my son grew up and my husband and I got to know each other better, questions arose. My husband was a bit miffed at not getting to meet my family, but I remember saying, oh, don’t worry, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Secretly, though, I knew that wasn’t the case. I just didn’t know how to make things right. I felt stressed out by all the emotional stuff I was going through and I couldn’t deal with the communication challenge. So I keep everyone at arm’s length.

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I just don’t like Sydney but I must admit it was nice living across the road from this

I think since coming to Canada and experiencing such homesickness I have also begun to feel sad about my lack of connection with my extended family. I unblocked everyone ages ago and my profile is no longer totally locked down. I occasionally have a little look around, see some comments and conversations on the pages of some family who I am still privileged enough to be friends with, and I see them loving each other, my family. I see how grateful they are to have each other, how much of an effort they make to stay in touch, and I envy that connection. I wish I hadn’t been so stubborn and stupid. I don’t know if I’ve burnt my bridges, I hope not, but I don’t know what I could say that could make it right. All I hope is that my family can forgive my silliness and we can move on in peace. I hope we can reconnect, but if not, I hope they all know that I bear no one ill will and I am grateful for each person’s impact on my life.

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A life lived large

This is my granddad, Hector:

I’ve had this photo in my possession since I was 14. I did a family history project then, which was the beginning of my genealogical research. That was nearly 20 years ago now.

See the eyes? They were a bright, piercing blue; my son has them. And those pointed, slightly buck teeth? Same in my mouth. My dad got his black hair from granddad. Luckily no one else in the family has inherited that nose – you can’t see it in the photo but it was large and hooked. You can see the smooth confidence this young man exudes, he’s an open book.

All I knew previously was that this photo was taken around 1943 or 44. But now I know more.

“We went into town, got drunk, and had our picture taken.” This was 1944, at the end of granddad’s training for the paratroop regiment. He was 17. He tried to join the army the year before but his mother followed him down to the recruiting office, gave the recruiting officer a serve and dragged granddad home by the scruff of his neck. “If you must join up, you’ll wait until you’re 17 and for Christ’s sake, stay off the water! Get into something with wheels on.” This was his father’s lecture. He’d just returned from five voyages to Dunkirk. He knew what his son would be confronted with. And he knew how vulnerable being on the ocean would make him.

Granddad did get into something with wheels on, but only because of a slight tall tale he rattled off. Upon signing up at 17, when asked by a superior what aspect of duty interested him, granddad mentioned he knew how to drive a bren gun carrier. A lie of course, unless you count the one time he and his mate accidentally drove a bren gun carrier into an Air Raid Warden’s hut. “Which side are you on?” shouted the Warden. “Silly little buggers.” They were 15 and had no licenses.  But that was war, that was the way things went in London in those days. The superior officer was impressed and assigned young Hector to drive trucks. He had a day’s lessons, no real driving experience, and then he was put at the wheel of a first world war Leyland Lynx, a huge monstrosity of a vehicle that required some clutch skills just to get into the next gear. Which was a challenge for Hector as he didn’t actually know how to change gear at all. Luckily his superior and the mechanic were riding up front with him and taught him as he went, with 30 troops in the back, complaining all the way about the bunny hopping.  Off they trundled, in convoy with another truck, across from the far north east of England, Newbiggin by Sea, to Kirkcudbrightshire, just over the Scottish border further west.  They hit the notoriously bad weather in those parts, and the second truck broke down.  This is where destiny begins to show itself in granddad’s life.  He suggested to the officer in charge that they put the 30 troops in his truck.  And against his better judgment, the officer agreed. So now he had 60 troops, two officers, and the mechanic.  The others stayed behind with the broken down truck. The mechanic mentioned they might make up for lost time if they removed the speed limiter the truck was fitted with, and granddad liked this idea a lot.  They came to a sign at the top of a steep incline. “Use low gear”.  Granddad ignored it.  He took off down the hill, spun the truck and overturned it into a tree, the troops having abandoned it halfway down the hill and the mechanic hiding in the footwell. Broken gear stick.  Disaster.  He hadn’t even been in the army three months, and this was his first driving assignment.

So even though it wasn’t his fault, although he could have been more cautious, he was reprimanded and sent off to peel potatoes all day as punishment for two weeks. It didn’t seem much of a punishment.  He and his mate (he always had one with him) were on their lunch break.  They’d snuck off beyond where they should have been and were having a smoke and watching the planes coming in over the downs doing bombing raid practices. And suddenly they saw one plane land roughly and crash nearby.  Without thinking, they rushed across and dragged out the pilot and rolled him in the dirt to put out the fire on his suit, shortly before the whole plane exploded. They disappeared as soon as the fire brigade showed up, hoping their little stunt might go unnoticed. The pilot remembered them and pointed them out.  They were transferred to another unit, “got rid of”, sent back to London on a week’s leave with orders to report back to the CO.  Apparently they had been labelled as ‘good round aeroplanes’, so to their shock and confusion, Hector and his mate, who he refers to as Bennett, were sent up to Marlborough and then Leicester for paratrooper training.

There’s more to the story, so much more, but this is just a little snippet of my granddad’s extraordinary adventures, taken directly from his own narration on the tapes I’ve been transcribing which he recorded in 1996. Unfortunately, as I think I might have mentioned before, I got to the second recording only to discover it’s unintelligible. All is not lost though, as I’m going to try and adjust the sound with some software.  I am desperate to hear about how he met my grandmother.  All I know is that they met at a dance sometime around the end of the war and he told her he’d marry her during that first dance and she laughed and said there’s no chance. I can imagine that.