Conversations with my mother

My mother is 92 years old.

Her mind is sharp. Her stories are rich with detail.

I am interested here in how families remember their own.

I have a letter at home sent by Great Uncle Fred Burgis, from the Western Front. I have his cigarette tin and an Empire Tin. Tonight my mother told me that Great Uncle Fred returned from World War I with tuberculosis and that little Elizabeth, my ‘aunt’, then two years old, caught it from him and died.

How my Nanna must have cried.

But what of my grandfather, Fred’s brother? Do I really know anything about Charles Augustus Burgis? I never met him. I saw a photo of him for the first time some six years ago at Aunty Enid’s house. My father never spoke of him. Not once in my child hood or adult life. We had elegant picture frames for all of our relatives, but not one of him. We had miniature paintings of our family from the 18th Century but not one image of Charles Augustus. My mother told me that he was a drunkard and a womaniser. A chronic gambler. A sometimes violent man. She said that officially he fell down some steps at age forty something and died. No loss, she said. Whilst the police said it was an accident, she knew that he was pushed by his mistress. Aunty Enid had the same story. He deserved it, they both said. He treated my Nanna badly: no money, alcoholic rages. My father once was awoken as a child in the night to flee Melbourne to come and live in Sydney because Charles Augustus couldn’t pay the rent. It had all gone on gambling and alcohol. And my father had to leave school at age thirteen, even though his grades were excellent, in order to get a job in a retail store to pay the bills at home. Melbourne Boys’ High School to Snows Department Store.

And the proof of the depth of my father’s feeling is that we had no alcohol in our home in my years at home. No cooking sherry. Nothing. I didn’t really know it existed. When my brother turned twenty-one some of his mates brought a keg of beer to the party. My mother emptied the entire drum down the laundry sink.

But tonight I heard of the loss of Charles’ little girl. Was he long gone at this point? Already a slave to something less than himself? Or was he, dare I think something different, was he, someone once said he was, charming? Was he the man Nanna once fell in love with?

I admire my father greatly. He treated everyone in our family with fairness and respect. He never lost his temper. He loved my mother.

Some violence must have happened in him at some point. Some utter rebellion against his father’s values.

And yet, who was Charles?

My father never said anything about him, bad or good. It was as if he didn’t exist.