NOT long ago, my grandmother Betty began to write her memoirs. At 95 she had seen enough of life, love and heartbreak to weave a tale. But then something strange happened. She jotted down notes about the first 30 years of her life, from her birth in 1914 until the end of World War II in 1945. Then she put her pen down and refused to write another word.
“What about your other six decades?” I asked her.
“Oh, no one would be interested in that,” she replied. “Nothing much happened.”
Each summer, when we travel north from Melbourne to the NSW Central Coast town of Terrigal to visit her, I have this debate with her. Keep writing, I ask, at least for the sake of your three great-grandchildren who might one day want to know the full story about the family matriarch.
It would be boring, she replies.
Would they be bored, I ask, to learn that their great-grandmother was born only two years after the Titanic sank and as the guns of World War I erupted?
Would they be bored to learn of her early life in Brisbane, how she grew into a striking-looking redhead, married a milkman who loved to gamble, had a baby and then split up? He drifted to far north Queensland to cut sugar cane, leaving her a single mother. It was 1940.
When I hear Paul Kelly’s song To Her Door, I always imagine it was written for my grandparents:
They got married early, never had no money
Then when he got laid off they really hit the skids
He started up his drinking, then they started fighting
He took it pretty badly, she took both the kids
She said: “I’m not standing by, to watch you slowly die
So watch me walking, out the door, out the door, out the door”
A single mum in the days before welfare, Betty worked through World War II in the office of a Brisbane hotel where US navy officers stayed on leave from the horrors of the Pacific campaign. The hotel was adjacent to the headquarters of the Allied commander of the Pacific theatre, US general Douglas MacArthur.
My grandmother fell in love with a Yank and never forgot him. But it was a wartime romance, destined for a tearful dockside farewell. Years later, when I was posted to New York for work, she asked me to track him down.
“He lived in Vermont and his name was Wyman” were the only clues she gave me.
Perhaps this love affair shaped her world view. All things American were good. Whatever wars the US engaged in for the next six decades, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, were necessary because America needed to protect itself. And Australia needed a strong America to protect it, just as in World War II.
Less than a decade after that war ended, her life changed again.
Like a scene from the play The Summer of the 17th Doll, my long-lost grandfather walked in from the cane fields and back into my grandmother’s arms. They had been apart for 17 years.
As Kelly’s song says:
He came in on a Sunday, every muscle aching
Walking in slow motion like he’d just been hit
Did they have a future?
Would he know his children?
Could he make a picture and get them all to fit?
He was shaking in his seat riding through the streets
In a silvertop to her door.
They fell in love again. Deeply. Passionately. For a time, all felt right with the world until one day he started to get weaker. People spoke less openly about cancer then. But it took its course quickly, robbing them of their happiest years. Even today, Betty’s eyes fill at the memory.
It took a long time for her to love again, and when it happened, it was a different kind of love. Less passionate, but no less true.
Her second husband was a big, dour Scot who worked his family’s orange farm on the Central Coast while also commuting to a day job in Sydney.
She moved to the Central Coast, which became the place of my father’s and my childhood holidays. They lived in an old wooden farmhouse with no hot water and wide verandas at Erina Heights, overlooking a bellbird-infested forest.
I remember watching her husband, Jim, on the farm, hoeing his vegetable patch as he listened to question time in federal parliament, stopping every now and then to chuckle at a clever turn of phrase. He had once worshipped Labor prime minister Ben Chifley, but in later years the family sensed he had crossed over and become a conservative.
We don’t know for sure because he never told my grandmother. They shared a bed but never their voting habits. Not that my grandmother’s were hard to pick. She is a Menzies lady, a fervent monarchist and the truest of conservatives.
Like many of her generation, she didn’t travel. She was in her 60s before she left Australia’s shores.
Her first stop was the US, to visit my dad, who was studying for his masters in New York. She roamed the country for several months by Greyhound bus, keeping half an eye out for Wyman and revelling in all things American.
She is quirky in her outlook on the world.
When I told her at about that time I was going to be a newspaper journalist, she became alarmed. What’s wrong with that, I asked her. You’re too tall, they won’t like that, she replied.
