Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

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.



Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Sheryl Sandberg tells Barack Obama how to create jobs (source Reuters)

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, always leaves the office at 5.30 so that she can have dinner with her kids at 6 (via Laura at 11d). I’m pretty sure that her commute is not like the average commute of the working mother of young children (bluemilk nails it as usual), and she probably has someone at home preparing the dinner, too, so she doesn’t have to spend the first half hour with tired, hungry, fractious kids while she scrambles some food together for everyone. She almost certainly spends lots of time later in the evening working in some way, and when she is in Washington talking to the President, she might have to be a virtual presence at dinner.

But that doesn’t invalidate the value of someone that senior speaking out about the value of family time. Too often the speech is from a man like Michael Hawker talking about how he spends 80 hours a week at work because he loves what he does. And so the model of a senior person is of someone who necessarily spends all their life at work. It becomes the only model of success.

I have found that when I am open about the fact that I leave the office early (I say 5, but it is more often 5.30 when I actually get out the door), a surprising number of senior people will admit to doing the same. But nearly all of those early leavers sneak out. They tend not to admit to wanting to have dinner with their kids, or any other reason for spending time with people not from work, in case some unspecified person thinks they aren’t serious enough.

We need to have more senior people, male and female, talking openly about the ways in which they carve out time in their lives for their families. And, of course, we need more senior people actually doing it.

Cross posted at actuarialeye

Read Full Post »

Statue of Jeanne Mance in front of the Hotel Dieu in Montreal

Jeanne Mance was one of the founders of Montreal. A devout Christian, she moved from looking after the sick in France to founding a hospital in Montreal, as well as raising money from the cream of French society to continue the project of healing the sick and developing the tiny French outpost of Ville Marie into the town (and later the city) of Montreal.

Jeanne Mance was born in 1606 in rural France, the second of 12 children of a haut bourgeois family. After seeing her brothers and sisters into adulthood, she moved smoothly into religious service, nursing the victims of the 30 years war and the plague that killed nearly half the people of her town. Through a cousin, she learned of the New France settlement in what is now Canada, and was inspired. After spending some time in Paris trying to work out a way into the religious groups who were moving to New France, she met Angélique de Bullion, a rich woman who wanted to provide money found a hospital in New France, if Jeanne would found it for her.

So Mance, with her 40,000 livres, joined the founders of Ville Marie (now Montreal) and sailed to Quebec in 1641. They arrived too late in the year to start the settlement, so after wintering in Quebec, they sailed down to Montreal island the following spring. Mance had wanted to go and work directly with the Huron, the local tribe, to convert them to Christianity and heal the sick, but because of her promise to Angélique de Bullion, she stayed in Ville Marie and built a hospital.

This was at the beginning of the Iroquois wars – the Iroquois were an Indian nation east and south of Montreal, who were allied with the British. The Huron, who were north and west of Montreal, were allied with the French. So the new settlers of Ville Marie (which was the border at this stage) were frequent victims of Iriquois attacks, meaning that Mance had plenty to do in her new hospital.

Once she had set things going, she returned to France to look after the funding and political side of things. She did this three times altogether, each time bringing back more money from the various sponsors, and also (on her second trip) bringing back more staff with her. She lent the money to the Ville Marie township at least once, as they needed it to keep the township going, and also dealt with many other issues as part of her role as leader of her hospital.

The weather of Montreal was (and is) harsh – much harsher for a population that were living in log cabins. The Iroquois were always close, and frequently attacked, leading to danger for the hospital, as well as complex injuries to deal with. Her second trip to France was partly a personal one – Mance had broken her arm badly and was unable to use it – she was hoping (unsuccessfully) for some better medical care there. And one of the biggest challenges she had to face was a society that wasn’t especially used to women in leadership roles, even religious ones.

Nevertheless, by the time she died, Mance had seen her hospital, and her town, well established. Today she is well remembered for her impact on the city – the Montreal musuem of archeology and history describes her as Montreal’s cofounder.

