EULOGY FOR A LARGE COUNTRY TOWN
My Aunty Thel had died in a nursing home in a large country town. It was the town to which she had migrated when she married; the town where she had raised her children; the town that had framed her life, random splashes of optimism and happiness contrasting with shades of despair and resentment.
Thel had succumbed to the cumulative stresses of strokes and the ageing process. Intermingled with my grief for her death was grief for the demise of an era that pulsed with the vibrant stoicism of beautiful, gutsy women like my maternal aunts.
‘We were wondering if you’d do Mum’s eulogy,’ my cousin’s voice wavered over the phone.
Of course, it would be a privilege to deliver the eulogy for this aunt whose life was an affirmation of the endurance and strength of women. But the words to eulogise this unrecognised national treasure in this large country town are scattered among layers of memories, and as I sift through that archive, collected over almost seven decades of knowing and loving my Aunty Thel, they exact a ransom of pain for every fragment of recall.
The last funeral I’d attended in this town was for Thel’s husband, who had died after a long illness. Copious quantities of alcohol imbibed over a lifetime had engendered a fraught battle between the spirit and the flesh. But while the spirit was weak in its resistance to this craving thirst, the long-suffering flesh, flourishing the trump card of a terminal illness, claimed a fatal victory.
As I could take only one day off for his funeral, I’d opted for overnight coach trips rather than the long weary wind around the mountain range. Disembarking at 3.30 a.m., I walked down the middle of the main street. Except for the dim yellow glow of the service station, there was no sign of life. This was High Noon territory and I was Gary Cooper waiting for the ambush.
The garage attendant woke the slumbering taxi driver who pressed the sluggish vehicle into reluctant service.
Arriving at her house, I hugged Thelma, but knew that she had grieved for the loss of her dreams many years ago, and the death that had released the husband from his misery had released her from his lingering presence. We were practical women, my Aunty Thel and I, given to getting on with life rather than bemoaning the shattered fragments of the past.
Laying claim to an old and respected family, the husband was a hallowed son of this large country town, and overpowering floral tributes smothered the house. The cool room in his butcher’s shop had been commandeered to store the overflow. I had determined to give Thel money for the phone bill, and anticipating her refusal, threatened to send more flowers. In the way of practical women, she took my cheque.
Six children had issued from their marriage, five girls, and then much later, the pride and joy of a son had arrived. At the husband’s funeral service the Anglican High Church minister began the address by referring to his progeny, but in deference to the revered status of the male in country towns, he began with the son, the last of the line. Tracking his way backwards through the siblings, he left out the second eldest daughter, who herself had four children. This omission did not go unchallenged, and loud, indignant whispers erupted from one of the front pews.
‘Mum, Mum, he forgot your name.’
Continuing to list the son of this country town’s contributions to the community, the minister cited his patronage of the many clubs in the town. There was the bowling club, the rowing club, the RSL club, the Leagues club, the Union club, the cricket club, the sailing club, the golf club. Florid men, corpulent advertisements of club patronage, straining against the buttons of jackets emblazoned with club insignia, formed a guard of honour for the passage of the coffin. Had no prescient twinge ever worried its way into those solid bloated rotundities, to alert them to the dangers of excessive club patronage?
Thelly had welcomed the grieving revellers to the wake, where liquid consolation flowed freely. Catching me alone, she pointed to a woman who, embarrassed and contrite had approached her, stammering that nothing had ever really happened between her and the late son of this large country town.
‘As if I’d be worried.’ Thel had rolled her eyes dismissively. ‘Nothing’s been happening there for years.’
That’s alcohol! It heightens the urge but stymies the equipment.
I am now returning to this country town for the final farewell to Thel. In the intervening years I’d visited her often, the construction of new roads cutting hours from the travelling time. I drove along the familiar main street and checked in at the motel where I’d spend a fitful night, hostage to unfamiliar noises and shallow dreams. Thel had once serviced the rooms of this motel, scraping together extra dollars for a wedding, a holiday, or just a life. I plugged in the laptop and read through the eulogy, to edit it and time it. It would not do to breach the boundaries of allotted time at this farewell ritual.
‘I am the eldest of thirty-one grandchildren,’ the words blurred on the unblinking screen, ‘and ever since I was a little girl, Thelma has been a part of my life, patient, energetic, generous and loving.’
