A Heartbreaking Story of Staggering Weepiness

This is the sort of story that I want to wrap in a ribbon and present to a writer far better equipped than I to tell it. It is the story of terrible heartbreak. It is a family story. My family stories are quite often leadeningly depressing, so if it all becomes a bit much for you, I have started with advice given to James Boswell in 1763 by his friend Dempster on how to overcome depression; you might want to bring it to mind once or twice. Boswell was in Utrecht, taking in the sights of Europe and becoming a man when the “black beast” of depression settled upon him. He received letters of encouragement from his mates and over a period of a few months turned his mood around.

“So soon as you have huddled on your clothes, open your chamber window and throw your head out, keeping your mouth wide open [!] in order to feast on the fresh air. In this posture remain for near the space of a quarter of an hour. Then proceed to bodily exercise by dancing and capering [!] about your room for near twenty-five minutes”.

When things get heavy, remember Dempster’s words and push on. Caper a little. Open your mouth. Feast on the air. There is an almost happy ending. I promise.

Dance a little. Caper even.

Dance a little. Caper even.

My father was an extraordinary man. He laughed a lot. He was one of ‘the boys’. He was a long-distance runner and had a club full of friends with silly nicknames. He was Biggles. There was Lockey, Biscuit, Burger, Boysie. They drank too much beer together twice a week and in between ran unimaginable distances around the country. Once, “The Boys” organised a video birthday greeting for their Biggles from Samantha Fox. Sigh. He couldn’t imagine where I had come from, shy, reading poetry in black clothes. He loved me ferociously.

There was another side to my dad though. Every night before he went to sleep he would pray for his loved ones – dead and alive – a long chant. He would start with prayers for the living. “Look after Tracy, Granny and Grandpa, Glennie, Rae….”. Then would come the time for his list of ghosts. He once told me toward the end of his life, that this list had become so long that he sometimes fell asleep before he got to the end of it.

“Look after Geoff”. He didn’t always chant Geoff’s name. Geoff was his father who he had discovered dead in the family garage at the age of 11. 13 years after coming back from WWII, Geoff had not managed to outrun his beast and gassed himself.

“Look after Graeme”. Graeme was his son, my brother. Graeme was killed by my mother in a post-partum psychosis.

“Look after Marlene”. My mother, who committed suicide after taking my brother’s life.

“Look after Kath”. Kathleen was my dad’s mother, the dancer from previous posts. Kath jumped from a second storey balcony six months after my mother and brother died. Life is sometimes quite unbearable.

“Look after…”

Caper. Caper. Caper.

Caper. Caper. Caper.

But life was not unbearable for my dad and I. We laughed. We were short on family but we married. We cried a bit. Twice he wrote me goodbye letters and once he saw my mother’s ghost in a rainbow halo of light. Sometimes we had reason to need open-mouthed fresh air feasting but mostly we were the tough guys in the room. We were the rocks; we were the islands. In the end it was cancer that was unbearable for him.

A few lines from a letter my dad wrote me when he knew he was dying. That's him on the chair and me on his lap.

A few lines from a letter my dad wrote me when he knew he was dying. That’s him on the chair and me on his lap.

After his death, I woke up one morning and decided that I had rather less family than I needed, so I started hunting down ancestors. I have built the most extraordinary family tree made up of uniformly “ordinary” people; there’s no royal secret here. I now have hundreds and thousands of family members stretching back in time all over the world. It’s why I love history. I need a framework on which to hang this freshly laundered family of mine. So finally, I too can now fall asleep to my own ghost-chant. Geoff, Graeme, Marlene, Kath, Eric, Arthur, Thomas, Richard, William, Sarah, Edwin, Ethel, Mary…Of course they are all ghosts, but then something amazing happened.

I received this letter in my inbox. It was addressed to Mrs Violet Farrow. The letter was written in September of 1949. My dad was 2 years-old at the time. It first arrived in South Africa all the way from New Zealand, only to be ‘returned to sender, address changed, new address unknown’. When it arrived in South Africa in my inbox over 60 years later it finally reached its recipient. Kind of. It didn’t reach Mrs Farrow who has long-since passed away, it reached her great granddaughter, me!

