• Helen Ferguson

Mary - Happy Places and Co

Meet Mary!

Mary and I are meeting ‘virtually’ today, for the first time.

We’ve been aware of each other for a few months now, chatting in messages and emails, so to be able to wave and speak to each other through video messenger is very pleasing.

Mary, creator of Happy Places and Co

We both belong to a highly active on-line community of women who are all at varying stages of running our own Businesses and Side Hustles.

Mary has been a regular and positive contributor to many of the discussions, surveys and cheer squads.

It was not at all surprising that her Side Hustle business idea “Happy Places and Co” was entirely centered on providing an environment for people to meet, connect and be nurtured by good food, good wine and quality conversation.

Happy Places and Co offers a range of ticketed events held at beautiful, diverse venues.


When I launched Her Middle Age in November 2020, and our group could see the shape and tone that I was aiming for, a number of people suggested that I reach out to Mary as an interesting interview subject.

She generously agreed, and I have to say, the people who recommended her hit the nail on the head!

If you want to read about a 58-year-old Middle Aged Woman who is living an interesting and varied life……

Here she is!

Mary was born in Dandenong in Victoria, and though she has always lived in Victoria, she moved around a lot in her childhood. Her parents were Dairy Farmers and they worked within the Share Farming system, moving along every couple of months with each new contract.

By the time she had reached Grade 3 of school, Mary had moved 17 times in her life!

“I remember being absolutely petrified of the idea of going to school. I am the eldest of 5 children and I hadn’t been to Kindergarten, so I hadn’t really met any other children outside of the family before starting school. Once I was there, within a couple of days I fell in love with school and teachers and everything about it!

Tell me about your family background.

My Mother’s paternal Grandparents came to Australia from Ireland, and back then they were basically partnered up, almost like an arranged marriage, and packed off together way out into the Bush.

It resulted in a rather unhappy marriage and 5 children.

My Grandfather was the youngest and left while he was still relatively young, educated himself as an Accountant and then joined the Police Force.

My mother’s maternal Grandparents are of Irish and French descendants, and my father’s parentage originates in Cornwall, England, so we’re the direct product of the Migrant population that came to the Central Victoria Gold Fields.

Our family dynamic was very much the old school patriarchy, with the men making all of the decisions and the women following very traditional roles.

As Farmers, they were resourceful, resilient people.

As a child, who were your female role models growing up?

My Mum, My (maternal) Grandmother and my Aunt (Mum’s sister).

I didn’t really see any other women until starting school.

There were other female relatives, but I don’t recall any women around me that I thought

"Oooh, I like what you’re about!

Once I went to school, the female teachers inspired me enormously. I had such great experiences with them; they were different to the women in my family.

To my young eyes, they were independent, gentle leaders, smart, and I loved how they dressed!

They were bringing all of this knowledge to me and I just loved it!

I thought

"Yep, this is the kind of girl that I want to be!”

So did you become a Teacher?

I really wanted to, I started at Monash University to train to be a teacher, but it just wasn’t the right time for me at all. There were the high fees associated with tertiary study and needing to work to support myself.

It all got too hard.

Funnily enough though, I have ended up in an Education role but not as a teacher.

I started out as a Trainer and did that for a long time.

I love it and I’m always energized by the education environment and what it can do..

That belief will never leave me. What we do as human beings comes from what we know.

Tell me more about your work as a Trainer.

I was a Trainer for many years, mostly in Communications and Business and that morphed into development of learning programmes for different cohorts, often for young people and the most vulnerable. I managed Learning and Development for the regional office of the Department of Human Services in Victoria.

I pivoted in my mid 30’s to be a Project Manager of career support programmes, based in schools, aimed at helping young people transition smoothly from school.

That set me on a totally different path of learning and I went back to university as an ‘Off Campus Student’ and studied Business Leadership.

With my previous experience and training I was able to fast track my degree into 2 years.

I was studying part time and working full time.

It was very difficult to juggle it, but I was fortunate to have full support from Martin and our children and that made all the difference.

This was all happening at the same time our 2 children were in Secondary College.

Our daughter Ellie was studying Year 12.

We both graduated at the same time!

That was a notable achievement.

I was 47 when I got my degree.

It changed my life.

It opened up lots of new opportunities for me in my career and I worked at Monash University in the Faculty of Education managing partnerships. A little serendipitous!

When you look back at your whole career to date, what would you consider to be a highlight and what has been a disappointment?

I was thinking about this, and at the time, when I didn’t become an English Teacher, there was disappointment .

Disappointment that I couldn’t engage with it the way I wanted to , but with hindsight I realise that I was going through a very complex time in my life.

