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Gathering of the clan: Reflections on family and identity

Gathering of the clan for a recent family reunion. Photo: Sandra Symons

Opinion by DR SANDRA SYMONS

As a young child, I grew up in regional towns.  As a teenager, I grew up in the city.

The hubbub of city life entranced me. I loved the smell of ozone and fuel in inner city train stations. I loved the sound of the trains hurtling past my bedroom windows, the sound of ferries on the harbour, particularly when there was a dense fog. I loved the smell and sophistication of city cafes and restaurants and little laneways. I loved it all.

However, my family was not rooted in the city. My father grew up in the far west in a mining town in a family that quickly scattered to the winds, and my mother grew up in the country on a farm. The life and times of my mother’s family has percolated through all aspects of my city mouse life.

When my uncle Ian Manwaring, born and bred on the family farm, died recently my brother and I attended his funeral and wake.  With many family members milling around, I started to think about the family and its strong sense of identity.

My uncle was one of 11 children (seven boys and three girls), six with my grandfather’s first wife who died following childbirth, and five with his second wife. My uncle sat on the cusp of the two. He was the middle of seven sons. With the exception of the two who looked like their mothers, all the boys looked like their father.

The distinctive family look: tall and solid with strong smooth faces and the occasional mole. 

Although all born to an early life helping on the family farm, the children went their own way – several to run their own farms or to work as farm labourer and manager, stock and station agent, teacher, secretary, bank manager, survey draftsman, lawyer, train driver.

Given the makeup of the family, some of grandad’s children are younger than me and so I always thought of them as more like cousins. 

But no-one took any notice of age. In fact, one of the younger ones, the same age as me, said that for years he did not know there were two mothers. He thought his mother, my grandfather’s second wife, belonged to all. Only as an adult did he recognise his confusion. The sums, of course, did not add up.

Proud roots

This big, disparate family could not be described as tightly bonded but nonetheless it is bonded. Everyone is proud to belong to a family with historic colonial links, whose ancestors put down roots in farms, villages and towns dotted around the NSW south west slopes in the mid-19th century.

It is a family of stories. 

Everyone tells stories about our Kentish forebears who came here on the ‘Anna Maria’ in 1857, found their way to Bungendore before taking up land around Jugiong and Cootamundra, how siblings established adjoining farms, how my grandfather’s little sister Rose got lost in the bush for two days, how she survived because she stayed near a little creek on the big hill behind the farm.

The first son Roy, born in 1916 and first daughter Audrey, born in 1918, told many stories about growing up on the farm. Roy, who died 25 years ago, described how as a boy of six or seven he saw bullock teams carting wool and wheat to town, how the teamsters used to work 22 bullocks yoked to a huge wagon. 

Audrey, who is still a bridge-playing dynamo at 102, published her memoir ‘Call of the Curlew’ – a social history – which documents the family’s early days in the district. 

She recalls the family travelling in to Cootamundra to see Australian aviator Bert Hinkler touch down after his epic  solo flight from Britain to Australia in 1928. He made the flight, the first by an aviator, in a single-engine Avro Avian aircraft in 151/2 days. 

Three family members have published histories – Audrey’s memoir, her nephew Ray’s exhaustive two-volume history of the family,  and her brother Terry’s more recent update of children in the immediate family. The stories revealed in them have held the family in thrall.

As a child, I was the little townie who was scared of most things to do with the farm – dogs, cows, cattle, sheep, horses, chooks, snakes – nonetheless I loved our holidays there largely because there were things to explore, like the meandering creek full of leeches and visited by the bee eaters; the towering hill behind the farmhouse full of boulders and scrubby trees that defied an uninterrupted run from top of bottom although we tried to our cost; the little one-room bush school, with its row of desks and a big blackboard on one wall; the disused laundry out the back with a clutch of hissing, spitting kittens; the roadside cairn with attached plaque that told the story of the arrival of the Anna Maria with the family.

The holiday gatherings were like one big never-ending party. There were endless parlour games, tennis games, woolshed dances. 

Belonging and identity

Nothing much changed over the decades. My grandfather, the family patriarch, sat at the centre of all the chiacking and shenanigans during these gatherings. The men, although often playful and full of pranks, were by nature softly spoken and self contained. It was these characteristics that marked my uncle Ian as a respected and admired school principal who devoted decades to community work.

I always thought I had nothing much in common with the members of my loving family but I regard them with utmost affection. When my uncle died, the loose threads of affection did what they always do in times of a family crisis – they pulled tight.

Everyone has found a place within this large sprawling family. It seems to me that there is a particular family culture that is denoted by “we”, and it does not take much to invoke the family history.

The farm was sold a long time ago but the current owners value the history of the place and on family reunions always ask my 102-year-old mother for historical details about the house.

This is the stuff of memories, personal history and family identity. We all belong somewhere in this rich story.

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