If only I’d known

About 18 months ago I received an email from an Israeli relative. Ron was cleaning up old correspondence and wondered if I had the following information? I scrolled down to the grainy image below his signature, recalling the emotional rollercoaster of trying to find my grandparents’ marriage certificate. Now it had fallen off the back of a truck.

Ron had received this information from another member of the Israeli network, Paul, who is also a professional genealogist. I contacted him for a link to a higher-resolution image. I learned that it had been on Family Search all through the time another researcher was plugging away at Home Affairs and I was separately pursuing leads from inside and outside South Africa. If only I’d known.

This turn of events gave fresh impetus to thoughts of resolving the circumstances of my aunt Julia’s birth. Invariably this would involve some form of interaction with the Department of Home Affairs. In June 2018 I approached a new researcher, Mel[i],  to take on my case. She advised that third parties could no longer make representations to  Home Affairs on behalf of applicants, which went some way to explaining why the other researcher had run up against a brick wall. My best bet now, she said, was to apply for an unabridged birth certificate through the South African diplomatic mission in Australia. She recommended carrying out a deceased estate search first; this produced Julia’s identity number, key information I would need to complete Home Affairs’ paperwork.

Last July I lodged an application for an unabridged birth certificate with the South African High Commission in Canberra. Curiously, this is the sole option to which the Commission’s website directs applicants, to the point where an ‘X’ is marked in the relevant box on the form. I was advised to wait three months before inquiring about progress. The combined cost of the application fee, money order – the Commission does not accept credit cards, cash or personal cheques – postage, express paid envelopes, and Mel’s fee for the estate search, was around A$45; a modest outlay considering what I’d already spent in cash and equivalent person hours.

At the end of October, I rang for an update.
‘It can take up to a year!’ a female voice shrilled down the line.
‘Have you received the paperwork?’ I asked, swallowing a comment about the Commission’s advised time frames and that no receipt had been issued for the application.
‘I don’t know, I’ll have to check.’
I started mentally going through what I’d have to do in putting together a fresh application. Thank goodness I’d kept copies.
‘Yes, I have it. But because you put your aunt’s married name on the form, it had to be changed.’
So they’d received the forms. Fantastic.
‘What is your married name?’
‘Excuse me? Saltman.’
‘No, what is your married name?’
Oh god, what am I supposed to say?
‘Saltman. Look, I’m making application for my late aunt’s birth certificate. I’m not applying for one for me.’
There goes my $45, I thought. Well, I had to try.

A month later there was an email from the Commission. It verged on the abrupt, and was lacking in even the most basic form of accepted formal address. But none of that mattered in the face of what, to me, was a minor miracle. A certificate from Home Affairs had arrived in Canberra. A few days later it was in my letter box. It had taken four months to reach this point.

The A5 page with the Home Affairs logo was distinctive for how little information it provided, and most of it was already known to me. Was this as good as I was going to get? I shared my disappointment with Mel, enclosing a scan of what I’d been sent plus one of my father’s handwritten birth certificate which is far more forthcoming. I asked her how I would go about getting one like his.
‘You actually need a vault copy of the birth certificate – computerised ones are riddled with errors. Unfortunately, I don’t know off hand what the reference for the document is, but I think it’s just a tick in the right box on the same (form) as an ordinary one. Good luck.’
I flicked through the email chain to see if I’d misread Mel’s initial instructions. I hadn’t. It would take more than good luck to get rid of the misery I was feeling.

I steeled myself and dialled the Commission. Would it be possible to apply for a vault copy of Julia’s birth certificate?
‘Oh, yes,’ the officer said, ‘you can do that.’
I was speechless. Wasn’t this the same organisation that shoehorned overseas residents into applying for unabridged birth certificates?
‘Will the application fee be the same?’
I filed the new paperwork last November. I was not optimistic that a vault copy would materialise within a few months, or even at all. I did not follow up at the three-month mark. In fact, I tried to forget about the whole affair.

