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The Aunts

Myra,Kathy,Lottie,Hilda,Elsie,Annie ,Lang

Myra, Kathy, Elsie, Hilda, Lottie and Annie Lang

Writing this post, partly about my Aunt Mary, has renewed my desire to write something about the people known in my family as  “The Aunts”. The Aunts, pictured above, were my father’s Aunts on his father’s side. My grandfather was the third child of eight; six girls and two boys. When he was thirteen, in 1904, his father died, leaving my great grandmother  with eight children aged from 18 down to 3 and the family sheep farm.

The six girls, in order, were Elsie, who at 18, was already learning to be a nurse in Whangerei (about 50 km away), Annie, 17, Lottie, 12, Myra, 11, Kathy, 9, Hilda, 7, and then there was Bill (my 13 year old grandfather) and Ian the baby, who was just 3.  Of the Aunts, only one  (Hilda) used the name on her birth certificate, those Scots did love a nickname!

After my grandfather left school, to farm (with his Uncle Davy, his father’s brother, who I imagine at the beginning was probably managing it), all of the younger children were eventually educated in Auckland, at Auckland Grammar. That must have been a significant impost on the family finances, LottieMyra and Ian won scholarships, which probably helped, which is quite impressive from a one teacher school in the middle of nowhere. Myra won a maths prize after she had been there a year.

After school, the younger ones all went on to get a profession of some kind. Kathy, Lottie and Myra all went to the teacher training collegee. Lottie and Kathy and Hilda married. Annie seems to have been designated companion to her mother (a family story says that Annie wanted to be a nurse too but by the time she could be spared from home she was told she was too old – a blow to her), and Elsie and Myra never married.

Family report says that Myra was close to engaged to a friend of Bill’s who died on the Western Front in WW1. New Zealand lost a lot of its young men in that war – despite it being on the other side of the world, 1% of the population died, mostly young men.

aunts & Ian

Ian, Myra, Hilda, Kathy and Lottie, probably at their house in Auckland

Once the family had been educated, they mostly left my grandfather behind on the farm and decamped to a rented house in Auckland until the big adventure (more below).

I’ve been trying to piece together the story of the Elsie and Myra, later joined by Hilda, of them in their heyday and their big adventure overseas.

Mary Christina (Myra) Lang

Myra on the way to the US

In 1924, Myra and Elsie decided to go off to the United States. They were in their 30s, and had been working long enough to save up. Plus they each borrowed 120 pounds from a family friend (as their advance share of their inheritance from their father, which wasn’t able to be paid until two years later when the estate was finally settled), and decided to spend it on a big adventure.

Myra was a teacher, and Elsie was a nurse (and what was then called a masseur – now a physiotherapist), and Myra was (according to family report) following a man over there. Sadly when she got there, it turned out he was already married, so they stayed for a while, working and visiting around. We have a record from the Census of Myra living in Buffalo New York in 1930. She was living in a flat, by herself (she is described as “head of house”). Elsie wasn’t with her, but they must have been in touch.

From the connections they managed to create and recreate, while they were away, they managed to get back to Nova Scotia, to St Anns in Cape Breton, where 100 years before, many of their forebears had emigrated from Scotland. They still had relatives there, who took them in with open arms, and made them very welcome. I have tantalising hints of that visit (or visits?) from Myra’s letters to my dad. For example “Once, on my way back from Nova Scotia to Utica N.Y., I stayed at the historic Parker House, Boston…We had fun! We were young!”

After quite a while, they decided it was time to come back, and were in Chicago, ready to catch the train back to (I assume) the west coast, and find a ship to take them back. Unfortunately Elsie was run down by a taxi, and left in the street with a broken leg. Myra was so busy looking after her, trying to flag down help, that she was unable to stop someone stealing Elsie’s handbag, which soured both of them on Americans.

Elsie was quite badly hurt, badly enough that Hilda (who had married, and then divorced, after losing a baby and nearly dying from complications of the pregnancy, back in New Zealand) decided to come over the New Zealand and help out.  Given the only way of coming was shipping, it would have taken at best a month to get from Auckland to Chicago (probably via Fiji, Samoa and San Francisco), which hopefully meant that by the time they got there, Elsie was better and they could have fun again.

They were still on their way home, so after the three of them together and Elsie was well enough, they resumed travelling, going home the long way around, via Scotland. Myra and Elsie, at least, arrived in Southampton from Quebec in 1932. They then went up to Scotland and visited some more distant relatives and the places where their ancestors had come from 100 years before.

