Merrin Howe

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Merrin Howe(If Kevin Montgomery was marking this ‘composition’ I know he’d give me more than Billy Price or Betty Thompson!   Also my name dropping is not aimed to impress just to show I’ve had an interesting life!)

I was born in Canberra in 1950 the daughter of Joyce and Frank Howe. We lived for many years at 6 Lockyer Street, Griffith.   We lived opposite the Petrovs (he being the Russian spy) and on the block next to the Russian Legation.  Unlike most normal kids, our spare time was spent watching the legation hedge ignite after  Molotov Cocktails had been thrown into it. My Dad, Frank, told us some years ago that we are  related to Archie Bell the explorer (Bell’s Line of Road) and magistrate, and his father, also Archie, also a magistrate and part of the Rum Rebellion.  Dad joined the army and was sent to New Guinea during the war with the field ambulance and artillery and understandably didn’t say much to us about his experiences.   He caught malaria there and told us they traded baked beans for fresh food like taro with the natives.   

Dad was a fine builder and carpenter whose friends, acquaintances and clients included Sir George Currie, Fred Daly, Jim Fraser, Jim Overall and Mark Oliphant.   I remember one day Mum was handing over some chairs repaired by Dad to Mrs Campbell (David Campbell, the poet’s wife) and we were tittering in the background as she admired Mum’s daisies (‘divine, divine’) which actually stunk! Dad features in a book about the Canberra Alpine Club called ‘Skis over the Brindabellas’ by Matthew Higgins.   Dad did some construction work on the Mount Franklin ski lodge  and also made his own wooden skis for his personal use.   Ruth’s dad, Ken Ingram and uncle, Tim are also featured in the book as well as Bob Long, Laurie Long’s dad (she is my second cousin).   Later on Dad was employed as a laboratory craftsman in the Forestry Section of the ANU where he created some amazing things.  Dad died in 2001.  Mum, Joyce, worked as a secretary for the government before marriage and home duties after but always wanted to study all her life.  Mum was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1981 but survived and is 92 this year, lives near my sister at Raymond Terrace , walks every day and is still an avid reader and interested in current affairs.   A bit forgetful though (’And everyone  is well?’   ‘Yes, Mum’ “And everyone is well?’ etc).  Her dad, William Henry Barber (Harry), was a well loved Queanbeyan pioneer who was the fire chief as well as coach painter and sign writer.   Mary Anne, my grandmother, was a milliner and painter so I guess that’s where my creative streak may have arisen.

I have 2 brothers and two sisters who all attended Telopea Park High.

Graham the eldest was awarded a cadetship to study surveying at the UNSW  at 16 years of age.  He went on to start his own practice and also gained his Mining Engineer’s degree and worked for a while at North Broken Hill mine.   In order that Tony, his intellectually disabled son, and also other disabled young persons in Broken Hill could have employment he started a plant nursery which supplied Woolies in Adelaide.   Graham is active in community work.  Today Graham has his own practice in Broken Hill and being the only surveyor between there and Adelaide gets a lot of work, quite a lot of it, government.

Glenice the eldest daughter studied and worked as a pre-school teacher but due to health issues retired some years ago.   She enjoys golf and makes fine stained glass.

Lawrence, my older brother, is a literacy teacher with the Department of Education based on the far north coast. One of his sons’ is a lecturer at a Queensland university.

Dianne, the youngest daughter, is a deputy principal at Rutherford Primary School.   She and her family live on a property at Glen Oak where she does exquisite needlework.   One of Dianne’s sons is an Industrial Chemist working for many years with BHP.

My school life started at Griffith Infants and Primary schools.   One of my fellow students was Johnny Chan (now known as Jacky Chan - our nephew is married to Julia, a good family friend of Jacky’s).   I enjoyed meeting  many other students from different ethnic backgrounds such as my friends Anil Mago and  Swadish Backery (I wonder where they are today?).   I met Meredith Borthwick at school and she asked me to correspond with S. Prastanpanth (I can’t recall her first name) a young girl she met when her family was based in Thailand.   (Meredith and I were the only girls in Cliff Burnett’s economics class. One of my former bosses at the library was Cliff’s niece).   Being a very, very  shy girl I found starting at Telopea very difficult  and couldn’t believe I was put into 1A with all these brainy people.  I really liked Telopea but found it intimidating with such a huge number of high achievers.   I don’t know how I got through 6 years.  Too shy to ask questions in front of other students and teachers, I think I just didn’t try hard enough.   In particular I regret not taking Art as a subject, my real love, as such other students as Alan Tate, Christine Harris and Patty Goodwin were so good at it.

