I don’t do sweet


In her element, by Dave Carswell

In her element, by Dave Carswell

This year, Maggie and I celebrate 30 years of friendship.  I haven’t been the only long term female connection in her life –  there have been many: some of whom have stayed close and others have drifted off, because Maggie was never one for staying in touch.

When we started working on the Collection, I’d ring or turn up at her door and she’d say, ‘Oh, you came back!’ or ‘Aren’t you sick of me yet?’

As a woman, a friendship with Maggie was never ‘maternal’, but a respectful honouring of creativity and purpose.  A  phone call filled with affirmations and the odd ‘back hander’, was what I came to expect from her.  With her unique turn of phrase, her unyielding Americanism and her uncanny ability to sum up a person or situation in just a few words, there was nobody like her.

Maggie easily became estranged from women too,  because she was often broke, unreliable and single-minded. She wouldn’t mince her words and might tell a female friend that her ‘butt was looking too big’ or that she was ‘looking ten years older’.

Our first day together in 1985 was a photo shoot for my agency portfolio and we spent 12 hours on it.  Across Melbourne – from Bayside to the city, she made me feel like we were creating something really good together; something worthwhile and as a young performer, this was life changing.

Our friendship was firm from that day forward.  She also liked me because, although I was young and still at school, I did have a regular part time job, so was very good at paying my bills.  She’d get in the car and say, ‘Have you got any loot?’ and that would mean that it was up to me to buy coffee and lunch!

One of the reasons that I was inspired to put the photographic collection together, was that I was equally enthralled by the stories that Maggie had shared with me about her early life and every time I went down a research path, I was usually rewarded.

There was one key story that had me entranced and completely stumped at the same time.  Although I had put many hours into solving this mystery,  I had actually given up on any resolution of this one before Maggie passed away.

I have always known that Maggie gave up a little red headed baby girl for adoption some time in the late 40s or 50s and that the adoption and all her medical costs were managed by a lawyer (now known as a ‘baby broker’). I would ask her for the name of the hospital, the birthdate and the name of the lawyer and she would always say she couldn’t remember. It was as though she was determined to keep me off the scent and when I challenged her on this, she maintained that she had nothing to offer this woman, so what was the point. I said ‘ How about identity?’

About two months ago I received an email from Laurie, who IS this woman! It was a tentative note – asking politely if there was the possibility that Maggie might be her mother.  I quickly responded with something like, ‘I know exactly  who you are and I’ll call you in 6 hours if you send me your landline!’  Sure enough 6 hours later, she sent me her number, saying she was shaking so much she could barely type. I was about to be part of a life changing moment.  Laurie and I talked and talked – all the details that I did know, matched. She had been handed over to a baby broker in a cab and she had bright red hair. Later that week I set up a Skype call with Maggie and although dementia is a big issue, Laurie got to see her birth mother. When she turned to the side, I started to laugh because Laurie has Maggie’s side profile – especially her ears!

I had already booked my ticket to travel to the USA and as I write, I am here – spending time with Maggie’s family, meeting with gallery and festival people and doing research for my book. A week ago, we met Laurie. She and her son drove for 8 hours from Missouri. That night she met 3 of her cousins and we spoke to Maggie on Skype. The next day we met Maggie’s old buddy Will – now 80, who was one of the few people who had actually known what had occurred and was happy to share his memories of that time.

It was just a little overwhelming, and as you can imagine, I’ve been wanting to share this news, but have taken time to process it all, as has Laurie. You are probably wondering what Maggie thinks of all this. During our first Skype call with Laurie she said ‘I feel tremors’ and went to sleep for a while. We have spoken to Laurie a number of times since then and will continue to do so. She is also taking a while to process it all.

When I return to Australia I’ll be preparing an all women show (women and girls)  which will open this December at Manning Clark House in Canberra. I had already planned this exhibition and it’s title – ‘I Don’t Do Sweet’.

It was always going to be an ‘all girls’ show – strong, proud, beautiful – but not sweet and now…it will be dedicated to Laurie. I believe that throughout her life spent behind a camera, a certain little red head was never far from her thoughts.

I have had the most extraordinary time in America and am very grateful to everyone who has gone out of their way to make it so.



3 Responses to “I don’t do sweet”

  1. What an inspiring post! Thank you so much for doing all the hard yards, Gwendoline, to reunite Maggie with her daughter. Wonderful to read of this.

  2. Maggie Belbin Augustin Says:

    Maggie’s story is fascinating! Wonderful post Gwen!

  3. Gabrielle Dewan Says:

    HI Gwen I am just checking my emails and you mentioned Maggie passing away. Has she died? I got back to Melbourne on Wed morning and slept for most of the day after an 8 hour flight with not much sleep. Am just checking my emails now at 8.52pm


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