A few months back I put out an open letter to the Turpin, Regan and Blair families, asking descendants of these families to get in contact. It was wishful thinking – I wasn’t sure if I ever expected a reply.
Then one day the doorbell rang.
The woman who stood there had never known Doris, but she was family. Doris died long before she was born, but Yolanda was her great niece, and now lived only a suburb away. She promised to send me photographs, and to come back again with more of Doris’ family.
It was a few days later when I opened my letter box and a packet of photographs fell out. The first photo was a black and white image of an older woman clearly taken in the 1960s; she had three strands of pearls at her neck, a hat decorated with flowers perched atop her head, and a pair of ubiquitous cats eye glasses. But it was her smile that captured my heart. This elderly lady, clearly in her 70s looked like such fun. I flicked to the next photo. The same woman but many years younger, smiling widely at the camera, outside in the garden, with a young boy kneeling on her lap, and little girl with a cheeky grin, sitting next to her.
In all I had been given almost a dozen photographs, each showing the woman who I never believed I would ever get to see. A woman I had been researching for the better part of a decade, who had walked the same floorboards as I, who looked through the same windows. The woman whose story had inspired a novel and who I knew so much about except what she looked like – and finally, here she was in my hands.
The most precious was a photo likely taken at Claremont Training College itself, of a teenaged Doris, sitting with five other students. The sepia tones verifies its age, the men are wearing full three piece suits, starched collars, ties and carefully oiled hair. The woman all wear long skirts and button-down shirts with tiny neck bows. Their hands are clasped primly in their laps, their expression blank as required by the time. But one of the men has clearly moved during the photograph: he has four hands and three feet, and perhaps for this reason Doris, dressed all in white, and the man behind her are smiling. The smiling man gazes at something out of frame, he is no longer even looking at the photographer, but Doris – eighteen or nineteen years old – squints at the camera, with the same cheeky smile that is apparent in photos almost fifty years later.
I could not have been more emotional about finally meeting Doris, than if she had been my own long-lost relative. In truth she felt like family.
Weeks later, my new friend Yolanda returned with her aunty Maralyn. Maralyn lived at my house in Daglish in the 1940s when she was very young, and she continued to visit even after the family moved to their new home in Subiaco. She brought with her Doris’ own photo album and diligently went through every photo, pointing out who everyone was, telling little stories like I was a part of the family. She showed us a picture of her on her wedding day in the front lounge – I could recognise the brickwork around the fireplace. It hadn’t changed in 60 years.
Yolanda’s mother was the youngest of the four children, born during the time her family shared the 2 bedroom house on Lutey Avenue with Doris. Yolanda said she had felt an affinity with Lutey Avenue growing up; she would deliberately detour to walk down the small, tree-lined street, although she had no idea that her great-aunt had once lived on the street.
Maralyn shared many stories that afternoon, giving clarity to stories that her older sister Gwenyth, now deceased, had told me over the phone years earlier, and filling in some blanks.
She and her brother and sisters went to Subiaco Primary at the same time Doris was a teacher there. Doris taught upper primary and had the reputation of being a good and fair teacher. Maralyn recalled that the other students would call her ‘Old Turps’, but made Maralyn promise not to tell her Aunty about the nickname. As an adult she remembers asking Doris if she was aware of what the students called her, and Doris had laughed and said that all the teachers knew what the kids nicknames for them were.
It’s hard to quantify what the photos mean, to explain how it felt like to hear stories about Doris from someone who knew and loved her. None of it has any bearing on the fictional story I am writing, but they represent an extra step in my writing journey, an extra piece in the puzzle.
Prior to this I had photos of my ANZAC boys John Regan and Walter Blair. As men, and soldiers who died, they were always more likely to be photographed and mentioned in the papers. But as a woman, Doris was always less likely to be so publicly mentioned. I thought I would never get to see what she looked like. But it is bittersweet seeing her as an old lady, surrounded by family, because there would never be any comparative photos of the boys, who died so young at Gallipoli. They would never be old men, surrounded by loved ones.
I now keep a photo of Doris on the wall of my office. She smiles down at me as I work, eyes squinting at the camera, with a smile that suggests she is having a private joke. It never fails to make me smile back, a smile shared over sixty years.
These photos of Doris Turpin have been republished with kind permission from Maralyn Johnson (nee Turpin) and Yolanda Savage.