Elder’s memoir for young and old

Aunty Pat Ockwell with her siblings Alice, Patrick and Martha. 258932_05 Picture: ROB CAREW

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

Family and connection lay at the heart of Aunty Pat Ockwell’s life story.

And so it was at the official launch of her richly told biography ‘Aunty Pat Ockwell Tells Her Story’ in front of admiring family, friends and mayors at Abbotsford Convent on 21 November.

The 84-year-old Wurundjeri elder – described as “our eldest elder” – has traced her vast life, deep kinship and shared the lessons for the younger generations.

It’s the product of two-and-a-half years of lockdown-interrupted toil between Aunty Pat and collaborator Pauline Mackinnon.

At the launch, Aunty Pat – flanked by siblings Alice, Patrick and Martha – revealed the emotional ride in compiling the book with her “old mate”.

“I used to cry sometimes, I used to have a go at her and she’d have a cry.

“I’d say what are we howling for? We shouldn’t be doing this.

“We sat down with a coffee. We roughed it for a while – but we got there, Pauline.”

Ms Mackinnon said Aunty Pat’s persistence on the project was driven by a “love and fire” for her elders and the young.

“It was no ego thing,” she said.

“It was something she knew she had to do for everyone’s benefit – for all her family and the community.

“And to cover all that love and courage of her elders.”

Ms Mackinnon said it was an honour to “walk with” Aunty Pat through the project.

“It’s a beautiful, personal and warm record of a critical time for Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people.

“What it takes to survive and to safeguard what’s important so the next generation can do the same.

“What I love about Aunt is not only the love and fire that burns in her belly for her elders. It’s the love and fire that burns for the young ones.

“She sees the connection of that so well.”

The story starts with Aunty Pat’s mum Martha Terrick and dad Patrick Nicholson, who served with the Royal Australian Air Force.

Then the childhood memories growing up in Healesville, as one of 16 siblings. Her family travelled the countryside by caravan for seasonal farm and orchard work.

The memoir tells of her raising her family with husband and Woori Yallock farmer Ted Ockwell. And inspired by elders before her, how she devoted herself to trying to help her people.

Her Aunty Winnie – a very important Wurundjeri leader – said that when she was gone, Aunty Pat would have to “step up”.

And she did.

She’s served on the board of Dandenong and District Aborigines Co-operative, as well as the Wurundjeri Tribe Council, Aboriginal Community Elders Services and Aboriginal Housing Victoria.

She is renowned for getting young lives back on track and out of jail, such as by sitting on the Koori Court as an Elder for 14 years.

At the launch, Uncle Andrew Gardiner, of Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation, said the book had many “snippets” that few had heard.

One passage brought him vivid recollections of his mother.

“You can see and recognise that personal touch.”

Recent City of Greater Dandenong mayor Angela Long – a friend of Aunty Pat for four decades – was among the attendees.

City of Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp also paid tribute in a pre-recorded message.

In her Welcome to Country, Aunty Di Kerr said she was glad that ‘Teenie’ told her life stories, like the ones she used to share in jewellery making.

“I hope you look at the book and appreciate what as a strong matriarch in the Aboriginal community she has shared with us,” she told the audience.

To her friend, she said: “I don’t know what our world would be like without you.”