Shannon Bolithoe : A Writing Life

Prologue – The Present

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“It struck me how much the past – not just the past but history and family – was like the ocean tide. It was always the same ocean, but the waves made it fresh and new each time.”  Aimee Friedman, Sea Change.

Prologue – The Present

‘What a pretty cemetery,’ Bruce commented as they parked the car. ‘Did you notice the Monumental Mason just outside the gates?’

‘No, why?’ asked Johanna, looking around vaguely.

‘The sign says they do kitchen benches. How handy is that? When you collect the insurance money after I die, you can order a new kitchen bench and a tombstone from the same place.’

‘Ha ha, Mr. Chuckles,’ Johanna smiled fondly at him as he easily jumped out of the car. Her smile turned into a grimace as she climbed out of the car. The manoeuvre was never a simple one for her as “Henry”, Bruce’s beloved Land rover Defender, was too high off the ground for someone as vertically challenged as she was. She leant against the car and flexed her arthritic knee, trying to get it lubricated and ready for walking. The doctors told her exercise was good for arthritis, but making her knee bend after sitting in the car felt like opening a gate with rusty hinges; it needed some oil first.

She looked up and saw Bruce wandering down the nearest row, reading the headstones as he went. ‘At least it’s not a big cemetery,’ he called out. ‘I was exhausted after the last trip to Rookwood. The history tour was great, though.’

‘Mm,’ murmured Johanna as she followed him, puffing slightly as she caught up with him. She pulled a notebook out of her pocket and checked the details she’d copied from the Internet.

‘Look at this one,’ Bruce said, pointing at the closest headstone. ‘How awful for them; they lost five children, all less than three years old.’

‘It must have been terrible in those days.’ Johanna looked up and read the headstone, shaking her head sadly. ‘Trying to push Marcus out would have killed us both if he’d been born back then. Thank God for caesareans, I say.’

‘It was lucky for me as well.’ Bruce smiled affectionately and putting his arm around her shoulders gave her a quick squeeze. ‘I would have been left alone to bring up the twins by myself.’

‘I don’t know who I would have pitied more: you or them.’ She grinned up at him fondly. ‘Childbirth must have been awful in those days, with no drugs and possibly death at the end of it.’ She pointed at another headstone. ‘Look at this one. I think this girl and her baby must have died in childbirth since they died on the same day. She was only twenty, poor thing,’ she sighed.

Bruce looked around, shading his eyes and surveying the cemetery. ‘How do you want to attack this? Do you know what religion they were? If you do, we can start looking in that section.’

Johanna dragged her attention back to their intended mission.

‘The family was Church of England. I think they converted from Lutheranism when they moved to Australia.’

‘Why don’t we go to the main road and look for the C of E signs?’ Bruce suggested

‘Sounds good.’ As they strolled along the road, they passed row after row of white standard roses, bordered with lavender bushes. Johanna pointed at the bush bordering the far side of the cemetery.

‘Listen. I’m sure that’s a bellbird over there. I love their song. I didn’t realise there were any around here.’

‘There are some lorikeets too and a flock of swallows.’ Bruce stopped and looked up, watching as the screeching group flew across the sky. ‘It’s a beautiful place to be buried in.’

As they neared the far end of the cemetery, Bruce pointed towards a battered sign. ‘Here it is. What about if I start at the furthest row, you start at the closest one, and we can work our way towards each other.’

They wandered up and down the rows, reading the headstones and occasionally calling out to each other the details of any particularly interesting ones: large families, old ages, or early deaths. Bruce always enjoyed it when the men in the graves outlived their wives and made sure to mention any of these when he found them. Although they walked at different speeds, she was able to keep up with his progress since she was a faster reader.

‘I think I’ve found him.’ Johanna exclaimed, after ten minutes’ steady progress. ‘I’m sure it’s him.’ She studied her notes again, matching the details to those on the headstone. Bruce hurried over to her.

‘This is strange.’ Johanna frowned as she studied the headstone. ‘There’s someone else in the grave with him; someone called Lucy Smith. Who on earth is she?’

Bruce looked at the details on the headstone. ‘Was he married? Or could it be his daughter? They have the same last name, but he’s old enough to be her father.’