                                                                                                                                                                       Sept. 10th 1949

My dear Mrs Farrow,

It is with great regret I am writing to tell you of my dear Mother’s death last week. On going through her personal effects I found your address written on a piece of paper, the only address in fact, she had apparently destroyed all old correspondence, photos etc.

Since her death I have learned something of her life in S. Africa from her sister Elvira who is still living, which has greatly saddened me as I had known nothing. I am deeply grieved by my bereavement and if you are someone whom she once loved and who loved her as I think you must be, I should be so glad if you would write to me in acknowledgement of this letter.

I have no idea whether this letter will ever find you as your address may be changed but I do so hope and pray it arrives safely. And it will be such a great comfort if you will reply. I shall anxiously await news of you.

Very sincerely yours,


The letter was sent to me by M’s son, R. In the year and more that has passed since we were first in contact, we have pieced together The Heartbreaking Story of Staggering Weepiness. M, although she didn’t know it, sent this letter to her half sister. Their mother Ethel was born in New Zealand. In 1889, she married Charles, the son of a New Zealand-based missionary.

Charles and Ethel moved to South Africa, where Charles worked as a manager at the Singer Sewing Machine factory in Durban. They had four children together before, in about 1900, Ethel left Charles, her four young children (the youngest was 3 and the eldest 9) and South Africa with another man. One can only imagine the circumstances under which a woman would leave her young family. Was Charles cruel, I wonder? Was the new man, Frederick, that charming? The end of the story remains whatever her motivation, her children were told that she had passed away. Life went on for them in South Africa. Life went on for Ethel and Fred in New Zealand too. They had two children, M, the letter-writer, and Elvira, her sister mentioned. And life went on.

The Great War, The Great Depression, World War II, The Immorality Act, hippies, sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, The Cold War, Apartheid, the Soweto Riots, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, South Africa’s first democratic elections, I had children, R had grandchildren, PTA meetings, so many burnt meals. Life went on until June 2013.

And so it is that I find myself wondering what to pack for a winter trip to New Zealand to meet R and the rest of the family. We are to put right something that went wrong over 100 years ago! It is an extraordinary story. I can’t believe it’s mine. Soon I will not need to chant the names of ghosts; I will have real living family members to populate my prayers. Although, to be fair, I’m not sure that I believe in prayer. I do believe in a little bit of magic though and I believe that, given time, even the most broken pieces of ourselves can be glued back together.

71 thoughts on “A Heartbreaking Story of Staggering Weepiness

  1. weepy yes, but with a glimmer of hope at the end… like the best stories. beautifully written, thank you for sharing it, especially your father’s photo/letter.

  2. This was a wonderful story to share. You are very lucky to have found new family! I know the feeling. I lost 2 brothers and father in a matter of 2 1/2 years. Mom passed some 25 years ago. Amazing how fast one’s family can shrink! But before passing my father handed down to me the genealogy that he had been working on for years. How much he would have loved to have found his relatives from Germany. He never found them, but I was found by one and now have the connection to a whole other world.
    Enjoy your trip and union/reunion and please post how it all went 🙂

    • Thank you and I will. I leave mid-July. Of course New Zealand in July is going to be so cold for a thin-blooded South African (even one from the frosty Highveld) that I certainly won’t be able to type with frozen fingers while there 🙂 Check in in August for a follow-up.

  3. I can’t read this now!! The early sales pitch has put me off…..It sounds like I need a good sleep and be full of energy in case I am sapped dry.

    I am not any the less intrigued though.

  4. Thank you for sharing, Tracy. Your story touched deep parts of my heart. Dealing with people’s stories on a daily basis, what I sometimes hear in that sacred space is heartbreaking beyond words,enough to leave your mouth gaping like a goldfish of note by the likes of Sir Dempster’s advice. What is even more astonishing to me than these staggering stories of weepiness though, is the resilience of the individuals who by some amazing touch of the gods manage to make it through these tales with sensibilities and soul intact. Extraordinary!

  5. Wow. What a wonderful, terribly sad, story. I think I need a deep breath before I go back and read it again. How amazing that R managed to contact you!
    I wish you buckets of magic glue on your trip to NZ (and I am very much looking forward to the update post).