I had taken the year after finishing Year 12 to work.

When I started Uni the next year, , I had to give up work. We were still living in a remote location that made travelling and studying complicated and I had to support myself financially, so it all became difficult and I didn’t complete it.

But I did go back 26 years later! The cost of tertiary study was unreachable for me until then.

I was determined to complete it but more importantly, I remain curious and want to learn and it pushed me out of my comfort zone, it challenged me and my thinking and I thrived.

A highlight: I have been responsible for developing a number of educational programmes, mostly for young people.

The one that stands out most is designed to help Parents of Adolescents become a coach to assist their teenagers transition through school.

I created a workshop model, so that parents could understand the options available to their teenager and coach them in navigating knowledge about Apprenticeships, Trainee-ships, Career Decision Making, job interviews, job applications, employment and communications. .

How to be a Career Coach for your Adolescent Child.

Wow, I think I need to enroll into that course!

That programme was funded by the Federal Government, and I met with an Advisor to the Minister, bringing along a parent who had been through the workshop. I wanted them to see the value that we were providing.

This was at the time when Brendon Nelson was the Federal Minister for Education: Science and Training. As a result of that meeting with his Advisor I was invited to become a member of the new National Youth Career Transitions Advisory Group (NYCTAG).

There were 16 of us from across the country including some well known celebrity types.

Julie Bishop stepped into the ministerial role after Brendan Nelson and NYCTAG was eventually made redundant. I gained many insights from this experience, particularly about the mechanics of government and politics. I was never cut out for either.

I was the only representative in the group advocating for parents and raising awareness of the essential role that they play in the transition support networks of a young person. My function was to ensure parents were part of the conversation for planning and policy regarding young people transitioning through school.

That programme continues to this day.

That is a huge career highlight for me.

What is your day job now?

The work that I’m doing now is developing educational programmes for very young parents, adolescent parents, so that they can return to education and bring their child with them and complete Year 12.

I’ve been piloting this programme model for around 4 years now to understand and learn what young parents need to return to education and complete their Year 12.

I’ve been successful in obtaining ,a grant to run the pilot and in 2018, successfully applied for a Federal Grant to establish four sites of the young parents education program in this south east corridor of Victoria.

There are 2 up and running at this point, one of which is actually in a secondary college , which is fantastic.

A big chunk of my role is advocating for this cohort within the community, because they cop a lot of flack and judgment and our aim is for the wider community to acknowledge young parents need more support and when they do, it improves their life chances and their child’s future.

These young parents are amazing. Often, they come to the program when they are pregnant, and then they come back into education 3 or 4 weeks after delivering their child. They’re catching public transport, sometimes multiple buses, walking to school with baby in the pram, all to make sure that they get their education.

Often they are from generational poverty, and they’ve identified that education is their best way out.

A Mother Craft Nurse works in the program and she is amazing in how she teaches them about parenting, early attachment, nutrition, settling, sleeping, play and the deep value of songs and rhyme.

Last year we commenced in the college with 5 students enrolled and after only weeks of learning we all went into lockdown, which could have been terrible but

we gave them all laptops and set up a structure where they were able to continue learning, with daily online communication and support from the team.

We actually managed to enroll a further 5 students during lockdown!

It’s beautiful that they want to do all that they can to continue their education.

Excitingly, we had 4 students graduate at the end of 2020 alongside all the other graduating Year 12’s.

It’s very satisfying work, I have flexibility to be creative and respond to what is needed. I’m in a unique role, employed by a small regional network that is in Victoria only.

At this point, the door behind Mary opens slightly and a disembodied hand slides through the gap, delivering a steaming cup of coffee!

Mary giggles in delight and says “this is my Barista, every morning at 10.30 he delivers me a freshly made espresso coffee.”

Mary and her husband Martin are both working from home, in their own spaces.

I look at the cold dregs in my tea cup and feel a bit ripped off.

My next question was going to be “Are you living a life that you imagined”,

but listening to your story so far, I feel that you looked at the dream that you wanted for

yourself, and now you’re delivering that to multiples of young women!

I think that’s superb, like taking your ambition and putting it on steroids.

That’s probably what I am doing actually, taking what I wanted and making it available to others.

I like how you’ve described that Helen!

So how on earth do you go from what sounds like an immensely fulfilling day job, to deciding to launch a Side Hustle that bears no resemblance to what you normally do?

That was probably the point to be honest. When you work in community, even when you love it, it’s quite a serious environment, it can be quite heavy and hard going at times.

I just wanted something light.

I’ve always been a mad keen cook, baker, bread maker, from a very young age.

