I was introduced over the weekend to The Curse of Mary Kielly. Mary Kielly’s curse, I was told, plagues the women of my paternal grandmother’s line, the Lightfoots, a name I’ve always loved because of another story, one that my grandmother has told since I was young. My grandmother married a Wright when she was sixteen, and for months afterwards would accidentally sign her name as Wrightfoot, the muscle-memory of her hand taking over halfway through.
I was at a family wedding in Belmore, in Sydney’s Western Suburbs, in one of those specialty function centres with cubic chandeliers that shook each time a souped-up car tore past with a bassline drowning out its engine. I spent the evening, unexpectedly, collecting pieces of family lore; sparked off, I think by the display the bride, my cousin, had made on the long front table raised above the dance floor. There were the wedding photos of the bride’s and groom’s parents, and each pair of grandparents. I recognised the photo of my grandparents as the one my grandfather had carried in his wallet for almost seventy years. He’s still long and lean from his time in the army, they’re holding hands and striding, purposefully. I hadn’t know it was a wedding photo, because there’s no white dress, no flowers. Although the Curse of Mary Kielly is evident, once you know what to look for.
That’s the first piece of family lore: I knew my grandmother had married at sixteen; we didn’t know until my eldest uncle retired and started looking into the family history that she must have been pregnant at the time – he realised he was born just six months after the wedding. I knew my father had a much older, adopted brother, who was just two years older than my grandmother; we’d always assumed it was a story had something to do with the war, a friend who had been killed, something like that. We didn’t find out until last year that my grandfather had married an older woman, a widow, during shore leave when he was barely twenty; that she’d died, and he’d formally adopted her surviving son; that the son had gone to the same school as my grandmother’s younger brother; that when my grandparents met, working in a paint factory in Tempe, my grandmother’s parents had disapproved of her marrying someone who’d already had a wife, and had a son.
I didn’t know until the weekend that there’s no wedding photo because there was no wedding ceremony, that all my grandparents were allowed to do was sign the papers at the registry, and this photo of them walking away afterwards is the closest thing they ever had.
I’ve always had the impulse to collect pieces of family lore; in some ways, they let us imagine the people we think we know most intimately as they were before we met them, before they’d settled in the roles they fulfill for us as grandfather, wacky aunty, uncle-who’s-slightly-wrong (everyone has one of those). But there’s also something undeniable, almost elemental, in the impulse to sift through these small histories for the accidents and coincidences that become something much more, the place from which we come.
That adopted older brother, my Uncle Jimmy, grew up in Newtown, where I live now, and always asks me how I’m going ‘in the old country.’ I found out on the weekend that my new house – I moved three months ago – is on the same street as his childhood home, the one my grandfather stayed in with his first wife. I found out that the high-walled church I walk past every day was famous in the 1940s because a young girl’s body was found, thrown over that wall beside the vestry. I love that church because it’s opposite a primary school, and each morning I see strings of hipster men, with full beards, skinny jeans and ugly beanies, holding pink backpacks in one hand and the chubby fists of their children in the other.
I’ve always loved this about places, how the people that inhabit them can layer them with histories and meaning, how the symbolic shape of them changes with the people that surround them, although the physical structures do not. So too with family lore: I love the way it imagines patterns, traces that are passed down alongside DNA.
It was my aunt, in the end, who told me about Mary Kielly. She’d been to a Lightfoot funeral some months ago, accompanying my grandmother; she said she’d never known that much about the Lightfoots, because my grandmother’s parents’ disapproval of the marriage had trickled down to the resulting children as well. At the funeral, she was approached by an ancient woman, boxy and sharp-eyed, who’d looked her and my grandmother up and down and said, ‘You’re Lightfoots, I can tell. You’ve got the Curse of Mary Kielly.’
Mary Kielly, she explained, was the wife of one of the first Lightfoot men in Australia, who was sent by his family to meet a ‘wedding ship’ in Sydney, and bring back a bride who was English, Protestant, and literate, as befitted the family as they saw themselves. He came home accompanied by Mary Kielly, an Irish Catholic farmhand, who couldn’t read and write, but who had, as the story goes, an impressively large bosom: her curse.
I love this story for what it says of legacy, not so much an enduring legacy of busty women, but the legacy of story: that this narrative has survived Mary Kielly, whoever she may have been, that the story endures.
There’s a line in a Gwen Harwood poem that states “We live two lives./ One in the world, and one/ in what others write about us.” I think family lore works like this too – we live one life in what others tell of us, over and over, until the stories have become almost mythic, their origins forgotten, but they still beat away like a bloodline in our shared memories.