Emotional Research

All sorts of thoughts assail me when I’m reading something for research for this book.

5128927970_d03c222c19_bIt’s overwhelming to think of my ancestors working with their hands blistered and muscles aching just to help their children grew up healthy, or at all. I’ve read  so much about the sheer amount of work it was to keep a household clean, tidy and equipped with everything needed for its inhabitants’ daily lives; to keep the family fed when all your food was seasonal and grown on your own land and there was no refrigeration; to bear, birth, and care for 10 to 15 children, and bury a quarter to a third of them before they turned five.

Catching a sniffle could quickly lead to death, whole families could be wiped out by measles or scarlet fever or smallpox, anyone could come down with a chest infection that would either right itself in a fortnight or become pneumonia or tuberculosis and turn them into either a life-long invalid or a corpse.

I think of trying to look after children ranging from babies to teenagers while baking bread, boiling bones for soup, washing bedding by hand, making soap out of beef fat, scrubbing floors with a brush and sand from a jar, plucking poultry, spinning thread to weave into cloth to sew into clothes and tablecloths and blankets, knitting socks and hats and mittens, planting and weeding, preserving and drying herbs and vegetables.

I wonder about the things not in the books. The shifting internal dynamics of marriages. The emotional and financial politics of such large extended families. The greater dreams they might have entertained – the creative or professional aspirations without which we are now considered unwhole.

And what it was like for the women, never to be asked for their opinions, and if they gave them anyway to be at best ignored and at worst hit or belittled? I don’t wonder why they didn’t run away and make their own lives on their own terms, why they didn’t insist on being taken seriously. It’s hard enough for me when people discount me or simply don’t see or hear me because I’m a woman. And I’m allowed to read, get as many degrees as I like, say what I think, choose when or if to have children, vote, own my own property, live alone, read whatever I like, dress however I like, work, and socialise with whoever I like.

No, I don’t wonder why they didn’t do anything about it. They were too exhausted from keeping their children alive and not cracking under the relentless strain of being treated like a lesser being.

Did any secret hopes and urges flicker in moments of reflection? Might any of the wonderful storytellers in my lineage have become writers if any of them had had time to spend sitting in front of blank paper and enough encouragement that they were worthy of trying?

I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to make the most of all the effort that has gone before to give me the advantages I have. Alphonsine and her daughter Florence worked hard to bring up Florence’s daughter Madeleine to be a smart, tough, self-respecting woman. Grandma Madeleine moved from Québec to Singapore in the 1950s to marry Cyril Jansen and give birth to my dad and they raised him with an insatiable thirst to find out how things work and to see what happens when.

Then there’s my Granny Beryl who left school in Murwillumbah, NSW when she was fifteen, and went to work in the library where she read every single book so that her daughter Rosemary, my mother,  grew up with a profound respect for knowledge and education, which she then passed onto her students and all of us, her children and her nieces and nephews who were the first in our families to seek knowledge in universities and colleges.

And frankly, we all kick butt. It’s the least we can do.

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