I suspect that this was how, 40 years later, there was a relative in Scotland for my parents to visit (in Plockton, near the ferry to Skye).

From talking to people who knew them, Aunty Myra was the family historian. She was on the 1953 Centennial committee and in about 1951 started the work of writing to all the descendants asking for their family trees and then collating them into the six ships.  This was ready for the ’53 celebrations and the original papers are held in the archive room at the museum.  Her niece remembers “all of those papers, permanently spread out on the table at the southern end of the veranda, all hand written on foolscap in those days and all the letters from people.  We were allowed to look but not touch or move anything.  Of course Aunty Myra never so much as boiled an egg if she didn’t have to but I used to go and stay with her in Auckland when she would apartment sit for various friends and she could cope with cooking so as not to starve”.

Whereas every cousin I’ve talked to remembers Hilda’s cooking – mostly the delicious cakes for visitors. Which is probably lucky given they all lived together in later life and Myra certainly wouldn’t cook much!

Elsie loved purple – for clothing and her table napkin. She had beautiful white hair. And compared with her (somewhat disapproving) sisters she was very left wing. And she was also fascinating by the family history, showing relatives around the local museum and completely ignoring all the ‘do not touch’ signs at the House of Memories as she picked up exhibits and told the stories about which relative or family friend had owned them.

Donald July 10 025When I first met the Aunts 50 years later, they lived in what was affectionately known (by us at least) as The Auntheap, not quite the original family house in Langs beach, pictured here around 1925.

P1050693 Myra, Hilda, Donna, Annie and Elsie

Myra, Hilda, Annie and Elsie in the mid 1960s, with their niece Donna on her wedding day.

For me and all of my cousins who visited they were a fixture. I only remember meeting the adventurers – Elsie (who died in 1976), Myra (1982)  and Hilda (1985). They were in their 80s by then, and I don’t remember much of them, since I spent my days at the beach if I had the choice, rather than visiting elderly relatives. There were always cakes and cats when we visited.

In many ways their lives were ordinary ones of the times. The women, particularly the unmarried women, often don’t get remembered properly. So I’ve written as much of their story as I know, in the hope that my cousins will remember more. And to remember them when as Myra said,

“We had fun! We were young!”

 

 

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Back ten years ago, I wrote a lot on this blog about books I had read about the history of settlement and the aboriginal experience of it in Australia. And last weekend brought me back to that reading.

I spent the weekend in Richmond, by the Hawkesbury River (the Deerubbin shores, in the local Darug language) learning songs responding to aboriginal culture, and learning songs written by local aboriginal women.

Richmond is a beautiful colonial town, one of the five “Macquarie towns” with many historic buildings dating back to the 1810s and 1820s.

It is also very close to the location of the Secret River, a fictionalised exploration of one man’s experience, with his family, of the gradual colonisation and disposession of Australia by the British settlers. Deerubbin is the Secret River of the book, and the aboriginal women I was learning from over the weekend were descended from the people whose land was taken to build the beautiful Georgian town we were singing in.

37286277830_c8f87bb88e_o.jpg

Barangaroo on Australia Day 2017

It was a strange feeling to wander around at lunchtime admiring the Georgian architecture, and come back to singing this song with its Darug words:

Gurugal wirri galgala guwi
(Long ago bad sickness come)
Biyal marri iyora booni
(No more big people)

words about the vanishing of a people to make way for that beautiful Georgian architecture.

Aunty Jacinta Tobin, author of the words of that Australia Day song, talked to us a lot about  her vision is for all of us here in Australia to share the aboriginal history. She wrote a song for Australia Day for whitefellas to sing to be inclusive. Her words, in the most beautiful part of the song make that real.

Ngulla-wal
(We care)
Ngubadi-la
(Let’s love)
Wugul marri
(One big)
Mudjin
(Family)

Part of sharing the aboriginal history is realising how anyone sharing in the riches of modern Australia is also sharing in the dispossession of its original people.

Family gathering

New Year's Day, Waipu, 1933

New Year’s Day, Waipu, 1933

This photo is one of my favourite photos from my family history collection. My great grandmother, the elderly lady standing third from the right, is gathered with all her descendants, by blood and marriage, on New Year’s Day 1933.