She feared that when I covered a war I would too easily be picked off by enemy sharpshooters. She also feared that short politicians would take a dislike to me.
In the 1990s, her life was derailed for the second time when her husband suffered a stroke on the veranda of their farm.
He lived, but was never the same, lingering for years in a nursing home.
She visited him loyally every single day, but when he died, something changed inside her.
She sold their old farm with its swag of memories and bought a sparkling modern apartment overlooking the ocean at nearby Terrigal.
“I want to spend my final years looking at the sea,” she declared.
For a while she found it hard to adjust. One day she took a nasty tumble over her new furniture, opening up a gash in her leg.
She was taken to hospital. We came up to visit her and clean up her apartment, which was still splattered with blood.
My son, then only seven years old, surveyed the accident scene, turned to his little sister and said: “After we clean up great-grandma’s blood, let’s go surfing.”
For her first eight decades my grandmother refused to tell anyone her age, but once she reached 85, it became a badge of pride.
She did things differently to others of her age. She bought a computer in the days before they were commonplace and taught herself to send emails.
I was living overseas at the time, and I asked her why she sent emails to other people but never tome.
“Because of the time difference, I didn’t want to wake you up,” she said.
She still lives in that apartment today, alone and self-sufficient.
At 6pm every night she pours herself a stiff gin and tonic and sits on her balcony, watching the ocean. Contemplating.
She attends a little country church in Matcham on Sundays and until recently went to the movies with her long-time best friend. My grandmother is half-deaf and her friend was half-blind. They would compare notes at the end of the movie, with my grandmother telling her friend what she saw while her friend recounted what she heard.
Each summer our family invades her apartment to see her and have a beach holiday.
Last summer we were all returning from fish and chips on the beach when my grandmother realised she had forgotten her house keys and had locked us out.
We drove to her half-blind best friend’s home to grab a spare set. For the next hour, we all watched transfixed as my grandmother and her friend laughed like only best friends can, trading bad jokes and shameless gossip, and cooing over photos.
Weeks later, her friend was dead. Suddenly, in her sleep.
That’s the worst thing about being 95.
All her friends are dropping off. She is the last.
She is too busy, she says, to join them just yet. She watches three TV news bulletins a day but can’t hear them properly and relies on the word captions, which my dad taught her to use.
She reads The Australian each day from cover to cover and would rather talk about federal politics than bake scones.
Until recently she drove a car. Now she leaves the apartment once a week to catch the seniors community bus to her local shopping centre.
She reported to me that she was chatted up by a man on the seniors bus. I asked her if she was interested and she huffed; “Of course not. He was only in his 80s.”
She is the keeper of family secrets. She has watched her son and grandson go through marriage break-ups, never casting judgment on any parties.
She is still close to their wives and also their ex-wives.
This summer we will go up again; her grandson, granddaughter-in-law, two teenage great-grandchildren and her new great-grandson, yet to take his first steps.
We will drink gins overlooking the ocean at sunset and listen to her stories.
One day, long after she is gone, I suspect my youngest will read his great-grandmother’s memoirs and wonder why they stopped in 1945.
It’s because she thought her life was boring and no one would be interested, I’ll say.
Then I’ll tell him the rest.
Editors note: Betty passed away in february last year aged 98. An inspiration to all who knew her and an example of how integrity, modesty and kindness trumps fame, fortune and ego every day of the week.
ABOUT: Cameron Stewart
Cameron Stewart is The Australian’s Associate Editor, specialising in investigative reports on national security issues such as terrorism and defence as well as federal politics and international affairs.
In 2009 he was awarded the highest honour in Australian newspapers, the Graham Perkin Award for Australian Journalist of the Year.
He has also won five Melbourne Press Club quill awards for excellence in Victorian journalism, two News Limited News Awards and has been a Walkley finalist for investigative journalism and runner-up in News Limited’s highest honour, the Sir Keith Murdoch Award for Journalism.
He’s a father of three and barracks for the Hawks.
This article was first published in The Australian.