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Edition 192 – Marmaduke

Like most families, my own has plenty of stories from our past. In my mother’s case, there’s the story of how they came into contact with Pixie O’Harris, the Australian children’s author and artist, who was a contemporary of May Gibbs. My mother, to this day, still has the portrait of her as a 6 year old, painted by Pixie O’Harris, hanging in her home.

At the time, my mother’s family lived at Ebenezer on the Hawkesbury River. It was 1951 and my grandfather, George, was the manager of a farm. My grandmother, Nellie, my mother, her sister and two brothers lived in a small farmhouse and appeared to live an idyllic, albeit hardworking, lifestyle.

My aunt, who at that time was 13, was out wandering one day and came across a lady who’d been recuperating from a health complaint in the peace and quiet of the Hawkesbury. Carrying a book with her, a conversation ensued between the lady and my aunt. My aunt innocently mentioned that her favourite book was “Marmaduke the Possum” without realising she was talking to the actual author. From there, a friendship developed and a book, “Marmaduke and Margaret” was written with my aunt being the Margaret character.

In Melbourne recently, I ventured into an antique bookshop to see if I could pick up a copy of “Marmaduke and Margaret”. It’s been out of print for many years, and there are not many around. On that front, I was out of luck. However, I was incredibly fortunate to locate Pixie O’Harris’ autobiography.

Right there, in the bookshop, I flicked through the biography and was drawn to this paragraph, which talked about Pixie O’Harris meeting my aunt and her brother, my uncle:

“Sue and her friend left after a while, but not before I had promised them both to write a sequel to Marmaduke the Possum, which I called Marmaduke and Margaret.  Every chapter, written in ink or pencil, was posted up to them to be read and passed before I gave it to Angus & Robertson. Sue told me that her mother was frightened of the river and did not like living close to it. There must have been some presentiment because, not long after I had met Sue, her father was drowned in the river rescuing her little brother, and the family eventually moved away.”

My whole life, I’d known about the tragic death of my own grandfather. To have heard the story over the years so many times, it’s not only part of your history, but part of your being. However, to actually read about it, and to read about my grandmother’s anxiety about living by the river, which I’d never known, invoked an incredibly powerful emotional response. It brought back to me the moment, as a 7 year old, when my grandmother solemnly opened up the smallest of silver boxes and showed me a lock of my grandfather’s hair. 

Today, my message is the importance of recording the history of our family and our family businesses. Record a video. Write a short book. Document the important events, and the emotions around those events, so that future generations can see where they’ve come from.

Once we’re gone, so are our stories. Once we move on from our businesses, the history of toil, success and adversity are long forgotten. Yet, if we took the time to document them, we may have a greater understanding as to why some families, and some family businesses, are the way they are and do what it is they do. 

Everyday, we write history. It’s just that, unfortunately, we don’t take the time to record it.”

“Was it Yesterday? The Autobiography of Pixie O’Harris – 1983 – Rigby Publishers