    • I can’t wait to live the update! Although wait I must ’cause crikey it’s a long flight from Jo’burg to Wellington. I’m actually going to be spending a few days in a Sydney hotel on the way. I have a hotel fetish! The idea of spending three days and nights in a towelling robe, eating room service meals, using all of the little freebie potions and lotions EVERYday, is just blissful. I might even venture through the botanical gardens to the Opera House. Maybe. Although after clearing customs and those terrifying Border Security people, I might just have to have several little lie-downs. Horizontally. On my king-size bed 🙂

      • Oh my, without children too? That makes it a different kind of trip altogether. 🙂 A few days alone in a hotel with nothing to do does sound like one version of heaven!
        (King-sized bed, with chocolates… 😀 )

      • A trip without the family is one of mixed feelings isn’t it? I enjoy it, but I spend the whole time feeling as though I have forgotten something of great importance. Keys? Yep. Phone? Yep. Bag? Yep. What is that nagging feeling! Oh, I know…..

  6. This makes me pleased to be living now – it is so much easier to keep contact. About 30 years ago my father received a letter from a cousin he didn’t know he had, in Australia. My sister & brother were able to make contact, and with Skype & email, arrange a meeting with his children. Pete’s grandfather married twice, and moved to Canada, and all the Canadian family from Canada and some of their children have stayed with us, and vice versa. So from being the only member of my family in SA (not even a second or third cousin, let alone anything closer) I have family all over the world. (In Europe too, but that’s another story.)

    • Yes, thank god for the internet. Without Facebook, I would have no social life at all 🙂 As a not quite yet recovered aerophobe, however, I am still rather taken with the idea sea travel.

      The teeny tiny little plane we took from Mahe to Praslin though might have helped with the recovery. If you can survive a flight in an aeroplane that sounds like it’s going to pop as the engine reaches full-throttle for take-off, I think you can survive anything!

  7. Beautifully written, terribly sad (weepy) story. This is why I too love history. Every family has its own tales, some wonderful, some heartbreaking. Enjoy your journey and new found family members. Above all, remember to occasional feast on the air and get some exercise by capering and dancing.

  8. I have just been reading the “Unexplained Mysteries” component of my RSS Feed Reader…you have to compete with
    1. “UFO flies into Mexico’s Popocatepetl volcano”
    2. “Man stung to death by 40 000 killer bees
    3. “Man attempts to paralyse himself”. This last one needs a little clarification because the poor man apparently suffers from a “rare disorder that leads him to believe his limbs do not belong to his body”…
    Go Ahead Mrs 23Thorns…Your turn…
    After reading the first stanza of your wonderful post I fear that Mr Boswells black beast might be related to number 3 on my Unexplained Mysteries list. I will remember open mouthed capering this weekend whenever I feel the stress of my “Mother and Daughter” bonding weekend starting to rise. Most probably when we are in a supermarket somewhere and my daughters are taking an inordinate amount of time comparing the ingredients on packets of rice flour (“IT’S RICE…IT’S GROUND RICE…JUST BUY ONE!”). One way or the other I will be relieved of my motherly duties if I use Mr Bothwell’s most innovative and useful technique. I fear my daughters may not talk to me for the rest of the day BUT swings and roundabouts Mrs 23Thorns; I will at least get to retreat to the respite of the car to hum loudly and irritate no-one but myself with my impatience. You certainly know how to lead a girl into your posts…I have just read your post and I don’t know quite what to say Mrs 23Thorns. There is a time for slack jawed open mouthed cavorting indeed but this isn’t one such time. I never lost a family member to mental illness. I lost most of mine to alcohol and a single minded need to eradicate the black beast come what may. My own father was known to ride elephants on a dare but he and I never managed to share that amazing bond that you had with your father. I found out once (from my drunken father who couldn’t take it back the next morning in the cold sober light of day) that my mother had given birth to a child before him and before me. She was 15 and never spoke about it with any of us and took her “secret” to the grave. I was the first of my siblings but there was one before me. I had always wondered why she undertook her genealogy with such fervour. I now know. We humans have a base and primal need to belong to each other. To find a sense of purpose and a solace in our common condition. We make sense of the world and the consolidated arse kicking’s that it gives us by casting our eyes further afield and seeing that we all suffer from the same malaise, it’s just some of us seem to get 2 boots. You have gone from Mrs 23Thorns to Tracy in one post. You must be one hell of a writer to do that to a jaded middle aged hippy who has never met you. My hat is off to your story and more importantly, to the optimism that shines through this post. Your dad had it in bucket loads and he obviously passed it on to you. Some things are more precious than gold. Have an amazing trip to New Zealand Tracy. Take your hopes, your dreams and your genes for a spin around that bracing air. Try to limit your open mouthed cavorting to the times when the scenery is going to blow your mind and fellow tourists will smile and nod in agreement. Have the best time and hopefully you will find a bucket load of boot salve in New Zealand 🙂

    • You could combine 15 minute open-mouthed sessions with a Prancercising caper. You can be sure to earn a little alone time with the combo.

