Marjorie Davison: A Fortunate Life 1913-2013

I’d like to introduce you to a woman who could easily have been an Australian of the Year if she were nominated. But she was too humble, too family oriented, too much a quiet feminist for that.
Her name is Marjorie Davison (pictured left) and she was my mother-in-law.
She died last week at the age of 100, and it was a cause of celebration and sadness. Mostly a celebration because she always wanted to reach the magic 100, and in spite of increasing frailty, she made it, and got her treasured letter from the Queen and the Prime Minister and the NSW Premier et al.
We celebrated her century last March as if she were an Australian batsman hitting 100 in the deciding Ashes Test, even though we had to wheel her back to her room in the nursing home to have a sleep after an hour or so. She died on Sydney’s North Shore, in the Killara Gardens, a five-star (my rating) aged care residence, looked after by wonderful staff. One of the nurses there called us this week to tell us how loved she was, and that she had a wicked sense of humour – reflected in her asking for Tom Lehrer’s end-of-the-world “survival hymn,” We’ll All Go Together When We Go, to be played at her funeral. It was.
I never thought of Marj Davison as a mother-in-law, and certainly not the stereotype so favoured by the stand-up comedians. She was generous, always giving Christmas cards to the extended family, complete with a substantial monetary gift; she was there when you needed her, eg, babysitting our two daughters in their early years, or feeding the cats when we went away; and helping this hopeless handyman when he had to put a bike together for his daughter on Xmas Eve.
Born Marjorie Pooley in 1913, she grew up in a modest house in the Sydney suburb of Bexley.* Her father Tom was a labourer, and her mother, Ruby, took in knitting work and sold eggs from the many chooks in the backyard. She graduated from St George Girls’ High School, and did well in English and the Humanities. Marj wanted to be a journalist, but it was the 1930s, and there were no jobs for journos. But this was a blessing in disguise, because she won a scholarship to Sydney University where she graduated with honours. It was quite an achievement for a woman in those days.
It was at Sydney Uni that she developed her lifelong love of literature and became a bit of a poet. At her private funeral service at the weekend, her son Leigh read one of her poems, “Heaven and Earth,” written at the age of 18, with some lovely lines like these:
The stars laid gold and glorious,
Each ticked with icy fire,
I beckoned to its loveliness,
My soul rose even higher.

Marj trained as a teacher and was posted to Wellington High School, 350km northwest of Sydney, where she taught English and also coached the girls’ basketball team. She met Ken Davison, an “upwardly mobile officer in the NSW Public Service,” on a cruise in 1937 and they were married in March 1938.
Leigh Davison pointed out one problem: “Married women weren’t allowed to teach in those days. This grated with Marj.” But she put that to one side, and soldiered on as a housewife, as these were the war years, which were difficult for many families. She and Ken had three children: Gillian (my wife), in 1940, Leigh in 1943 and Kerry in 1946. As soon as Kerry went off to primary school, Marj returned to work as a teacher at Willoughby Girls High in Sydney’s North, and later became a librarian, her love of books coming to the fore again.
While her husband Ken moved up the ladder to become the head of the NSW Bureau of Census and Statistics, for which he was awarded an Imperial Service Order, Marj also was involved in service to Australia. As a volunteer, she helped set up the library at East Lindfield Public School, and went on to become the head librarian at Burwood Municipal Council for two decades. She joined an amateur musical group and played a role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. She also travelled widely after her husband died in 1974.
My youngest daughter, Heidi, paid a lovely tribute to “Nanny” at the funeral service, telling how her grandmother used to care for her and her sister Colleen after school: “We would read books and poems in her sunroom, get introduced to the neighbourhood cats or play badminton in the backyard. My favourite thing was simply exploring and poking through all the photos and treasures around her house and garden – all of which had a story behind them, which Nanny would lovingly recite to us.” And that love continued when they became adults and visited Nanny: “She always had sage advice and a story. A story she always told with eloquence and admiration. And every year without fail, she would write us such beautiful birthday cards.” Leigh Davison said his mother and father gave him and his sisters the gifts of a wonderful childhood and respect for the value of an education. All the Davison children wound up with university degrees, including post-graduate ones.
Whenever I’m in Canberra I like to stroll along the south shore of Lake Burley Griffin and look at the names on The Australian of the Year Walk, which features five parallel metal strips and a series of bollards topped with metal plaques to honor the winners. I always think of Marj Davison and how nice it would be to have her name on one of those plaques. She didn’t edit a magazine, she didn’t run a major corporation, she wasn’t an Olympic gold medallist, she wasn’t a solo sailor circumnavigating the globe, or a famous singer. But she was an early feminist, a woman who loved life and literature, a teacher and librarian, a wife and mother, a devoted grandmother and great-grand mother (though she wasn’t well enough in her final years to give the time to her great-grandchildren that she would have liked). She’s my Australian of the Year.
I think of another late-blooming icon who was nominated for the Australian of the Year award in 1981. Albert (AB) Facey had his autobiography, A Fortunate Life, published that year when he was 87 – nine months before his death. Acclaimed as a classic, the book is a matter-of-fact account of his life as a farm labourer (when he was beaten by his employer with a horse whip), a bushman, a professional boxer, a soldier at Gallipoli (where he tells of being wounded several times), a tram driver, a trolley bus driver and a poultry and pig farmer. Despite his many hardships, Facey always said he had a fortunate life, hence the title of his book.
Marj Davison also had a fortunate life, not as hard as AB Facey’s, of course. But they both shared a common bond — a love of family (Facey was married to Evelyn Gibson for nearly 60 years and they had seven children), and a love of life. As Eleanor Roosevelt put it in her autobiography: “Life was meant to be lived, and curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.” These two “ordinary” Australians never turned their backs on life.
I’d like to end this memorial to Marj Davison, with the final words of Heidi’s tribute: “One hundred years old is an amazing innings. Her affection and love and beautiful way with words will never be forgotten. We love you and will miss you Nanny. And we are happy you are now at peace.”
*Much of the biographical information for this post came from Leigh Davison’s loving profile of his mother delivered at the memorial service – supplemented by myriad material from his two sisters, Gillian and Kerry.

4 thoughts on “Marjorie Davison: A Fortunate Life 1913-2013

  1. What a sweet tribute to an obviously great lady.It certainly sounds like a life well lived…Happy Christmas/New Years to all of you Down Under//I may not get to my cards in a timely fashion…love Carol//Bud too te: Thu, 5 Dec 2013 01:24:13 +0000 To:

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