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My Big Birthday Wish
How did the time go so fast?
It really does seem just like a couple of years back when I had a splendid birthday party the year I was seven.
I can tell you the names of the children who attended, the dress I wore and how my little brother cried when he couldn't have more than one bowl of ice cream. How my Uncle Ernie wowed the crowd in his cowboy clothes, with his songs and lariat tricks and how my mother's hair shone gold as she leaned over to light the candles.
Where did that time go? Now I'm approaching a big birthday and wondering why nobody warned me about the deadly speed of passing years. Sometimes I look in the mirror and I see a stranger.
There ought to be a law. A law against getting old.
My Big Birthday Wish
:As another birthday bears down on me like a locomotive I find myself thinking of not just my birthdays past, but of the women in my family who came before me.
For my wish on my impending Big Birthday, I want to have a few hours over some cups of tea with my grandmother and her mother-in-law. We can exchange notes on the meaning of life, the universe and the incredible acceleration of time.
I want to ask them if their feud was worth it.
A pair of great grandmothers
One woman I would dearly love to sit down and have a chat with is my paternal grandfather's mother, Annette. I knew only one of my great grandmothers, Mary Ellen Humphries, whose father was involved in the Eureka Rebellion up in the gold fields of Ballarat in 1854.
This may not sound very much to people who don't know the history of Australia, but the goldfields and the Rebellion played a huge part in forming the society we Australians enjoy today.
Mary Ellen was the first child born in Collingwood, a settlement which at the time was outside of Melbourne. I still live here and now it's right on the edge of the city.
But before I tell you the tale of Annette, may I briefly touch on my connection with the Eureka Rebellion?
The Eureka Rebellion and Me
In 1954 my Nanna, the daughter of Mary Ellen Humphries and bearing the same first names, took me to lay a wreath on the graves of the men who were shot down in the Eureka Rebellion. She cried as she told me of her grandfather's part in the uprising.
This was a big day, the centenary of the Rebellion, and a big day for me too, with flashbulbs popping, a radio interview (they had to stand me on a chair to reach the microphone) and a film crew from the Australian government recording the day for posterity.
When Nanna died in 1968 I made a personal vow to always attend the anniversary of Eureka and I've only missed 5 times since. These days I take my grandchildren to Ballarat every year so that they, too, will remember the men of Eureka.
One of the highlights of the trip to Ballarat is having our photo taken in the old-fashioned style. The sepia photo below of me (with grandchildren Tara and J.J.) was taken, not in the goldrush days, but in 2008.
Have we struck gold?
Back to Annette, the Publican
I always wanted to run a pub. So did my cousin Sandra. This ambition was considered low-class and vulgar in our family (our grandmother - the Mary Ellen who took me to the Eureka Centenary - had been prominent in the Temperance Movement). Any mention of hotels was quickly knocked on the head. It was considered unladylike to even know what the inside of a pub looked like. So it was with some degree of resentment that Cousin Sandra brought the news of a family secret to me - our great grandmother not only knew what pubs looked like inside, she owned three notorious drinking parlours from 1869 to 1923.
Written on the back of Annette's photo, in a faded longhand, is Annettes 40th b'day. 1888. Someone can't add up. She was 41 years old in 1888.
We have plenty of ancestors hidden in closets, a colourful collection of convicts, fenians, navy deserters, cattle thieves, fallen women and assorted oddballs - why cringe at a woman who earned her living serving hard liquor ? Of course, her son married a teetotaller, a righteous redhead who swore that no drop of alcohol should come into her house, and all mention of the hotel business was strictly forbidden.
Annette was born in her father's hotel in 1847 and she inherited his pubs in 1869. Gold Fever ruled in the colony and her hotels, in the seedier part of town, were renowned for wild drinking sprees. The constabulary paid a great deal of attention to Annette Murray's establishments, there were many complaints about revelry, drunken brawls and licentiousness but high ranking police and English officers were regularly enjoying her hospitality, along with members of the colonial administration. For over 50 years her hotels were a haven for the demi-monde. The racing industry clustered in one, the tipsters, shysters, trainers, jockeys, and the naive looking for excitement. Another hotel was a haven for corrupt lawyers.
There is mention of her in a parliamentary scandal, and a notorious bushranger found refuge as her 'brother'. She threw open her doors to the nameless smalltime crooks and hustlers of the colony and shocked the establishment by employing Chinese cooks.
Along the way Annette seemed to marry three times, or perhaps five. (Not all of these 'marriages' appear to have been sanctioned by the State or blessed by the Church) She gave birth to seven children over 20 years but it's all very unclear as to what became of the three who survived. In any case, her youngest child was groomed to carry on the business. And we know what happened to him!
Was Annette sadly disappointed when her son ran away with a teetotaller ? I'm sure she was, for running away is exactly what my grandfather did, fleeing 500 miles with his bride, not to return until the day of his mother's funeral.
And all I have of Annette, apart from an unfulfilled ambition to run a pub, is her photograph album.
Mary Ellen, the teetotaller
My Nanna, taken on her 20th birthday. She gave this picture of herself to the young man who became my grandfather. A year after this photo was taken, she eloped with him to Sydney.
What a pity you can't see the colour of her hair, a fiery red. You can't see her distinctive eye colour either, amber with gold flecks, just like the eyes of a lion. My own daughter, another Mary Ellen, has the same eyes and, frankly, sometimes it gives me the creeps to see my grandmother's eyes looking back at me from another face.
My wish won't be granted
My Big Birthday Wish won't be granted of course. At least not until someone invents a cheap form of time travel. But when I think of these two women, both of them obstinate and stubborn (they would have described themselves as firm and determined), I can only think of how much their feud cost them.
My Nanna missed out on a lively mother-in-law with some absolutely incredible life experiences. She didn't get to know a woman who successfully ran her own business, who married, (or otherwise), quite a few men and challenged colour bars by befriending the Chinese who were subjected to virulent racism at the time. A woman who mixed with all levels of the colonial society, from harlots to horse thieves, governors to gamblers.
Her mother-in-law missed out on a woman who sang throughout her day. A woman whose house was constantly full of music and laughter and whose kitchen always smelled of freshly baked scones. My Nanna laughed at everything, even when listening to political broadcasts on the radio. "What wicked lies," she would laugh, "do they think we have no wits at all?".
But worse, Annette had nothing more to do with her son. He was out of her life and she disinherited him. By doing this she never saw her two lovely little grandsons.
That reminds me ...
To write a real letter to my brother up north in Queensland tonight, just to say hello and 'long time no see'.
To phone my sons just to have a chat
To rein in my own bloody-minded bickering with my daughter, and
To see lots and lots more of my grandchildren
(If you haven't been chatting with someone from your family, why not do so now?)