Personal Narrative Essay

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Ada had married my grandfather David in a Melbourne suburban church in April 1934 aged twenty-one. By May 1935 she gave birth to their first child Hannah. Ada wrote the brief note above in November 1936 pregnant with her second child. The style and tone of this letter indicate Ada was at ease with her life talking of the warm weather, her fruitful garden, and good health. It gave little hint of the events that would occur in a few short weeks that radically changed our family’s life. This is a personal family narrative which traces Ada’s life and her absence from our family that had begun long before I was born. It maps my personal journey and the processes of discovery motivated by trying to understand what happened to Ada, why she did not live with my grandfather Pop and why we saw her so infrequently. The attempts to unravel my family’s history through memory work is a strange and incomplete process. My childhood memories of Ada are intermingled with the stories my father told about his upbringing without her. Ada’s absence was deeply embedded in our family’s folklore concerning events that had occurred long ago in a distant past before I was born. The endeavour to unravel the episodes and circumstances of our family’s past is made more troublesome by the secrets, lies, and half-truths embedded in the family stories we came to know. (Ref: Add notes to the refs: Graeme Davison, Ancestors p102 and Tanya Evans, 2011, Secrets and Lies p.68. See Colborne, Journal of Family History article for the style of notes used in the references). These were intended, understandably, to protect the family from the shame, stigma and the taboo nature of Ada’s disappearance into a mental hospital. Such complexity and layers of stories, shifting memories that fade and re-emerge with renewed poignancy, opposing perceptions and varied experiences of family members found that memory work is a powerful method for uncovering the past, and yet memory work alone, in my family’s case, could not satisfy or demystify the truth Ada’s circumstances. (See Kuhn, Family secrets, p7,8-9 on the uses of memory work in her own family history research). As a feminist historian, investigating Ada as my female ancestor, reflects a high number of
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