Dear Dolly, a Family History
A family history by Florence Statham
My brother and I often called our mother “Mathouse”, or “P’tite Mere” when we were growing up in our native France. Over time, she became “Dear Dolly” for her friends and our extended family and this is how I like to think of her now. Seven years ago, Dolly lost her husband: our stepfather, and for some times she lived alone in their little house, surrounded by vineyards and olive trees. “Mais”, as we called him, died in this beautiful “Land of Oz” that he was so fond of on the 15th April 2007, two days short of his 87th birthday. We all miss him naturally, but my mother particularly, as he was the reason she got up every morning, finding fulfillment in the daily task of caring for him. A few months after the funeral she felt more lonely than ever, disoriented and anxious, and to compound the situation her short term memory was also letting her down. She had lost her life long companion, her soul mate in fact, but she could hardly remember the circumstances of his death and she kept asking me, time and time again, to describe his last moments to her. To help with the grieving process, I started to look for photographs and found nearly a century of her precious memories catalogued “her way” in faded envelopes and cigar boxes of the forties and fifties: old wedding invitations with dinner menus, death notices, pictures of First Communions, little hair locks as well as ancient postcards of family and friends and many photos. This could be a good project for both of us, I thought, and spreading the little containers on the dining table I offered to put the photos in “proper” albums and sort them in order. My mother tried to oblige, but I soon realised that I was confusing her. So I left the memos in the cigar boxes and we talked about what they all meant to her instead.
The questions I was asking now about her childhood and family put a broad smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye that seemed to linger on all day. I was delighted, and the idea of writing her story, our family story, was born right then. She spoke of the many years of her long and adventurous life, remembering what it was like to grow up in France between the two World Wars, then losing her mother prematurely. Marrying my father. In spite of the stressful war time she lived her life to the full and, as it appears, with no regrets. From then on I was on a mission, so to speak, and the french words started to flow from my keyboard but after a couple of pages I stopped, and for the benefit of future generations in Australia, I turned to English to tell this story… Just as one life is born of the other, my story will be following hers tightly and, “pas a pas”, will take us both to this country of wide horizons and natural beauty that is ours now.
On the way, I am strolling through the past and historic sites but I do not claim to be a historian. My “history notes” are merely an exploration through our family backgrounds and my thoughts and curiosity when meeting different cultures as I travel. I expect that those notes will seem a little daunting to our grandchildren but, in my view, they are important to the overall story telling process. The “journal” addition to the narrative was an experimental approach, which I enjoyed as I feel it gives the story some breathing space as well as a valuable perspective on my mother’s character through her present life. Like the brightest of stars, the way she was is still shining through the way she is today in spite of the hazy clouds of lost memories.
I am thankful to my family and in particular to my husband, Richard, for giving me valuable feedback on the project. Also to our oldest son, Sam, always encouraging me and giving me excellent advice on text design as well as many other technical tips for self publishing. Both, he and Richard also proof read the chapters of this story for me. I wrote two drafts: the earlier one, I presented to family members and one dear friend for appraisal, and then I worked on the second draft with a few changes and many additions. So I can safely say now that any remaining inadequacies in this final text are entirely my own.
Florence Leclerc Statham