Revealing Lives—Hiram and Me

My grandfather returned from the First World War in 1919. He worked ferociously for 18 years to build a family, a career, a community, a nation. And then he died.

I never knew him.

Getting to know you

I’m reaching an age where family history beckons me. I have time to ask questions now. Who were the people who came before me, what shaped their lives, how have their lives shaped mine? Today, it’s easy to answer basic questions about living people. Our lives are documented and captured ad nauseum, often unwittingly and unknowingly. My brother-in-law, for example, doesn’t own any electronic devices and he’s never used a computer. He might be surprised at the extent of his online presence—news articles, photographs, community records—none of it intentionally generated by him. Even without Twitter or Instagram or Facebook accounts, he’s easy to ‘find’.

Compare that with my grandfather’s life a century ago. No internet, no mobile phones, even cameras are a novelty. How do I come to know this man? His name is Hiram.

The curated life

I have an assortment of physical items that once belonged to my grandfather. Among them, a certificate verifying his membership of the Juvenile Order of Rechabites and a card outlining the rules for his local Harriers club. There’s the receipt from the hotel where he and my grandmother spent their first night as a married couple, and a business card for the real estate agency he set up with his brother-in-law. There are pictures of the town carnival he helped establish and his handwritten notes for speeches delivered at political rallies. Most numerous of all is the memorabilia from his war service: colour patches, medallions, poems, photographs, postcards, international currency, leave passes.

What strikes me is how intentional this collection is. It has already been carefully curated (and censored?) to provide a version of his life; each item deliberately retained by my grandfather, then by his wife and, later, by their daughter—my mother. It’s private and personal.

The subject in the frame—changing perspectives

Through the objects in the curated collection, I can discover what my grandfather considered important. I can see how he chose to be seen—a teetotaller, an amateur athlete, a husband, a businessman, a community leader, a political activist, a serviceman. But there are other sources of information, too. Does the material they hold align with the image he preserved?

There is the public record—family notices in newspapers, published obituaries, cemetery listings and the like, and there are official sources—certificates from Births, Deaths and Marriages; military service records; repatriation files.

In both the public and official sources, Hiram loses agency. Another person or organisation takes charge of his life narrative, and their intentions differ from his. It’s like changing the lens in a camera—the subject in the frame remains the same, but the perspective shifts.

Let me give you an example. There is a whispered story in my family, gleaned from relatives long dead. The story goes that my grandfather died from the effects of mustard gas poisoning, sustained during the war. My understanding is that the longer-term health effects of mustard gas inhalation are respiratory disease and, potentially, lung cancer. Hiram’s death certificate—an official source—records his cause of death as kidney cirrhosis, hyperpiesia (persistent high blood pressure) and heart failure. His lungs were fine. So what is the story behind the bare facts? Is the family’s mustard gas tale a furphy and, if it is, why was it told?

 Change the lens again and yet another perspective is revealed.

Hiram’s Repatriation Commission files detail his medical condition over a period of 20 years. His reported symptoms include headaches, insomnia, ‘nerve trouble’ and a ‘feeling of depression’. The symptoms are attributed to the ‘strain of active service’. (His treatment comprised tonics, sedatives and liniments.) Am I now looking at a man diminished by shell shock, or what, today, I would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? No hint of this possibility exists in the brief obituary published in the Melbourne Age. Lauded in this source for his community engagement, Hiram is quintessentially a ‘well known member of the 59th Battalion’.

The privately collated collection, the whispered family folklore, the public record, and the official sources offer variant versions of one life.

The revelations of time travel

Cover image courtesy of Black Inc.

In his book The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft, Tom Griffiths writes: ‘History … is a powerful disciplinary tool in the search for truth. But its greatest virtue is uncompromising complexity. As we study the past it changes before our eyes, affected by our gaze and eluding definitive capture … The art of time travel is to maintain a critical poise and grace in this dizzy space. There is a further hazard: we never return to exactly the same present from which we left, for time cycles on remorselessly even when we seek to defy it. And in the course of our quest we find that we, too, have changed’ (p. 321).