Mary's Homemade Italian Ricotta Donuts with Cinnamon Sugar

When I was 14, my Mum, Monica, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, she was only 37.

She spent a lot of time, in and out of hospitals, and because we lived so remotely, it was a tricky time.

I was the eldest, possibly more interested than my siblings at the time, I don’t know for sure, but she would coach me on how to cook meals and all sorts of other foods and I developed a love of it very quickly.

Mum and I would spend a good deal of time poring over the recipe books, choosing what we were going to cook, and she would direct me as I worked, explaining the timing and the order to do certain tasks.

'Clean as you go' was her mantra and I’m a stickler for it too.

Clean bench, clean workspace, orderly kitchen = happy cook, happy food.

We had so much fun doing that, we’d make lots of pots of tea and then talk and cook all day.

I remember on Year 12 camp, I cooked for everybody every day, these huge pots of food from recipes that I’d invented. We sat around big communal tables for hours, talking, learning, eating and laughing, it was fantastic!

My love for food and cooking just kept growing.

When Martin and I built our first home as a couple, we enjoyed having friends over and I loved cooking all day, then hosting..

Then, because I work in Community, but also in my own local community, I became involved in fundraising, and led a number of fundraising events for research into women’s cancers (breast, ovarian, cervical).

I wanted to do something constructive and positive in the community and I wanted to do a lot for women, I think because of my upbringing and women not being equal or given priority.

I believe fervently in gender equity and these events were my small contribution to change.

I then started planning other types of events, like Girls Weekends for groups of friends, and retreats.

I’m a big fan of ‘enthusiastic living’ meaning, embracing what’s in your life, creating what you can from what you have, giving yourself and your time to others, putting positive energy and effort into each day. Sharing the Love through good food: growing it, preparing it and sharing it over good conversation can build connection and warmth that we all need for inner contentment.

Mary's Vanilla Bean and Olive Oil Cake decorated with locally grown Pansies

Was there a specific moment when ‘Happy Places and Co’ became an idea in your head, or did it evolve and at some point you put a name to it and gave it a website?

It’s always been an evolving idea that I wanted to share , but I didn’t know how to do that.

I wanted to take my love of good food, great conversation, wonderful storytelling, pots of tea and combine it with my skills in facilitating groups, guiding conversation from the usual topics or subjects (where do you live/work, married, children, blah blah), to a level of insightfulness without intrusion.

It works beautifully to connect people. I watch it happen over and over.

At this stage of newness, I was also new to Instagram, I really liked that it was based in Visuals and short sharp messages, and for the most part it’s positive.

I sat down with Martin and said ‘I really want to do this’.

We talked it through and came up with some ideas about how we could make it work.

Martin works in I.T. so he started building the website; I came up with the name one morning whilst out walking and I realised it had to be about being in the right place, it can’t just be in any old place, and with company – Voila! Happy Places & Co was born!


I’m always out and about visiting places, eating, meeting and talking with people so I started to take notes about my experiences and share them. There was interest.

I then started sharing some of my baking and cooking, there was a lot more interest.

Mary's Orange and Almond Cake

When we published the website in November 2019 that was the ‘official ‘Launch’.

I hit the publish button 10 minutes before walking out the door to see Rob Thomas in concert. He is high energy, positive, upbeat and his songs tell stories, real life ones too, I think there’s a nice synergy with launching that night.

Did you have a target customer? Do they find you or do you go looking for them?

It’s a bit of both, they find me and I find them, Happy Places & Co is inclusive of everyone but so far most interest is predominantly Middle Aged Women!


I know!!

Happy Places & Co is inclusive, whoever wants to come along is very welcome, but I think that what I am putting out there is probably of more interest to people around my age, sort of 40 - 70 age range.

Although, I’d really love younger folks to come along to my events, mix up the thinking, the ideas, the conversations, it’s always a good thing.

I adore hanging out with young people – I learn so much!

Do you have a plan of how you want this to look in 5 years or are you happy for it to ‘become itself’?

I’m happy to go with whatever people are asking for – as long as it’s around the table!

I plan for every event to be positive, energetic and enthusiastic with plenty of fun and laughter.

In a few years I’m going to cut back at work, and I think this is a nice project for me to have.

If I can create beautiful events for people, where they just turn up, enjoy delicious food and wine, connect with others around the table, have a laugh and make friendships, that will fill me with enormous joy.

I take all the effort and hassle out of finding culinary joys, finding friends, finding a great conversation, finding ways to fill the social cup, all the ingredients for well-being.

Are people coming to your events solo, or are they coming in couples and groups?

