The day my mother was buried was the day I realised I never really knew her at all.
Thousands of people packed into a traditional funeral service to pay their respects at St Brigid’s Catholic Church, a red-bricked fortress perched on a hill overlooking Brisbane.
For her wake, we moved on to a large city pub where alcohol, nostalgia and stories began to flow. It was here I stood watching a slide show my best friend had made of my mum’s life: Her as a little girl, laughing with friends and with our family in the early years. But then a photo I’d never seen before flashed up on the screen. There she was as a teenager, a wedding ring on her finger, a new baby in her arms and a young man standing awkwardly next to her, his hand across her back. It looked like a family portrait.
Bewildered, I leaned over to my friend who put the slide show together and asked her who was in the photo.
“That’s your mum,” she smiled, “with your dad, and you as a baby.”
“No,” I replied, “that’s not my dad, and that’s not me.”
The photo was time stamped August 1973, almost 13 years before I was born. Mum would have been 17. Who was this man? Who was this baby?
My quest to find the truth began.
Today I’m 36, and I am a breakfast newsreader for Southern Cross Austereo in Brisbane, and I am the creator of the secrets we keep podcast. Journalism runs in my family. In his 50-year career, my dad, Mark Oberhardt, was well known as a radio presenter and sports and racing writer for Brisbane’s newspapers. While my mum, Cecelia, was the glamorous socials editor for The Courier-Mail during the golden years of newspapers in the 1990s.
Mum got the job when I was aged around six and my younger brother was still a baby. It was a job that meant a lot to Cecelia, the equivalent to being a top social media influencer today. She’d be invited to all the most exclusive parties, gifted luxurious products and wielded power to make or break celebrities.
My childhood intertwined with my parents’ busy careers. I was constantly attending functions that, as fabulous as they were, would not have been deemed “child friendly”. Our house was always filled with people; Cecelia loved to entertain. And some of my fondest memories are of her on the deck, surrounded by friends, regaling people with tales.
The busy jobs had a downside, though. My parents worked. A lot. I was often left at school with no one to collect me – before mobile phones it was impossible to locate them.
My dad’s job was crucial to our family income and Cecelia’s was crucial to her fulfilment. It so often left them competing – whose job was more important – and I remember their relationship falling apart at a rapid rate. Something had to give.
The events Mum attended often involved alcohol. At first it was just accepted that it was part of the job to have a glass of champagne in hand, until it became clear she always had a glass of something in her hand.
With my parents’ relationship breaking down, my dad fought hard to keep me in his care and when I was 10, Mum moved out of our family home.
Over the years we would come and go out of each other’s lives, my desperation for a relationship with her always marred by her ability to pull me in then push me away. As I reached my early 20s I tried harder to get to know Mum, but any time I’d ask her about her past she’d fly off the handle and refuse to answer any questions. By this point, though, it was hard to discern if this was just her, or a symptom of her alcohol dependency.
In the final years of Mum’s life, years of chronic alcohol dependency had left her a shadow of her former self, she was in and out of hospital treating a range of illnesses – a lung infection, a fractured hip – but never the true cause.
Then on New Year’s Eve 2011, I received the call that Mum had died. She was 56. She’d fallen into a coma five days earlier, after my last hospital visit to her. Mum made sure the biggest party of the year would never be the same again.
After seeing the photo at the wake, I tried in vain to ask the people around her – who was the man in the photo, and who was the baby?
Dad told me he knew about the first marriage, and that the man Cecelia was married to was called Michael Davies. He assumed the baby in the photo was my mum’s, but he didn’t know for sure. Brisbane being a small place, he’d heard rumours, but he told me that those were the times – if someone didn’t want to talk about something, you didn’t probe. He was right, the people close to Mum didn’t have answers either.
In 2011 I met my now husband, we had our first son in 2014, and our second son in 2018. As I stepped into motherhood, I became more desperate to resolve the outstanding issues with my own mother, trying to understand why she had died so tragically and so young.
The ramifications of her death stretched across our family, but I never felt the pull for closure more keenly than when I had my own daughter. When Harper was born in 2021, I realised I could never be the mum I wanted to be until I reconciled my feelings towards my own mother. What I needed was closure, and Michael Davies held the answers.
It took me more than a decade to find the man in the photo from Mum’s wake. There are a lot of M. Davies in Queensland’s White Pages – and that’s assuming he still lived in the state. I couldn’t find him on Google, Facebook, Instagram nor LinkedIn. And nobody had any other clues.
What shocked me around this time was that everyone would say they knew someone with a similar story to mine: A friend, an aunty, a sister, their own mum. They told stories of young women with unplanned pregnancies and no choice over their own bodies nor the fate of their unborn babies. Unable to access contraception, these young women were shamed by society, forced into marriage or hidden away, many had their babies taken away.
To me a generation later, it was almost unfathomable. Is this what happened to my mum?
Last year, talking to a colleague, they suggested I make a podcast, and it reignited my search for Michael Davies. Paired with my podcast producer, through some careful investigative work we were able to find the right Michael Davies, and he was living in Cairns.
We flew out to meet him. Laconic in thongs and building clothes, Michael confirmed he was the young man in the picture. He didn’t seem particularly concerned that this random woman had flown across the state to talk to him about his ex-wife and his life over 50 years ago; in fact, he was warm and kind and happy to relive old memories. He and Mum had a teen romance, which resulted in Mum falling pregnant, despite my grandad keeping an eagle eye on young Michael whenever they paired off, he told me.
“We had a great time,” he said of their relationship. “We were just young and in love and it was cool.”
Crucially, Michael explained that Mum had a miscarriage just before the wedding. But that they had to go ahead with the wedding anyway, such was the expectation at the time. Being young, the marriage didn’t last long, they quickly grew apart and controversially divorced.
Divorce wasn’t widely accepted back then, particularly if, like Mum, you were from a devout Catholic family.
And the baby in the photo? … Was a relative of Michael’s. Mystery solved!
Visiting Michael gave me some closure. I wasn’t going to be looking for another half-sibling. It also gave me an insight into the person my mum was – and how important her secrets were to her. The shackles of the era she was born into had an impact and shaped her life in ways that are impossible to quantify.
She died too soon. I’m devastated she never got to see my brother and I get married, nor meet any of her six grandchildren. And after unravelling much of the part of the life she kept from us, I wish I could sit down with her and talk just one more time.
I’m sensitive to the intergenerational pain that can be passed through families. By telling my family’s story, I hope I can help others heal too.
To hear Amelia’s full story, listen to her podcast, Secrets We Keep: Shame, Lies and Family.