There’s a feeling I get when I start flicking through old family photos that have been stashed away in boxes that smell that distinct smell of camphor and age. Photographs faded, faces staring back unsmiling – I wonder if they are happy to have their photo taken? A flash of familiarity appears in the man long gone, with a pair of ears that look like my Poppa’s; cheekbones on a woman who died 100 years before I was born that remind me of my own; a little girls face that could be my sister’s twin. There’s the clothing of an era gone and forgotten and faces that no longer have names.
unknown Carter child b.1889 d.1889
It’s a feeling of recognition that sticks to the walls of my mind, my heart warms a little and I feel a pull towards these strangers with whom I share blood. My Nan sits beside me and points to those she knows, or knew of from stories. She tells me of the family secrets, the rumours and the truths. I look into the eyes of my ancestors with a longing to touch their faces, their hands, to know who they were.
I mourn the women who died in childbirth. I admire the women who bore and raised 13 children. I feel connected.
Families always have secrets, some are deeper and more complicated than others. Some secrets are so strong and impactful that people fight their whole lives for it to stay hidden, denied, covered up, ignored – forgotten. Families are very complicated.
Some secrets don’t stay hidden.
A Great-Great Grandfather’s identity shrouded in mystery and doubt. A Great-Grandmother who refused to acknowledge her heritage – was it because in Australia, the 20th century ‘White Australia Policy’ culture didn’t leave much for a mixed race child to accept who she was and where she came from? I wish I knew for sure.
It wasn’t until this year my Nana took a DNA test and confirmed suspicions of our heritage and history.
There it was in front of us on paper, from spit in a jar, all the way from a lab in some faraway place. 11% Asian descent – almost exactly the right percentage if you counted through the generations down to my Nana.
The Chinese link, the exact one that was so vehemently denied and pushed away from our family narrative until only recently. There’s too much evidence now to even refute that heritage that was buried under a mountain of lies, rumours and hurt.
The rumour became a reality and some rejoiced in finding the truth and some refuse to acknowledge our history. That, I won’t ever understand.
I think because I have too much of my father’s DNA running through my veins, I don’t see much of my mother’s side in me. But once photos of my Great-Great Grandfather surfaced, and distant relatives it became clear that we couldn’t deny it. There’s a family resemblance that we should be proud of and I can’t see why there are some of us that don’t want to look in that mirror – are they scared of what or who they’ll see?
I remember the girl with the cheekbones that remind me of myself.
Families are complicated.
Family can have a different connotation to some as opposed to others. Step children, step families, step fathers, adopted family, friends.
As I follow my family tree there is more complicated family meanings hidden inside I that I had no idea about. Finding out more about my families past has opened my eyes into how families can work and grow and fade.
I worry about my Nana’s quest to find out about our shared blood and past, for when she is no longer here to follow the trail of names and dates, who will continue searching? The tendrils of our family tree only grow as we dig deeper but when will we be satisfied with how far we have gone?
My Great-Grandmother would never know that we know the truth about her father. She would never know how we poured over photos, birth and death certificates, contacted distant cousins and found photos that only pushed us further to know the reasons it was all a secret. I wish we got the chance to talk about it.