I was awarded two teacher’s scholarships but I didn’t particularly want to do that - I wanted to be a fashion designer and actually went to East Sydney tech to sit for an entrance test.   I started working in the ACT Public Service as a clerk where I met my lovely husband, Cornelius (AKA Con).   He was from Holland (you should hear his story - kidnapped in Calcutta as a baby etc etc !!) and quite the opposite upbringing to mine.   We married in 1972 and bought a house in Flynn.  I had quite interesting duties at times in the public service including finding jobs for Cyclone Tracey victims, providing police certificates for court and for ASIO, and also while in Land Policy Branch finding uses for resumed homesteads.  One day my boss and I had to take John Moriarty and Charles Perkins out to look for a possible  Aboriginal embassy.  My short time at Consumer Affairs was extremely interesting and funny!

In 1976 we went overseas for a few months with some friends.  Tony, our friend is of Italian descent, so the weight we lost trekking round Spain we put back on in Italy at his relative’s places.  His uncle had a vineyard so he gave us quite a few bottles of red wine which were smashed in our suitcase on the way back.  Hard explaining red stained clothes in Singapore!

In 1979 we grew bored with our life and decided to move to the north coast at Sawtell where we ran a mixed business for 3 years.   I became pregnant after we bought a house and our son, Louis was born in 1983.  Our second son, Timmy was born in 1988. I did various marketing, office type duties part time while the kids were little as there is nothing in the way of jobs up here now or then.   In 1991 when we were renovating our house Timmy was diagnosed with ALL (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia) which required many trips to Sydney for 2 years of chemotherapy.   A very hard time in our lives but most people  were fantastic.  Timmy was diagnosed in November and he and I came back from Sydney just before Christmas.   The house had been cleaned, and food and groceries were packed on our kitchen shelves.   Timmy couldn’t walk for 3 months had to be carried everywhere but Santa brought him a trampoline which was a fantastic present to get his legs working again.  I remember we were in the Isolation Ward at the Sydney Children’s Hospital because he’d been in contact with Chicken Pox but directly outside our picture window was a decorated Christmas tree in the car park.  We stayed at Ronald MacDonald House at Randwick which was a fantastic help.   With three weeks to go on chemo in 1994 Timmy was diagnosed with Chicken Pox while we were visiting Mum and Dad (who had moved to Newcastle just before that time).   It was stressful as it’s dangerous on chemo to contract this so he and I were in Isolation for a week.   The school years next were stressful as Timmy’s immune system was shot for many years.  He started school but used to fall asleep and needed a lot of help.   One ‘memorable’ day the literacy teacher told me Louis had a reading age two years below the norm and Timmy’s teacher told me he should go back to pre-school.   Bugger that I thought!   We tried very hard over the next few years finding a fantastic ex-teacher to help Louis’s literacy and finally with the help of the headmaster and Andrew Fraser (he’s the one who nearly throttled Joe Tripodi) we got funding for help at school for Timmy which lasted all through high school.   I did 8 years of literacy help at the school and also helped my friend who was a Gifted and Talented teacher, with art lessons.   In between when possible I did lots of drawings, craft etc.   All of my craft put into a shop at Boambee Bay Resort sold.   In 1997 I had a sudden urge to study and perhaps through some subliminal image of Mrs Hughson decided to be a Librarian.   Shortly after starting distance education through Charles Sturt University I started part time employment as a branch officer at the council library here.   The library operated out of a shop front but when the new library was built I was offered a full time job as branch officer which I did for 11 years.  I especially enjoyed meeting people ( between 300- 400 each day) and creating my own children’s craft.  I was over joyed when after some encouragement Indigenous kids and their parents started using the library.   One of my highs was being asked by Aunty Bea Ballangarry to paint some illustrations for presentation with her Dreamtime stories in the library.   My degree took me 9.5 years to finish as I worked fulltime, studied and had a family.   Con did a lot to help but I had many late nights.   One of the proudest days of my life was standing (albeit with shaking legs) on the stage at Charles Sturt being awarded my BA (Library and Information Science) degree.   The Vice- Dean Jim Prater was glad to see us as he went to UNSW with Graham.   Con had been working for many years at Sawtell RSL club as supervisor, cellarman and other duties.

