Life: bits and pieces

Travels with my mother XXIII: The final travel story

This is the twenty third and final post in the Travels with my mother series. If you’ve not read the earlier posts you may wish to go to the first one as it gives the context for the series.

Thank you to all who have been following along on with Mum and I in the last years of her life. Her travel story came to a close a week ago when she died on Saturday evening. She had lived for 92 years. I think the best way to complete her story and pay tribute to the long and remarkable journey she had taken, is to post the eulogy I gave at her funeral yesterday (Friday 4 June 2021).

Here it is:

DOREEN’S LIFE

Doreen was born in March 1929, on the precipice of the Great Depression. She was the eldest of three children born to Bertha and Harold.

One of Doreen’s earliest memories was perching on the back of a borrowed truck with her father; her two siblings in the front with their mother and the driver. They were being evicted—like so many Australians at that terrible time, they could no longer make their rent. They were offered a small cottage on a plot of land at controlled rent in a new ‘charity’ estate in Sydney’s southwest, now the suburb of Hammondville.

In 1940 Harold enlisted in the army. He lied about his age, dropping it by ten years. The desperate act of a father who needed a steady income to support his family. He was on a troop ship from Palestine to Singapore when news of Singapore’s fall to the Japanese shocked the world. His ship was sent to Sri Lanka instead, where he saw out the remainder of the war.

Tragically, his wife became very ill and died while Harold was away. Doreen, aged 13, and her two siblings were considered too young to manage on their own and the three children were split up to live with different relatives. Doreen took from these years a fierce sense of independence, a belief that being a girl or woman should not stop her from doing the things she needed to do, a longing for family life, and a steely determination to make the best of things.

Still in her teens, Doreen worked as a seamstress at a Surry Hills clothing factory, and moved in with workmate Norma , who was to become her closest and lifelong friend and her sister-in-law. She experienced a brief period of carefree youth: sewing her own frocks, dressing up for an occasional night out with her girlfriends, and beach picnics.

It was Norma who introduced her to Doug, the brother of the man Norma was engaged to marry.

Harold returned home from the war and Doreen, her brother and sister moved back to live with their father for a while. Doreen adored her father and they had a close bond.

When Doug and Doreen married in October 1951, she made her own dress. No ivory satin or bridal veils for Doreen: her wedding outfit was a knee length frock in pale blue with a matching hat. A modest outfit for a very modest wedding, but also I think, in line with Doreen’s personality: pushing a little against the norms and expectations for women at the time.

Doug and Doreen began married life with next to nothing. They moved to Bilpin for Doug to work at the service station there, with baby Karen and toddler Kris, renting an old workman’s cottage on Ghost Hill Road.

Doreen, raised in the suburbs, now learnt to live in the country, drive a car, and be a mother, essentially through determination and gritted teeth. She ran the little café next door—known then as ‘Midways’. I came along in 1960 and six years later, we moved to an orchard and farmhouse at ‘Glenara’, outside the village. Now Doreen was also an orchardist who baked apple pies, made jams and jellies, and sold produce at the roadside fruit shop. In her ‘spare’ time she knitted and sewed clothing for her family, participated in community events and her children’s schools. Life was busy.

For both Doug and Doreen, the little family they created became the all-important crux of life; the thing they worked for, struggled and sacrificed for. Neither had experienced stability in their own childhoods and they went all out to provide it for their daughters. Both had been denied a full education and it was important to them that we had that opportunity. They could rarely afford things that were new, not home-made or hand-me-down. But if any of us needed them, both Doreen and Doug were there. No lives go 100% to plan and through our ups and downs, our tragedies, disasters, joys and achievements, we all had reason to feel blessed to have those two as our parents.

Glenara was eventually sold and we moved to a new house, designed and built by Doug and Doreen, in the Bilpin village. This was the first new house that Doreen had ever lived in and she’d made sure to include mod-cons like a dishwasher and a second toilet. After years of washing dishes in the café and home, and an outside toilet, I think she was entitled, don’t you?

Doreen was now ‘retired’, which meant that she had more time for community events and also a chance to pursue her own interests. She took up pottery and later, lawn bowling. In typical Doreen style, she threw herself into such ventures wholeheartedly. She had a stellar bowling career, winning championships, becoming club President at Richmond, coach, umpire and selector.

