When an old man dies….a library burns down

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to claim just one more hour with the men who were in your life. I say men, but it could be women too. But I say men because most of us don’t communicate very well. It seems to me that much of a man’s social contact and interaction is on the level of the superficial, the deep and meaningful is not something we’re good at. Just look at the number of women who complain about that. Venus and Mars maybe, and in my case that has certainly been the case.

Many years ago now I started work on my family tree and was fortunate enough to find that I was descended from at least four Irish convicts who were transported to the colonies for a number of reasons, sheep and cow stealing during the famine amongst them. I say fortunate because in those cases the records are fairly extensive and I was able to fill in some of the mysteries by painting their faces based on the descriptions in the records – protruding brow, pock marked face and other colourful characteristics.

But the personal insights are missing from my knowledge of most of those ancestors. What saddens me more though is that for the most part, so is the personal of those whose lifetimes have intersected part of mine as well. When my grandfathers were around I didn’t think to ask questions that would tell me of their lives as children and young men.

On Dad’s side I wish I’d asked my Pa about the mud of the Somme and the desert of the pyramids in World War 1, of the reasons why he ran away from home as a 13 year old, of how he found his way by boat to New Zealand and worked as a sleeper cutter. I would love to know why he joined the New Zealand Army and why after he was wounded in the War he came to Melbourne instead of going back to Dunedin in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

On Mum’s side I wish I’d asked Grandad what it was like to be a Rat of Tobruk, or a labourer on the Great Ocean Road during the depression, and why his family left the bush for the city when he was 17 years old and how it was to work on the wharves in the busiest port in Australia.

For me they were always old men, strict and angry at times, smiling at others, backs bent and legs no longer straight, voices croaking with age, hair thin and grey, rheumy eyes peering wearily through spectacles, at times way more interested in my life than I was in theirs or that I had any right to deserve. If I had one final hour with them, I’d want a week, then year, to pose the questions of why and when, where and how, of long ago lost loves and feelings of elation and despair that must have littered the volumes of their lives.

It is true as the old African proverb says that “When an old man dies, a library burns down.”


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