Meeting the Family

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.

Doris Turpin early 60s at Maralyns wedding

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.

Unknown group with Doris Turpin, front left seated in all white outfit

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.

Doris Turpin with Kenneth Walter (Dick) and Gwenyth Turpin

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.

Doris Turpin

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.

 

Opportunity Lost

October 15th is the International Day of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance. In honour of all the mums and dads out there with heavy hearts tomorrow and every day, I am publishing two pieces, written a while ago now, but always relevant.

They’re neither short reads nor easy reads. I wrote them with loved ones in mind.

Opportunity Lost: Men’s experience of miscarriage and loss

By Shannon Meyerkort

‘As soon as you see that little line on the pregnancy test, you already have hopes and expectations and are planning for the future… but a miscarriage? It’s almost like an opportunity lost.  Especially from a man’s perspective – you see that vision of the future disappearing and there is nothing you can do about it.’

Over the course of 2010, Seb’s* wife was pregnant with three different babies and she miscarried all three. This story however, is not just about her. Fathers are often the invisible party in the pregnancy process.  Flick through the pages of one of the many glossy pregnancy and parenting magazines available, and the absence of men is striking.  After all, it takes two to make a baby. Despite this, men’s role in baby-making after their initial contribution has traditionally been very restricted, and despite changing expectations in today’s society, their involvement is often still limited.

CHANGING EXPECTATIONS

‘Historically, reproduction has been within the domain of women,’ explains Belinda Jennings, a Clinical Midwife Consultant at Perth’s King Edward Memorial Hospital. ‘Midwife means “with women”, so it’s always been that birthing is women’s business.’ Yet this is changing, especially in high-income countries such as Australia, says Jennings. As the gap between men and women is closing with regard to work/life balance and parenting, we are finding that their roles are becoming more integrated.

As a result of this shift, there is now a new wave of emotional men who are more involved – or expected to be involved – with their children. ‘Men have become more emotionally mature,’ says Jennings.  ‘It’s only one generation ago that whole platoons of men were being wiped out in a war, and they had a very different approach [to parenting].  A lot has been happening on the men’s front in the last 50 years.’

The constrained version of masculinity that we are familiar with today arose out of the colonial expansion in Britain and the US, explains David Buchbinder, Professor of Masculinity Studies at Curtin University. ‘Emotional impassivity became a way of dominating and controlling, whether the family or business’. Buchbinder believes this stoicism still influences many men of the current generation, predominantly through their fathers and grandfathers and how they have been raised.

Belinda Jennings agrees, and believes that the clash between these older style ideals – and the new expectations of their wives and partners – is why the current generation of fathers struggle with how to react to grief and loss. ‘The protector – the strong, stoic man – is not the predominant expectation in our culture anymore, and I think that’s where they get confused.  There is this expectation from the generation prior that they would be strong and silent, yet I think modern society is expecting the new age, sensitive guy to be emotively overt.’

THE DADS’ STORIES

Seb and his wife Jess*, both 37, never intended on only having one child.  But after a relatively tough pregnancy and first year with Josh*, now four, they decided to wait at least two years before trying again for another child. Jess quickly fell pregnant, but by about six weeks she had realised something was wrong and she lost the baby shortly after. ‘After the third miscarriage, it was a sign to start going down the IVF path’, Seb admits.

Each miscarriage presented its own difficulties, physically and emotionally for both Seb and his wife.  Physically Jess had the worst of it. She had a chemically induced termination where prostaglandin is used to make the uterus contract and expel the fetus; a D&C (dilatation and curettage), a surgical procedure where the fetus is removed under anaesthetic; and a ‘natural’ miscarriage, where the body naturally expels the fetus.  None were easy.

There was little Seb could do to help. ‘There was nothing I could do at home’, says Seb. ‘It’s one of those things that you feel a bit on the outside, you don’t get to experience the highs and lows of it, but you have to be as sympathetic as possible.  But unless the experience is happening to you, you can’t ever put your feet in that person’s shoes’.

Peter (34) agrees with this sentiment. His second child was diagnosed with anencephaly at 13 weeks gestation. This is a congenital condition involving malformation or absence of the brain.  Although they could have continued with the pregnancy, the prognosis for the child was early death, even if it were born alive.  Peter and his wife Abbie, 35, made the difficult decision to terminate the pregnancy.

Like Seb, Peter often felt secondary to the process. ‘I can understand that a man wouldn’t have the physical connection’, says Peter. ‘I think a lot of people just think that guys will just soldier on,’ Peter says. ‘But this day and age I think we’ve changed… and I do think men get a bit gypped.  Not during the process because we have to take care of the person who is holding the baby physically, but afterwards – psychologically…’

TAKING SECOND PLACE

Both men agree that the focus is – and should be – on the woman, but it is short-sighted not to see that the husband can also be badly affected. ‘You learn that the IVF process is not about the guy and nor should it be,’ says Seb. ‘But you feel extra to the process, effectively removed from any involvement in the pregnancy.  I did everything I could to support Jess but you very much get pushed back a lot of the time.’

The helplessness men experience in these situations is understandable.  Once a miscarriage has started, there is nothing that can be done to prevent it.  Medical intervention might hasten or modify the process, but the end result is inevitable. And while the physical burden of the miscarriage must be borne by the woman, the man is left with little to do. ‘I’m always trying to solve problems,’ Seb explains. ‘It’s a standard male thing.  I think “what can I do to make this right and how can I fix it?” But this is something you can’t fix.  You feel pretty helpless.’

This desire to fix things and ‘do’ things is a common reaction for men following the death of a loved one, writes Ben Golden, a psychotherapist and author on men’s grief. In times past, men would have been responsible for building the coffin or digging the grave, but with  modern funerals left to ‘death professionals’, this leaves men with nothing to do following a death.