Most people come solo, I want folks to know that it’s okay to come alone, I make sure everyone feels welcome and comfortable. I have a background in facilitation, so I’m skilled at observing and managing what is happening within groups.

My events are informal but there is a structure, and people seem to really like that it’s guided.

It’s different to coming together with a group that you already know or family/friends where you spend the evening talking to the person next to you. You might not get the opportunity to hear from everybody around the table.

I make sure that the overall vibe is light, fun and happy.

I structure the conversation to keep it interesting and gently elicit input from all people around the table (if they want to share). I’m conscious of extroverts, introverts and everyone in between.

I don’t think that there is anyone who has attended one of my events who hasn’t made a friend or a nice contact around the table.

Finding the right venue with the right space, be it a restaurant, studio space, Cafe or a Vineyard, with people who are prepared to work with me on the overall ambiance of the event, is really important.

It takes quite a lot of preparation.

Obviously, the right price point is also significant.

I don’t want it to be exclusive so that a whole range of people who would love it can’t afford to do it.

What did Covid Lock-Downs do to you and to Happy Places and Co?

I signed up for the Lady Start-Up Activation Plan (where you and I met) and a number of small business workshops which kept me occupied in the evenings.

Martin and I concentrated on our produce on weekends.

We grow a lot of our own food so we tended to the garden, we harvested, we cooked, and we did preserving.

I dabbled in some artwork and writing, and I shared all of this on Instagram.

As a result I developed a network of people who like the same type of things as me, that was exciting and it worked for us all

Mary's Home Grown Semi Sundried Tomatoes in Olive Oil with Rosemary and Garlic

Happy Places & Co is not just the events, it stems from an attitude of positivity, gratefulness and enthusiasm for the every day. From this place, (pun intended) people could get an idea about “who am I and what do I bring to an event”. People could see that I love good food and connecting with people and had skills in facilitating groups, so it appeals to people who may also love food, meeting people, connecting, finding friendships and doing it all in a beautiful place.

We had to postpone a number of events because of Covid, and I had one big event with 50 attendees that I had to postpone 5 separate times!

Amazingly, when it did go ahead, I still had everybody come!

That says a lot to me, I hadn’t met everyone beforehand, they were coming from all over Victoria, so it was pretty amazing when it happened.

Focusing back on you now Mary: You have worked for years surrounded by younger people, and now your side hustle is putting you in front of groups of people your own age.

I can’t really imagine that you feel this sense of ‘invisibility’ that I talk about in relation to being a Middle Aged Woman.

Do you feel any of that frustration?

While the work I do is for young people, 95% of those I work with directly are not, so my experience in working with groups has mostly been adults.

Before starting Happy Places & Co, I was beginning to feel the invisibility of middle age.

Starting it wasn’t a choice in relation to my age, in part it was about trying to find some good people.

Sometimes you can begin to feel invisible because the people around you are not your people anymore.

I have noticed that as people age, particularly women, personalities can change, and tolerances and emotions can change quite significantly.

The people that you have really clear connections with, that you can really talk things through honestly with, they are the ones that are still around.

Being part of a different collective has helped me avoid feeling some of that invisibility.

It is mostly women in my networks, some men, but inadvertently I have created networks filled with people who are interested in what I’m doing and I’m interested in them

So we see each other.

You’ve just described that very well, and I think that is what I’m endeavoring to do as well,

find people who want to see me and I want to see them!

You’re feeding them and I’m interviewing them!

You win!!!!

I think doing The Lady Start Up Activation Plan course that we both did, was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It put us slap bang into a group of like minded women from all over Australia and beyond and helped us focus on what we were trying to achieve.

We all want different outcomes, but we want to be seen while we're working towards them.

At whatever age you are, you're always looking for your people, looking for relevance.

I value the network we belong to, it’s filled with good women – I love that!

What is your Super-power?

Being resourceful. A problem will come up and I will find a way around it.

I can juggle many things at once too, I’ve always lived my life like that.

I’m not someone who sits watching television, I’ll watch a movie from time to time but I’ve always got projects on the go. I’ve got a little hobby hut outside with sewing, candle making, soap making and painting on the go!

When did you realise that you were Middle Aged?

A number of things happened; I had cataract surgery at 54, very unusual at that age but it was miraculous, I could see again, oh that was wonderful! Not long after, Martin was diagnosed with a degenerative spine condition that changed our daily living and plans for our future.

We had to adapt and shift our plans for our life to accommodate it.

We realised that we can’t do international travel now.

So he has pivoted from being an athlete and active builder/creator to now becoming the most amazing baker.

I call him my Beloved Baker!