Read Full Post »

Captain W R Lang, 1917

On Anzac Day, it seems a good time to remember one of the soldiers in my family. I recently visited Flanders Fields, in Belgium, and found out a lot more about my grandfather’s time there. He was lucky – he came back, and had five children and lived a long life after the war, even though he was wounded.

When I was growing up in Australia, most of my peers had some relative or other who served in WWI. Not so true these days, as more of our immigration comes from countries that weren’t big participants. Or else, like Mr Penguin’s forebears, from countries that were on the other side from Australia. Nevertheless, it was such a carnage, and so many people died, that it is worth remembering, and commemorating, as a reason why war should always be thought of as a last resort in conflict resolution.

My grandfather was born in 1890, and left school at 12, when his father died, to run the family farm. When war broke out, in 1914, he was already a member of a volunteer unit of the NZ army. Lots of people made the transition to expeditionary soldier swiftly. Grandpa ran into resistance when he tried to organise the farm for his absence. Several relatives tried to talk him out of it.

It took a year (and reportedly the receipt of at least one anonymous white feather in the mail) before he was set to sail in December 1915. In that interim he had gone from being a senior non-commissioned officer to being a second, one ‘pip’,  lieutenant. A hiccup of some sort kept the convoy in port until 1 January 16.  They sailed to Egypt and stuck around there for a while and then were sent on to France. My dad never discussed Grandpa’s actual movements with him. He did once remark that his first crowd of warriors did things with trench mortars and he thought they were all crazy. They tended to investigate unexploded weaponry.

In the summer of 1916 Grandpa spent time at the Somme (a byword for waste of life on both sides). During that time that he went up a grade to first lieutenant entitled to wear two pips. Most of his fighting was in Belgium, in Flanders.

He spent most of 1916 in Belgium, which was the “quiet time” on that part of the Western Front. When we visited, our guide pointed out to us that “quiet time” just meant that fewer people were dying every week, instead of the carnage of the big battles (5,000 in one night), there were a few hundred a week.

In 1917, the Allies decided to try and push to the coast of Belgium. The first step was at Messines, in June, when after a year of tunnelling, the Allies exploded around 20 bombs directly under the German front line and killed 10,000 Germans in one go, and managed to get a few kilometres forward that day.  The second step, though, is known as Passchandaele, and is almost as notorious as the Somme for the waste of human life. The whole campaign was to try and dislodge the Germans from their entrenched positions on the Passchandaele ridge. Not much of a ridge today, but in a flat country like Belgium, enough to make an enormous strategic difference.

The Allies spent three months fighting uphill through thick mud, with many soldiers dying from falling off their duckboards and drowning before they could get up again. The main battle for the New Zealand troops was Broodseinde, in which Grandpa won a Military Cross.

New Zealand War Memorial to the many whose bodies were never found

In the military history for the New Zealanders, there is a map. Two lines of dashes curve down the map. On the left the label “German Front Line (3rd. Oct., 1917)”. Now move to the right something like two kilometres, but not uniformly. The second label says, “New Zealand Line (4th. Oct, 1917)”. A lot of blood flowed between those times and places.

There are spots on the map with names. Two that matter are Winzig and Aviatik Farm, between two and three hundred metres behind the marked German front line.. All the place names hint at history – usually recent and transported history. Winnipeg, Gallipoli, Abraham Heights, Berlin, Berlin Wood, Albatross Farm, Calgarry Grange, Waterloo, Kansas House, Kansas Cross and Peter Pan are on this map.   The two New Zealand companies were the   3rd Auckland Company, commanded by Captain Coates (later Prime Minister of New Zealand),  and 15th North Auckland, including Grandpa. In the lead up (3/10/17) the battalion “were lying very close to the enemy strong points at Winzig and Aviatik Farm, from whence came a considerable volume of machine gun fire,….” They were said to be in “Cluster Houses”, about 200 metres into the “friendly” area.

