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.
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.