On June 12, 2021 I wrote a thread on Twitter outlining what had happened in my earlier years. It was my birthday and the year that marked the 50th anniversary of my parents’ suicides. More recently I stated (perhaps unwisely) I’d write a more comprehensive account. This is Part I – The Background.
In writing this, I’m not looking for condolences or sympathy and some readers may even consider some of my phrasing rather harsh or too clinical. What is done, is done. Nothing can reverse the passage of time or the events of the past for me personally. I’m interested in the scientific aspects of my journey in the context of my chronic illness. Can my experience add to a pool of knowledge that might help others?
Turning 66 seemed significant in some way that I couldn’t quite quantify at the time. I then realised it had something to do with family history. While many readers know my parents both suicided four months apart when I was 15 (so the 50th anniversary fell in early 2021) I’d never shared much of the rest of the story. Notice my mother’s name is Sheila. The spelling below is wrong.
Let’s take a look at Dad’s side of the family. Dad was an illegitimate child. In 1920 this was not socially acceptable at all. His mother, Irene Mary Dunphy, refused to put him up for adoption, placing him in an orphanage with the intention of bringing him home when she could. in 1920 this must have been quite a stand for Irene to make, but she stood her ground.
Bear in mind we are talking the 1920s. WWI had barely finished, The Great Depression was looming. I have very little factual information from that time, but I do have a letter from Irene to the orphanage, dated February 1923.
The letter ends with “love and kisses to my wee pet”. By this time Irene had married and was Mrs Fahey. The letter seems to imply Irene may have been paying for my father to be cared for, but I have no confirmation of that. The cheque she mentions may have been a contribution, rather than payment of a fee.
The next communication I have is dated 1930. My father was born in Dunedin, the 1923 letter was sent from a Christchurch address, yet the 1930 letter is stamped as being received in Wellington. It was sent from Nelson. For those not familiar with New Zealand geography, Dunedin is in the south of the South Island, Christchurch is mid-South Island, Nelson is in the north of the South Island and Wellington is in the North Island. Did my father move around? Had he been home at some stage and returned to an orphanage due to the depression? I have no idea.
In the late 1990s, one of Dad’s half-brothers tracked down my brother, so clearly Dad had not been a secret. The children Irene had later were well aware of his existence.
Irene died in a later childbirth so Dad stayed in the orphanage until he was 15, then went to work as a farm hand. Then off to WWII. He drove a tank.
Mum’s history is unclear. Her mother, Constance Eva Beck, was one of 13 children. Constance moved from New Zealand to Australia and married an Englishman, Charles Henry Lacey. The marriage took place in 1919.
Constance was 38 when Mum was born. Mum was their second child.
The first child, a son, was stillborn (noted on the above birth certificate). There were no more children born after my mother.
As a child, I was always told Charles died when my mother was 12. Despite much seeking, I have never found a death certificate for Charles in Australia or England. I was searching for a death certificate because at the time I had discovered being the granddaughter of an Englishman meant I was entitled to a four year visa to live and work in England. I thought that might be quite an adventure, but I needed his death certificate to apply for the visa. In 1935 an English passport got a person into so many countries: if he did do a runner, he could have died anywhere. I had no intention of doing a global search! I did try Canada as an option, but it was at that point I decided I could be searching for years and never find anything.
Update: Since publishing yesterday, a death record has been found in NSW for Charles Henry Lacey.
This paragraph is now effectively obsolete, given the above update, however I am retaining it as it is part of the history I lived with: the unknown. I have no memory of my mother and grandmother ever referring to Charles in affectionate terms, he just “died”. Of course, back in circa 1935 if men deserted the family, it was more socially acceptable to say they died than to admit they had run away. Whether Charles died or ran is still an unsolved mystery. It does not seem as if my mother and grandmother were poor, but that may have been all smoke and mirrors. One day I might get around to trying to solve the mystery again, but at this time there is quite enough going on: not only my own health, but the health of other family members.
Despite Constance being one of 13 children, my siblings and I NEVER knew any of those relatives. That strikes me as odd. What happened? Why did she move from New Zealand to Australia? Circa 1918/19 that would have been quite an independent thing for a single woman to do. Constance and Charles married in 1919 but when and where did they meet? During the war? So much is unknown about their history.
Constance later returned to New Zealand to live. Mum stayed in Sydney, but did go back to New Zealand to visit Constance. That is how she met Dad.
As can be seen, neither of my parents had a “white picket fence” childhood themselves. I have been told by psychologists that studies show two people from dysfunctional backgrounds are not an ideal match for a stable and successful relationship.
There are two health factors I believe are critically important. The first is my father’s service in WWII. Dad was likely suffering PTSD. There was not much support offered in those days, as we know.
Mum was on cortisone for most of her adult life. This was supposedly for eczema and asthma, but my doctors and I strongly suspect she had psoriasis, not eczema. We can’t now prove this. Psychosis is a known adverse event of cortisone use.
Steroid-induced psychosis is a well-documented phenomenon. It usually occurs with oral systemic steroid treatment and is more common at higher doseshttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6793974/
Against these backgrounds my parents married. Not only did they marry, they lived in total isolation. Our home and farm sheds are the lower group of buildings in the image below.
This was a returned soldiers’ settlement farm.
There were conditions for eligibility for farms, including previous farming experience and how much personal money the applicant had available to put into the farm. On qualifying to apply for a farm, the applicant could choose which farm settlement(s) he would prefer and, if there were more than the required number of applicants (which was usual) for that settlement, a ballot was held which participants could attend and know the results immediately.https://www.theprow.org.nz/yourstory/farm-settlements-for-returned-soldiers/#.Y79YcnZBzrc
When I say isolation I do mean isolation: no phone, no electricity, no car. This photo is my father in his allowed form of transport in the early days: horse and buggy.
Once I was born, my parents were allowed a car, phone arrived about then too. I stole this phone image from the internet: it is an exact replica of the phone we had. We were on a party line and our ring was a long and two shorts. “D” in morse code.
Electricity took many years longer, but we did get a generator before the power lines arrived!
My parents were married on June 6, 1953. The main photo, above, coloured by a very kind Twitter contact.
We’ve reached the point in the story where my parents are married: I’m two years and six days away from making an appearance.
Stay tuned for Part II – My Childhood.
9 thoughts on “The Background”
So interesting Robyn…thanks
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Thank you Robyn for sharing. It must have been difficult. My Dad suffered WW2 Melancholia they called it. Also I was result Mum’s affair 1944 Timing close but not for 9lb bub with full head of hair. Stay strong & thanks for being you.
Fascinating hearing peoples stories
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Fascinating. Thank you for sharing Robyn; I look forward to part II
Looking forward to the next instalment. You have got me thinking now about my own background.
It is up, Sharon
[…] is Part II – continuing on from The Background. This details parts of the journey, it is not comprehensive. Partly because it was traumatic, but […]
[…] Part I – The Background […]
[…] answer to that can be found in my recently published family history trilogy, starting with “The Background“. In case of “too long; did not read” reactions, short version is my mother […]