It’s difficult to make sense of families, sometimes. You grow up thinking that you know people completely because they are always present. They seem so familiar that you never quite see what is glaringly obvious, in hindsight.
One of the joys of Family History is piecing together the stories of the people around us who were already old when we were young.
Growing up in the 1960s, I was aware that my older relatives carried the trauma of humiliating poverty and a fear of starvation. My grandmother still lived in the house where my mother was born. She was minimally house proud though she seemed to have few domestic skills and no interest in cooking. Nanna served up the most awful food on very pretty plates. My mother would nudge us gently and whisper that we had to eat everything that Nanna put in front of us. Waste was unforgivable.
I loved visiting my grandmother’s house. The food had to be endured but, once the washing up was done, she would let me look at her paintings. One of Nanna’s downstairs rooms was left unfurnished. Around the room ranks of framed pictures leant against the skirting board. These pictures were for ready for sale or exhibition. None of her pictures were ever on the walls at home. The walls everywhere in the house were bare; no ornaments or family photographs anywhere to be seen.
Nanna would give me proper oil paints and all of her old paintbrushes. The paints were much more expensive than anything my parents would have been able to buy for a ten year old but Nanna said I had ‘potential’.
I went to an all girls’ school where the word ‘potential’ was used a lot. The tension in adults around me always seemed pitched very high during my adolescence in the 1970s. Girls’ education was overburdened with cautions. Girls had to play nice and be careful. Men were like snakes and the wrong man could easily ruin a girl’s future. Potential could be wasted.
“Never get involved with the Catholics,” Nanna warned. “Don’t you ever have anything to do with them.” I knew girls at school from Catholic families but I said nothing, as Nanna continued. “You can always spot the women because they never bother to do anything with their hair!”
I misunderstood Nanna’s concerns at that time because of the IRA bombings in town. I remember, sometime that same summer, I noticed that she did have two photographs in frames. They were kept on the bookcase next to Nanna’s evening chair, in front of the TV. The frames were always face down. On the bus home, I asked my mother about the pictures. My mother explained that she had an older sister who died young. From time to time, when the memories were not so painful, Nanna would turn the picture over and say ‘Hello’ to her daughter.
“Did Nanna ever have a husband?” I asked.
“My father?” my mother replied. “… He killed himself.”
“Oh.” I said, as if I’d understood what that meant. We fell into silence for the rest of the journey and it would be more than twenty years before I asked about him again.
Near the end of Nanna’s life I began to record the bare facts of the family history. My grandfather’s name was Ewart and he was twenty years older than Nanna when they married in the 1920s. They had two children early on and then my mother was born twelve years later.
“Nanna hated him and she made his life hell,” said Aunt Ada.
My mother had remembered an argument. She heard and understood a lot, but being twelve years older, her sister Ada filled in the details.
“That’s around the time she started painting,” Ada continued. “She used to write. Nanna would sit up all night writing and there was no-one to look after us kids during the day. Dad wanted her to give up writing and she told him to give up seeing Howard.”
“His friend Howard?” my mother asked.
“His 'special' friend Howard," Ada replied. She watched my mother’s face, waiting for the penny to drop. “His lover, silly. Howard was his lover.”
“I guessed that much,” my mother replied. “Did you know that he went very religious at the end?”
Mum and Ada talked about the years after the older sisters, Margaret and Ada, had left home when they married. My mother was left alone then with Nanna as Ewart’s sanity disintegrated entirely. He would read aloud from the bible for hours and in the quieter moments she would often find him posed, as if crucified, standing in Nanna’s front window.
“Mum! Mum! He’s making crucifixions again!” my mother would call to Nanna. Nanna would tell her daughter to go play hopscotch and make as much noise as possible on the tiled floor of the hallway, in the hope that the disturbance might snap Ewart out of his trance.
“She wrote to me about that,” said Ada. “That’s why she bought the net curtains. He was upsetting the neighbours because he had no clothes on.”
“Nanna would have hated anyone knowing their business.” Both sisters agreed.
“… but they were always religious,” Ada continued.
“What? Nanna?” my mother asked.
Ada answered, “Yes. Both of them, when they were younger… back in Australia, before you were born. They went to church regularly.”
Ada explained how the family had travelled to Australia to find work during the Great Depression. Nanna found work but Ewart struggled.
“Nanna always said he wasn’t pushy enough,” said my mother.
“It wasn’t his nature,” said Ada. “But me and Margaret had to go away with the nuns, so mother could work full time.”
“The nuns promised Nanna that we would get a good education but that was a lie!” said Ada.
“But none of you ever told me any of this. Why?” exclaimed my mother.
“Nanna took us away from there as soon as she found out that they were beating and starving us. She told us to forget about that place and promised that she would never trust anyone else to look after her kids,” said Ada. “She blamed Dad and that’s why she left him.” Ada paused looking around Nanna’s sitting room. “She brought us back to England, to this house and we all managed just fine here for nearly ten years until Nanna wanted to make a permanent home.”
“She must have taken him back...” said my mother, “… or else I wouldn’t be here.”
Ada nodded. “She did. She’d been saving towards buying this place for years but the landlord decided to sell in a hurry. Nanna needed a small mortgage and a husband to sign it.”
“So she had no choice?” said Mum.
“Oh she laid down plenty of rules for him,” said Ada. “You have to understand that a lot happened that we will never know and Nanna will never tell. She got so tired of moving on and hoping things would be better. I’m glad you never knew that kind of poverty.” Ada touched my mother’s arm gently. “Nanna coped with that. She really tried but it was the lying and the deceit that broke her… and Margaret. In that place, with those evil old witches… Margaret always had the worry that things would get so much worse for us if the nuns ever found out that Dad was queer. Her health was never good. She was always so nervous and she never really recovered. One of Nanna’s rules was to stay away from the Church. He was such a hypocrite and she wouldn’t stand for him making liars out of all of us again.”
“Dad must have been so lonely at the end,” said my mother.
“They were both lonely in their different ways,” said Ada.
“We shouldn’t even be talking about this,” said mother.
“Nanna wouldn’t like us discussing her private business,” said Ada.
The house was looking tidy. Everything looked exactly as Nanna would want it and we all picked up our bags for the journey to bring her back home from the hospital.
Later my mother told me more that she remembered about her father. There were so many good memories of Ewart that she wanted to hold on to. He was very quiet, a kind man who enjoyed the company of his children. Mum knew that was a rare quality in a father in the 1930s and 40s. “He never harmed anyone,” Mum said.
It was beyond pitiful that he had spent all of his life trapped by lies and terrified until his death in 1965. Two years before homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967. He took an overdose but died years later in a psychiatric hospital. My mother said that she had lied to us because suicide was so shameful and Nanna wanted to keep that secret among so many other secrets.
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