Her interest in genealogy, at a time before anything was on line, resulted in some fantastic work on our family history, tracing back to six convicts (and some free settlers) in colonial times.

During those years she also enjoyed some travel, something her keen interest in history and geography suited her to. She and Doug went on a cruise to Fiji and Vanuatu, visited north Queensland and the Barrier Reef, and made a trip by Greyhound Bus across the western parts of the USA and Canada a few years after that. She travelled the Murray River on a paddleboat, took the ferry to Tasmania and camper-vanned through much of NSW. They took their camper to a hippie community in the bush near Glen Innes, to visit Karen who lived there in the 1980’s. When I lived for a short time on a remote island in the Torres Strait in far north Queensland, Mum and Dad began making plans to visit me there.

She loved reading and we have always been grateful that our parents passed on their love and respect for books to us. A sounding board for ideas or problems big or small, Mum was my ‘go-to’ person to share news, to fine-tune plans, and to swap stories. She was also an avid movie goer;  I have very fond memories of movie outings and watching classic movies together on TV, especially seeing her all-time favourite movie, Gone with the Wind, at least several times together. We enjoyed many drama productions at the Joan in Penrith. These are all precious memories.

Tragedy struck in 1994 when Karen was diagnosed with an untreatable brain cancer, and died three months later, aged 39. It was a shocking event that hit hard; Doreen coped by providing as much physical help and support as she could to her daughter and to Karen’s carers, and being the family bedrock. We stayed in a Brisbane apartment during the two weeks that Karen was in hospital there; I remember one night getting up and finding Mum, sitting in the lounge room, trying to smother her sobs with a pillow so as not to wake anyone.

She was again a refuge of warmth and care when I landed on their doorstep, essentially homeless and penniless, with baby Dakathirr in my arms. We stayed with them for eighteen months and experienced the no-nonsense practical and emotional support that Doreen gave so generously.

Doreen was an affectionate grandmother to her two grandsons, Alex and Dux. She loved her verbal spars with Andy, her son-in-law, and always liked to believe she had the upper hand. She became step-grandmother to David and Connor, and later Great grandmother to Liam and Aubrey.

As Doug’s health began to fail, Doreen took on the role of his carer. After his death in 2016, her activities and horizons became increasingly limited by deteriorating eyesight, ongoing mobility problems and dementia.  Thankfully, she was still delighted when one of us walked through the door of her nursing home room.

As many mothers do, Doreen had some oft-quoted aphorisms to guide her daughters through life. The one I most remember (and try to live by, not always successfully) is:

There’s no use regretting decisions you make in life, as long as you make the best decisions you can with the information you have at the time.

Doreen Newton

          Edith Piaf’s famous song, No Regrets, sums up Doreen’s attitude to life perfectly.

We can forget, as we watch our parents age and witness the physical and mental ravages that time can inflict, that they were once robust young people with full lives ahead of them.  Their joys, passions and talents can fade over time and become invisible.

Looking back over old photos, I was reminded of Mum’s fun-loving nature: she loved to dress up for events with her bowling club, for example; loved an occasional weekend away at a bowling competition with ‘the girls’; loved being at the beach with her grandsons on precious family holidays. She had as much fun on our day in Disneyland as I did. She and Dad taught us how to play cards and board games and it was an enduring pleasure of our times together to get out the Canasta cards or Pictionary game – a tradition which continued on with the grandkids.

She was also someone who did not always ‘toe the line’: as evidenced by some of her less conventional choices and her determination that her daughters would have every opportunity in life, including ones that had been denied her due to poverty, family circumstance, or the fact that she was female.

Doreen’s early life was hard, and the untimely death of her own mother meant that she entered married life and motherhood with little support and guidance. She learnt it all as she went along. None of that stopped her from being a committed, energetic mother, active in her girls’ lives and education. As a grandmother she carried on in the same vein, until frailty and infirmity got in the way.

I like to think that Doreen has been a role model for me in my own life, and my experience of motherhood and now, grandmother -hood. It’s certainly something that I have aimed for.

I am heartbroken that we have lost Doreen from our lives. Mixed with the sorrow is the knowledge that her last years were not happy or easy ones and that she no longer has to endure the difficulties of old age.

I believe that those who die are never really gone if we remember them.

I’d like us all to remember Doreen as she was before her illness: determined, smart, energetic and loving. It’s the best tribute we can pay to her.

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