He makes amazing sour dough, we don’t buy any commercial bread these days.

We have always made our own yogurt, passata, mayonnaise, sauce, jam, relish, all the basics.

We grow all of our own produce and make a lot of preserves.

He has also taken up learning the piano, he practices most days and I listen from my office as I work.

He’s very good and he loves it.

Mary's Home Grown Cumquats in Honey Liqueur Syrup

So you do all of this cooking and producing together, what is the thing that you do as an individual that makes him say “Oh wow, that’s good!”

He’s always astounded at how much produce I can power through on my own. He shakes his head in disbelief staring at the hundreds of jars I’ve made of kasoundi, sauce, passata, etc.

My love of food has flowed over to him and he’s developed a real love for it too.

He says how much he admires my focus on not wasting food, I always produce something with what we grow that can be stored and shared with others.

Away from food, Happy Places and Co is all mine too.

He did come to the first event and loved it, he said to me in the car on the way home,

"Wow, now I get what you do, it’s fantastic".

He would come to more but it’s mostly women attending so he’ll happily say “off you go!”

He’s my biggest cheerleader, making sure that I have what I need and waiting when I get home to hear all about it

With all of these amazing facets to your life, what frustrates you in relation to your own middle aged womanhood?

These hands of mine are full of Osteoarthritis.

It’s been happening for about 3 years.

I have been seeing a hand therapist for about a year.

I do Yoga and Pilates regularly, and I wasn’t able to because the pain in my hands was so bad. I have a brace and some special gloves to wear which prop up the back of your hands and it’s great.

I did want to return to learning to play guitar (now that there’s piano playing), but I can’t grip the neck properly anymore, so that’s frustrating.

I need an even higher schedule of regular hair maintenance now – head, face, legs – it’s never ending!!

What are you glad is in your past?

The grief and loss that I experienced.

My Mum was diagnosed with a terminal illness that lasted 34 years.

It was a progressive illness that robbed us of her.

She had to pivot and keep pivoting. I learnt about adapting and meeting challenges watching her.

When she died, it was tremendously sad but it was equally sad watching her slow decline.

I’m forever grateful for her.

Mary, her beloved Mum, Monica, and Daughter Ellie

I think that I have found myself in my Middle Age though!

I have made some decisions about things that other people haven’t necessarily liked, but you choose the people that you have around you!

I describe it as choosing people who fan my flames, and I

fan theirs too!

In Middle Age you look at your life and think ‘ok, I’ve got this much left, I’m not going to waste time”. I’m making better choices and I’m happy about them.

What advice would you give to 20 year old Mary?

Do not take up smoking!!!!!

Even if your fabulous Aunty that you adore, does it, and you think it would be super cool if you did it too!

In honour of March as Women's History Month, which woman in history has really spoken to you?

In my early years, Mum and Nan were my champions but in the last 8 to 10 years, it’s Brene Brown.

Her book ‘Braving the Wilderness’ unequivocally changed my world.

She champions vulnerability, bravery and courage.

I think, as a Middle Aged Woman, you feel so much better if you can be brave enough and courageous enough to live the life that you want.

I’ve read all of her books, ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’ is another one that I love.

They’re highly relatable for me.

Brene introduced me to Maya Angelou too, another woman who championed a movement about change.

I’m just sitting here now thinking how remarkable this moment in history is.

Two Middle Aged Women having this great conversation, on-line, discussing their businesses and their lives. Our Irish ancestors, the women before us (Helen & Mary) may not have had the joy of acceptance, acknowledgement and camaraderie with other kindred souls that middle aged women today can engage with, if they choose to.

There is still so much to do, so much must change for the next generation of women coming through to middle age eventually.

As Middle Aged Women we’ve got to model for them, yes we do, but I also believe, we’ve got to shout from the rooftops about how bloody good it is and that this stage of life is just that, a stage, not an end.

It’s a beginning for me, meeting new people, having new conversations over new food in beautiful new places.

That’s how I see Happy Places & Co, as being a way for those of us who might feel a little invisible, a little irrelevant, maybe a little lonely at times, to come along to a get together, join in, feel accepted, acknowledged, to laugh, make friends, find new meaning. To stop feeling invisible!

Happy Host of Happy Places and Co

Many thanks to Mary for generously allowing me to use some of her own food photography

(photo credit Mary Tee-Bee of Happy Places and Co) along with her joyful portraits and family images.

The vibrancy of her food and her open smile perfectly illustrate the lady that I met on this video call.

I look forward to attending one of her events in the near future, when Inter-State travel becomes less of a lottery.

I really hope you've enjoyed meeting her here at Her Middle Age.

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