Family history is a never-ending past time. Unless we are fortunate to have someone write a book about our families, or to have done all the research, we find ourselves on an infinitive road of discovery. Even if the research has been done, usually that only entails names, dates and places. I am fortunate to have all the names, dates and places completed on much of my family trees, however, although those details are important, I crave the stories that paint the pictures of those lives; that form the great characters who reside on our trees. The best way to collect those stories is by talking to family.
In the case of my Great Grandparents, William and Cis Lyons, I began with my Father. I grew up hearing my Father talk about his Grandmother, giving me the impression that she was first and foremost a disciplinarian. He’d say, “Oh, Harriet was as typical school teacher,” and go on to tell us, “If I didn’t eat all the food on my plate, she would put it in the ice chest and serve it up again at the next mealtime.” The stories never varied too much from that line of thought.
Then when I began enquiring about my Great Grandfather, Dad had very few stories to tell. He shared how his Grandfather had a hunger for knowledge; how he kept a notebook by his bed, in which he wrote questions. He’d then send Dad and his cousin John off on their bicycles around Townsville in search for the answers. The questions were quite obscure. For example, “what is the technical name for a five-finger fruit?” or “What was the substance used in the foot warmers on trains?” Often they rode to the local newspaper company to seek out the answers, but returned mostly empty-handed.
Then, after I discovered the extent of his war service, I began to ask further questions. The answers were interesting and varied, painting a picture of a character who appeared to have become the subject of family ridicule. Although, many of the stories were meant in jest, they all implied that he was moulded by his wartime experiences. Like many of his counterparts, he was a damaged soul. The more that I delved into his past, the more my Father became interested in his Grandfather. He said, “I now wish that I took more interest in him.” He suggested that I should talk to his older cousins who spent much of their childhoods and early adulthoods at their Grandparents’ house.
I have since spoken to several of Dad’s cousins and learned so much about their Grandparents’ lives. Each and every one of them began the conversations with “I don’t think I can tell you much,” thinking I wanted specific details of their Grandfather’s wartime experiences.” Once old memories began to surface, however, a stream of details began to emerge.
I discovered Grandma’s favourite jam, her attitude towards Christmas and Birthdays. I learnt how proud she was when she taught herself to knit at the age of thirty. One cousin told me how my Great Grandfather loved to dance and once gave his father a dance record. Another shared how she and her sisters spent school holidays at the Lyons farm and their Uncle Will taught them to ride a bike. I also discovered where Grandfather Lyons kept his wartime army trunk that housed his uniform, where he hung his wartime leather gloves and where he hid his pistol underneath the house at Redpath Street, North Ward. Interestingly, only two weeks after I had that conversation with Dad’s cousin John, I actually discovered the trunk behind the old cupboard doors.
So, conversations with living relatives can provide you with some wonderful information. As I said, all those with whom I spoke, had little faith in what they could tell me, however, by simply prompting long forgotten memories with a series of simple questions, they revealed so much. And despite my initial reservations about phoning people whom I had never spoken to before, they were all happy to talk to me.
My advice to all of you who are interested in more than just the names, dates and places on the family tree, make a call. Write out a list of questions beforehand, things you are curious about. It would also be helpful if you could record the conversations. In my case, I took them down word for word in shorthand. In the past, I have also written up a list of questions and posted it to a relative, who gladly obliged by writing out her answers and returned them by post. My final word is to make a call, before the stories are gone forever.