I was in Wollongong late last week for a lovely service for my grandmother, attended by much of her family, including her brother, nieces and cousins from Captain’s Flat, NSW. I learnt so much more about my Nanna, particularly through hearing stories about her father, a family legend, ‘Bullocky’ Bill Thompson.
But I’m not going to tell you those stories. At least not here, not now.
Let me explain. Recently I had finished my workout at the gym when a woman began talking to me in the change room. She’d had a rough day, and I felt for her, but when she began to go into the detailed history of her family (going back several generations) in Australia, my eyes glazed over. I felt bad about it, but as I edged toward the door I marveled at this woman’s lack of awareness. Why would I, a stranger, want to know all about her family? The problem, too, was in the telling. Details are very important in storytelling, but not banal and irrelevant details. She had to tell me everyone’s names, and even correct herself, going back to the 1800s, but she didn’t know exactly why her great-uncle Graham Smith had gone to jail, just that he had.
The stories I gathered about my great-grandfather, on the other hand, really struck me because of specific details which told you so much about who he was as a person and why he’s so alive in my family members’ hearts. And yet, I feel I can do better to tell you those stories than to just list anecdotes in a blog post, or else I may indeed come across just like that woman. Why would you care about this man you have no connection to? If I’m to tell these special stories and do them justice, I have to think much more about the format. I also feel a sense of responsibility for these stories, now, being only one of two scribes in that side of the family (that I know of).
I also wonder about how much it is my right to take these anecdotes and legends shared within the family circle, shared orally, and put them to screen or paper. My solution would probably be to take the aspects of his character that are so striking, that made my relatives’ eyes shine in the telling, and create a character from him that is not Bill, but is a fictional appropriation of him (for how could I ever know enough about him to represent him?).
But do I even have a right to do that? I’m sad that I can’t ask my Nanna more about him. I’m sad, in fact, that I can’t ask my Nanna more about herself. Even when I got older and asked her questions about her life, I didn’t ask everything. And even if I had, she would have answered differently, depending on the day. We are flexible, we have moods, and our memories change. And sometimes we are just shy with each other. I don’t like to make people uncomfortable.
But then they are gone and for some reason you want and need to tell their stories. I don’t think it’s simply for genetic reasons (as in, explaining aspects of your own narrative through genetic similarities or differences). It’s just that you know, or think you know, when the details gathered about a person would add up to make a fascinating character, someone that other people would be interested to know about. You don’t want them to become lost in time.
So one day I think I will write a story, based on a small selection of details passed down through my family, about my great-grandfather. I’m not sure yet whether it will be short or long, or how long it will take me to write it. It could be twenty years from now. But let me assure you that if I get it right, he will make your heart swell and your eyes shine with wonder.
To finish, I’ll just tell you that apparently he has already inspired a poem. My family reckoned that he was such a legend he was written about in his time. It doesn’t seem to exist online, but my folks are sending me a copy soon. I’m looking forward to reading it.