11. The Grand-daughter of Kitty Larrikin*
This story, based on fact, with extracts from original sources, was written for my aunt, Dorothy Cannon, the grand-daughter of Kitty Larrikin.
This is how it happened. My brother found a book in his local library and in the book was a story about a woman. The name of the woman was the name of my aunt. We asked her and she said yes, the story in that book is about me. We said, but we had no idea. Well, we had an inkling.
That is, we knew some of the story but not all of it. Not that it was a secret. But parts of it were kept close to her chest. When I say my aunt, I mean my mother’s brother’s wife. I was the flower-girl at their wedding. I remember standing on the long train of her gown going up the aisle. I remember the two of us posing for photos afterwards. the two girls of the bridal party, both in long white gowns and carrying orange blossom. I was four. She was twenty four. I remember it because it was the only time I was ever a flower-girl.
When I say I knew some of the story, I knew it through the haze and incidental osmosis of childhood. Later I suppose I knew more, but not much. I never asked; she spoke about her past only in little snippets over a cup of tea with my mother. I was usually a room away doing homework, letting the chat drift over and around. The present was the consuming passion: her life as a mother, my four cousins, my life at school, friends, the interweaving of families. The years drifted by.
Did I say that when I was about twelve they came to live next door to us? With their old Labrador, Cobber, and a number of ferrets. We saw quite a lot of them. My cousins, not the ferrets. Even now my aunt puts the newspaper over the fence every morning for my Dad to read (the one we don’t have delivered) and we call in for cups of tea, one to the other. She plays golf twice a week, is a voracious reader, seems to know and visit hundreds of elderly people in the area who are sick or house-bound. Is a great cook. Made marvellous soup for my mother when she was dying. Brought in fresh roses every day, too. She tends a lovely garden despite the salt-laden sea winds which race up Port Philip Bay right to our doors.
Skin the colour of café latte. Not expresso. Not straight black. That was the trouble. Or the ticket. Depends which way you look at it. It is not simple. Read these. Genuine. Put the pieces together. Take note of the dates, to get the sequence of events. The first:
4th August, 1938
To The Protector of Aborigines,
Davey Collins when at Moore River Native Settlement became engaged to a girl named Susie Millicent, the daughter of Kitty Larrikin. Davey being a prisoner, however, was not given a decision in the matter by me.
When I was last at the Settlement Susie saw me with a view to arranging matters and since the probationary period will be up in June next there is no objection to the necessary arrangements being made. Susie, however, will not be permitted to take her child with her. The infant is now eighteen months old, is practically white and is destined for Sister Kate’s Home.
Chief Protector of Aborigines
The wording is original. How could I make that up? Names have been changed to protect. The infant was my aunt. Practically white. White for all intents and purposes. Could pass for it.
Did I mention that her own eldest child had, as an infant, the features of a blond cherub? One of those plump, pink cherubs in Renaissance paintings. A real throwback considering her dark brown hair and features and her husband’s West of Ireland Spanish Armada handsomeness. It appears that her father, a stock manager at Turrabunna Station, was of Scots descent, so perhaps the Celtic sandy skin and hair came from him. It’s about all he left behind. A name but no face except in his unknown grandchild. There is a letter he wrote to Susie too: he sounds a caring soul. But after that he faded from sight.
Turrabunna Station Via Nannine
5th December 1936.
To: The Commisioner
Dept. of Native Affairs, Perth.
Re Susie Millicent
Susie gave notice a week ago and informs me that she had written you of having done so. She leaves for Perth by tonight’s train. She is a good servant and I do not quite know the reason for her leaving: some disagreement with others here I suspect: we can recommend her as a house servant.
Do you think the station owner really did not know that that in the flight was concealment of a secret due for exposure some months later? Document the third:
To Commissioner of Native Affairs
April 1s, 1937.
Bennett St, Perth.
Re: Susie Millicent
Patient in the King Edward Maternity Hospital. Has given birth to a female child. Date of birth, 31st March, 1937.
Document Four. My favourite:
From Moore River Native Settlement Mogumber
To the Chief Protector of Aborigines, Perth
28th October, 1938.
Re: Susie Millicent
Yours to hand of the 22 inst 141/38.
On the morning of the 7th October, I sent for Susie and other girls who were in the Lockup. I gave instructions that these girls were to work. Susie wanted her child. It was in the hospital. I told her the child was alright and to leave it there. Susie became very abusive and used the vilest language. I told Mr Peel to get her and put her inside again. She became more abusive. I then went out to get hold of her and took her to the Lock-up. I was leaving next morning early, so I instructed Mr Peel to take her to Moore Settlement and charge her, which he did.
G. Neill, Supt.
When I was a child it never seemed strange that she did not visit her family, did not have a family. She just was who she was, part of my child landscape. When I was a teenager she lent me dresses for School Socials: she was quite a snappy dresser and in those days we were the same size. She is still wiry and fit.
It was only of recent years that I tuned into her regular visits to Darwin and to the West, to visit her brother and some of the girls who had been with her at Sr. Kate’s Home. To reclaim what could be reclaimed; rediscover what what was still there. A black box holds copies of documents and letters she was able to track down, mostly Public Service language, dessicated but oddly emotive; some of it kind, all of it proprietorial. Like the black recorder box of a crashed plane, the words are ghosts from another time.
She met her mother Susie Millicent for the first time forty three years after she had been taken away from her and placed according to her destiny in Sr. Kate’s Home. there was by then too great a gulf to be bridged between the feisty half-caste and her practically white toddler, and the elderly desert dweller and the woman from the Eastern States the toddler had become. She has met her regularly on her visits to the West since, but there is no clear psychological bond between them. Just a shared beginning of a story. And despite the different skin tones, a bond of blood. After all, Susie wanted her child. The unsuspected depth of that sentence.
Should I say I am sorry? I feel sorrow. Sorrow like a dark subterranean river. I feel it in you. I know something of it in myself. We meet there by the waters. But sorry has become a trivial word: school-yard fights or lovers’ tiff. Sorrow, on the other hand, seeps into the blood. Like the sorrow I feel when I stand at the edge of Lough Doo in County Mayo, Ireland. There is a memorial by the roadside, a roughly hewn stone cross. Several hundred men, woman and children walked in search of justice and food. They were turned away with neither. Ireland 1849. The Great Famine. Four Hundred of them died by that deep, black water, in those ancient mountains scarred by rain and geological aeons.
I wish that your life had been different; that you had not lost your childhood, your people, your place. But had it been otherwise you and I would not be kindred; we would not share this people and this place. It is not simple. Thank you for being my aunt. Thank you for giving me this story. And as they say in my tribe as they lift the glass to salute: Slainte.
*This story was first published in Australian Short Stories, No. 63, published by Mooltan Press 1999.
Dorothy Cannon died in 2015. A story waits to be told about her funeral.