Friday, April 23, 2021

The fifty year old family secret

My mother made it clear in so many ways that she loved her children, but she could also be rather blunt. “All three of you were funny looking babies,” she said, one Christmas, when we’d all eaten our fill and were encouraging Dad to get the ‘best of’ family slides out. 

Photographs, especially colour photographs, were very expensive — up to 79c each in 1976 which, considering you never knew if the photos were going to be in focus, not have heads cut off or the flash cube fail to pop and result in a unrevealing black square, was a risky fee to pay. Slides were much cheaper and usually involved a night where Dad would set up the projector and the white screen and we’d sit through our grandparents’ latest holiday overseas, or our own, which was usually camping nearby. People used to groan about the boredom of slide nights, but I loved them. In hindsight, my father and grandfather both deserve a genuine thank you for editing their selections to present to family and friends and for providing pretty entertaining commentary. We were indeed the lucky ones.

Despite this, if you ever find really old boxes of slides inherited from your grandparents, take the time to check ’em out. 

Look at this absolute pearler taken by my grandfather in 1967. My nanna is the one wearing a snazzy black and white flowery frock and cardi, holding a big white handbag while one of her friends SITS ON Stonehenge with her pet corgi. People behind them are mingling as though at an outdoor wedding! This is one that gets even better than ever with age.

When we’d all helped with clearing the table and doing the dishes, Dad had the projector set up. Mum’s pronouncement proved correct when, years after we three children had all partnered up and were spending Christmas with my folks, my dad decided to find all the original baby slides and thus prove that none of us were oil paintings.

Mum was brutally correct — I wasn’t a beautiful baby and this was the most attractive slide I could find

I was called ‘Bubbles’ because of my round face and because a South Aussie football player had the same name and it’s probably no coincidence that I’m blowing one in this slide. My face continued to hold that round shape as I grew:

I was years ahead of Boris Johnson in the hairstyle stakes

One slide or photo I seem to have lost is of me, topless (oooh errrr), at age three, standing uncertainly by the back door next to my less than one year-old brother David, ensconced in one of those space-walker things that I believe are now terribly dangerous and frowned upon. But hey, it was 1971.

Mum had left the kitchen for a few moments and textas (a brand name of Australian permanent markers that resembled black cigars) were tantalisingly scattered over the table. I’m not sure what signs or cards she was making, but clearly the need for the bathroom beckoned. Seizing my moment, I backed my baby brother’s luna-module into a corner and covered his face in a rainbow selection of thick, bright texta stripes. I remember him not protesting at all and the smell of the textas as I rather gently drew each line smelled rather nice.  David ended up looking like a test pattern.
I don’t remember being punished for it; and years later Mum told me that she and Dad had to go and have a good laugh out in the shed first. I know — keeping a straight face when trying to tell your kid off is one of the hardest responsibilities to take seriously. It put me in mind of my own three year old daughter tugging at the skirt of the lady standing next to me at the yoghurt fridge in the supermarket and informing her that ‘My mummy has brown hairs on her front bottom.’ There’s no dignity to be regained or lessons to be learned from that. 

As for me, still topless in January 1971, Mum and Dad actually used the camera that had photo film in it — not Dad’s slide taker — and took a few photos, later labelling them ‘Katherine’s Art, 1971.’
Poor little David’s Jackson Pollock-like face stayed like that for weeks — texta was a bugger to remove. Apparently he was quite the topic of discussion at church the following Sunday.

But now we were in the 2010s, sitting in Mum and Dad’s retirement house in Victor Harbour, having a good laugh at the memories seen on the screen when Mum revealed a long held family secret. Not the weird looks of her babies — that was common knowledge and just recently proved again— but a much more grave and shameful one. 

She and my father had put one of us children into a harness. 

A harness. You still see occasionally a poor toddler strapped and buckled in one today, as if they were a dog that needed controlling, but it’s a very rare sight and never gets a ‘thumbs up’ from either fellow parents passing by and only stricken looks of ‘should we call child services’ from the childless. The public humiliation for the poor entrapped innocent little creature far outweighs the worry and exhaustion of the parent in my view. Secure them with a belt in a pram or put them on the father’s shoulders!

After much badgering and asking ‘who who who,’ my father sighed and lowered his head before looking up at me and whispering, ‘It was you.’


My beloved parents had made me wear a HARNESS.

My husband, brothers and sisters-in-law roared with laughter. 

