I want to know my deceased grandma, a courageous woman who married my Tasmanian-born soldier grandpa in London in 1919 and died aged thirty-nine, well before I was born. I never heard stories about her when I was a kid, apart from the fact that she sent my mum and her siblings to church on Sundays with a penny to put in the plate. I had no idea what she looked like or what she did—what she loved.
I was about fifty when I first really heard of her, the 1990’s. A second cousin found us and it was then that I learnt that we, my aunts and uncle, her Tasmanian children and their children, like me, were known as the Lost Family. In Melbourne at the time, this news overwhelmed me. I had an extended family I knew nothing about. My grandma was known as Phoebe but her real name was Elizabeth.
Being found got Mum talking. She remembered my grandma getting pressed flowers in cards from England. Mum also told me she worked hard, read a lot and was delighted to get a new mat to place before the fire—a hessian potato bag.
Growing up within a violent home where I never felt a mother’s or father’s love, the sense of grandma’s loss floored me. I wish I’d known her, wish I’d had her to talk with and hold me, to encourage and love me. I’d always believed that there must have been someone in my family who loved to read and write as I did and here she was.
My cousin gave me a copy of letters written by my grandma on her long trip to Tasmania on the steamship ‘Benalla’, 1919.
I’ve just typed those hand-written letters, all 14,560 words, written over a stretch of about seven months, most of which detailed the long trip on the ‘Benalla’, a rat-infested ship where babies died, fights broke out, people got terribly bored and sick and the stinking heat flattened passengers. In those letters she wrote of what she loved—her family, roast meals, kippers and reading, especially Rider Haggard.
What did she see in Rider Haggard? I’ve just read Haggard’s She (1886). Was it his adventurous spirit, the story of man entering the rough and tumble of Africa, Zanzibar, to ultimately come face to face with the white sorceress, Ayesha, the ‘She- who-must-be-obeyed’—a dictator, femme fatal, tyrant and beauty? Of course she dies a tragic yet welcome death. Befitting popular literature of the times it’s as sexist and as racist as all hell, as I’d imagine his other novels were. So, why did she love his stories?
Perhaps they stirred the desire to break away from London, sail the wild seas and risk life and death in a new land. Perhaps this writer’s heroes like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn got into her bones as Huck did mine. Whatever the case, I’d say that Haggard’s portrayal of Ayesha, a strong female, hence dangerous, was nothing to admire, but rather steer clear of. His novels combined with books to instruct young women, wives and mothers on how to be the perfect fit for domesticity, may well explain why my mother condemned strong independent women. Maybe Grandma passed those instructions on, as well as Haggard's damning portrayal of powerful women.
I now have photographs of Grandma and there’s not one where she seems happy. Her eyes are deeply sad, her mouth unsmiling, the plain clothes she wears I’d imagine to be so very different to those she’d have worn in London. Living in a small, poor, relatively isolated town in central Tasmania and later in a faraway southern valley where she and my grandpa lived and worked on an apple orchard, she’d have been even more isolated.
In her letters she repeatedly speaks of getting lucky one day and going back to her family. It never happened. Stories about her death differ. Some say she died as a result of ‘twisted’ bowels. Her death certificate indicates she died under such circumstances. Her beloved sister says she died of a broken heart.
I ‘talk’ to my grandma in my musings and one thing is for sure, all I know about her leads me to uphold her in every way. So glad her blood runs in my veins.