It’s become a cliché that for every adversity there must be an equal and opposite upside, a flipside. It’s what we have left of Newton.
I was even sucked into buying a book called The Flipside at the airport a few weeks ago; one of those you pick up, read a paragraph at random and think, “geez, I really have to find out more”, only to part with your cash and repent at leisure in economy as you discover the book consists of nothing more than this same paragraph repeated over and over, with every third word changed.
Yet how one knows it’s a cliché is not its ubiquity so much as the surprise it causes when it’s borne out.
I was stunned at some of the things that happened during the period leading up to my father’s recent death and its aftermath. Things I could never have predicted; things which had never moved that were now moving.
One of these things was the gift of my cousin, Ken, a man whom I hadn’t seen since I was a small child, who came to the funeral bearing a sheaf of documents about my father’s family history.
Now, my father was a born storyteller, and a good one, but he never talked about his family history, mostly I assume because he didn’t know much about it. In fact, until I saw the documents Ken had gathered I wasn’t even clear about my paternal grandparents’ names, both having died before I was born. So what Ken gave us that day was truly magical. He gave us, my siblings and me, a whole new world.
One of the documents in the sheaf of documents is heartbreaking. It’s the bankruptcy motion filed by my great-grandfather, Francis, at the height of the Depression in 1897 in The Supreme Court of NSW in the “colony of Sydney”. The motion is written in my great-grandfather’s hand and is dated September 7, 1897, exactly 113 years and 1 day ago. In it, he duly swears his assets at £3 and his liabilities at £46, and makes the following declaration:
I have never been bankrupt before. My bankruptcy was caused by want of work and sickness in family. I had a small slaughter yard at Glebe Island and had to sell my horse and cart and the [illegible word] for £35 in the beginning of the year. I work for Creasey [illegible words] at 50 shillings a week. I have to support a family of 6. I have pledged no property during the last 5 years. I was 8 months out of work in 96.
The last phrase moves me to tears.
Another of the documents is an utter revelation. Dad was a storyteller as I say and one of the stories or myths he used to tell concerned a large fortune that was waiting unclaimed in America, courtesy of some mysterious ancestors who had lived there. In my teenage years I used to put this story together with the fact of our obviously Irish surname and fantasize a poor benighted family fleeing to America from the Irish potato famine. The famine, also known as the “Great Hunger”, was the period between 1845 and 1852 marked by “mass starvation, disease and emigration”, during which
Ireland’s population fell by between 20 and 25 percent. (1)
Then I saw one of the birth certificates Ken had found. It’s the birth certificate of the same Francis, he of the bankruptcy, my great-grandfather, born on October 21, 1860. There on the document is shown the birthplace of his father Michael — Dundalk, Ireland — the birthplace of his mother Rose — County Tyrone, Ireland — and the date and place of their marriage — 1850, New York, America.
So there it was, all on one single piece of paper. Ireland, the ominous date, the wedding in New York, no less. And all this time I had thought I was embroidering on a myth, a lovely myth from Dad’s imagination.
Images: graph, courtesy of Wikipedia