A child’s own history

29 Aug

My interest in history began as a child, I think, with stories my grandmother told me of her life at Hanging Rock, outside the tiny town of Nundle in northwestern New South Wales. There were stories of her wicked stepmother, of the stepmother’s former husband poisoning himself with strychnine, of animosity between Protestants and Catholics in the town, of weary rides by horseback over fields to school, and of learning the nomenclature in the butcher-trade with her grandparents, helping them hook up the cuts of meat and watching the ritual sharpening of the knives. They had the dark contours of a fairy-tale, these stories, but they were also fleshed out with innumerable details of ‘life back then’, both the exoticism and mundanity of which whet my interest. I have always wanted to sit down and record more of these stories, imagining some future spacious time in which she and I might sit for hours and pick over them together. But of course, that spacious time does not come of its own accord. She’s recuperating from heart surgery and in another city now, and it seems further away than ever.

My grandmother gave me a local history of the Nundle region not only ago, which I have only flicked through occasionally since. There is a companion volume which she also gave me, which seems to be comprised chiefly of the text written on headstones in the local cemetery, supplemented in some cases by anecdotes or reports from court proceedings. One of these reported the trial of a doctor who had either murdered or accidentally shot one of my grandmother’s relatives – I can’t remember the relationship now – with whom he was having an extramarital affair. Apart from this, however, the book makes for dully repetitive reading, and is almost entirely opaque as a window into people’s lives. But still, my grandmother treasures it: ‘a large part of my family’s history is in there, so look after it’, she said when she gave it to me. Really, the only way it functions as an historical record is as a prompt for stories ‘oh that guy [indicating a name and verbatim text from his headstone] – he was the school principal who used to…’. Local histories of that kind only come to life within the context of oral historical practice – and that, of course, is why I’ve only flicked over the two books to date. At the moment, they simply serve as a guilt-trip about how little we’ve talked about them together.

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2 Responses to “A child’s own history”

  1. MC 29 August 2007 at 7:57 am #

    My mum was an amateur historian. She wrote a history of the island where I grew up based on stories people told her, and she centred it around the “unique characters” a tiny place tends to contain. Since she died, I’ve also realised how much work she did in tracing our family history on both sides… using a similar anecdotal method. I feel so conscious (maybe a little like you’re feeling) of all the wasted time I could have spent learning from her and carrying on her projects. Maybe it’s only because we share the same historicising gene that we feel this tho, and that’s a modest consolation.

    Anyway, I hope your grandmother continues to recover well!

  2. Melissa Bellanta 30 August 2007 at 10:00 pm #

    Good to have the fruits of your mother’s labours in the form of her history of the island, I imagine. Which island is it? – M

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