Peter agrees that he found the process of losing his baby difficult. The unfamiliar path of losing a child meant that he felt lost and unsure of what to do next. ‘When my Dad died, I was the one who just got on with it, made sure everything was done right, and then I could grieve.  But this time, even from the start, I didn’t know what to do.’

I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT

There are many services available to help grieving parents. ‘The social worker gave us numbers of people in our area if we wanted to talk, and there was a support group for it [anencephaly]’, Peter recalls.  Ultimately however, he decided not to seek out any formal counselling or support services.  Instead he found that friends and family readily approached him offering support and their own stories. ‘The amount of work people who have come up to me and said “we lost our first”. It did help.’ Peter and his wife were quite open about their loss, regularly sending updates to close friends and family members about what ended up being a week-long journey from diagnosis to termination.

This contrasts with Seb and Jess’ decision to keep their miscarriages incredibly private.  Even their parents do not know the full extent of their loss. ‘I found it hard, not talking about it,’ Seb admits, ‘because it’s a pretty emotional thing to go through. Even from a male’s perspective, I’m a terrible communicator at the best of times so I didn’t speak about it. But it’s something you spend a lot of time thinking about in the background, thinking about what could have been.’

Seb did not even talk much about the miscarriages with his wife, preferring to focus on physical healing. ‘We didn’t really talk too much,’ he recalls, ‘we focussed a lot more on Jess getting better because it was quite a painful and unenjoyable experience to go through.’

There were many reasons why Seb did not speak more about his experience.  He is the first to admit he is a very private person and not comfortable with speaking publicly about emotive topics.  He was raised by parents who, while loving, are not overly demonstrative or emotionally open. He also lacks a close male friend with whom he could comfortably share his sad news. ‘We chose not to tell people,’ Seb explains.  ‘It’s a taboo subject.’

Ultimately it was an almost random encounter at work that provided the one opportunity for Seb to talk with another man about his experience.  A generic question about children led to the discussion of age gaps between offspring. Seb then frankly admitted that Jess had experienced multiple miscarriages.  The other man was quick to admit that his wife had just experienced her first miscarriage. ‘I found it – not quite liberating,’ says Seb, ‘but a weight off my chest.  A problem shared is a problem halved.’

Sharing his pain was a healing experience for Seb, and the other man obviously felt the same. Some weeks later he sent Seb an email which concluded ‘whilst from a business and networking point of view it was really great to meet you, I really personally appreciated you being so open with me and sharing your personal experiences that will really help me and my wife.’

Although neither Seb nor Peter sought any formal support, there are a number of services available to those in need of professional counselling.  Many of these services are free and anonymous such as MensLine Australia, one of the many offered by Crisis Support Services.  According to Ann Beck, the Relationship Manager of Men’s Services, between July 2010 and June 2011, MensLine received over 230 calls from men seeking assistance following the loss of a child. Perhaps tellingly, the vast majority of calls were from men needing guidance on how to support their partners through a difficult time. Less than 10% of calls were from men seeking personal counselling for themselves following a miscarriage or death of a child.

BEING A ROCK

Men are frequently expected to be strong in these situations, as Elizabeth Levang, a human development psychologist in the field of grief and loss explains, men are supposed to be a rock. There is a widespread expectation that they will manage their partner’s grief, protect their family from further harm and fix what has happened. Perth obstetrician Dr Melissa O’Neill agrees that this is frequently what happens in the event of a miscarriage or stillbirth.  In her office, when delivering sad news to expectant families she finds ‘dads are forced into a role, and that is to be very supportive of their partner. Their job is to say “it’s ok”.  They’re sad but it’s not the right situation for them to give into their grief. Maybe because I’m a woman they feel they have not got permission to fall apart, but dads are very stoic and that’s it.’

However, this self-control may be out-dated says Belinda Jennings. ‘I think that’s one of the things that has changed in the last generation or so.  I’m not saying men were less sad 30 or 40 years ago, I just think they didn’t have the permission to show their emotions.’  Today’s dads not only have permission, they are expected to be able to express how they are feeling.

David Buchbinder agrees.  ‘Whether men are able to express grief openly would depend, I believe, in the first instance on generational and class differences.  Younger males, particularly of an educated middle class, have learned to allow their feelings, including grief, more public exposure than their fathers or grandfathers might have.’ Similarly, one of the major shifts in masculinity in the closing decades of the twentieth century, explains Buchbinder, was the greater involvement of men in parenting, and as a result, a greater expression of emotion and attachment towards children.

THE DECLINING BIRTH (AND DEATH) RATE

Belinda Jennings explains that these significant behavioural transformations have been occurring at the same time as a steadily declining rate of infant mortality. In the past, pregnancy loss was a very common event with up to one in every two pregnancies lost before birth, and one in three children dying before the age of one.  Today however, with declining fertility, pregnancy itself is a much less common event, making pregnancy loss even scarcer. In fact, as the Australian Institute of Family Studies report, the fertility rate in Australia has been at a historical low over the past decade, with the average woman giving birth to only 1.9 children in 2009, compared to 3.5 in 1980.  Yet while there have been enormous developments in medical care which prevents much infant mortality, that same medical prowess also means that we are more aware of pregnancies and what can go wrong.  Despite the fact that miscarriage may be less common than a century ago, the ABS estimates that 30% of all conceptions end in miscarriage, meaning that of the 500,000 conceptions in 1997, 150,000 of them ended in miscarriage, and another 2,000 in stillbirth.

MEN CRY TOO

Guilt is not just a female emotion. When men are unable fix things, the guilt they experience can be overwhelming. At the same time if they don’t express sufficient emotion they can be made to feel guilty about being heartless. Peter explains ‘I sometimes feel guilty that I don’t think about it more.  I don’t know whether I should sit down and dwell on it, or is it enough that I just think about it quickly and then get on with it?’