Last week I received an email from the Commission: a birth certificate had arrived. Due to the Easter and Anzac Day holiday break it didn’t land in my mail box until yesterday. As I tore open the envelope, the thoughts running through my mind were that Home Affairs had sent another copy of the unabridged certificate or a dud alternative. Then I saw Harry’s signature on the form.

[i]               Not her real name


A little over four years ago I mentioned to a few people, including family, that I was about to start a blog that documented the life of my paternal grandfather.  My sister-in-law, to whom an interest in ancestry has come more recently, observed in her characteristically direct way that no-one would want to read about a dead relative.  After I’d got over the hurt, I thought about what she’d said.  It’s true that there are thousands of people writing about ancestors unknown to anyone other than their descendants.  I follow a few such blogs and the ones I find most interesting are those that infuse some of the writer’s personality into the mix.  I also love blogs that are rich in photographs.  I expect that’s because I have so few images of my ancestor and revel in those of others.  But it’s also for the fact that one can interpret so much about a person and the times in which they lived from a photo.

The trajectory of my blog has meandered through the vague to the specific to the off-topic and finally to its true mission: to tell a story about two people who never met each other.  If the writing has matured over the period, I can thank the two-and-a-half years of study towards a Master of Arts in Non-fiction Writing, which I completed at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in June 2016.

I saw the UTS program as a perfect platform for ‘testing’ my writings about Harry and, in time, about myself.  From the first essay I developed for a Memory and Life Writing course – which provided material for the posts, 1963 and Renewal – to the last 7,500 words of my major project, I’ve consciously tried to ease myself away from over-embellishing to a place where the narrative ‘shows but doesn’t tell’.

There comes a time in a project of this magnitude where one asks what the point is to it all?  Is it leading to anything?  To a book maybe?  And if so, what form should that book take?  And how would it start?

Last year I began to contemplate the larger work that might flow from this blog, using the penultimate project of my program as a springboard.  In the way that many writers to, I agonised over a beginning.  I knew that my blog’s opening chapter – a jigsaw puzzle – would fall far short of the mark; rereading it now, I cringe to think that I may have captured a readership with such amateur guff.

The opening paragraphs of my university assignment were about a one-off offer extended to expatriate South Africans to vote in the first multiracial elections in 1994.  Despite that I’d lived abroad for 13 years and had since become an Australian citizen, I was able to exercise a vote for the central government and any provincial government in the country.  I tried to draw a parallel between the pull of country and bonds that can never be broken, for me and Harry, a Brit who never gave up his citizenship.  On reflection, I’m not sure that it worked; even if I still have feelings for the place, after 35 settled years in Australia, I can’t claim to own an expat angst about separation.  It’s also a theme that has been done to death.

One of my UTS tutors, the splendid Debra Adelaide, remarked that all beginnings are provisional.  She also warned against spending another 20 years researching my subject – yes, I have been on Harry’s case for roughly that length of time – and gave me a deadline of December 2016 to finish a first draft of my manuscript.  Without the emotional investment in this blog and a need to complete it, I may have achieved that target.  I’ve set a new one of April 2017.

Getting back to beginnings, of the books I’ve read in the last year or so, a few have impressed me with their openers.

‘I have known Paul Keating for 40 years.  I was first introduced to him in the non-members bar of the old Parliament House when he was a hungry young backbencher in the Whitlam Opposition in 1975, and I suppose I was a hungry young journalist working for an ABC program called This Day Tonight.  I met him again the day he became Gough Whitlam’s youngest and last ministerial appointment, three weeks before the Dismissal.  He already had the swagger and an eye for a good suit, and he had future leader written all over him.’[1]

Kerry O’Brien’s introduction to Paul Keating[2] has the immediate effect of the reader wanting more.

‘If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.’[3]

In her memoir about coming to terms with her father’s wartime deeds and her own sense of self, Magda Szubanski drew me in with a single line.

‘I was four years old when my father came back to kidnap me.’[4]

Likewise Mark Matousek’s unsparing account of growing up in Los Angeles had the same effect.

