I glanced at the young lady beside me. She was at least eight months pregnant and looked as though she would topple over if she leaned too far towards the sea. I was wandering along the foreshore at Hastings—my favourite place to think or just to be. Past the Shed and onto the jetty. The tide was as low as I had ever seen it, the beach a wide strip of pock-marked mud that attracted seagulls frantically searching for extra bounty in the wet sand. Mangroves and their exposed suckers glistened in the sun on the other side of the pier and a couple of lone pelicans perched on the bollards.

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I held my grandson’s hand tightly; it always made me nervous to venture out on the jetty with an impetuous and active child who could run faster than I can now. What if he tripped and plunged over the edge? The swimming and lifesaving ability of my youth has evaporated, and I would be lucky to save myself now, let alone a small child who fell into the sea. I edged to the the railings and tried to keep Jake on the safe side. Age has made me more risk-averse than when I was a young mum. How did I survive birthing and rearing my children in a remote town in a third world country? How did I even go there to live! No roads, no electricity, no running water, no phone, no family.

We walked slowly behind the young woman. Soon her baby would arrive, making her a mum, maybe for the first time. She straightened her back and steadied her pregnant waddle, her face to the sun, soaking up the extra vitamin D. Sun exposure: my generation put their babies outside for sun-kicks—how things have changed! Sleep on the tummy or on the back? Expose to allergens early or avoid? A couple of generations later, I don’t feel so wise. Fortunately, my kids survived to adulthood.

Jake is the youngest son of my youngest son. At eight months pregnant with my grandson’s father, I was living in West Papua. No ultra-sounds, just check-ups by shortwave radio. I trusted that all would go as well as my first two births did; I refused to contemplate complications. When they knew I was pregnant, the women whom I counted as friends in our remote village had said,

‘If you have a baby in Papua, you will always be one of us.’ Their little sayings and observations were insightful. Most of them had never been to school and had no concept of a university or my other life. I was their first and only Western friend.

They were right, and through the birth of my son in Papua, I am forever connected to them in the fellowship of mummas. There were times when I wondered if I would ever really fit into the primitive culture, based on bamboo houses on stilts over the sea with barely a stick of furniture apart from the Singer treadle sewing machine they all used. Half a metre taller than most local females, this pale-skinned Australian towered above them and politely refused the cigarettes and betel nut that they generously offered to accompany the sweet, black tea served in their best glasses when I visited their homes.

Children were the centre of their world and defined even the way they addressed each other. I was called Carly punya mama, or ‘Carly has a mum’. Our house was referred to as ‘Carly has a mum has a house’. Everything revolved around relationships. Everyone had their place in the community. I had much to learn from them, despite my university degrees.

When my baby was born with a birth weight nearly twice that of their average baby, they touched his light skin and cuddled him with delight and curiosity and called him anak Papua – child of Papua. Now I belonged. Astounded that a white woman would breastfeed her baby, they watched my every move and tried as hard to be like me as I wanted to be like them. I accustomed myself to letting my boobs hang out for feeds and allowing my friends to exclaim with wonder over my nursing bras—my house-helper took her friends on tours of our washing line to see these western miracles. For my part, I learnt to tie my baby on securely with a sling. They even ignored tribal food taboos when I explained to them how important their diet was to breast-feeding and the baby’s health.

I wondered if this local mum-to-be on the jetty had a community around her. Would her baby be brought up by a village? Mine was—literally. He is middle-aged now and losing his hair; proud of his birthplace and growing family. He wants to go back one day and see where his life began. I gripped his son’s little hand tightly as we walked the length of the jetty behind the lady who triggered my memories.

We reached the end and I held Jake’s feet firmly as he lay down on the knotted wood to look at the water below. Papuan toddlers ran around on the bamboo gangways without falling in, and, to my horror, they were thrown in the sea as babies so that they would learn to swim. Probably not something to try with this child.

Jake was up and heading off. Time to move!

‘Come on, Grandma!’

Snack time. Feed the seagulls. A trip to the toilet. Focus on now!

She was proud of her bulge, which was not concealed in a loose smock like mine was. I do not know her, but I know what it feels like to be pregnant. As she returned to her car, I silently wished her all the best for the journey ahead.