There is no prescription for how a man should respond to the loss of a child. There is no prescribed period for mourning a lost opportunity. What Peter did not realise though, was that he was mourning his child every day. ‘We are planning on buying a lemon tree, to remind us of the baby.  I have – in the shower – a lemon body wash, but there was only a little bit left in the container and I haven’t touched it since. I don’t know why, it’s one of those things, but I think about the baby when I look at the lemon body wash in the shower.’

STAYING TOGETHER

Belinda Jennings believes there is no evidence to suggest that the relationships of couples experiencing grief break down any more often than ordinary couples. Perhaps some of that has to do with the couple-based therapy offered by a range of services including King Edward Memorial Hospital. ‘I think my one piece of advice would be to stay on the same path,’ says Jennings.  This means you can walk alongside each other, without having to share the same footsteps, says Jennings, so despite the different involvement of men and women, their overall experience is shared.

Sharing is perhaps the closest thing to a solution the dads can offer. Seb admits in the course of the interview he has spoken more about miscarriage than he has to Jess. ‘But the thing is it’s not discussed, it’s not talked about, it’s not shared,’ Seb says. ‘It’s not something to be celebrated but I guess it’s a fact of life for a lot of people.’

These stories are as profound as they are commonplace.  Miscarriage and pregnancy loss does not affect just the mother, and there will always be more than one side to each story. There may be no shortcut out of the grief, but by allowing these stories to be shared, we acknowledge men’s experience and role in the process. And this is one opportunity we should not miss.

*names have been changed

FURTHER READING

  • Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing by Ben Golden (Golden Healing Publishing, $13.95)
  • Manhood by Steve Biddulph (Random House, $14.95)
  • When Men Grieve: Why Men Grieve Differently and How You Can Help by Elizabeth Levang (Fairview Press, $14.95)

USEFUL CONTACTS

  •  Mensline.org.au 1300 789 978 A national telephone support, information and referral service for men with family and relationship concerns

Keeping Mum

October 15th is the International Day of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance. In honour of all the mums and dads out there with heavy hearts tomorrow and every day, I am publishing two pieces, written a while ago, but always relevant.

They’re neither short reads nor easy reads. I wrote them with loved ones in mind.

Keeping Mum

By Shannon Meyerkort

Keeping mum ˃ adjective, informal, concealing a secret; saying nothing

It’s the opposite of childbirth. The antithesis of joy. It is the absence of friends and family. It is packing away the never-worn baby clothes.  It’s the mental readjustment of what is going to be, into what could have been.

Instead, it’s the silence, the stillness that comes with the loss of a baby. The unspoken congratulations. The ungiven gifts. The empty photo albums. Miscarriage, abortion, still birth: the taboos around them are like invisible walls, trapping parents-not-to-be inside.  Often we do not know how to speak of this pain, so grieving parents often suffer alone and in silence.

Yet miscarriage is surprisingly common.  Statistics vary, but it is agreed that at least 20 per cent of all pregnancies end in a miscarriage.  The older the mother, the higher that number creeps.  For women over the age of 40, data suggest that one in two pregnancies will end in miscarriage.

Despite how common it is, when is the last time you heard people talking about it. Just when is the right time to tell friends, content with their own new babies, you have miscarried for the third time in a year?  How do you tell family that the baby growing inside you is at high risk of massive genetic abnormalities and you might choose to abort rather than bring a sick child into the world? How do you face the faces of judgement?

I have been one of the lucky ones.  Three straight forward pregnancies.  Three beautiful daughters.  I had heard sad stories about colleagues and friends of friends  – sometimes the tales would border on urban myth.  But these were people far removed from me; I had never looked a woman in the eye who had just lost a baby.

A conversation with a close friend about her fear and distress upon being told her 11 week old unborn baby might have genetic abnormalities was the first time I came close to this agonizing topic.  For two weeks, she had kept the terrifying news to herself as she faced a battery of invasive and painful tests.  She disconnected not only from the baby she might lose, but from her network of friends and family.  She could not bear people knowing she might need to choose to abort the baby.  So she told no one. She was completely alone at a time when she needed the most support.

It was a sad moment when I realised that my friend felt she could not share her grief for fear of being judged by those closest to her. Did she feel she did not have permission to burden others with her sorrow? But spend five minutes with almost any woman, chances are she has a story about a baby, a miscarriage, a lost dream.  Some stories happened long ago, some are still taking place.

Then unexpectedly, I received a message via Facebook.  Another close friend who was 12 weeks pregnant had been to her first scan.  The baby had anencephaly.  The baby’s brain had formed outside its skull, and there was nothing that could be done. My friend would need to undergo a termination.  Just two days before we had all sat around the kitchen table, sharing brunch and happy stories about our children. There had been no shadow that day.

I deliberated for what felt like ages in front of the keyboard.  I didn’t know how to respond.  She had just been given the worst possible news, and the following week would be one of anxiety, uncertainty and the ultimate grief.  How do you respond to news like that via Facebook?  If she had been in front of me I would have hugged her.  If she had been on the phone I would have cried and asked her if she wanted me to come round.

But now I was unsure what was expected of me.  How do I know when she is ready to talk?  Do I send flowers?  A card?  How do I not be the well-meaning but insensitive person who inadvertently makes thoughtless remarks at a time she is at her most sensitive?

Of course, it wasn’t just me who was struggling with what to say.  The people experiencing this loss often don’t know when or how to tell their stories.

‘I kept my miscarriages quiet from my family,’ Julie told me from across my kitchen table. ‘My family, who I’m very close to.  It’s like you are protecting your choices and your emotions.’  Julie was pregnant for nine months that year.  Three different babies, each ending in a miscarriage.

‘I was doing all this without my family knowing, so I didn’t have anyone to call on.  You don’t want to share it. This is my thing, and I didn’t want to be dealing with their emotions as well.’