As a literary device, dramatic revelations about family secrets are excellent at bringing the reader along for the ride.  John Lanchester’s memoir of growing up in post-colonial countries and England begins thus:

‘Julia Immaculata Gunnigan was born on 5 December 1920 at Lurgan, Killarney, in the county of Mayo in the West of Ireland.  That might sound like fairly straightforward information, but for reasons which will become clear it isn’t, at least not to me.  Julia’s true name and birthday were things I found out only after she died.  If there was a special typeface for things my mother didn’t tell me, the next hundred-odd pages of this book would be almost entirely in that face.’[5]

These authors have had the fortune of knowing their subjects and some, like O’Brien, conducted lengthy interviews with them.  I don’t have that luxury.  Harry’s other surviving grandchildren know as little about our grandfather as I do.  And even if those who knew him as a father were available to quiz now, at best their recall would be coloured by their child-minds’ reinterpretation.   For Harry’s story I’ve had to rely on a combination of oral history, Holmesian-style detective work, the odd photo and a dash of imagination.  And as my story assumes a greater proportion in the narrative, the need to rely solely on recreating his has become less pressing.

But I still need a beginning.  And what better way to start than with an act of recklessness.

[1]              Kerry O’Brien Keating Allen & Unwin Sydney 2015, pvii.

[2]              Treasurer in the Hawke government from 1983 – 1991, and Prime Minister of Australia from 1991 – 1996.

[3]              Magda Szubanski Reckoning Text Publishing Melbourne 2015 p1.

[4]              Mark Matousek The boy he left behind Piatkus London 2000 p1.

[5]              John Lanchester Family romance Faber and Faber London 2007 p25.

Random encounters

I grew up and spent my early adulthood in Cape Town.  In my late twenties, I moved to Sydney with my husband and have lived in that city ever since.

While my personal jury is still out on how much control we have over our lives, there have been a few occasions that have given me cause to wonder whether things which are beyond our control may happen for a reason.

On a visit back to Cape Town in the late 1990s I met up with a school friend who had married a distant cousin of mine.  Marion was compiling the family tree and asked if I could fill in a few blanks for her.  Sure, especially if it related to my parents, siblings and their families.  Even aunts, uncles and cousins, all this was a subject well known to me.  And being good at dates, I could even proclaim years of birth, marriage and death with as  much confidence as the official certificates on which these dates were inscribed.  I might add at this point that I won the history prize at high school.

As Marion unfurled my family tree, I saw a myriad of names under “Descendants of ? Saltman”, most of whom I did not recognise.   Were all these people really connected to me?  It was almost overwhelming to think that I had such a large family, although not beyond the realm of possibility.   After all, my grandmother had been one of twelve siblings, so multiplying out from this number meant that X number of children and their children….no, numbers have never been my strong suit, but I’m sure you understand where I am going with this.

I searched for familiar names and eventually found “Harry, born in Sheffield about 1873”.   Aha, a name I recognised.  Harris.

I knew that he had been born in Sheffield because my father had told me.  But I also knew how old he was when he died and 1873 did not compute as his birth date.

But if it didn’t, how would I find out what did?

A Jigsaw puzzle

Harris is a bit like one of those thousand piece puzzles.

I had a few easy pieces to begin with, the four corners and a few straight edged side pieces.  These were facts passed on by Harris’ son: a place of birth, emigration, an occupation, marriage and children, an illness and age at death.

I even had a few centre pieces – anecdotes – which gave me a clue about his character, behaviour and temperament.

But there are many pieces still missing and all those who knew him have long since moved on, their memories of those all-important centre pieces of the puzzle locked up forever.

And it is mostly these centre pieces that I want to unravel because they will begin to tell me more about the kind of person he was.

I have a hunch – possibly another centre piece – that Harris had had humble beginnings, but had risen above them to prosper in adulthood.

There also seemed to be a bit of the wanderlust in him and a sense of adventure – more potential centre pieces.  These characteristics were manifest in his son who, in turn, passed them on to his own children.

My search for Harris is also about finding out more about myself.  Because he was not just anyone who had lived before I was born.

Harris was my grandfather.