Jake cuddled up on the bench as we ate our snacks.

‘Grandma, tell me a story about when Dad was little’.

Since Living for Shalom was released, many have been reminded of the era of Daddy’s Friends. Some remember hearing the folk gospel group in the seventies, while others still have recordings. Living for Shalom: the Story of Ross Langmead, which has now been released, includes the history of this group.

An excerpt from Chapter 4:

. . . Daddy’s Friends took off and was in high demand in Christian as well as secular venues. They were promoted as “Victoria’s most sought after evangelical musical group—young Baptist university graduates who will thrill you for two hours and keep you singing for two weeks later”, stated a poster for a Sydney event. Designated “folk gospel”, they combined their vocal talent with three acoustic instruments and the piano, writing much of their own music. They believed that they needed to share as people on the stage, earn the right to be listened to, and not be regarded just as performers.

Each member of Daddy’s Friends was highly accomplished and educated. Jill was a music teacher with degrees in arts, education, and music, and played percussion, blues harp and piano as well as singing. Peter was an articled clerk with distinguished results in his law degree and played twelve-stringed guitar along with singing bass vocals. Alan was an accountancy student with his own business enterprises who worked part-time in schools for Scripture Union. He played the signature bass and piano as well as singing. Ross was completing his MEd while teaching maths; he played guitar and blues harp, and sang and composed. Quite a multi-talented line-up! Mark Garner joined them sometimes and performed skits, and Alan was the cartoon artist who could illustrate talks and jokes . . .

Did you ever hear Daddy’s Friends or do you still have records and cassettes made by the group? Perhaps you were on a Theo’s team with them?

The childhood shows the man,

As morning shows the day.

John Milton, Paradise Regained

As a writer of biography, I have had to consider the effects of a person’s upbringing on the direction of their life. It is the traditional way to begin a life story: birth and ancestry, childhood years, parents and siblings, childhood homes, education and locations. Milton expresses poetically what we all know – that adults are not formed in a void and the imprint of their early days often becomes clear as they mature.

The Jesuits have famously expressed it this way in their maxim: “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” Anyone who has watched the film series “Seven Up” would surely agree that there seems to be truth in that observation.

As a teacher for many years, I would say that children often show their personality, character and gifts when quite young. I am constantly delighted to hear news of ex-students who have progressed to all sorts of achievements as adults, most of which do not surprise me.

If this were universally true, however, we would have to subscribe to a fatalistic view of learning and development, and as a teacher, I am equally amazed at the transformation over the years of students who did not show ability or perseverance at school. Maturity, the input of friends and mentors and just serendipitous circumstances can all play a part in surprising trajectories; thank goodness for that! Children can also rise up out of challenging homes and situations to beat the odds and throw off their childhood influences. Equally, we all know of wonderful families with children who have not thrived despite having many positive and protective factors in their lives.

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I knew very little about Veronica Knight when I began to write her story. In her three years as our informal foster daughter, we just enjoyed life and she quickly became part of our family. Although she was sixteen and almost an adult, she was childlike in other ways. We sensed that her so-called intellectual handicap, as it was called in the seventies, was at least partly the result of being confined to care homes and lack of regular education and encouragement. In other ways, she was insightful and smart. More recently I have had contact with one of her teachers, who described her as his ‘brightest student’.

Veronica’s last letter

Why my husband and I did not ask her more about her background, I am not sure. Perhaps it felt insensitive to interrogate a teenager about the years she never mentioned. Veronica was a ‘now’ girl: “What will we do now?” she would ask several times a day. We knew that she had spent several years in Minda Home, and that in Adelaide, to mention Minda was a pejorative in any context. She never mentioned any family members and I did not probe.

Sadly, Veronica became famous in a tragic way when her body was discovered in the Truro bush on Anzac Day in April 1978. It would emerge that she was the first victim of two serial murderers who received a great deal of publicity as their evil deeds were exposed (one had died in a car crash before the eventual arrest of the other one, who was charged and convicted). Veronica’s name was in the media and her movements on that last fatal night were detailed for all to read. She had been shopping in the city, was separated from her friend and accepted the offer of a ride home while she was waiting for the bus. Her last decision was a poor one. I knew that what was not in the newspaper reports was that she wanted to buy clothes and gifts for her imminent trip to visit our family in Melbourne where we were then located. Despite the information on her train ticket and our details in her belongings, the police never contacted us.