It was a quiet Sunday morning.  Still and silent except for the intermittent calls from the flocks of cockatoos and magpies inhabiting nearby parks. On the kitchen table, plates of untouched caramel slice reminded us of our weight loss goals.  Julie and I had known each other for years, having met through a Mothers’ group when our eldest children were barely six weeks old.  In the years since, seven of the nine Mums in our group had gone on to have a second baby, and she had experienced three miscarriages.  I had vaguely known that she had one miscarriage, but it wasn’t something we had really discussed. ‘I didn’t keep it from you, but I wasn’t going to offer,’ she admitted.

I wondered whether we had all been too self-involved to notice that she was struggling, and Julie responded by asking when the right time would have been for her to mention her miscarriages – at the Christmas Party we held each year?  At baby showers? ‘I didn’t want to rain on your parades when you were pregnant.  You needed to be excited, I certainly would be if I were pregnant.’   So she remained quiet, and battled through her grief alone while watching us fall pregnant and have our babies with apparent ease.

Julie is undergoing this journey in the new millennium: there is more information available, and it is easier to access than ever before.  Patients are no longer forced to keep quiet and not query their doctors.  Unhappy with earlier medical consultations, she sought a second opinion.  She became an active participant in her own care, and as such Julie’s story is still continuing.  The doctors have since determined that the latest pregnancy was affected by the XX16 chromosome, one of the so-called ‘miscarriage genes’. She and her husband have therefore decided to go down the path of IVF and pre-genetic diagnosis.

‘Hopefully they will be able to find a good egg because there’s a chance that all of them have been chromosomally damaged now.  They actually had to prepare me for that.  We can go through all the IVF… and you might find all of them are damaged.  In which case you either have to find an egg donor or you give up the whole desire to have another child.’

If Julie’s story had taken place 30 years ago, it probably would have had a very different ending. She certainly wouldn’t have been sitting across the table from a friend with a notepad and digital voice recorder. Her life could have been more like Anne’s, now a woman in her early 60s, with a story she never shared.

When Anne and her husband married at 24, they immediately started trying to conceive, but with no success.  When she saw doctors Anne was repeatedly told to ‘relax and it would happen’.  During her teenage years she’d had a number of operations to remove ovarian cysts and by the time she was 27 she was back in hospital for another seemingly routine operation.

‘When I woke up there was an enormous bunch of flowers from the surgeon, and we wondered what had happened.’  In spite of this, the doctor said the procedure had been straight forward, told them to keep trying with the fertility treatments and sent them on their way.  It was only two years later, in a different city, with a different doctor that the truth finally became clear.  She had been sterilised.  Instead of removing the ovarian cyst, her fallopian tubes had been cut and there was no chance she could ever fall pregnant.

This happened in the 1970s, ‘when you never questioned your doctor’.  As a result, she never made a complaint and never saw him again.  After a few failed attempts to adopt a child, and early menopause in her late 30s brought about by the surgeries, she quietly gave up her desire to have children.

It was very much a silent point in time for Anne. She did not talk about her experiences: not with her husband, not with her family. Her friends were all getting pregnant and starting families. She never discussed her sadness with her sisters, one of whom adopted a child from Sri Lanka and then later fell pregnant anyway. Her other sister never had children, and to this day Anne is not sure why.  It was not something that was talked about.  Decisions about children, whether dictated by external forces or internal desires, were simply not discussed.

Again, I faced a grieving woman from across my kitchen table.  Anne’s sorrow was palpable when she talked about watching her friends – including my mother – all becoming grandmothers, and how difficult it can be to see them with their grandkids.  I told her she was always welcome to spend time with my children, and she smiled sadly when she said ‘it’s not the same thing.’

My kitchen table was becoming a depository for sad stories.  Over cups of coffee and pieces of homemade slice, I sat with these women as they answered my questions bravely, were patient with my lack of focus, and remained stoic as my eyes were the ones that filled with tears.  I needed a change of scenery, so I visited my friend Jane who happened to be an obstetrician, an IVF specialist and a mother.

‘How do you cope, having to tell women that their baby is dead?’ I asked.

‘That’s the really hard thing.  I have to be able to grieve myself, because I’m a human… but you also have to say “I’m your doctor”.  I can give them a hug but I can’t engage more than that because that’s not what they want.  Well, they probably do want more than that, but that’s not what they need.  You can acknowledge somebody’s grief and that’s really important, but you can’t become a part of it.’

‘Miscarriage is common but that doesn’t make it acceptable.  One in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage,’ Jane explains. ‘Chances are you know someone who has had a miscarriage but they have never told you, because we don’t talk about it.  They’re not easily spoken about.  But just because they’re common doesn’t mean they should be dismissed. I tell my patients this was your baby, you should expect to grieve.  It was going to have a birthday and an education and toys. Don’t dismiss it as a medical mishap, it’s a baby.’

I haven’t been taking notes because I have been so caught up in her words – and her super humanness.  She carries more sad stories in her heart than I can even begin to imagine, and I feel for her the emotional weight of carrying these around.  I am suddenly drawn back to the room.  Jane is telling me about the small fabric hearts the volunteers at King Edward Memorial Hospital in Perth make for the women who have experienced miscarriage.  ‘They symbolise that we recognised that it was an important and memorable event, and gave it some recognition.  The fabric hearts are something tangible…’

It is the day after my friend has had the termination.  She calls to say thank you for the bonsai tree I sent to her.  I had chosen it because I thought it represented the idea that the baby would still go on living in our hearts although it would not grow.  She tells me that she and her husband were thinking of planting a lemon tree in memory of the baby.  They didn’t know if it had been a boy or a girl, but they also wanted the lasting memorial, and liked the idea of being able to use the fruit in cooking, and sharing this food with friends and family around their kitchen table for many years to come.