It was later established that the other side was planning an attack on the morning of the 4th. There were two waves of the Auckland Regiment each of about 170 men set to attack about 400 Germans. The British artillery opened up at 6.00AM, about ten minutes before the German zero hour, and about a quarter hour before dawn.There was a quagmire approximately at that ‘German Front Line’ There were narrow and winding tracks which the Germans appeared to have accurately targetted. Those 170 men were somehow spread over about 500 metres and also combined with another company, between the two marked strong points.- and concentrated toward Winzig. Both companies combined to take Winzig.

In the action once joined the narrative condenses. In five sentences on four lines the attack lost three officers. Two lines further down “Lieutenant Lang and his platoon were within bombing range.” …Four strenuous lines later … “…Winzig fell. The advance was at once continued under the direction of Captain Coates.” There were further objectives, and flanks to protect. I gather they eventually dug in “on the further side of our own barrage”.

Military Cross

My Grandpa won a Military Cross that day. His citation said

Awarded military cross for acts of gallantry in the field (NZEFOs 419)

(HQrs Lon 31.10.17)

Awarded MC for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He took command of his Coy in an attack, when he was the only surviving officer, and captured his objectives with great skill & courage. He showed a quick grasp of the situation & complete disregard of danger. {NZEFOs 554 Hqrs Lon 15-4-18)

The description in the military history makes it sound organised, and planned, but with terrible loss of life. But it was mostly a disorganised, muddy, mess. By October that year, it had been raining constantly. Flanders is wet at the best of times, but early in the War, the Belgians had destroyed most of the drainage systems in a futile attempt to hurt the Germans. In the end, both sides spent months at a time in the mud, with a shell a minute being fired in their general direction, and the constant reminder of the mortality around them as it was next to impossible to retrieve the dead bodies from no mans land.

The ground won by the New Zealanders, which was a small part of the Passchandaele campaign, was ultimately ceded back to the Germans in early 1918, after the Allies realised they couldn’t hold it. But that small patch of a few kilometres of ground had taken around 500,000 casualties on both sides the year before. World War I is probably the worst waste of human life for a war that my relatives have been involved in. But wars continue around the globe, with commanders of all nationalities using the lives of their people (military and civilian) as ingredients to gain objectives that seem worthwhile to them.

Read Full Post »

Banning Christmas

Helen at Cast Iron Balcony has a post up noting the seasonal reappearance of the usual story of politicians taking back Christmas from the perils of political correctness. Sadly, our school was part of this annual beat up this year.

Chatterboy’s teacher was in charge of the Year 5 end of year concert this year. She got the Year fives together and asked them to choose a song. “Something that makes everyone happy”, she said. “Something inclusive.”

One child enquired, “does that mean it shouldn’t mention God?” Our teacher agreed/suggested that may not be inclusive for everyone. So after a bit more back and forth, the class chose Mamma Mia, which has the advantage of being well known to practically everyone already, after they all watched the movie last year.

One child (probably one who talks a lot more about school than our two do) went home and described this scene to his/her parents. Said parents, without any further checking, or even communication with the school, immediately called the local paper, which put together a front page story entitled School bans Christmas, despite much of it’s story being denied by the school.

Once it was on the front page of the paper Channel 9 sent a camera crew around. They didn’t have to bother checking any facts, since they could just report the local paper story. Alan Jones picked it up, with the result that the school administration started getting hateful anonymous calls accusing them of being “Moslem-lovers”.

Chatterboy’s teacher, one of the best in the school, took a day off during the worst of the press. She’s a self confident, strong person, so it probably won’t put her off teaching, as an experience, but being the centre of a media storm like that can’t be pleasant.

I find myself, when recounting this story, pointing out the demographics of the school. Just like pretty much anywhere in Sydney these days, we have families from around the world. Our biggest two first generation ethnic groups are Japanese and French, but both boys have had no shortage of interesting parents coming in to talk on Harmony Day about their cultural and religious backgrounds.

But you shouldn’t have to have a multitude of religions in the student body to make a secular end of year concert permissible. This is the state school system. We do, theoretically, have a separation of church and state. What on earth is wrong with a bit of secular good cheer just in time for the long summer holidays?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »