In the lead up to publication of my novel, I’d like to write more about the ‘The Story Behind the Story’: the genesis of my novel, and the people and places that inspired it.
My paternal grandfather was one of eighteen children. I don’t know much about his parents or his early life and, as far as I’m aware, no one’s researched that branch of the family tree. I remember my father opening a tin of family photos (some are included in this post), inside which was a handwritten list of all my grandfather’s siblings and their dates of birth. There were only seventeen names on the list, but Dad couldn’t remember who’d been left out.
I don’t know how much schooling my grandfather had—I’m guessing he only completed primary school, like my grandmother. He worked on the wharf as a labourer, but only when a boat was in. To find out if he had work that week, he had to read the newspaper to see if his number was listed.
My grandparents didn’t have much money—partly because of my grandfather’s unskilled and sporadic work, and partly because of his drinking habit. They never owned a house or a car, and my grandfather rode a bike. When my father was a youngster, each payday my grandmother would send him around to the pub to collect his father’s pay before my grandfather spent it over the bar. Because he was too young to enter, Dad would wait outside until a mate of my grandfather’s walked past and Dad would ask him to fetch his father. My grandfather would send his mate back out to tell Dad he wasn’t there, but Dad knew he was because he could see his bike outside. So, his father started parking his bike in the street behind, so Dad wouldn’t see it.
My grandfather was a quiet fellow, except when he’d been drinking. He had the nickname ‘Adger’, which was short for ‘Agitator’, and my father became known as ‘Young Adge’—he inherited the title, and he also inherited his father’s trait of winding people up for the fun of it.
That wasn’t the only trait the two shared. They both loved the outdoors, and Dad’s family often went camping along the east coast of Tasmania, or fishing up the lakes, or ‘roo or duck shooting. Back then, with little money, the hunting and fishing was out of necessity—if my grandfather shot a kangaroo or caught some fish, it meant they had meat for the week, something they couldn’t have otherwise afforded.
Although he died before I turned six, my memories of my grandfather are vivid:
He wore dark grey trousers with braces, and a white shirt with copper-coloured bands around the sleeves. His fingers were tar-stained from smoking cigarettes, which he rolled himself, and he smelled of aftershave and Drum tobacco.
When my sister and I visited, he’d pour some of his hot tea onto his saucer and blow on it until it was cool enough for us to drink. He’d make us sit up straight, and hold the saucer to our lips while we sipped.
One day he poured real beer into a glass and gave it to my sister to drink.
My sister and I were fascinated by the smoke from his cigarettes, so he rolled matchsticks inside Tally-Ho papers, burnt the ends so they looked real, and gave them to us so we had our own smokes. (These sorts of things were acceptable in the ’70s!)
I didn’t realise my grandfather was short, just that my grandmother was taller, and I didn’t think that was odd.
Their bathroom had a huge copper that was taller than me, and their toilet cistern was up high near the ceiling, and had a chain you pulled to flush.
Their kitchen seemed dark, but warm. It had a leadlight dresser just inside the door, and a wood stove. It always smelled of cooking—onions, a stew, or freshly baked biscuits.
On race days, the transistor sat on the table, next to the newspaper, which lay open at the horse-racing page. My grandfather would mark the horses he’d bet on, and as each race started, he’d quieten. When the horses reached the home stretch, and the announcer’s voice accelerated, he leaned in closer and hissed, ‘Psssss, psssss …’ My sister and I would join him, hissing too, without knowing who or what we were hissing for.
I remember him sitting at the table and polishing his shoes to a gloss with nugget and a brush. He was an amateur cobbler, and whenever we broke a shoe, he’d repair it, good as new. When the buckle of my favourite shoe broke, he sewed it back on with dark brown thread. It didn’t match the purple of the suede or the other sandal, but I didn’t care because I had my favourite shoe back.