After I hang up I reflect on what I have learned over the past few weeks.  I still don’t have any answers about what is the best way to approach people who have been affected by this kind of grief, but perhaps that is because there is no right or wrong way.  Every situation is different just as each of us are different.  The point though, is that we should step up and make that effort. Reach out with our hearts and our arms, our words if we possibly can.  Ask the question ‘how are you?’ and let the stories unfold.

*Names have been changed

USEFUL CONTACTS

  • Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Support sandsvic.org.au 1300 072 637 A self-help support group for Victoria and Tasmania for those who have experienced the loss of a pregnancy or newborn
  • Perinatal Loss Service Run out of King Edward Memorial Hospital 9340 2222
  • SIDS and KIDS Bereavement Service 1300 308 307 http://www.sidsandkids.org/bereavement-support/ A national service dedicated to helping families who have experienced the sudden death of a pregnancy or child regardless of cause

A Grave Discovery

On November 14, 2017 I attended a book talk at Nedlands by Leigh Straw. Leigh is an author and historian and her book ‘After the War’ looks at returned servicemen from WW1 and the mental and physical trauma they brought home with them to Australia. As she so poignantly says, for some of them, the war never really ended.

The talk finished earlier than I expected, so I finally did something I had intended to do for years. I visited Doris Turpin’s grave at Karrakatta Cemetery. It is easy to find the details of gravesites using the Metropolitan Cemeteries website, and I saw that she was buried in one of the Presbyterian plots that back onto Smyth Road, which I would have to drive down on my way home. It seemed fortuitous timing, so I parked my car and began the walk into the cemetery.

I easily found the section she was buried in, but I did not know how to find her specific grave in amongst the hundreds of headstones. This older section of the graveyard was deserted, it felt like it was just me and hundreds of birds singing from the tall trees that are dotted throughout the enormous cemetery, but after a while a worker came past on his little golf cart. He pointed out the metal gravemarkers that showed the numbers of each site, and together we walked to the middle of the section where he pointed out Doris’s grave, situated under a small tree.

Doris had died at the age of 75 but I had never paid much attention to the specific date of her death. It was 14th November, 1968, meaning I was visiting her grave on the exact 49th anniversary of her death. It felt like fate and I wish I’d had the foresight to bring some flowers to decorate her grave.

What I was not expecting, was such a large and modern headstone, made from polished marble in a wave-like shape. I was also not expecting the fact that she shared her plot with other family members.

Gwenyth (Doris’ niece) had mentioned to me over the phone, that her sister Jennifer had died quite young, but had not mentioned that Jenny had been laid to rest with her aunt Doris in 1978, a decade after Doris had passed. In 2005, Jenny’s husband Clive passed away and was buried with Jenny and Doris. The current headstone would have been made in 2005, and there is no way of really knowing what Doris’s original 1968 headstone looked like.

The etching on the stone for Doris reads: In loving memory of my beloved sister Doris I. Turpin. Died 14.11.1968 aged 75 years. This would have been from her younger brother Walter, who as became apparent, preferred to be known by his middle name, Leslie (probably to avoid confusion with his father, also Walter).

I then went to look for Isabella’s grave (Doris’ mother), and found her in an older section of the Presbyterian sector. When I found her grave, I discovered she had been buried with Walter her husband who had died 8 years previously. The original gravesite and headstone for Walter who died in 1920 is very humble compared to some of the nearby graves. His marker reads: In loving memory of Walter, beloved husband of Isabella Turpin. Died 25th July 1920 aged 55 years. Ever remembered.

A marker at the foot of the grave is dedicated to Isabella, a smoother, more polished stone which reads: ‘Also Isabella beloved wife of Walter Turpin. Died 13th May 1928 aged 59 years.’  This sits on a stone plinth of rough grey stone, which matches a row of stones that run around the edge of the gravesite. At the time of her mother’s death, Doris would only have been 34 years, and Walter Jr 27 years old.

I wonder if Doris stood at the end of her parents’ shared gravesite and pondered her future. Would she have considered that she would one day purchase a block of land only four kilometres away, or whether building a house in Daglish was even on her radar.

I learned so much about this loving family, simply by visiting the cemetery in person, and taking the time to see where they rested. There is an incredible amount of history recorded on the gravestones throughout our cities, and for researchers, writers and family historians alike, it is worth taking the time to visit the cemeteries and walk through the stories of the people who came before us, as recorded in stone, for us all to witness.

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An open letter to members of the Turpin, Regan and Blair families

My name is Shannon Meyerkort and I am a writer, currently researching and writing a novel set here in Perth just prior to WW1. The reason why I am contacting you, is that you may be related to one of the people who have inspired my story, and I am writing as a courtesy and also to try and make connections with the families of the people whose stories have motivated me to write.

Firstly, it’s important that I stress that the novel I am writing is fictional. It is not an autobiography although I aim for it to be historically accurate. However it is inspired by three people:

Doris Isabelle TURPIN (1873-1968) of Daglish, WA

John REGAN (1895-1915) of Jarrahdale, WA

Walter Bell BLAIR of Murwillumbah NSW/Maddington WA (1893-1915)

All three were students at the Claremont Training College around the period 1912-1914, which was the teacher training college of Perth at the time, and is now part of the University of WA.

I began researching Doris as she was the original owner of my house in Daglish. After making contact with her niece in 2014, I discovered that Doris (who had died a spinster at the age of 75) had a sweetheart who was a teacher, but he had died in WW1.

It was the question of who this man might be, although no one living could possibly know who he was, that led me to research fellow students at the College. Both John and Walter attended the College at the same time as Doris, and sadly, both men lost their lives in the early days of WW1. There is no way of knowing who Doris’s sweetheart really was, but as a writer I wanted to find the stories of men who could have been. Therefore, some aspects of both John and Walter’s stories (which I have been able to discover via sites such as Trove and ancestry.com) have informed the characters in my novel.

