Thursday 10 April 2014

How I got here and why: a brief family tree

Recently I've had to update a couple of author bios. I'm always depressed by the dullness and predictability of these little autobiographical paragraphs: "Dr so-and-so is an outstanding individual. He has earned degrees. He has authored books. His achievements are the envy of the world." Wouldn't it be more informative and more entertaining if we got to read a bit of family tree? Here's mine. 

There was once a pretty young Serbian girl who, at the age of fifteen, fell mysteriously pregnant. The unlucky girl was my great-great-grandmother, a household domestic whose swelling womb earned her a swift dismissal from her employer. Later she married a kind-hearted Serb whose gentle soul, she soon discovered, could be stimulated into violent cruelty simply by the application of six small cups of liquor. When the illegitimate daughter grew up, she fell in love with a Serbian baker who swore eternal devotion to her and then began, with a methodical passion, to gamble their lives away to ruin. He was a doting and devoted husband when his purse was empty, and an infamous villain when it was full. Eventually his wife threw him out, though never soon enough. 

Their child, my grandmother, fled Yugoslavia during the Second World War, back in the day when the Bolshevik Army was raping and pillaging its merry way across Eastern Europe. My grandmother ended up in the bombed city of Munich where she met another Serb, very handsome, who was doing menial labour in an insane asylum under the supervision of German doctors. My penniless refugee grandfather's face was covered in boils the day he proposed to my grandmother, and I suppose she never knew if he was crying from joy or from the searing pain. The day they were married, the bride's mother wept because it had long been her firm and tested conviction that no worse fate can befall a woman than to marry a Serbian man. 

My grandfather improved his German and studied medicine in Munich while my grandmother, who had a knack for languages, worked as an interpreter at the refugee employment office, translating for those hordes of broken-hearted Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Czechs, Russians, and Ukrainians. One day my grandparents left Germany and took a train to Naples, where they got passage on a ship bound for Australia. The ship was nearly lost on bad seas on the Indian Ocean. The engines died and for a full night and day the seasick boat-people were tossed by storms. But the engines were repaired and they somehow found their way to Sydney, my home, where they gradually acquired some English as well as four Australian babies, known to all the neighbours as little wogs. 

When their second daughter had left home and renounced her parents' migrant aspirations, she walked one day into a Townsville pub where she saw a man, my father. His calmly stubborn independence was the product of a childhood in a neat women's house surrounded by the attentions of three sisters, a mother, two cats, and a wooden female clown that dangled menacingly from a hook in the hall. Since the day of my father's birth, his mother had conspired to make him grow up to be a doctor, and all those years he waited patiently for the chance to disappoint her. So it was that the day before his final high school exam he left school, bought a pack of cigarettes and a motorcycle, and blazed off into the sunset, leaving his disbelieving mother smiling thinly in the empty house, a house that would years later, long after her death, at last bring forth the man-child (my cousin) who would become the doctor of her dreams. But nothing on earth could have persuaded my father to be that doctor. The day my mother met him in the Townsville pub, he was wearing a suit and he looked so miserable that my mother asked him if he had been to a funeral. "No," he said drily. "A wedding." And when he said that she loved him and gave him three sons – one, two, three – my brothers and me. 

One of my brothers retraced his grandfather's steps and dreams from Australia back to medical school in Germany. My other brother studied audiology; his work is about helping people to hear, while mine is about helping them to listen. When I was eight years old I met a girl whom I liked so well that I decided to marry her. She lived in the big brick house next door so I had ample opportunity to study her in her native habitat. When she married me she demanded six babies; I gave her three and then told her, "Woman, enough!"

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