Wednesday, August 1, 2007

When an old man dies....a library burns down


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to claim just one more hour with the men who were in your life. I say men, but it could be women too. But I say men because most of us don’t communicate very well. It seems to me that much of a man’s social contact and interaction is on the level of the superficial, the deep and meaningful is not something we’re good at. Just look at the number of women who complain about that. Venus and Mars maybe, and in my case that has certainly been the case.

Many years ago now I started work on my family tree and was fortunate enough to find that I was descended from at least four Irish convicts who were transported to the colonies for a number of reasons, sheep and cow stealing during the famine amongst them. I say fortunate because in those cases the records are fairly extensive and I was able to fill in some of the mysteries by painting their faces based on the descriptions in the records – protruding brow, pock marked face and other colourful characteristics.

But the personal insights are missing from my knowledge of most of those ancestors. What saddens me more though is that for the most part, so is the personal of those whose lifetimes have intersected part of mine as well. When my grandfathers were around I didn’t think to ask questions that would tell me of their lives as children and young men.

On Dad’s side I wish I’d asked my Pa about the mud of the Somme and the desert of the pyramids in World War 1, of the reasons why he ran away from home as a 13 year old, of how he found his way by boat to New Zealand and worked as a sleeper cutter. I would love to know why he joined the New Zealand Army and why after he was wounded in the War he came to Melbourne instead of going back to Dunedin in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

On Mum’s side I wish I’d asked Grandad what it was like to be a Rat of Tobruk, or a labourer on the Great Ocean Road during the depression, and why his family left the bush for the city when he was 17 years old and how it was to work on the wharves in the busiest port in Australia.

For me they were always old men, strict and angry at times, smiling at others, backs bent and legs no longer straight, voices croaking with age, hair thin and grey, rheumy eyes peering wearily through spectacles, at times way more interested in my life than I was in theirs or that I had any right to deserve. If I had one final hour with them, I’d want a week, then year, to pose the questions of why and when, where and how, of long ago lost loves and feelings of elation and despair that must have littered the volumes of their lives.

It is true as the old African proverb says that “When an old man dies, a library burns down.”

13 comments:

Blur Ting said...

That is so true Loz. It's the same case here. We don't know much about our ancestors. At least we're starting to pen down our own legacy through our blogs. Hopefully our grandkids will learn abit more about us.

Pen and the Sword said...

Isn't that the truth. I think it would be utterly amazing if all of our ancestors could have kept journals and left them for us. That would be a novel idea and fun to read, wouldn't it?

paisley said...

i agree fully.. i wish so much i had been able to tape my gran and all her stories.. i even tried once.. but as soon as she knew i had the recorder she couldn't talk anymore,,, but that was in her early years of alzheimers... but oh the stories they could tell.. i am sad sometimes that i did the things i did in my life,, and never kept in contact with my children.. age can make one "strict and angry" at times,, and i realize now,, it wasn't so much that that is who they were,, it is who they became as a result of aging....

meleah rebeccah said...

I think it is fascinating that you have gone through such lengths to gather your family history. I do hope you somehow find the answers you are looking for.

Seiche said...

Man... I really identified with this one, Loz. I don't think my father and I have talked about anything other than how the Cleveland Browns were going to dissapoint yet again. When my first wife passed, all he did was place a hand on my shoulder and look right at me for about 10 minutes. It did speak volumes to me, but to this day I'm not quite sure exactly what he meant.

Thanks for this post.

Cynthia said...

drThis is beautifully written. Oh the adventures your grandparents had. I do think not knowing our elders better is almost a universal regret. I've wondered where my grandmother wore that cried corsage I found tucked away in the attic with the incredible flapper dress and what it was like for my grandmother to be a young widow raising two boys on a six hundred acre tobacco farm in deep hill country during the Depression. Anyway, great entry.

Josie Two Shoes said...

I have felt this same way so often Loz. I would give anything for one more hour with my Grandmothers or Grandfathers, or even my own mother. As a young person you don't realize the things you will wish you knew about them many years down the road. We are so egocentric as children. I am hoping at least to leave my current journal for my children and grandchildren, so they will know me a little more than they might from our everyday encounters.

Loz said...

Thankyou all for responding - Each of you are keeping wonderful blogs. Please consider cutting and pasting the entries into a word document so there is a hard copy that someone, one day, can pick up and leaf through , and in doing so, get to know each of you. My written journals have been replaced by these blogs but I am still conscious of wanting to leave a legacy so every 100 pages of blogging I print off and bind a book. Although I haven't been doing this very long I am 40 odd pages into volume 2 already.

raving lunatic said...

So true Loz...I always have this feeling about everyone whom I lose, be it mortal peril or otherwise but I always feel - what if I could have had another hour or two, theres so much unsaid, unheard. Great post.

Ohh and I am linking you to mine :-)

Loz said...

Thankyou JFK for both the comment and the link.

HollyGL said...

I have thought about this a ton over the years because, Loz. Even just having someone to refresh my memory about something that happened when I was ten. ...or to ask my mom or grammy their views on certain subjects. They were gone before I was exploring certain things intellectually or psychologically. Such a great topic. I'm sure everyone can relate to some degree.

Lady Penelope said...

I too have been tracing family trees, both mine and my husbands for about 8 years now. It is easy enough to find facts about our ancestors but it is the meat on the bones that I am really interested in. Hard to do I know but this is something I would love to achieve.
All lives have amazing stories to tell....we have to remember to keep telling them and have them recorded somewhere. Someone will be interested in these in the future - I am sure of it!!

Loz said...

Now I'm posting this comment on 6th March 2009 simply because this is a post that gets hit around 3 or 4 times per day by people who search google for various combinations on words about old men dying and libraries burning down. So here is a plea - if you happen to stumble upon this post would you kindly just log a comment. If you're a blogger I promise I will at least return the favour and visit your blog :)

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