Neither Doris, nor John nor Walter ever married and had children, but they all had siblings and most likely have a large extended family still living here in Perth. I am trying to reach out to people who may be related, and this is why I have written this letter. With dozens and dozens of Turpins, Blairs and Regans listed in the white pages, it isn’t possible for me to contact everyone individually, and I am hoping this letter eventually reaches the right people, perhaps someone knows someone who knows someone.

I am not asking you for anything, but I just wanted to let you know about the story I am writing. It is obviously much larger than just Doris, Walter and John – as there were many thousands of men who lives were cut short by WW1 and many thousands of women back home, whose lives were irrevocably changed by the death of their sweethearts and husbands. I hope to do justice to their memories and am very happy to share the information I have discovered about them as a result of my research.

If you would like any further information please do not hesitate to contact me at meyerkortshannon@gmail.com

Sincerely

Shannon Meyerkort

The ANZAC Boys

Perhaps the most tantalising story Gwenyth told me about her aunt, Doris, was in response to my question about why she had never married. Gwenyth explained that many years after Doris had died, she found out from her father (Doris’ younger brother, Walter) that when Doris was very young, she’d had a sweetheart – a teacher – but that he had died in World War 1. After he died, she never talked about him because she found it too painful to have lost the man she loved, and she decided she never wanted to marry anyone else.

Since Doris graduated from Claremont Teachers College in 1913, and WW1 was over by 1918, this only leaves a window of 5 or 6 years when she would have met her sweetheart. The man might have been another student from her time at the College or a teacher from her first jobs after graduating. Between 1914 and 1916 she was moved between the schools at East Perth, Geraldton, Northampton and Bayswater before being sent to East Vic Park School in February 1917 where she stayed for more than twenty years.

Curious about who the man might have been, I wrote to Shannon Lovelady, a historian who I had seen in the local paper as having done research about West Australians who died at Gallipoli in WW1. She wrote back within days with a list of nine names – all the West Australian teachers who died in Gallipoli WWI, adding there would have been more who died on the Western Front. She liked the idea of John Regan as the potential sweetheart since he was at Claremont Teachers College the same time as Doris.

But while Gwenyth said that Doris’ sweetheart was a teacher, she didn’t specifically know if Doris had met him while at college. It was also possible that the man she was in love with, had moved from the Eastern States, and might not have registered for service here in Perth. If he moved back east before enlisting, there would be no way of finding out who he was.

During this time I was also undertaking a writing course with Natasha Lester at UWA Claremont, which is actually the old Teachers’ Training College where Doris studied a century earlier. Not only did I find photographs of the 1912-13 teaching students lining the walls of the main corridor, but I found a memorial in front of the building dedicated to all the students and teachers who died during WW1. There were 35 names on the memorial, each potentially a candidate to be Doris’s sweetheart. Inside the building, there was a board with the names of 116 men, all teachers who enlisted for service in WW1, and presumably made it home again.

To my understanding there is no living person who knows the name of the man – Doris did not talk about him with her family: if her brother knew the man’s name, he did not pass it onto Gwenyth, and anyone else who may know the story of the dead soldier would have passed away long ago.

I decided to research a couple of the more likely suitors – chosen because they were at College at the same time as Doris and were therefore a similar age. Plaques inside the College, erected by classmates included

Walter Blair (class of 1913)

Sydney Forbes (class of 1913)

George Hall (1913-1914, so presumably class of 1914)

John Regan (class of 1914)

Malcolm Stewart (class of 1913)

Ronald Wallace (class of 1912)

Frank Matthews (class of 1908).

However, this put our ‘favourite’, John Regan in a different class to Doris, as she  graduated in 1913, while he is recorded as having graduated with the class of 1914. Their dates of enrolment and attendance match, but for some reason he did not matriculate until the following year. After requesting his student records from the University, I discovered that for some reason John failed to turn up to his final two exams in 1913. However he must have sat them at a later stage because he graduated the next year, putting him in the Class of 1914. So although he and Doris would have been in the same classes for two years, he did not officially graduate until the year after she did.

While researching on Trove I came across an article in the Western Mail article, dated Friday 28t April 1916 which detailed the commemoration service of three students who died in WW1. The three students were Frank Matthews (who was several years older than Doris) John Regan and Walter Blair, both of whom started their teaching course at the College in 1912 – the same year as Doris. I could imagine Doris returning to the College for the special service, and standing there listening to the Minister of Education talk about the man she loved. With two possible candidates, I started researching both John and Walter further, and the seeds of my novel was born. Although it has now been removed from my current draft, this scene of Doris standing at the back of the room while the commemoration service took place at the College, was the first I ever wrote.

Regan_John_2John Regan

John Regan was one of nine children born to John and Margaret Regan. The two eldest, both daughters, were born in Ireland and the young couple then immigrated to Western Australia in the mid-1880s. Their first son Patrick, was born in Jarrahdale in 1888. Margaret then had another six children, all boys except for one girl Arlene, a twin born in 1899. There was 22 years between the eldest child, Margaret born in 1880 and the youngest, Charles, born in 1902, with John being the 6th child born in 1895. This also makes him two years younger than Doris, who was born in 1893.

Photos of John show him to have a slight build, a delicate face with dark eyes, dark hair and a rather sensuous mouth.

According to an article on Trove, John Sr was granted an ‘Eating and Boarding House’ licence on December 14th, 1900. At this time he had eight children, although the eldest daughters may have married and moved out by then. It is possible he and his wife took in boarders to help pay the bills from feeding and caring for such a large family.

