This story is about how I came to uncover boxes and boxes of my grandfather’s personal research and archives many years after his death and some family drama.
So my Poppa, was a bit of a “complex character” which is pretty much a diplomatic way of me saying he was a bit scandalous. A bit hedonistic. A bit of a party-boy. A bit of a wandering soul.
He was by far my favourite grandparent and was actually “cool”. He was tall, maybe even a giant in some circles. He was handsome – being compared to Clark Kent back in the day I was told. And he was into sport and gambling on the pokies and he was generally passionate about stuff. And his biggest obsession was researching his family history.
Just back-tracking a bit. Poppa married my grandmother and she dutifully gave up work and bred three children for him. But he soon realised that he was in a loveless, maybe even despiteful marriage. Eventually he had an affair with the much, much younger (and also married) woman across the road. They were tennis partners for years. She was in an abusive relationship and had 3 young daughters. Then they suddenly left both their partners and moved to the other side of ipswich. My mum was a teenager.
Poppa gave the house, the kids, and almost everything he owned to my grandmother. He was drawing a line in the sand. That was his old life, and he was starting anew.
But he did have kids and a few years later – grandkids. And so he had to maintain some connection to the life he had before.
Meanwhile, his new partner’s estranged husband went nuts and had a drunken rampage through the streets outside mum’s house threatening people with a shotgun. No one was hurt in that incident, but he promptly committed suicide soon after. This was quite a scandal in small-town Ipswich. Everyone knew my poppa. He was a real estate agent and a socialite.
So fast-forward to around 1999. My poppa had a minor stroke which was undetected at the time. He then had to have risky brain surgery. I am not sure why, but it was one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations. I visited him in the hospital the night before and that was the last time I knew him as a proper person. After that, although surviving the operation, he was effectively a zombie. There was a small period where he was “fuzzy” but kinda coherent. But then he had another stroke and he was gone. He was shipped off to a nursing home and when you visited he had no idea who you were. I sat there, looking into the saddest eyes I had ever seen him expressing, wondering if he had just lost powers of speech and was really trapped in this brain-dead hell unable to tell you he understood.
Fast-forward again to 2005 and I was called by my dad as I arrived at work and told poppa had died. The funeral was the next day. So me and my dad went out to Ipswich for the funeral. I sat up the front (not my usual habit) cause I felt that’s where I should be, and then the service started and it was soon apparent my family – HIS family – was ERASED from history. For someone who was so into the linage of his blood, it was tragic. He had been excised from his bloodline and was somehow now only a member of his 2nd wife’s family. They spoke of him as their father. The clergyman noted all the “family” and ignored me and my family. His family. I sat there in absolute and UTTER SHOCK. I was the only blood relative in the room. Speaker after speaker just rammed it into me that his life was now totally appropriated. It was pretty horrific but I kept my cool and even said to his “daughter” that I was sorry and her 10 year old son was there and she was forced to introduce me and she said this was “Poppa’s grandson” (just like he would have assumed he was). He did this double take like, “WTF?”
At the time I wanted to ask about Poppa’s research but I thought better. It was a funeral. And for years later I just assumed they were gone. I assumed his new wife – who really was difficult and threatened by the past – had chucked it. She never liked our family. She had such a temper and just nagged Poppa all the time. He mostly let her win but on some things he would remain obstinate. Like the massive norfolk pine in the backyard which could be seen for miles. She wanted it cut down but he put his foot down. After the stroke it was promptly wood chipped.
Then last week I was just sitting at the computer and I thought, “FUCK IT!” And I googled her name with no result so I rang my dad and he had an old phone number in his stuff and then I called. And I was very polite and said I was getting old and interested in genealogy and did she still have his stuff. She replied that she thought she had given the stuff away to a local solicitor. I then googled the name and sent him an email. An hour later I got a response saying he still had it and it was just taking up space and I was welcome to it.
So a few days later I drove out to Ipswich to a place on Brisbane Road not far from the McDonalds. The dude grabbed a key and we went downstairs and underneath the house. We both had to stoop in this dark, dusty pace with dirt for floor in some places. At the far end were two big boxes and as he opened the first one I saw on top it contained a dust-covered framed portrait of a redheaded baby. “That’s me!” I said. I was stunned. This was it and somehow maybe this meant I was destined to find this stuff. I couldn’t believe how I’d rode and drove past this place so many times in the past decade not knowing that’s where poppa’s stuff was “buried”.
On taking it home it was just AMAZING to go through it all. Spiders leapt out after almost every second folder I pulled out. I had to keep washing my hands when they got black from the dust. So many photos – some well over a 100 years old. Gradually it started making sense. And as soon as I put faces to names and faces to relationships and just the scale of the story he had documented – I was hooked. There was a bunch of highly personal stuff he had collected too. I can’t believe his wife had just dumped this stuff on someone who was effectively a stranger and not thought to ask me if I wanted it. I cannot tell you how profound some of the stuff is. There’s letters, there’s newspaper clippings, there’s notes, there’s the draft of a book, there’s brochures, telegrams, receipts, love letters, an old childhood encyclopaedia, mementos and more. Quite a window into his soul.
So I hope he is proud that I appreciate this stuff and will preserve it and donate it to the wider community of family historians. I just wish I could have told him so.