Sharyn and I have been close friends since fifth grade. I have a hand-full of, what I would consider to be life-long childhood friends- and of those, Sharyn is the one most like me. We've always had a symbiotic type of connection. She is the first friend I remember validating my imagination and sharing my creative side. We had a wonderful teacher in sixth grade; Mr Lewis. He had noticed early on in the school year that Sharyn and I were somehow different than the other kids. We thought contrarily to many of our peers and liked to express ourselves in ways not typical of eleven year olds. He loved that we wrote limericks for fun and made up absurd plays to perform for the class. Often times, when the rest of the class was working on a particular project (usually math) he would randomly send us off to write something. I've always credited Mr Lewis for encouraging me to embrace my strengths and listen to my own voice. Since then, Mr Lewis has written several "math based" books. As Math is clearly his area of expertise, I appreciate him for seeing that I (*I can't speak for Sharyn) was never going to embrace math, and saw enough creativity in me/us to nurture our innovative souls.
Sharyn came to Los Angeles five years ago, and though we hadn't spoken in twenty years, it was easy to pick back up as if we had just seen each other last week. We looked up Mr Lewis and gave him a call- just to tell him that we thought of him often- and that he had made an impact on us- even though I still hate math...
Sharyn was the obvious and only choice to accompany me on the rest of the trip. She seems to be able to find a comfort zone in most situations- no matter how odd- and I always know that she can hold her own. Best of all, we have always shared the same ludicrous sense of humor. I quite like solitude- and I'm not afraid of an occasional solo road trip. However, the thought of driving through the South Australian wilderness and Victoria's Great Ocean Road alone, and on the left side of the road, was daunting. Sharyn was more than willing to come and do the driving while I picked up the lodging and incidentals. It was a perfect plan. We celebrated our reunion by spending the last evening having a pub dinner and planning out our route.
The next morning my pre-paid local mobile phone rang promptly at 6 am. It was Malcolm. He wanted to see if we were on our way yet and proceeded to give me advice on how to best avoid hitting wombats on the open road. I thanked him for the advice- but shared that we had no intention of getting an early start. As per usual, he ignored my thinly veiled signal that he had woken us up, and continued to carry on. I switched the mobile to "handsfree" so that Sharyn could get a sample of Malcolm's dispatch. He made sure to tell me that when we got to "Loch Ard Gorge" to keep in mind that all of his upstairs furniture had been built from the wreckage of the doomed ship that had sank there in 1878 after a three month trip from Europe. I watched as Sharyn's eyes and mouth slowly opened while, simultaneously, her head ratcheted towards the disembodied voice. He also mentioned that we should stop and see Timboon. I have been able to prove through research that his Campbell forbears had, indeed, lived there in the early to mid twentieth century. The existence of the "Timboon Motor Company" and it's co-founder (Reynaldo Ansetti) had yet to come to light. This was delightful timing as she had spent most of her formative years in Cobden and Camperdown- less than an hour from Timboon and Loch Ard Gorge. She was quite familiar with the area.
I wasn't used to receiving random phone calls from Malcolm. In fact, as he doesn't have the means to Skype, so randomly cold calling just to say hi would be an expense that he obviously isn't willing to absorb. The fact that he could track me down with a somewhat local number was new and I wasn't sure how I felt about that. I had met him in person, looked him in the eyes and collected his DNA. Essentially, as far as he was concerned, I had reached my goal. It was clear that he was happy to carry on making up stories and I just didn't know if I had it in me to carry on pretending that I believed him.
With a promise to call him that evening, I managed to end the phone call. I looked over at Sharyn. She was shaking her head- her mouth still agape. "Well, that was amazing", she said. Yes. Yes it was.
At last we set out on our "Thelma and Louise" style adventure. The first leg was to traverse the Western Highway out of Adelaide and through the vast South Australian "wilderness". Now, as a city girl, wilderness is, to me, any place that seems to have miles and miles between man made structures. The thought of living somewhere like that gives me anxiety. Not sure why. While I enjoy solitude- isolation is scary. We passed the time with lively conversation and numerous stops to refill our junk food stash. Within those few hours I'm pretty sure I devoured more chicken flavored Twisties, waxy banana flavored "bananas", Musk Lifesavers and savory crackers called "Shapes" than one should consume in about a year. I was reliving the flavors of childhood- all at once.
|The first of many "middle aged women" selfies|
We arrived at Warnambool around 5 and easily found the hotel that I had pre-booked online. The only other time I had ever been there was as a teenager- also with Sharyn and her parents. We ate at the restaurant in the hotel and turned in relatively early. Thus began our nightly ritual of turning out the lights and reliving the days events- all the while laughing like a couple of teenagers. It's such a comfort to know that some things never change.
I woke up the next morning feeling butterflies of anticipation over meeting my cousin Barb- and her mother Iris. Iris is my grandmother Arlene's younger sister. These were the first Brants I was to meet. Barbara is essentially the family historian so I knew that she would have a lot to share- but I most anticipated looking into Iris' eyes and tell her how long I had been waiting for this day.
It was a short twenty minute drive to Barb's home on the outskirts of Warnambool. We stopped to pick up some hostess treats and arrived at the charming and remote property to find Iris standing on the front porch waiting for us. She is 88 years old- tiny, relies on a walker for mobility- but is gorgeous and sharp as a tack. I hadn't known what to expect and I was so pleasantly surprised by her insight and candor. She began by telling me how much she loved reading my blog. She said that she's a sucker for a good biography- and that I really knew how to end with a cliff-hanger. I was so flattered that she had been reading- and the compliments were icing on the cake. While Barb settled us in and plied us with tea and sweets, we proceeded to peruse some pictures. Malcolm's album was first and Iris was extremely helpful in identifying some of the "mystery people". She told me that because of the age difference that she hadn't spent much of her youth around Arlene. I got the sense that Gertrude (their mother) had thought that Arlene was a bit of a "wild child" and had done her best to shield her youngest daughter from her oldest. She shared that she had always admired her older sisters beauty and style- but was clearly not a fan of the pictures of her red hair that she wore later in life. Judging from the photos Arlene was a flashy siren- while Iris was a classic ingenue. Arlene wore red lipstick and movie star sunglasses. Iris was all chiffon and doe-eyes. Barb's collection was next- and what a gold mine. While she hasn't utilized the internet as much as me- she has clearly done years of foot-work. There were pictures of Gertrude that looked like early modeling shots, maps of family properties, official birth, death and marriage certificates. I did my best to take pictures of as many as I could- but I quickly ran out of storage on my phone. Having Sharyn there as my "wing man" proved beneficial as I had an extra camera and set of ears. Later she would be able to recount something that she had heard in the room that I had missed- or just remind me of something that I had forgotten. I really don't know how I would have done this without her.
When it was time to leave Iris got to her feet, drew me close to her and looked into my eyes. "Well, it's been wonderful to be able to finally reconnect with a piece of my sister. This is a great way to go out." I won't speculate on the latter part of that statement- but I did take the whole comment as a heartfelt gift. After thanking Barb for all of her help and opening her family and home to us, we were on our way. We were headed for the Great Ocean Road- with a quick side trip to Timboon- and I couldn't wipe the smile off of my face.