I let the tears trickle through those days as a little girl with my aunts. Best to do my crying now, rather than in front of the congregated mourners.
‘Thelma and her twin brother, were born on the 27th August 1924. The brother, weighing in at 9 pounds, lived only one day, the impression of the midwife’s thumbprint on his skull testifying to the lost battle of birth.
But even in the womb male dominance had deprived the baby Thelma of space to grow and develop, and when she struggled into a world that would confirm her pre-birth experiences, she was so tiny, she had to be cosseted in cotton wool in a shoebox, and fed with an eyedropper for many weeks. Because she was not expected to live, she was given only one name. Although they had produced twelve children, my grandparents had given each a first name and a second name, and all too frequently a nickname as well.
The baby Thelma survived the trauma of birth, exhibiting even then her defining characteristics of tenacity and endurance. She was fourteen years older than I, and when only a teenager, was regularly despatched to mind us during my mother’s wartime confinements.’
Like many women through the war, my mother was left alone to cope with children, and the pregnancies resulting from hasty, wartime copulations.
‘I look back with amazement at the patience of this young girl, which I know I tested. I still remember sitting sullenly at the kitchen table, refusing to eat junket, and she said I couldn’t visit my mother and the new baby until I’d finished it. Somehow I did get to visit the hospital, but I’ve hated junket ever since.
During and after the war we had lived intermittently with my maternal grandparents in their large, rambling rented house. Thel had been working in a munitions factory, but then began training as a nurse, stepping out into life.’
A mental screen saver popped up, and I saw again the old house, overrun with various of the eleven siblings, their friends, the odd boarder, Americans from the barracks in the next suburb. And perhaps a brief appearance from my soldier uncles, often accompanied by other young men in khaki uniforms and slouch hats. To a small child, 92 Bellevue Terrace, Clayfield, was a theatre of activity, scripted and dramatised by a lively cast of grown-ups.
The picture faded behind the eulogistic script.
‘Thel and I would ride our bikes to hockey. I can still see her in her tunic, and hear the call, ‘hockey one, hockey two, hockey three.’ She and her friends would style my hair in the latest fashions, and we sang all the hit songs on the radio and in the songbooks.
There was one memorable outing to Redcliffe, a beachside suburb made famous in recent years by the football player, Artie Beetson or Half-a-Game-Artie as he was called, and the actor William McInnes. But back in the 1940s, a trip to Redcliffe was an epic journey, by tram, train and bus, not to mention the walking distances in between.
After swimming for a while, the aunties hired a canoe, which promptly capsized under the weight of five children and the adults. I thought I would drown.
Then there is the story of Thelma’s coming out as a debutante at a Catholic ball, presided over by the Brisbane prelate. Although Thel and most of her siblings had long forsaken religion and its modern inquisitorial tortures, she underwent a brief religious revival to legitimise her sister’s and her attendance at the coming out ball. But their long absence from the fold had left them unschooled in protocol, and when the Archbishop graciously extended his hand for his ring to be kissed, they obligingly shook it. My aunts were very well mannered.’
A photograph of Thel and her sister Laurie, in long white dresses and gloves, and a single white flower fixed in their shoulder length hair projected onto my mind’s screen. I sighed into my tears. We’d stayed with my grandparents for only a couple of years, and time and new experiences have taken their toll of relationships and memories. But I always had a connection to my aunts, and now realise that those brief wartime memories have been reeling around in my psyche like an old, much loved movie, waiting for a revival.
‘My Aunty Thel was so attractive, and modelled for Players, the Queensland equivalent of Fletcher Jones. She was always well groomed, and retained this pride in her appearance all her life. She was never short of boyfriends, and I was often tagged along on these outings, to be bought off with ice creams.
But she stayed single until she met the man who would be her husband. It was said that he told Thelma at their first meeting that he was going to marry her, although she initially was less sure of this outcome. But eventually they were married in this town, his hometown, on 26th February 1953. Unhappily, banishment to boarding school had deprived me of ice creams during that courtship.
In the following years five daughters were born, and then some years later, they celebrated the birth of a son. By then I had married and had a child, and the passing of time narrowed the gap in our ages.