But I was the baby — weird looking or not - that they always said was the best sleeper, the calm one, the angel to look after. Teachers in kindergarten and first year of primary school said I was a bit ‘dreamy’ and needed to stop singing out loud to myself when doing my maths problems. Oldest brother R was the angry first born and young David was the screamer. Look at the little guy:

Oh wow, a screaming new baby brother.
Yep, he’s still screaming. This is the only family photo of the five of us for at least two years because David cried all the bloody time.

In fact, David wailed at such an incessant volume that my parents took him back to some kind of hospital facility that accepted problematic newborns. My knowledge of this is non-existent, but the guess is that the staff wore ear plugs 24/7 to feed, change, bath and cuddle the babies and save their hearing. And in doing so, they provided a life-saving service for the parents to gain a tiny bit of respite and avoid losing their minds or ending up in prison for infanticide. Mum and Dad still don’t make light of it, even fifty years later. They did not know how to stop him from screaming or get him to feed properly or to sleep and they both felt desperately worried at what they might do out of frustration and despair if left alone with him. Mum’s unsubtle truth is revealed again when she said “we were planning on having four children, but then David came along.”

The two week break seemed to have worked. The little bugger is still with us and now has a fabulous family of his own, lovely wife, a fulfilling job and is fit enough to win rowing championships with blokes thirty years younger. He’s truly a good egg.

My older brother was significantly moodier and nastier. With a two year age advantage, I didn’t exist when he was a baby but as a small child I quickly discovered that he had tougher punches and much more damaging insults. He was extremely competitive at all sports and games and could be a very sore loser. I tended to keep out of his way.

My memories are of singing and dancing to ABBA, ripping 20 cents off trusting little David by promising I’d be his slave for the day and then dashing off after half an hour, ignoring his fading protests and finding a good spot to read. Often I’d be in the middle of a book while my brothers were playing legos and wrestling around me. I read all of my mother’s 1940s editions of Enid Blytons and anything in my parents bookshelves that weren’t too ‘Amityville Horror’ or ‘Roots’-ish for my childish sensitivities.

But it was ME they chose to put into a harness. “You had a crazy look in your eye,” Mum said, wiping away tears of laughter.

“Once you learned to walk, you had chubby little legs, but they were a decoy because you’d dash across the road or across the car park or into a building faster than your physique hinted at. We couldn’t trust you for a second.”

“You were wildly unpredictable,” Dad said. “We had no idea where you’d go or what you’d end up doing.”

Despite this, there are no slides or photos of me in the harness. Then again, why would you keep photographic evidence of such a heinous decision? 

These days, I’m extremely predictable. I once said to my husband Dean, “Oh, I can read you like a book” and he shot back with “And I can read you like a factsheet.” 

I shall love my parents regardless and am realising that the crumbling realities of time and age are working rather well on reducing the speed of my chubby legs and the danger of my ‘crazy eyes' which are pretty useless without my glasses.

*** This story was first published on Medium - 


  1. Smiling. Broadly. We didn't do photographs OR slides in our family but I do remember as a young adult saving up to have photos developed - and usually being disappointed.
    No harness for me - I was left in the care of the family dog.
    My eldest brother was apparently a screamer. My mother tells the tale of putting a screaming child in his pram outside so she didn't kill him - and having a well meaning neighbour call welfare. He obviously screamed himself out. He is fairly silent now. Another of his stunts when displeased was to hold his breath until he passed out. My long suffering mother learnt (fairly quickly) that a) he would pass out and b) that he would start to breathe again as soon as he did. So she ignored him and he grew out of it quickly.

  2. I really can't see anything wrong with restraining a child with a harness. I don't think I was but I remember my younger brother was a wanderer and he was.
    I've often wondered why slides were so popular and now I know it was because they were cheaper.
    Even permanent marker ink nowadays comes off more easily than Texta did.

  3. There is a toddler here in the flats that needs a harness because he just takes off when outside and there are no fences, the driveway goes from the front main road entrance all the way through to a side road entrance and there are no gates at either end of course.

  4. I'm not convinced harnesses were such a bad thing. I remember chasing my eldest lad when he was a toddler, as he ran riot in a wedding reception knocking over plants and giggling thinking it was a game rather than his innocent way of humilating his father. I am sure that the disapproving looks I got from some people would have changed had he been in a harness.

    The truth is, you can't win.




  5. Are you okay? You haven't written anything for a month now :(

    (times four because there are four of you, counting the dog)


The fifty year old family secret

My mother made it clear in so many ways that she loved her children, but she could also be rather blunt. “All three of you were funny lookin...