Wordless Wednesday: worthy of remembrance

The Big T's aunts Hazel and Mary and uncle Tom; all passed away now, but each lived a long and full lives. They have left behind children, grandchildren and other whanau who are glad they touched our lives.

The Big T’s aunts Hazel and Mary and uncle Tom; all passed away now, but each lived a long and full life. They have left behind children, grandchildren and other whanau who are glad they touched our lives.

Wordless Wednesdays are written in response to a Geneabloggers’ prompt.

Here are other Wordless Wednesdays’ you might like:

http://genealogysisters.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/almost-wordless-wednesday-paris-france-1944/

http://marbletowns.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/wednesdays-child-george-leonard-drowned/

http://wellerharvey.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/wordless-wednesday-october-16-2013/

http://genealogylady.net/2013/10/16/wordless-wednesday-the-yegerlehner-brothers/

http://thetaliaferroproject.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/16-september-2009-wordless-wednesday-john-robert-taliaferro/

Strange Fruit: remembering Vietnam

Strange Fruit: Turtle Donna Sarten at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, Wellington.

Strange Fruit by Turtle Donna Sarten at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, Wellington.

I imagine there are few family history researchers whose families don’t contain ancestors that served in the military. Although very much a novice historian, I’ve already found that most of my kinsmen from my grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ generations served in World Wars I and II – as did many of my older uncles. My brother too was a soldier; he served with the Scots Dragoon Guards during the 1980s and spent time in Israel with the UN peace-keeping force.

Most of my relatives came home from war, although they bore physical and psychological scars for the rest of their lives.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these ancestors recently. Partly it’s because we’ve just commemorated ANZAC Day, and as the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings approaches (1915), New Zealanders and Australians are thinking more and more about how that appalling military tragedy – played out on the beaches and barren hillsides of the Dardanelles – became the forge that cast our sense of nationhood (I’ve written more about about that in another blog for anyone who’s interested).

But the other reason I’ve been thinking about the soldiers in the family is that I’ve been to see an installation at the Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington entitled Strange Fruit.

The ‘Strange Fruit’ of the title are 3890 military dog tags – one for each of the New Zealanders who served in Vietnam between 1964 and 1972.

The Returned Services’ Association (RSA) says of the installation:

“It creates a record of every known veteran who served, something that was never done by the New Zealand government of the time. The artist has hand stamped every tag with every veteran’s name and number. On the reverse of each tag is the image of pomegranate flesh, giving a kind of biblical status to the tags and referencing the fact that a ‘grenade’ is also a ‘pomegranate’ in French. Some tags are blank or incomplete because of the New Zealand government’s failure to keep records.”

Detail: Strange Fruit by Turtle Donna Sarten

Detail: Strange Fruit by Turtle Donna Sarten

My partner’s cousin served in Vietnam. I don’t really know him, but I have talked with one of his sisters about the young man, chaffing against a strict father and upbringing, who “escaped” to the army and found himself in combat. She says he doesn’t talk about his experiences; I understand that is true of many veterans, of many wars.

But of course Vietnam is different. Without underplaying the hardships that veterans of all conflicts experience, those who came home from Vietnam returned to a public that had largely turned against the whole idea of their country’s involvement in that war, and were anxious to forget. This has meant that, unlike those who served in earlier wars, Vietnam vets did not receive a great deal recognition of their sacrifice. In addition, many Vietnam vets have had to live with on-going health problems caused by exposure to the widely-used defoliant, Agent Orange, as well as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorders) – a term that was first used in relation to Vietnam vets.

Thirty seven New Zealanders died on active service in Vietnam; 187 were wounded. It might seem a very small number – but every death ripples outward, affecting comrades, families, friends, societies.

I first saw Strange Fruit in 2010, at Sculpture on Shore. Then, the tags were hung in a tree. Swinging and colliding in the wind, the effect was intense – both visual and aural. When I knew that the work was to be installed inside a gallery, I did wonder if losing that interplay of movement and sound would lessen the impact.

Detail, Strange Fruit by Turtle Donna Sarten.

Detail, Strange Fruit by Turtle Donna Sarten.