When Tony (he also has a huge book company) offered us work in late 2008 as managers of his old hotel at Capertee, halfway between Mudgee and Lithgow, we decided to do this for a change.   Con was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis just before we left but we decided to try anyway.   It was very hard work with 7 staff and 5 coal fires.   I’m sure we must have been breaking every pollution law in the country.   The challenges were the fires, rabbits (millions), snakes and some of the locals.  The pluses were the fantastic, interesting people we met and the funny things that happened.   Believe me there were many Fawlty Towers moments especially when the Health Inspector turned up!   

Our staying guests included the Israeli Army (3 stays), David Ireland (documentary maker for ABC & Documentary Channel), Kristin (ABC National), bikies, overseas guests (e.g Robert biking around Australia from the Dutch Antilles), Master Games entrants from Denmark, Russia and Germany and so on.   Guests passing through were a myriad of types - Belinda Green, Nell Schofield, Artie Beetson, Simone MacKinnon, Dominic James, Bill Allen, Vic Dartagnon and so on.  We had miners from all different countries who were lovely.  Many wealthy people have weekenders out that way and we saw many of these regularly and keep in touch with quite a few locals and visitors.  

We took our foxie, Ruby, who was a hit with everybody and it was amazing to see all the big, tough guys in huge gallon hats tickling her tummy!   Ruby caught all the rats and mice and I have started a child’s picture book about her adventures at the pub.  I started a craft shop in the hotel office where we sold local craft and second hand books with the commission going to a family living on a farm nearby whose Mum had Motor Neurone Disease.   In February 2010 two young thugs, disgruntled patrons, transported and let off a mortar bomb outside our rooms at the pub at 4 am.  At that time there had been various criminal acts done around the district such as the Israeli’s equipment container being set on fire, earth moving gear tampered with and so on. Police were called after the explosion and these offenders were charged substantial fines under the anti terrorism laws.   They were very lucky really as we had offers to ‘fix up’ from friends including some Russian cage fighters (they trained with Kosta Tsu), bikies, a huge Irishman (who owned the earthmoving gear) plus the police.   It was very tempting!   During this time I was offered work with Lithgow Library but knocked it back as I had so much to do at the pub and the kangaroos, black ice and coal trucks tended to dissuade one from using the highway too much especially in the dark.   Last year the pub sold after we had it going really well but decided it was too much for us with Con’s arthritis.  We and Ruby moved back home.   Con is now on the board of directors of the local RSL club (an experience reminiscent of the movie ‘Crackerjack’) and I do casual cleaning work at Bishop Druitt College.   It’s fairly stress free work.   I miss using my brain though. 

I guess when one attends school there is no concrete assurance that a rewarding career or life will follow.   However, there might be from time to time some indicators that along the way you’ve done something right.   Just recently we were shopping in Coles when a hesitant young Aboriginal woman, Colleen, came up to me. “I got my degree after 5 years’ she said with a beaming face.   I congratulated her soundly but then she continued  ‘ I couldn’t have done it without you.   With your smiling face and your help.   If you hadn’t have been in the library I wouldn’t have kept going’.   I cried and we hugged.

Timmy did a bit of hospitality study and work but after getting nowhere then did an intro type university course last year.   He was accepted to do a Dietician’s degree at SCU Lismore and started several weeks ago and is loving it.   We laughed when he texted us to say he got his first lab coat.   He even got his licence a few years ago with the help of the world’s calmest man - Bill - who is also a hypnotherapist!   I remember saying to someone once ‘never let anyone say you can’t do something’.

Louis is now a teacher at Bishop Druitt College, a private school and has an Applied Science degree (Coastal Management) and a Dip Ed. Louis teaches Science and Literacy and is a mentor to Indigenous pupils.   He is married to Amber a beautiful and splendid seamstress and they have a beautiful daughter, Charlotte, a miniature Louis.   Much to our delight they are expecting another baby in September.

That’s my life.

Merrin (Howe) Van Dartel

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