Thelma’s home became the mecca for all of us cousins and there is not one who has not experienced her love and generosity. No matter that she had her own children; no matter that her house strained to contain the extra bodies; no matter that she was financially stretched; no matter that she had her own troubles.’
Yes, well wasn’t that the truth, I thought, remembering the bitter experiences Thel had recounted to me. Of how the vacant eyes of the large country town had stared through the slight figure stumbling across the paddock, crippled with cramps, her womb spontaneously expelling a still life in gushing spurts between her legs. A dowry, meted out in denominations of silent stoicism and rigid compliance was extracted from the brides of this large country town, in exchange for the deceptive conviviality of its wide streets and open spaces.
There was the time when Thel had made a final, desperate attempt to wrench free from the prison of the husband and his spiralling destruction. But the small time legal advice of the large country town had mounted persuasive arguments, pressing her into dutiful endurance of her union with its wayward son. Her brief moment of resolution was sucked into the cloying vapour that hovered benignly over the wide streets and open spaces.
‘But,’ I scanned the transcript, ‘she welcomed us unreservedly, and embraced us during the upheavals in our lives. She kept her finger on the pulse of our lives. She was our favourite aunt.
As I grew older, the relationship between Thel and me became one of companions and confidantes, rather than aunt and niece. She confided memories of her life growing up, alluding to some of the dark personality quirks that surface in families from generation to generation. It was then I realized that long before she had her own family, Thelma had already embarked on a journey of concern and care for others. The seed of fierce dedication and commitment to her immediate and extended families was planted way back in her childhood.
After the husband’s death Thelma did not shrink into widowhood, but kept stepping out into life, taking up new activities, such as ceramic painting. Last New Year’s Eve I served my piece de resistance on one of her plates. So Thelly darling, you were part of my New Year’s celebration.
Can you imagine the devastation that she, and we all felt, when she began having minor, then major strokes? Visiting her at the nursing home I would rail in my heart against the cruel injustice of seeing this wonderful, vibrant woman lose her independence. All her life she had loved, cared for and supported those close to her, and now she had to adjust to relying on others.
But she did not surrender her independence lightly. Once she convinced me to take her to the local shopping centre. We could walk into the car park from her little balcony, she said, hobbling along on her tripod. Of course, she didn’t mention that by leaving this way we would also avoid going past the front desk. I should have had more sense, but she could be very persuasive, and emotional involvement too easily strips our decisions of rationality. Her subsequent absence caused a minor furore. But she’d had her outing to the shopping centre.
To give her more mobility her family bought her an electric wheelchair. Just think of the heady freedom this gave this feisty woman, who had never even had a driver’s licence. Complaints and fears for the safety of residents and property resulted in a hasty modification of the machine. Clinging to our independence will often bring us into conflict with authority.
Of course, Thel was not perfect. To elevate any human being to that status alienates them from the rest of us. She could be frustratingly stubborn. How else would you have survived a shoebox and only one name? A wonderful human being, securely grounded in the virtues and the flaws of humanity, her faults were her survival strategies.’
I closed the computer.
Next day, clutching the typewritten sheets, I stepped up to the microphone, my emotions tightly transcribed in the ordered syntax.
‘Thelly died on 18th January, surrounded by her children, but her spirit, indomitable, generous and loving, will live on, not just through her six children, her twenty-two grandchildren and her three great grandchildren, but in us, her extended family and friends. It will continue to move us in unexpected ways, pushing us to reach out for the joys, counter the adversities and accept the sorrows, which inevitably will slash through our lives.
My darling Thelly, in grieving your departure, we celebrate the wonderful gift of your life.’
There was spontaneous applause, and the Minister said that the woman must have been a saint. People were coming up to me, praising the eulogy, but I deflected the compliments to Thelma. Without her, there could have been no words.
The wake was at the Leagues’ Club, one of the husband’s old haunts.
‘Dad probably paid for this place.’
‘Remember how he used to get lost when they built this new club, and he’d ring us up to come and get him?’
My cousins’ voices drifted over events in their lives in this large country town.
Trailing my memories behind me, I said goodbye. Heading for the highway, I drove my car one last time along the wide main street.
Thel’s eulogy was my farewell to this large country town.