Four Regan brothers enlisted in World War 1 – Patrick, Michael, John and James. John was the first to sign up, on 21st October 1914, shortly after graduating college. Interestingly, John’s papers say he was 20 years and 9 months when he enlisted, but he was actually born in 1895 so he pretended to be a year older than he really was. According to Shannon Lovelady, this was quite common: the enlistment age was 21, and if you were younger than this you either needed signed parental consent, or to lie about your age.

John would have been 19 when he enlisted. By lying and adding a year to his age, he made his age close enough to 21 to make ‘the enlistment officer look the other way’, especially since due to training (2 months) and the long time it took to reach Europe by ship (one month), he would be 21 by the time he was on the battlefield. He made the rank of Trooper.

John was killed within a year, on 7th August 1915 in Egypt. He had a horrible death, with a gunshot wound to his right arm, and both legs amputated at the No: 15 General Hospital in Alexandria. He died from his extreme wounds the following day. John would have been twenty years old.

His brothers all enlisted after John was killed in 1915. Michael, the second eldest son was killed, but both Patrick and James both returned home. Charles was too young to serve (born 1902), and I cannot tell why Daniel (born 1892) did not enlist.

When you look at the Regan brothers’ enlistment papers, it becomes clear that John, although not the youngest, was the smallest of the brothers. His brothers were either taller or heavier or broader than he was. Patrick, the eldest was married and living in Bunbury where he worked as a fireman on a locomotive, and he was drafted to the Railway Unit and reinforcements special draft.

The brothers were no angels. Michael (aged 26) was written up and fined for drunkenness while on service, while James had a venereal disease card amongst his war service record. I wonder if perhaps John was considered the runt of the family. While his brawny brothers laboured and worked as firemen and timberworkers in the Jarrahdale, John was the ‘brains’ of the family, winning a five year scholarship to No. 6 Jarrahdale school, and enrolling at a very young age at Claremont Training College. The WA Record writes in his obituary that he had ‘a brilliant course’ at Claremont, suggesting he was very bright.

John Regan embarked for the front on February 17th, 1915. He was part of the 10th Australian Light Horse Regiment, ‘C’ Squadron, and sailed on the ship Surada from Fremantle. Of the approximately 165 men in board, only 10 were younger than John, recorded as being 18 or 19 years of age, and all but one of these boys returned home. John was one of the unlucky ones, being killed after having been in Europe for only a few months. In the article in the Western Mail about the commemoration of the plaques at the Training College, it said “Trooper Regan, a young man of great promise, whose ambition it was to serve his country in some public capacity”, making me wonder if he had hoped to run for public office or the government had he have lived.

walter BlairWalter Blair

Born in NSW (Murwillumbah) in March 1893, Walter Bell Blair was the son of Thomas and Jessie Blair. When he enlisted at the age of 20 years, he was working at Maylands School, while his family now lived in Maddington. He completed his two year teaching course at the same time as Doris, and was well known as a footballer (soccer), being part of the Claremont ‘Training College’ football team. A number of obituaries lamented the loss to ‘Association Football’ after he died. An enlarged photograph of Walter was also unveiled at the Maylands State School as part of an ANZAC Day ceremony in 1916, with the MLA Mr R. T. Robinson conducting the ceremony.

Walter achieved the rank of Lance Corporal and was serving in the 11th Australian Infantry Battalion, when he was killed in action in the landing at Gallipoli. He is in the famous Cheops Pyramid photograph, seated towards the top left hand corner, one of the few men with his hat off, instead holding it in both hands between his legs. Photos of Walter show him to be very serious, almost sad. In images of Walter surrounded by school mates, when others may be smiling, he is always serious.

Walter had at least two brothers, Thomas the eldest, who was listed on the electoral rolls in 1925 as a ‘traveller’ and John Esperance Blair, named because he was born in Esperance, was three years younger than Walter. John Blair also enlisted in WW1, and joined the 27th Battalion in mid-1916 (one year after Walter had been killed). John was wounded in action at the very end of the war with gunshot wounds to both thighs, but he was invalided to England and returned to Australia at the end of 1918.

 

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Image used with thanks from 11th Battalion Cheops Project http://11btn.wags.org.au/ 

 

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I will never know if either John or Walter was indeed Doris’ sweetheart. But there was something about their stories that made me want to pursue them, and now I feel they are like family to me. Unlike Doris, of whom I have never seen a photograph so I have no idea what she looks like, I have a number of images of both John and Walter. It is their faces who look out at me from a silver frame on my desk. When I write, it is them I am thinking of, and elements of their personal appearance and life have inspired characters in my novel.

But the truth is, there were thousands of men like John and Walter, young men who signed up for this great adventure across the sea, and who now lie buried across Europe. These men – boys really – never had a chance to really start their lives, let alone finish them. And there are just as many women like Doris, whose life took a sad and unexpected turn, when their sweetheart never returned home. My novel may be inspired by Doris’ life, but it really will be the story of many women, and it is my way of remembering them and the thousands of other young Australian men and women whose lives were cut short or irrevocably changed by the Great War.

ANZAC Day, April 25th 2018

Cheops image has been sourced from the 11th Battalion Cheops  Project.

 

How I came to start my novel, Part III: Doris Turpin, the teacher

This is the story of the second owner of the ‘House of Women’, and the woman whose story my novel is loosely based upon.

Doris was born Doris Isabel Turpin in 1893 to Isabelle ‘Bella’ Stokes and Walter Turpin.  She first appeared in the 1916 electoral roll, when she was living with her parents at 63 Guildford Road, Mt Lawley. Walter was an accountant, while Bella was listed as doing ‘home duties.’

Doris lived in her family home until she was in her late 30s, with the 1931 Electoral Roll, showing that Doris had finally moved was now living at 102 Zebina Street in East Perth. By this stage, Doris had been a teacher for more than fifteen years. Her middle name had also changed from Isabel to Isabella – whether this was something she deliberately did following the death of her mother, or simply a typo, I have not been able to determine.