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Read no history, nothing but biography, for that is life without theory. Benjamin Disraeli.

Where to start with the story of a life? This is the challenge for any biographer, especially when the subject is no longer with us and has finished living his whole life.

On what would have been Ross Langmead’s seventieth birthday in August 2019, I made an offer to his wife, Alison, to try writing his life story. The prospect was daunting and being Ross’s sister did not necessarily give me an advantage. I left home when he was eighteen and we spent little time close to one another after that, both literally and figuratively. Is it better to know someone intimately, or to write from a measured distance that might encourage objectivity? Although I genuinely believed there were better people for the project, there was only one way to find out.

Ross’s diaries, journals, music and memorabilia

Primary documents are the foundation of true story writing; Ross left a treasure chest. He wrote journals and kept diaries from his teenage years until his death at sixty-three. An awesome collection of reflections, thoughts and questions from a mind that never stopped working!

First, we had to find them. Alison hunted down box after box of diaries, journals and notebooks. Digital journals and travel diaries were added, and the ordering began. The first hand-written journal is from Ross’s rite-of-passage and epic trip as a seventeen-year-old to outback Queensland in a vintage car with his cousins, of whom only one was old enough to drive. His daily entries about their adventures in 1967 make amusing reading, with their larrikan episodes interspersed with Bible studies and prayer gathered around a picnic table.

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It was as near to “hearing a voice” as I can remember. I had finished writing my own lengthy story and was struck by the fact that Veronica had only needed two paragraphs to document her part in my life. Veronica Knight, as dear as a daughter, had been like a member of our family for about three years in the 1970s. We were newly married and living in Adelaide; Peter worked as a residential care worker with troubled young men and I was teaching at a Lutheran secondary college.

We met Veronica when her hostel contacted us and said she was looking for a church or youth group. That was the beginning, and before long, she had become part of our family through informal foster care and an enthusiastic participant in the life of our church. In 1974, Veronica was nearly sixteen. She had no family and was mildly intellectually disabled. Lovable and cheeky, she lived life with gusto that belied her abandonment as a child and consequent status as a ward of the state.

Soon after she turned eighteen, she disappeared forever. As the tragic events of the Truro serial, tandem murders of 1976-7 emerged in Adelaide some years later, we had to absorb the shocking fact that she had been the first victim.

Forty years later, a lifetime had passed and our own children had grown up and given us many grandchildren. Veronica was a memory tucked into her special corner of my heart. Until I wrote about her and was shocked by how little I knew. Soon after, I was in hospital, recuperating from a knee operation. I began chatting to one of the nurses who then showed me a book she had written about losing her mum to cancer (tinyurl.com/np69s). She was touched that I downloaded it and read it in one night, but it set me thinking.

What had I experienced in my life that was deeply human and might resonate with others, as had nurse Leigh’s simple story? That was when I heard a voice, at least in my head, that said, “Write about Veronica”.

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Children all say to their parents at some stage, ‘Tell me a story’. Sometimes they want wild, fanciful and even scary stories; other times it will be about an almost forgotten, distant childhood kept alive by the retelling by their parents.

My mother, Jean.

My mother, Jean, would have been ninety-nine today were she still alive. Sweet, outgoing and essentially humble, she always said that her life was ordinary. As a gift for her eightieth birthday, my brother met with her weekly and asked her about her life, recording the conversations. He transcribed these into a book with almost no editing and captured Mum’s extraordinary story: born and brought up in China and India, separated from her parents as a child and then when her parents were interned during the war, working with hundreds of orphans in Hong Kong – all before she turned 30! Her life was far from ordinary, and the captured story reads like a novel. Soon after that, she slid slowly into dementia.

Roy, my paternal grandfather, never told me his story. Like many who returned from World War 1, he kept its horrors to himself. After he died, I discovered from my father that Grandad played an important part in the war on the Western Front at Fromelles and was taken prisoner there. He did not come home to his wife of three weeks for three long, terrible years, but carried for the rest of his life the memories of what historians have sometimes called the worst twenty-four hours in Australian history.

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