      Life can be cruel, not least of all to men who try to paralyse themselves (!) and the daughters of alcoholics, but a healthy dose of bloody-minded you’re-not-going-to-rain-on-my-parade-ness generally works in getting one through the bad times. That and the giggles, which the 23thornses do rather often. Sometimes it is the laughter of the almost insane as it was today when I sent 23 off with our son to get said son a haircut. I said goodbye to a beautiful Little Lord Fontleroy. Floppy blonde fringe. Beautiful blue eyes. What greeted me on their return was Nazi Youth. He is now so white supremacist looking, I can only giggle.

      Cheers for the comment.

      • At least he didn’t con Mr 23Thorns into thinking a Mohawk was the new school regulation haircut ;). I agree, humour is the salve that is almost as good as asskicking salve. I dose myself up to the eyeballs liberally on a daily basis…I am positively drunk on the stuff by mid morning and pretty much anything that my life hands me (after an initial kneejerk reaction period of COURSE 😉 ) gets blended up into some kind of reason to laugh. My (now adult) children are all like me and as Steve is a latecomer into the equation, he sometimes has to go and have a lie down whenever we all get together ;). Cheers for sharing this morning. It must have felt incredibly cathartic.

  9. Capering and fresh air are the answer to so many problems.
    Your dad sounds like an amazing man.
    Have a truly wonderful trip. You could wear all your cardigans at once, that would do the job.

    • I also have silk scarves to burn. 15 cardies and 7 scarves! I think we’ve hit fashion gold here. There is the added bonus too of all 22 of those together taking less space in my suitcase than 1 of those horrid puffer jackets.

  10. Holy Guacamole, Tracy — I do, indeed, feel in need of capering, as you must have, too. Best of luck meeting “R” — hopefully being wrapped in the warm embrace of family (either physically or metaphorically — I hope, for your sake, both) will reduce your need for cold weather gear; you have, it seems, weathered enough.

  11. “He loved me ferociously.” It is this line that stuck with me, that contain so much more than those four little words. I have a dearth of family, none of whom love/d me ferociously. Less is more, as a wise man once said.

    And I cannot imagine a better writer of your story. It is the ability to maintain a sense of humour amidst literally unbearable sadness that makes a great writer, and a great human being.

    The literary debut of your voice, as with that of the voice of your persona, has been a resounding success and it’s time for that book.

    I love you madly, madly.

  12. ‘He loved me ferociously.’ Those words struck me too. As a poetry writer/editor why wouldn’t they? Love them. Looking forward to meeting you Tracy. I am R’s sister, C,
    living in Surfers Paradise, with years and years of inward ‘weeping’ for a sense of home with all its connotations. When young, I felt I had to leave NZ to find my place of creativity. You have suffered, but how warming to live each day with the strength of a father’s honest and sincere love inside you – my father’s love was complicated. R has just phoned and is so looking forward to seeing you. He wants me to come over to meet you. I will, and too, look forward to being with you..Love C. .

  13. I just remembered why I like to follow your blogs. Sometimes you just have a way with words that feels like you are speaking to me. With a bit of trouble in my own household, after reading this I can’t wait to get home and embrace the love ones I have.

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  16. Caroline Glen, NZ granddaughter of second relationship/marriage.
    I have just written a story of Nana but no realise she may have travelled back to NZ with Frederick? I’ll try and copy and paste.

  17. Just reread this post and have to tell you a story about fatherly love. Before I met Pete I had a string of rather dubious,(but gorgeous or just fun) boyfriends. Always knew my Dad loved me, but not how much until Pete asked him if he could marry me and Dad said”0h, thank God” entirely involuntarily!

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