There are so many great things about the photo – seeing them all dressed in their Sunday best, at the depths of the depression in New Zealand, looking at my stylish great aunts, with their flapper fashion and hats, some of whom had just come back from a big adventure travelling the US and Canada, checking out the latest in pram technology, and seeing the children who became my aunts and uncles looking cute and adorable.

Sadly, the first death of a person in this photo was not my great grandmother, it was the child at the far left – my father’s cousin Donald, a RNZAF bomber pilot, who was killed in 1943 aged 22.

This week I went to the funeral of the last survivor, my Aunt Mary, who is second from right in the front row. It was a tribal gathering, much like the one in this photo.

My grandfather and grandmother are the two adults standing at the left of this photo. They had 19 grandchildren and 14 of us were at my Aunt Mary’s funeral. Knowing your family and how we are all connected is a big part of the family tradition.

Being the Australian connection of a clannish New Zealand family has meant that I’ve always felt a bit separate from the main family; not in a bad way; but you can’t be as much a part of a family when you see them once every year or two if you are lucky.

Mary on graduation day

Mary on graduation day

But coming back for what felt like the passing of an era made me remember how fortunate I am to be part of a family that really knows where it comes from. Watching the swirling conversations at the funeral, I know there are parts of the family that get on with each other better than others, it isn’t a romantic dream of perfect harmony. But everyone gets together to celebrate life and mourn its passing, and I am fortunate to be a part of that almost tribal experience.

My Aunt Mary has been part of the fabric of my life; even from afar she has watched me and my brothers grow up; congratulated us at appropriate milestones, done the same for my children and she has been a source of family history when I ask my father about some particularly interesting piece of ancient gossip (particularly about his own childhood). Even though it is six years since I last saw her in person she has felt part of the world I live in my whole life.

There is one almost survivor from this photo – my dad (still known as Donald Beag in some circles, little Donald,  in contrast with his big cousin Donald) is hidden in utero in this picture. We were treating him a bit like porcelain this week.

 

Oral History

Tui (Hugh Gordon) Haswell in 1915

Tui (Hugh Gordon) Haswell in 1915

Over dinner last night, as the conversation turned to Israel, my dad started reminiscing about his father‘s first cousin – Hugh (Tui) Haswell, who was killed in 1917, in an Arab village in (then) Palestine called Ayun Kara. That village is now Rishon leZion, part of greater Tel Aviv.

Tui used to love to imitate his father, Henry Haswell, when he was in full flight complaining about his dinner table. To tell the story, my dad started putting on the accent of Henry Haswell and quoting him – who apparently had the scottish accent common to the people in their part of New Zealand at the time (Henry’s parents were part of the great Nova Scotian migration to northern New Zealand in the 1850s).

So my father was imitating the voice of a man who died more than a hundred years ago, which had been passed on to him by his father, via Tui. It is quite amazing to see oral history in action like that.

Dad finished up by saying that Tui had been such a part of family folklore around the family dinner table that he was astonished to find out in the 1950s that Tui was dead.

According to Mexican legend, there are three types of death: The first occurs when all bodily functions cease and the soul leaves the body; the second occurs when the body is interred, returning one’s physical shell to the earth; and the final, most definitive death, occurs when no one remembers you.

Tui must have been a remarkable man, to have lived so strongly in the collective memory.

I did the Sydney half marathon today (made it to the end!) and because of the design of the course, the most thrilling moment was the point when the front runners ran back towards us back-of-the-pack-ers. The top runners, of course, got a cheer from the field. But the cheers for the top women were, if anything, louder, as they ran past us amongst the men (Nikki Chapple, the top woman was ranked 16th overall, with the next two ranked 32nd and 38th). Australian female marathon runners have (like many of our sportswomen), on average done better internationally than our men, and it’s great to see them getting their deserved cheers.

Shoe frontier2.001

In financial economics, there is a concept called the efficient frontier of investing. You can combine a portfolio of shares and other investments in many ways. In theory, there is one line which consists of the intersection of the best return for each level of risk (or alternatively, the lowest risk for each level of return),

While I was futilely trying to convince myself that the shoes I was trying on would become more comfortable with a bit more wear, in my annual shoe buying expedition, I realised that it’s quite a useful concept for shoes, as well.

In buying shoes, there is generally an optimal level of comfort for a given level of dagginess. So in buying shoes, I try to optimise comfort at the least stylish point on the curve I think I can get away with for a given occasion. Others will choose comfort, and optimise fashion, but either way we will end up in the same place.

