I welcome you once again, to my world behind the desk, staring into the faces of ghosts from the past and unravelling the mysteries of their lives.
I derive so much joy from piecing together the history of how my ancestors lived. As I brush off the years of dust from old photos and letters; and devour every black and white morsel of newspaper articles on sites such as Trove, I embrace the world beyond the grave, of times that faded into oblivion long ago, like “the end” of an old black and white movie.
The characters of my stories were not actors, they were real people who lived in the high branches of my family tree. Some whom I was never acquainted with in person; I have since met beyond the grave. As for others, I find myself meeting their childhood personas as I only knew them in old age. Their lives consist of endless stories that went with them to their graves. They have left me with a great number of mysteries to untangle and sort along the entwined branches of the tree. But I have to say, it is those mysteries that fuel my ongoing search. Eking out a picture from the fragments of their lives is like watching a photo appear on a blank sheet of photographic paper in a darkroom tray.
The phrase “a photograph speaks a thousand words,” perhaps was coined in our modern society. We live in a world where photos are taken every second and minute of the day. Mobile Phones, tablets and digital cameras world over are constantly snapping up moments of our everyday lives, from the very mundane such as the food on our plate, to important events such as weddings. In fact the art of “selfies” is a disease that has become prevalent in our modern world, leaving no mysteries concerning our day to day lives.
All of these modern inventions and crazes will assist any future family historians or archaeologists in their task of sifting through past lives of the 21st Century, however in many ways their jobs are already done. One might say that the task of piecing together the fragmented pieces of lives past, is made easier by the mountains of documented evidence we will leave behind, providing of course it survives the ever evolving modes of technology. However, isn’t modern technology erasing the element of mystery from the task? That joy of discovery. The element of surprise.
With this epidemic of recording every minute of our everyday lives, little is left for us to imagine. Occasions such as weddings are documented in hundreds of images which don’t leave many questions unanswered about the details of the event. When I look into my Great Grandmother’s staring eyes in her wedding photo, I could be forgiven for thinking she was unhappy. When, in fact, the subjects of portrait photography back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were instructed to not smile, not move a muscle in their face due to the long exposures of early cameras.
Those early photos gave no details of the event as photos were generally taken in studios under controlled conditions. Very few photos were taken outside a church or inside for that matter. When we stumble upon photos of our ancestors, we are left with thousands of questions, rather than words. We may know the answers, but they can be spoken in a single sentence, giving little more than the date and place. We are left to imagine how the day panned out.
So, getting back to the wedding photo of William and Harriet Lyons, the only details of the actual day is the clothes they wore and the painted backdrop of a studio and its props. I have no idea what the weather in Brisbane was like that day, despite asking google who had no knowledge of the day except that it was a Wednesday. People back then did not own digital cameras or phones to record the day and post the results on facebook for the world to see for virtual eternity. In fact, the average citizen would not have possessed a camera at all. Therefore, I know that the likelihood of finding a packet of snaps portraying their wedding is highly unlikely. I will just have to work with what I have. One single photograph.
Once again, the details that can not be seen in a photo, may be found elsewhere. In my research, I discovered they were married in St Stephen’s Catholic Cathedral in Brisbane. However, there are two churches on that site. The original cathedral, first officiated in 1850, is a modest affair and now used as a chapel. The current Cathedral was not complete in time for William and Harriet’s wedding. I really did not want to lead my family down the wrong church aisle, letting them think that the wedding was grander than perhaps it really was.
This niggling thought led me to contact the Diocese of St Stephens and I am pleased to say that in all probability my Great Grandparents wedding was officiated in the newer grander building. The first mass in the new cathedral was held there in 1874 and the original building thereon became a school room.
Admittedly, if I had found my Great Grandparents wedding photo and the details were all handwritten across the back, giving the date and place, I would have been saved hours of research and deliberations. And if the photograph was taken in front of the Cathedral instead of before a scenic studio backdrop, I would certainly have been happy with my find. However, there is something magical about having to exercise one’s imagination to picture the world in which they lived. The joy in solving the mysteries of past lives is what fuels myself and fellow family historians to climb from branch to branch in the far reaching realms of our family trees.
If the details of our ancestors’ lives were handed to us on a plate, perhaps we would not possess the same sense of curiosity. We would not know the joy that is derived by reconstructing past lives piece by piece from the fragments retrieved in musty old boxes on shelves behind old cupboard doors.