He had a ginger beer plant, which he kept in my father’s old bedroom. Before I saw the plant, I imagined it would be living and green, and was a bit disappointed it was a machine and grey. I was even more disappointed when I didn’t like the taste of ginger beer, but I pretended I did because I didn’t want to hurt my grandfather’s feelings.
There are a few things I don’t remember, like the unpainted boards of the exterior of their house, or the missing fence posts, or the small backyard of dust and no lawn—all of this I saw later, and only in photographs.
Not infrequently, my grandparents bickered, not enough to call it an argument, but they used a tone of voice with each other that they never used with us. I didn’t like their bickering—they were two of my favourite people and I wanted them to love each other.
One evening in early December 1972, the phone rang and Dad left to go to my grandparents’ house. We knew it was serious, and I remember waiting by the front window and hearing the siren in the distance that my mother said was the ambulance taking my grandfather to hospital.
The next morning, my mother told us that my grandfather had died overnight, and I told that for news at school that day.
My grandfather’s funeral was in the church next door to my school, and I don’t remember my father or my grandmother crying. Afterwards, my sister came back to my classroom with me while the rest of the congregation went to the gravesite. My sister wasn’t of school age, and although we were only playing with plasticine, she couldn’t do it very well and the teacher had to ask her what she’d made.
Sometime after that, I’m not sure when, we went to my grandparents’ house again. It had been cleared out because it was being demolished for a new highway. I ran through rooms that were empty and echoed, and I must have grown, because I was taller than the copper.
I doubt I looked back at their house as I left, even though it was the last time I ever saw it.
When writing a novel, it’s funny the stories that come back to you. Almost as soon as I started writing, my grandparents’ voices came to me. They had so much to say, and there was so much material in my family history that I had to use some of it in my novel.
My novel is not a family history—it’s completely fictional. But I did draw on memories—my own, and those of family members, stories I’d heard when I was growing up. I’ve shaved pieces off them, added bits, shuffled them around, and what remains bears little resemblance to what actually happened.
Yet, the characters are very familiar to me and probably to anyone who knew my grandparents.
I realised only recently what my novel actually is—it’s my attempt to explain where I come from, the background to my life. It wasn’t a conscious decision, or something I set out to do, but these things happen once you start writing …
A mother, father, and a baby are never alone in a room—that room is filled with ghosts. Past generations linger in every room a child enters as they’re growing up. I realise now how many ghosts were present in the rooms in which I grew up—some kind and loving, but others I wish I could have banished, especially with the hindsight I have now.
After my grandfather’s death, my grandmother started coming to our house every weekday, and she kept coming until I was 14-years-old. She was a gentle presence in my childhood. A role model, in fact.
Although I barely had time to get to know my grandfather, he was significant, too. There’s no doubt he was a bit of a rogue, but all he ever gave me was kindness and a sense of being loved and enjoyed.
I feel a deep connection with my grandparents, all of them, even my maternal grandfather who passed away before I was born. They inspired some of the main characters in my novel, and if you ever read it, I suspect you’ll spot them …
Oh, Louise. That is such a beautiful post. You have brought your grandfather back to life in your description of him. I grew up without knowing my grandparents, who had all remained in England after my parents brought my sisters and me to Australia. I met my mum’s mum — my Nana Ruby — when I was 14, and my dad’s dad and stepmother — Tomdad and Grandma Miri — when I was 18. At 11, I met my dad’s aunt and uncle — siblings Margaret and John — and it is Uncle John who inspired the Gallipoli veteran (and kindred spirit to the protagonist) in the novel I am writing. Although I had such a short time with that generation of my family, I feel blessed to have met them all, and I still have so much love for them.
