This blog post is entirely a work of fiction; inspired by one of my own family history stories but created using my imagination.
The story I was told as a little girl was that I was born in the darkness of night amidst a great and powerful storm. Rain fell down in sheets, thunder growled and grumbled and lightning struck so often that there was almost no need for a lamp in my parents’ small hut. My mother screamed with the weather and I resisted and then slid forth into the world, screaming along with her.
The fact that I was born at such an auspicious moment (as I was told repetitively by my Aunt Mary) meant that I would do great things in the world. I would be strong and powerful, just like the storm. I believed her words, and the knowledge of my destiny (foretold by the weather) filled me with courage and hope. I would not be like other people, I would be different.
I was often filled with many questions about my life and, as a young girl, I asked them freely without restraint. I was told a few things, enough to keep my curious mind satisfied, but was reminded that children should be seen and not heard. I grew into a young woman and learnt not to ask the questions that plagued my mind. I accepted my lot in life, practiced kindness and regularly daydreamed of what my destiny would be. I was well-loved by all my Aunts and Uncles and was treated as though I was one of their own children. I rarely, if ever, saw my father.
It was all a lie.
I discovered the letter quite by accident. Aunt Mary had left for town. Uncle Joe and his sons (my cousins) were out working on the farm and I was the only one left behind in the house. They had no daughters and I suppose I took the place of the daughter they never had. I regularly cooked and helped with the chores and, on this particular day, I thought I would do some cleaning. I began in the kitchen and wiped down the bench and put various objects away. I reached up to put the tin of flour back in its spot on the shelf but found it wouldn’t quite fit snugly in line with the other tins. Standing on the tips of my toes, I pushed harder. It was no good. There was something behind it which was in the way.
I put the flour back on the bench and looked up. A brick was sticking out a little. I suppose I should have left it for one of my cousins to fix but, as they were likely in one of the far off paddocks, I decided to investigate it myself.
I pulled one of the kitchen chairs closer to the bench and stood on it for a closer view. Unlike the other bricks in the wall, this one appeared to be cracked all the way around. I leaned in closer and took hold of the left side which was jutting out. Expecting resistance, I pulled with force but found that it slipped out so quickly and easily that I nearly dropped it on the floor. I carefully placed the brick on the bench next to the flour and turned my attention back to the hole in the wall. There was something in it.
With my left hand placed on the wall for balance, I leaned forward and placed my hand inside the hole. I pulled out an envelope addressed to Aunt Mary. I turned it over and gasped in shock. The sender was my mother.
It had already been opened and I stood on the chair looking at the handwriting as I debated whether or not I should read the letter. I turned it over again and stared at my Aunt’s name and address written on the front by, of all people, my mother. The mother who had died when I was young. The mother my Aunt cared not to talk about. The mother I knew almost nothing about.
I had to read it. I knew that to do so would be a great violation but the uneasiness I felt about trespassing on my Aunt’s privacy was heavily outweighed by the great, natural curiosity that had existed within me almost since birth. I had longed to know something of my mother and here something was, and in her own hand no less.
I stepped carefully down from my lofty position and, leaving the chair where it was, sat on it. Without hesitation, I turned the envelope over, glanced briefly at my mother’s name scrawled on the back, reached inside and pulled out the contents.
It was a single sheet of folded paper, slightly damaged with age and covered with the same scrawling handwriting. Thinking back to that moment, it is hard to describe the myriad of emotions that coursed within me as I grasped such an item. I was excited, nervous and guilt-ridden. My outward appearance was calm but there was a raging torrent within me and my heart beat fast at the prospect of reading her words. I opened it and forced myself to focus.
13 Jany 1894
My dearest Mary,
I send these short lines as I have such wonderful news to tell you. As you thought when I saw you at Christmas last I was not long at home before I began to feel great pains. The child was earlier than expected but was on its way. I had a difficult time but Anna was a great help and comfort. After many hours she came into the world in the morning of the 9th Jany, just as the sun shone its lite through the window.
I stopped in confusion at this point and continued to stare intermittently at the words sun and light. I looked back at the date: 9th January 1894. The day of my birth. She was referring to my birth. So why was I told that I was born at night during a storm? I read on.
I have named her Catherine for me and Maria after mother. Thomas is well pleased and sends his love. I have not been feeling well since but am hoping it will pass soon. The baby cries a lot which is not helping.
Please give my love to Joe and my nephews.
Your loving sister,
Having read the letter the turmoil within me began to ease. My excitement gave way to confusion. I read it again and then reread it to make sure that nothing was missed in my eagerness. As I was doing so, a shout and a whistle somewhere outside caused me to jump and I quickly refolded the paper and guiltily shoved it back into the envelope. Once again I climbed the chair and returned the letter to its hiding place; sealing it in with the brick. It still would not sit smoothly and I then realised that it was meant to be like that; a small hole in the wall for my Aunt to keep her secrets. And my secrets, it would seem.
I returned the flour tin and chair back to where they belonged and feigned an air of innocence as my Uncle and cousins loudly boomed and stomped their way through the house seeking cups of tea. Luckily for me they were not the noticing kind and I went about preparing the tea and cutting cake before claiming I was feeling unwell. I then went to my room, closed the door and lay down on my bed. For some time I stared up at the cracks on the ceiling and tried to get my head around the letter. The questions that had existed as a gentle hum within my mind were buzzing furiously. My family had lied to me. In the past the question I had asked most of my Aunts and Uncles was who; who was my mother? After reading the letter two new words rose to the top of the list: why and what. Why was I lied to? And what were they hiding from me?
Image courtesy of The British Library; “Thro’ the Battle Smoke”; “British Library HMNTS 12602.g.8.”; Page 84; https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11306039564/