In putting together the efficient frontier graph, I realised something else. Changing gender from female to male moves the line upwards AND makes it much flatter. The only place the two lines intersect is at runners, and the dagginess factor at that point is MUCH higher for me than women.

Cross posted at actuarialeye.

Diversity – not just for Halloween

When I was in Norway last year, I took the opportunity to research the experience there of women on Boards – had the sky fallen in after all companies had to appoint at least 40% female Boards? (the quick answer is that nearly everyone in Norway thinks it was a non-event). There has been a flurry of research and articles recently, as other European countries consider following in Norway’s footsteps (so far Australia’s response has been restricted to requiring better reporting).

The most reported research has been this study (pdf) by Cranfield University on Gender Diversity on Boards: the Appointment Process and the role of Executive Search firms. The study was in two parts; a general review of the process of Board appointments, and then a specific set of interviews with headhunters to understand the appointment process from the key intermediaries in the process.

One of the first observations was that change in the pool of Directors appointed will come from changing the criteria – the brief given to the Executive Search firms. If you focus on experience, rather than skill set, you are going to appoint the same set of people who are already on boards:

So our next step is to say, what you’ve got to look at it’s not experience,  i.e. I want somebody who’s either been on the Board, or been on the executive committee of a large company, is I need someone who can make a contribution around the Board table. Using our competencies, it is about strategic input, about focus on results, around influencing style and skill, and integrity and independence. Those are sort of the four major areas we look at. And what we say is you can get those skills from people who haven’t been on the Board yet.

But there is also quite a lot in the study about the later parts of the process, including the interview process:

As you know, many interviews are ‘Oh, you worked at JP Morgan, do you know X? Oh, a lovely chap, he knows all these people I know’. So… but is he any good at the job? ‘Oh, we never got there. We never actually got to the meat of it’. […] Now, what you want people to do, when they go through a series of interviews, is to be asked the same questions, or at least cover the same issues. And that’s one of the weaknesses of a lot of interview processes, is that many people don’t know how to interview, and don’t know what to interview for. So our interviews are structured interviews based on behaviours, based on competencies. But if Board members don’t know how to do that, then they may come up with the wrong answer. So, actually, a lot of it is about training directors to look for the right things.

And right at the end of the process, when a fabulous woman has been found, the executive search firm also has to gee up the Chairman to appoint a woman:

The critical moment is often towards the end where there are two candidates, and the female candidate is maybe the less experienced one.  And it’s preventing the Chairman from losing his nerve when somebody else around the boardroom table may say, well I like them both, and Jim looks like a terrific chap, but look at his record, but she’s never sat on a FTSE Board before, she’s been on the Board of her own business. So there’s a danger of constant voices of conservatism, and actually part of the value that we add is just helping the Chairman say ‘No, remember what we’re after.’

This opinion piece from Allison Pearson in the Financial Times breaks down the research for those who don’t feel like reading an 80 page report:

A report this week by Cranfield School of Management bears out my theory. It says the appointment of women to FTSE 350-listed non-executive director roles is being held back by selection processes which “ultimately favour candidates with similar characteristics to existing board members”. Or penises, as they are more widely known. Chaps are more comfortable with other chaps. Only when a woman has been foisted on them and does a terrific job without crying or talking about Tampax do they start to see that we can be quite useful.

McKinsey has done the most definitive research on why this matters – performance of companies generally improves with greater gender diversity at senior levels. But the final word should go to this post from a Silicon Valley venture capitalist :

This is why I personally care about diversity: it’s the canary in the coal mine for meritocracy. When we see extremely skewed demographics, we have very good reason to suspect that something is wrong with our selection process, that it’s not actually as meritocratic as it could be. And I believe that is exactly what is happening in Silicon Valley.

There’s plenty of good research on the subject of team performance that shows that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams on many different kinds of tasks. The problem is that this research doesn’t argue for demographic diversity, but rather for a diversity of perspectives. So, again, racial or gender diversity is not an end in itself. But we have to ask ourselves: if teams are consistently being put together with homogeneous demographics, what are the odds that they also will contain a diversity of perspectives? Shouldn’t we be worried that the same selection process that produces homogenous results in one area might be accidentally doing the same in the area that we care about (but that is harder to measure)?

Cross posted at Actuarial eye