‘I’ve never heard of any marriage or children, but that doesn’t mean anything since I don’t think my Great-Grandfather saw much of his brother after they were grown up,’ Johanna replied. ‘From what Mum told me Johann disappeared from the family after the war – the First World War, that is. I know he changed his name to Smith, probably because German names weren’t popular back then, but anyone with a name like J. Smith isn’t easy to find in the records. It was lucky they put his full name on the tombstone and the death records, or I doubt I would have been able to find him. It has to be him – the dates are right, and the place is right. Point Clare Cemetery, Johann Smith, 1898-1952.’

‘This is interesting.’ Bruce commented as he read the details on the headstone. ‘Whoever she was, they died on the same day. See, it’s March 25th in 1951 for both of them. I wonder what happened. I wish they’d put more details on the headstones. I prefer the ones we saw in England. Do you remember that one in the cathedral? It gave the woman’s whole life; who her parents, husband, and children were, with a blow-by-blow description of her last illness and where she slept at each stage of it. That’s my kind of gravestone. It doesn’t leave you guessing, like these “accidently killed” ones or, even worse, the ones like this that don’t tell you anything. Poor thing, she wasn’t even 30 when she died.’ Bruce said, changing the subject again. ‘It’s a strange epigram too.’ He read it out loud: “To love is nothing. To be loved is something. But to be loved by the one you love is everything.” I’ve never seen that one before. There’s another note at the bottom as well: “God closed their eyes and broke our hearts.”’

’I think they must have been married. I don’t believe that it’s the sort of wording you would use for a father and daughter. I love the flowers on the grave. I wouldn’t mind something like that on my grave.’ She smiled at the profusion of white and purple daisies covering the mound. ‘It’s much nicer than most of the other graves, with their dull concrete boxes.’

Johanna started snapping photos of the grave and its surroundings with her iPhone. ‘I wonder what happened to them, and who she was?’ she murmured thoughtfully.

Bruce looked around at the other nearby graves to see if there were any others with the same surname. Behind “their” grave, he noticed a massive oleander. It was his least favourite plant and he grimaced in disgust.

‘You better not plant one of those bloody poisonous trees near me when I die,’ he grumbled.

‘What?’ asked Johanna, looking up from her iPhone.

‘An oleander. Look at the disgusting thing. Why would they spoil a perfectly good graveyard with that horrible plant?’

‘Because they’re pretty. Not everyone is as prejudiced against them as you are.’

‘Rubbish.’ Bruce grinned back at her. ‘Just remember; I want a mass planting of daffodils and garlic on my grave.’

‘I suppose it’ll look lovely, even if it won’t smell very nice.’

‘Ho, ho, ho, aren’t you the funny one.’

‘These daisies are much better. Look how pretty they are. They remind me of that song. You know “I’ll give you a daisy a day dear…”’ She hummed the rest of the song.

Bruce didn’t answer. He was already heading off towards another section. Johanna thought it might be the baby’s part since the graves were much smaller than the others she’d seen.

He probably didn’t hear me. He’s getting as deaf as a post.

She followed him, browsing the small headstones sadly until she stopped in front of a double grave, with an old plastic teddy dressed in a sailor suit sitting on it.

‘Bruce, come and have a look at this one.’

He walked back towards her and looked down at the small grave.

‘This is weird. Both of the babies have the same last name, and it says they both died at 18 days old, but one died on the 3rd November 1936, and the other one died on the 9th November 1936. How does that work? Were they twins, cousins?’ She frowned at the anomaly.

‘Cemeteries are full of mysteries, my love. Come on; we’d better head home. You have your own mystery to solve.’ Holding hands, they headed back to the car.

‘You’re right. We could be here all day finding family stories. I need to hit the computer and start researching. I think there might be an interesting story here.’ Johanna could feel the excitement of the hunt rising within her. She loved a challenge when it came to finding family history information. As they walked, she began planning, determined to discover the story behind the lonely grave. Who was the woman in the grave?  Why was her Great-Great-Uncle buried up here on the Central Coast, so far from the rest of the family?  What had happened to him and the young woman? Why did they die on the same day? There were so many questions to answer about her mysterious two-greats-Uncle Johann.


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