The question I posed initially about my grandfather was: ‘How do I come to know this man?’ One answer is, ‘I can’t’. I can know about him, using the historian’s tools. I can glean something of what he thought significant in his own life, and I can see how he is rendered by others. The essential Hiram may be undiscoverable.

But perhaps there is another question worth asking.

As I seek to rediscover an ancestral life, how might that quest change me?

There may be hazards, as Griffiths warns, in time travel. There could also be gifts.

Links and sources

Useful starting points for information on the lives of 19th and 20th century Australians include:

  • Trove: a gathering of content from ‘libraries, museums, archives, repositories and other research and collecting organisations big and small’
  • Family History’, National Library of Australia: a research guide that includes links to directories; almanacs; electoral rolls; Births, Deaths and Marriages registers; and answers to ‘Frequently Asked Questions’
  • Ryerson Index: an ‘index to death notices appearing in Australian newspapers’ from 1803 onwards
  • National Archives of Australia
  • Australian Dictionary of Biography
  • And, for information on returned services personnel, the Australian War Memorial

Mustard Gas’, World Health Organisation, 2011

Tom Griffiths. The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft. Carlton, Vic.: Black Inc., 2016

4 thoughts on “Revealing Lives—Hiram and Me

  1. As we dig in our family’s history sometimes we get a glimmer of a greater truth than the one that has been passed down (or not) through the years. With that glimmer perhaps a better understanding of our ancestors and what they had to endure. All the accomplishments that your grandfather achieved to me seem even loftier considering the extra weight he had to bear.

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  2. Thank you, Charles, for your comment. I agree that, ‘considering the extra weight he had to bear’, it does make my grandfather’s achievements all the more remarkable. (And isn’t ‘loftier’ a great word? I should use it more often!)

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  3. Wow! This really makes me think of – and feel – so much. What torment your grandfather must have coped with whilst leading a busy public life. It does sound odd too – I remember as a child we had a lovely, gentle neighbour who could hardly breathe from what he’d suffered with mustard gas inhalation.

    I especially like the points on variant versions, and the person’s own unknowable self (and what is a furphy?) I’m writing a biography of a 19th writer with tons of source material and I’m conscious whatever I select will distort. Incidentally the family have kept a family album, written memoirs, letters and photographs of an ancestor that they revere. I had no idea there were descendants let alone anyone remembering him.

    If only there was a curated box for my grandparents, great aunties, parents and other family members. Scraps and memories but nothing coherent apart from notes my mother wrote down. I have my father’s WW2 medals from his time on the Atlantic convoys and other missions but can hardly bear to look at them. He told me so much but I haven’t retained detail of time, place and names.

    I’m reading “The Stopping Places A Journey through Gypsy Britain” by Damian Le Bas – would highly recommend it. It’s a journey across the traditional traveller routes to discover ancestors and identity. Here’s one bit, “All cultures honour their dead, but the Romany tradition demands a heightened and cultured morbidity. The first time I watched Who Do You Think You Are? on television, I was amazed at how little people seemed to know of their family pasts. As a small boy I stood with my mum while she gently placed carnations into a square marble vase on my great-great-great-grandfather’s grave. He had been dead over fifty years by the time I was born – there is no date on the simple wooden cross that adorns his grave – but in our family memory it might as well have been last year. Their bodies aged and tarnished, but the memories did not.”

    Apologies for a jumble of comments.

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    • Hello Lucy, thank you for your great mix of comments and for the book recommendation. By the way, ‘furphy’ is an Australian slang term meaning a rumour or a false report. It is thought to have originated around the time of the First World War. J. Furphy & Sons operated a foundry where they manufactured water carts; the family name appeared on the side of the carts. When the carts serviced soldiers’ camps, it is thought the men gathered around and shared gossip – a bit like the water cooler conversations of today. You’ll find some further background here: https://www.furphyfoundry.com.au/the-projects/item/the-origins-of-telling-a-furphy

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