Thanks, Maureen! I’m so glad this post prompted you to remember your grandparents, too. It’s funny where the inspiration for our writing comes from, but it seems that many of us have drawn from our love for our grandparents and you’ve been similarly inspired by that generation. Thanks for your lovely comment. xx
Your grandfather reminds me of mine; A man’s man with a tough reputation but only gentleness evident to us kids. He seemed a softy to us but life circumstances, poverty, war, alcoholism and that generation’s all-important male bravado left a different, lasting impression on his children…my mother. And my siblings and I are partly a product of that. Isn’t it fascinating. Leonard and Olive would be so proud of you Louise, and of their great grandchildren. Thanks for the opportunity to reflect. M
I can see how much harder it is to parent than grandparent, and how much wiser you are by the time you get to grandparent age, so I’ve no doubt your mother’s view of her father and yours are at odds. The first time I heard someone talk about my grandfather’s flaws, I was aghast! I couldn’t believe he had faults! I’d never seen them!
Len and Ol’ would have delighted in their great-grandchildren, there’s no doubt! And I hope I’ve done them justice in my book.
Thanks for your comment. xx
What lovely memories Its got me thinking too of many feelings I have of my grandparents.I should write them as they come to mind for my grandchildren.
You must write them, Maureen! Those memories are priceless! Thanks for visiting. xx
Gently provocative post, Louise. As I was reading it, I was thinking of my own maternal grandfather, who died when I was six years old. I don’t remember much about him, but recall with great clarity him lying, dead, on a beautiful bed in a room with french doors. Everything in the room was white (it probably wasn’t), he was under mosquito netting and Dad told me to give my grandfather one last kiss. I did, and was horrified that his face was prickly with fresh whiskers against my lips, which was at odds with the otherwise sombre gentleness and quietness of the situation.
I love that you remember the mosquito netting and french doors! What an ethereal moment, until the kissing, that is. I feel for your six-year-old self having to kiss a prickly, dead person—I can understand why the memory remains vivid. xx
What an amazing story, Louise! It brought tears to my eyes. Wow, and to be one of 18 kids – amazing. This is such a treasure for your kids and the generations to follow. In my book, the chapter on my grandpa’s death is by fat the most powerful.
I’m glad you liked it, Gulara—I can’t imagine having 18 kids either! Gosh, four was enough!
PS. I hope you don’t mind that I ‘borrowed’ the title of the series from you!
Of course not! 🙂 Glad it came in handy.xx
Thank you. I thought of the title, and thought it sounded familiar. Of course, when I checked with yours, it was the same. I’m trying to think of an original title that’s better, but this one suits the series so much, because that’s what it is: the story behind the story!
What a wonderful post, Louise! Such a tribute to your grandparents, and your grandfather in particular – you brought him so vividly to life. I did laugh at the bit about him making you ‘smokes’. My grandparents were very important in my life too – as you say, they are the ghosts of the past in the room with the present, and they live on within us all. Really looking forward to reading your book when it comes out xx
I’m so thankful I had my paternal grandparents. My grandfather made us feel so special, and as for my grandmother—she was saintly! She came to our house every weekday for nearly nine years, and the only reason she stopped coming was because we moved out of town and she didn’t drive. I don’t remember her ever missing a day ever. She must have, but they were obviously rare. Every Wednesday afternoon, she went to my uncle’s, her other son, for dinner, but apart from that, she was always at our house, steady and constant. Ida, the main character in my novel, is based on her. I’ve tried writing a blog post about her, but it’s hard to sum her up succinctly as she was so significant in my life.
Ah, she sounds wonderful. I’m so looking forward to reading your book! Nice that you got to spend so much time with her, too – I can see how she was so significant in your life.
When I was a child, weekends were always the same – my maternal grandparents on Saturday, my paternal grandparents on Sunday (as my grandfather was a vicar and my grandmother taught Sunday School). I have lovely memories of those days, the tick of the clock in the old vicarage, the noise of the Saturday markets.
I’d love to read your memories of them—even the snippet you’ve written here creates a beautiful image.
I love the sound of clocks ticking—they feature in my novel, too. I miss that sound now that they’re all digital. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet, and hearing the ticking was always reassuring. Then I’d hear the sound of the fridge coming on—not so reassuring!