But actually, I think seeing Strange Fruit in the stillness of a white-walled room made the experience even more moving. As the only piece in that particular gallery, it didn’t have to compete for attention, and without the wind to move the tags, it was easier to read the names and to know that each one represented an actual human being, many of whom are still alive and living with the legacy of their experiences in Vietnam.

I didn’t find our cousin’s name, but I know it is there, and that he and his comrades have not been forgotten.

Seeing the world with new eyes

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I’ve walked along Wellington’s waterfront past Frank Kitts Park dozens of times, and often stopped to read the plaques commemorating various naval events; shipwrecks, landings, etc.

Yet today was the first time I’d ever seen this memorial to the New Zealanders who took part in the Arctic Convoys of World War II. These delivered vital supplies to the USSR during a time when the Nazis controlled much of the territory around that vast country.

I was really touched by the memorial because my great uncle, Stewart Cruden, also sailed on the Arctic Convoys, losing his life in 1942 when his ship, a converted whaler called the Shera, capsized in atrocious, icy conditions in the Barents Sea with the loss of nineteen lives.

My great uncle’s death is commemorated on a memorial to members of the Royal Naval Reserve in Lowestoft, England. From that memorial I know that the sailors who died on the Shera were Scottish, English and Norwegian. There were no New Zealanders; but obviously, amongst the many hundreds of boats in the convoys, Kiwis did serve.

I’m glad they have been remembered.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Up

My father-in-law during his RNZAF days.

My father-in-law during his RNZAF days.

In some ways the choice of this photo of my father in law, Roger Gray, for this week’s Daily Post photo challenge “Up” seems a bit obvious – maybe even cliched. But it is especially poignant this week.

Roger was a pilot in the Royal New Zealand Air Force for several years before joining NAC;  New Zealand’s domestic airline.  He flew for NAC, and later Air New Zealand for over twenty five years – retiring in 1986 as the senior captain on domestic/Pacific flights. Even now, when we board Air New Zealand flights they are sometimes piloted by people Roger helped to train.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this photo in the last few days; of the confident, smiling young man fulfilling the dream of so many boys (and girls). Last Tuesday, Roger fell and broke his hip. He is now in hospital, in pain and waiting for an operation. He has family around him and is receiving skilled and compassionate care. But his recovery will be painful – and probably slow. For Roger, “Up” has a whole new meaning.

On ancestry in the making

On ancestry in the making

I’ve been posting about “family history in the making” and then I read Helen Tovey’s blog post on “becoming an ancestor”. It’s made me think about how important it is to document the present (and recent past).

Today is a particularly appropriate day for such thoughts as it’s my son’s 15th birthday. He is my only child, so his birthday is not just a celebration of his life, but of his father and I becoming a family rather than a couple.

I sometimes wonder if our pleasure in that doesn’t almost outweigh the boy-child’s enjoyment of presents, cake and devoted parental attention for the day. And that got me thinking about his day.

Naming Day, Thomas Alexander Gray.

The boy-child with proud parents and god-parents.

We’re not religious, so a christening was out of the question, but when he was born, I remember thinking that it was important to celebrate the significance of his life to us in some way. It took a while to organise (10 months), but on 17 January, 1999 we held a naming ceremony for our baby boy. Continue reading

And now for something completely different … (with apologies to Monty Python)

And now for something completely different … (with apologies to Monty Python)

I’ve temporarily exhausted my supply of wedding photos, so that theme is back on the shelf for a while. Meantime, something caught my attention the other day that relates not to my family’s story but to that of the city I live in. It also speaks of the on-going story of violence against women. This is particularly in my mind at the moment, I guess mainly in light of the high-profile fatal attacks on women that have made the news lately. For each for these cases, I know there are many, many more that are not reported. Violence is endured daily by so many women in so many places – and most go un-remarked and un-reported.

Text of memorial to Emily Mary KeelingSo … A couple of days ago, I was walking in Auckland’s oldest cemetery – Symonds Street – in central Auckland, when I found a memorial headstone that caught my attention.

Sacred to the memory of Emily Mary the beloved daughter of George and Emily Keeling of Arch Hill who was shot while on her way to the Primitive Methodist Church Bible Class Alexandra Street April 2nd 1886. Aged 17 years.