A year later in 1932, Doris purchased the land in Daglish. She was 39 years old, and both her parents had passed away, first her father and then her mother. It is likely that on the death of her mother, Doris inherited a small amount of money which enabled her to purchase the land.

Although Doris purchased the block of land in 1932, it was many years before she built a house in Daglish, allowing the block to sit empty for almost a decade. During this time Doris worked as a teacher, and moved between properties on Hay Street in West Perth.

According to the title, Doris did not organise a mortgage until January 1939 indicating that she paid for the land outright and the mortgage was to finance the building of the house. The mortgage was with the Perth Benefit Building Investment and Loan Society and was for £126, which was more than the cost of the two blocks of land a decade previously. Doris worked hard and was able to pay off the loan by 1950.

It wasn’t until the 1943 Electoral Roll that Doris Turpin was finally listed as living at the house on Lutey Ave in Daglish, although I believe she moved in around 1941/42. At this stage, she would have been fifty years old and working as a teacher at Beaconsfield School. It would be another six years until she was transferred to Subiaco School, which was less than a ten minute walk across the train-line. In all her lifetime, Doris never learned to drive a car, and it must have been a great relief as she got older, that she no longer had to catch buses and trains to get to work every day.

I should admit here, that when I originally started researching Doris, I made a very unfair assumption about her. After she died, the house in Daglish sat empty for almost a full year and I supposed that since she was a spinster, and because the house remained unsold for so long that she had died without a will, with no family and no beneficiaries. Why else would a house sit unsold and empty for so long?

At this stage of my research, I made a second, even more mortifying mistake.

On the 1931 electoral roll, I saw a Walter Turpin living in Pingelly and knowing that Walter was no longer listed as living at the family home in My Lawley [I hadn’t realised he had died], I made the assumption that Doris’s father had left his wife and daughter and remarried. I remember calling my mother, saddened at the break-up of those who I had begun to regard as family. Of course, further research showed that the Walter living in Pingelly was not Doris’ father, but a younger brother I had not previously realised existed (he was born in 1900). He had been living in Melbourne at the time of Walter Sr’s death in 1920, which is why he was not previously on the Electoral Roll. After coming back to Perth following his father’s death, Walter Jr moved out to the country, approximately 160 kilometres from Perth, where the Electoral Roll shows him living with a group of other Turpins, whom I assumed to be a grandfather and uncles. A later conversation with Walter’s daughter, Gwenyth, confirmed that he moved in with his uncle (Walter Sr’s brother) and eventually fell in love with – and married – his first cousin Lucy May.

Back in Perth, Doris was now a middle-aged spinster, a teacher and building her first house. Although the majority of houses in Daglish were built in the years immediately following the suburb’s development (late 1920s/early 1930s), Doris’s house was one of the last in the area to be built, finally being finished around 1941. The block next door, sold to Edwina Henson in the 1920s, sat empty for even longer, with the house finally being finished in the early 1950s.

Because it was at least a decade newer than other houses in the street, Doris’ house did not have some of the traditional ‘interwar’ features, such as gables, or lead-lighting in the windows. It was also quite large for a single woman: featuring a large master bedroom with attached sleep-out, a large lounge-room with fireplace, a second bedroom, internal bathroom, kitchen and a separate dining room. Access to the laundry and toilet was through the kitchen. Very high ceilings, wooden floors and decorated ceiling roses in each room were features common to the era.

It was when Doris finally appeared on the 1943 Electoral Roll as living in her new house in Daglish, that I made the surprising discovery that she was not alone. With World War II in full swing and many young men of Perth away fighting in Europe, it was common for older men living in country areas to be ‘manpowered’ and compelled to return to Perth to assist with occupations that were being unfulfilled due to the shortage of men. This is why Walter Jr, his wife Lucy (who was also Doris’s first cousin) and their three children moved from Pingelly back to Perth. Due to a shortage of housing at the time (with many young men away at war there were less labourers to build), Doris invited her brother and his family to live with her in her brand new house.

Gwenyth, the eldest of Walter’s children was almost 12 at the time she moved from Pingelly to Daglish. She remembered her aunt as being a very nice and patient women. Aunt Dorrie never got upset even though she was a teacher and had been around kids all day, and then returned home to a house full of children. The house had two bedrooms, with Doris living in the main front bedroom, and Walter and Lucy in the second bedroom with their baby. Gwenyth slept in the small sleep-out adjacent to her Aunty and her bother slept on a couch in the dining room. The family stayed with Doris for a number of years (around five or six), enough time for Lucy to have another baby and Gwenyth was old enough to get her first job. By the time the war was over and people were building again, Walter was able buy his own house on Heytesbury Rd in Subiaco. At the age of 56, Doris finally had her house to herself.

She lived alone for almost two more decades. One evening in 1968, Doris attended Lucy’s birthday party in Subiaco. As she did not drive and only travelled by bus, I can only assume that Walter or Lucy (or one of the grown up children) had dropped the elderly Doris home after the party.

The couple next door, May and Fred Mason, who were at least twenty years her junior and who had built their house in 1951, kept an eye on their elderly neighbour, checking each day that Doris had collected her newspaper and was ok. The morning after the party Doris’ neighbour checked for the newspaper as usual, but it had rolled under a bush and he assumed that she had collected it. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that he saw the paper under the bush and he realised that something must have happened to Doris. Fred looked through the front bedroom window and could see Doris lying by the side of her bed. She’d had a stroke. He called an ambulance and Doris was transferred to a hospice. Doris never returned to her home in Daglish and she died soon after, at the age of 75.

It was a conversation I had with Gwenyth, Doris’s niece who would have been in her early 80s at the time of our conversation, that finally sparked the inspiration for my novel and will form the subject of my next blog.

Doris Isabella Turpin 1893-1968

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