Sounds are great memory prompts. x
Thanks, Louise – I might get round to writing about them one day ???? they do show up occasionally in stories.
I’d love to read it when you do. x
I love the idea of those ghosts in the nursery, Louise, the way our parents share the room with their parents and so on down the line. Ancestry is wonderful and you do such a splendid job of conveying the richness of your grandfather here. I also enjoy the degree to which your fiction takes its cue from earlier memories such as these. The things you ‘make up’ come from deep within you. I sometimes wonder what sense my grandsons will make of their grandparents when we’re both long gone. I’m glad we can be there for them in a way my grandparents were not. Lucky you to have such a memorable grandfather. I love the photos, too. They are so resonant.
Thanks, Lis. Yes, our subconscious speaks the truth, even when we’re writing fiction. Writing about my grandfather made me realise, too, how significant and formative our early memories are (I’ll blame him for my drinking and smoking days!).
I realise now how many ghosts were in the room when I had my children, too, and they weren’t all bad …
I’m sure my grandparents would be chuffed that decades after they passed away, I still remember them fondly. I’m sure your grandsons will feel the same way about you. x
Were you writing about MY grandfather? You could have been. Except mine was a meatworker and caught crabs to feed his family when there was no money. My grandparents grew everything in their backyard and he did exactly the same thing with his cups of tea. He went to the horse races every Saturday and when he didn’t he’d be sitting beside the trannie with the paper in front of him. He rode a bike and was a drinker and smoker.
This was strange to read because the similarities are uncanny!
So many similarities—I suspect a certain demographic (the working class) of that era all did similar things. Much like groups of us all do similar things today …
I’m glad I have the photos of him giving beer to my sister, because I doubt people would believe me otherwise! Gosh, you’d be in trouble from Child Protection these days!
I’m glad this piece brought back memories for you, too. x
Hi Louise, such a beautiful story and memory. I shed a tear over ‘A mother, father, and a baby are never alone in a room—that room is filled with ghosts’. Rae xxx
I’m glad it moved you, Rae. Even as a child, I felt those ghosts. The ghost of my maternal grandmother was never far from any room in our house, and she was still alive! Dad’s ghosts were really nice to have around, though.
I’m hooked now – can’t wait to get my hands on your novel. Imagine having to invite your 17 siblings and their families to yours for Christmas. I wonder if they did all get together? I also gasp at the thought of what 18 pregnancies, deliveries and feedings must do to a woman! They were certainly tough times but yet the simplicity of it has a certain appeal to me today.
I might be wrong, but I think my great-grandmother died at 51. She was, by all accounts, a lovely person and very easy-going—I think you’d have to be with that many kids. I don’t know how she did it …
I don’t think they did all get together, as by the time the younger ones were born, the older ones had scattered. There’s a story that at a funeral for one of the siblings, two of the brothers introduced themselves to each other, saying, ‘I’m Walter. I’m a brother of the deceased.’ The other brother said, ‘I’m George (I think that was his name). I’m his brother, too.’
I know what you mean about the simplicity of life back then—the simple routines and slower-pace. Maybe we’ve romanticised it, though.
Thanks for commenting.
I loved your article, especially the comment that a mother, father and baby are never alone in a room. That’s so true!
My paternal grandparents died before I was born (my dad being the youngest of only 10, not 18!!!), and my parents were 10 pound poms – my maternal grandparents stayed behind in England. Your post made me think about what could have been.
Thanks, Marie. I love how this piece has prompted everyone to reflect on their grandparents’ stories.
Your father being one of ten children is incredible, too! I’d never have coped with the size of the families back then—#gratefulforcontraception.
Your last sentence is so tender, almost a yearning. It would have been lovely to have met your paternal grandparents. I hope you got to spend time with your maternal ones, even though they lived in England.
Thanks for your lovely comment. x