Auntie Heather was born on 6 October 1918. Her mother and father, my grandparents, had been courting for six years when they finally married on 5 January 1918. This was because Pa (short for Papa, later for Grandpa) refused to marry while the other men were away at war.
Grandma had very nearly stood him up on their first “appointment” as she called their dates. She had confided to a work colleague that she wasn’t really attracted to him and thought that she wouldn’t go. Her colleague had encouraged her to meet him, saying “You never know, you might like him.” Much later, she had confessed this hesitation to her husband, who had replied, “I knew where you lived!”
During the First World War, Australia’s soldiers were all volunteers. Pa had volunteered but, although he passed muster on height and chest measurement, his request had been refused. He wouldn’t say why. Later, when the War dragged on and thousands of men were being killed or wounded, height and chest measurements were lowered and Pa thought that he might be accepted this time. He was refused for the second time. Grandma used to say that men who had volunteered and been refused should have been given some sort of badge to wear so that they didn’t receive dirty looks from passers-by in the street. Pa played sport and looked like a strapping young man who just didn’t want to go to war. After his death, Grandma found his application papers with CARDIAC written across them in red.
So Grandma, who, at the age of sixteen had refused her first offer of marriage, finally had to wait until she was twenty-nine before being able to tie the knot. Pa was thirty-five.
Their first child was born nine months and one day after the wedding, at home with the assistance of a midwife. Grandma’s pregnancy had been a bit rough and so had the birth, but mother and daughter were doing well, even if both were very tired after the ordeal. Grandma managed to say to the midwife, “I just saved my good name!” To which the midwife snapped, “You would have saved your good name if she had been born three weeks ago!”
While Grandma was still weak, one of her husband’s aunts paid her a visit and enquired about the baby’s name. Grandma replied that she was to be christened “Brenda”. The aunt exclaimed, “Brenda! Brenda! Brindle! Brindle cow! If you call her Brenda, I’ll call her ‘Cowie'” So Grandma, in her weakened state, agreed to change the name, and my aunt was named Heather Catherine. Relatives sent white heather to her from Scotland the Brave.
When Grandma had recovered sufficiently to go for a walk with her baby in the perambulator (later shortened to “pram”) “an old biddy up the street” (Grandma’s words) admired the little one, then proceeded to say insinuatingly, “My daughter had her baby one year after her wedding!” Grandma rose to her full height of five feet two inches and replied icily, “Well, my daughter was born nine months and one day after my wedding!” Put that in your pipe and smoke it!
The little girl had her mother’s blonde hair and blue eyes but her features were those of her father. Later, a dark-haired hazel-green eyed sister came along and Pa, who would have loved to have fathered a son, refused to allow Grandma to risk her life a third time to try to have a boy.
The girls grew up in a two-bedroom brick house, with a dog and an enormous aviary in the backyard. The birds were Pa’s but the dog was everyone’s. She was a black Pomeranian who loved to taunt the biggest dogs she could find on her walks, then, when chased by them, leap into Grandma’s arms and let her deal with them. Grandma was not amused by this. She wasn’t afraid of dogs, but an angry German Shepherd, still being insulted by the black curly bundle in her arms, was not a reassuring encounter.
The girls shared a bedroom and this arrangement displayed its limitations when the younger of the two went into a depression (known as a nervous breakdown then) and piled all the blame for her state on her sister Heather, who was twenty years old at the time. Not only did young Heather have to assume the burden of her mentally ill sister at this time, the antagonism lasted for the rest of their lives. Her sister continued to systematically blame her for everything that had gone wrong with her life and eventually stopped talking to her. At the same time she did everything that she could to try to turn the rest of the family against her. Fortunately, not always successfully. Auntie Heather maintained a dignified silence through it all.
Despite these problems, which hadn’t yet reached complete maturity when I was born, Auntie Heather became one of my godmothers. She was consulted, including by her sister, my mother, for questions concerning the correct way to dress for a particular event. The sisters even collaborated as a medical first-aid team during the Second World War. Auntie Heather always knew what the text-book said to do and my mother always knew how to do it. Things didn’t go as well when they tried to reverse the roles. The whole family was on first-aid alert duty on the night that the Japanese attacked Sydney Harbour. The siren was at the end of the street, a few houses away. On the bus, on their way to work the next morning, the girls thought that people were joking when they heard them talking about the attack and the siren going off. They had slept through the whole thing and could have been fined for it.
Auntie Heather was the matriarch of the family. She outlived her parents, her younger sister, her husband (a high-ranking Free Mason) and her only child, my cousin. She died last Friday, 29 June, and will be cremated tomorrow, 4 July 2012, in Sydney.
She is survived by her four grandchildren and her son-in-law, but I am the only one left who knew her when she was a young woman. Which is why I have written this. All of the people in these photos, except for me, are now deceased.