Symonds Street Cemetary was in use from 1842 until around the 1930s. It contains the graves of many early European settlers to Auckland, and walking amongst the headstones is a lesson in the hardships of life in the nineteenth century, and of pioneer life in particular.

Symonds Street Cemetary; in use between 1842 and the 1930s.

Symonds Street Cemetary; in use between 1842 and the 1930s.

However, New Zealand has always had a reputation as a very safe place, so death by shooting – particularly the death of a young woman – was both deeply sad, and really intriguing. I had to know more. Was she shot accidentally? Or was it a murder?

It was a murder.

Thanks to Papers Past, an initiative of the National Library of New Zealand to digitise New Zealand’s newspaper heritage, I was able to find newspaper accounts of the death of Emily Mary Keeling, which was widely reported throughout New Zealand.

From the articles I read, it seems that Emily Keeling was fatally shot by a man who lived next door but one to her family. He claimed to have fallen in love with her, and had – two years previously – asked her father for permission to marry her. At the time of the proposal, Emily was only 15 and her father had refused permission. In the intervening two years the man, Edwin Fuller, had moved around the Auckland region working in different jobs before returning to the city to pursue Emily again. According to the newspaper reports, he wrote a letter to his family outlining his plans to kill Emily and himself.

So on a Friday evening in April, a month that in Auckland can be beautifully autumnal, Emily Keeling died a few hundred metres from her home; shot in the chest by a man who wrote to his family ‘… I am going to shoot myself tonight. I love Emily Keeling as no-one ever loved before.’

Edwin Fuller did shoot himself – a couple of streets away – having left Emily to stagger across the street to a shop, where she died within an hour.

I’ve been thinking about this story since Saturday night, and it’s affected me on all sorts of levels. Most importantly of course, I feel an overwhelming sadness at the absolute tragedy of it. A young woman walked out of her front door to go to a Friday evening class, and didn’t even get to the top of her street before being killed. Even 120 or so years later when the murder rate in New Zealand has risen alarmingly, such an event is still rare enough to be remarkable.

I am also feeling something that I’m beginning to recognise quite a lot in family history research; what drives me to do research is curiosity and the pleasure of solving puzzles, and yet it’s often the case that the information which helps to solve those puzzles is only available because the people we are searching for have experienced tragedies that brought them into the public record in some way. So my enjoyment is often tempered with sadness.

flowersEmily Keeling was one of two children. Her brother had moved to Australia and she of course didn’t live to bear children of her own. I don’t know then if there is anyone left in Auckland who remembers her – certainly her grave appears (like most of those I saw in Symonds Street cemetery) untended. Tomorrow I’ll take flowers, in memory not only of Emily Keeling, but of all the women who die violent deaths and who are forgotten like Emily.

Not a kiss … but another celebration of marriage

David Ramsay and Margaret Cruden celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.

My maternal grandparents celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary in 1951.

The last couple of “kiss” photos I posted got me thinking about the couples in my family, and actually how few photographs I have. None of my parents (without the kids) and only this one of my maternal grandparents.

David Skinner Ramsay and Margaret Simpson Bissett Cruden  were married in on 21 December 1926. Grandad was 25, Gran was 18. He was a coalminer, she a shop assistant. Both lived in Dysart, Fife, Scotland. They raised six children and remained married for 47 years, until my grandad’s death in 1973.

When my grandmother was widowed, she started travelling – to New Zealand to visit us, then Australia to see her brother and his family. She went to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) to visit her only son, and back to Australia. In the last 15 or so years of her life she mainly stayed in Europe, but still managed to clock up an impressive number of miles for a woman who had never left the UK until she was in her mid 60s.

My gran died in 2006 – a week short of her 98th birthday. By that stage she had 17 grandchildren, 26(ish) great grandchildren, and a couple of great, great grandchildren.

She’s the grandparent I knew best and the only one I spent time with when I was an adult. Thinking back on all the hours we spent drinking tea and scoffing coffee meringues (her favourite), I wonder why I never asked her all the questions I now have about her life – her childhood, marriage, parents. Back then I just wasn’t that “into” family.

Now, a mother myself, I’m determined that my son will know more about his ancestry than I do about mine, and in particular the stories of lives and loves and death that make the past alive for us.