Sunday 26th June 2022

Women Of Courage Series. #59. Tribute To My Relatives. 74/2021.

Women Of Courage Series. #59. Tribute To My Relatives. 74/2021.

This third series of blog posts on Denyse Whelan Blogs to be found here will continue to be published each Thursday.

Here is the introduction to the series.

Courage is strength in the face of pain or grief. It’s doing something that frightens you. We face situations that demand courage every day. These situations provide us with choices, and the way we respond to those choices determines our future. Dayne Shuda

This is a different take.

I wanted to show my appreciation for the Women of Courage in my life. All of them are no longer living. I know I  am applying my judgement through my lens as a:

  • granddaughter
  • niece
  • daughter

To these women:

  • my paternal grandmother: known in this as Etta.

Henrietta Season (nee Earl) Simpson

  • my maternal grandmother: known in this as Vera.

Vera May (nee Bailey) Chapple.

  • my aunt (Mum’s sister) known in this (and to me) as Poppy

Thora Doris Chapple.

  • my mother known in this as Noreen

Noreen (Chapple) Simpson.

I know this is a very lengthy post and some may not wish to read it all. I wrote their stories of courage for me to remember. I hope you get to read some parts. I found it a process which helped me get more insight into who came before me, and what qualities I may have inherited or learned as behaviours.

About Etta.

I knew Etta as Gran. When we lived in Wollongong too, we saw her more often. Dad shares that it was always by obligation. She visited us in Sydney, coming up by train and she attended our wedding and got to see her great grandchildren from both me and my brother before dying in her late 80s in 1985.

Etta displayed enormous courage in 1920, to follow her then fiance, a soldier from Australia, back to his hometown Wollongong. She left everyone and everything she knew back in, as she called it, “home”.

Nevertheless, love won. She married, and despite some England vs Scotland prejudice (Andy, her husband was of Scottish descent) she went on the have her first two children, one of whom is my Dad. Over time, though, I can guess her courage waned, as during the Great Depression years, her husband was out of work, and by then two more children came along.

A family of 4 small mouths to feed, and to find work for her husband, she courageously left the family home with them all. It was owned by  her mother –  a widow who had migrated shortly after her daughter. My father tells me the stories of them driving up to Auburn in Sydney, to live temporarily for his Dad to have work. It did not last, and they, like many, relied on some work, handouts and more.

How do I imagine this was for Etta? I think, given she was a middle class woman from England it must have taken an enormous amount of courage to live in a new country with new ways, and to deal with society in that city where she lived. You see, I know that her husband was banished in some ways from his family due to underlying secrets about money and jobs. Sigh. She had to deal with those disappointments and a lack of what she might have thought was coming to her and her new husband when she arrived in Australia.

Yet…..there was more to come. In 1935 her love and husband died. From an injury sustained in the work he got back into at the Steelworks. She was widowed with 4 kids, the youngest was aged 2. From my then 11 year old father’s recollection she remained sad, and unable to offer her children some of the love and discipline they might have  needed. Instead, as he tells it, that came from her mother, Edith.

What Have I Learned About Myself From This Woman of Courage?

I have learned compassion. I am also far less likely to quickly make a judgement about other people’s decisions. I do not judge Etta at all now. I have tried to share with Dad (in our recent chats) just how hard it must have been for this woman he called Mum. She had no idea that being courageous would lead her to a life of poverty and being shunned socially in the town where they lived.

Etta did ‘classy’ for special occasions like my christening and her Mum did too!

About Vera.

When I remember Vera, Nanny to me, I remember her care for me but it was edged with a pretty strict regime. She died when I was about 8, my mum losing her Mum in her 30s. I stayed with her and my Papa and their extended family quite a bit as a child and always felt loved and cared for. However, in the latter years of her pretty short life I recall her severely affected by a stroke and that my grandfather cared for her at home for sometime. I have a strong memory too, of an Ambulance taking her to Wollongong hospital, and that later my mum was very sad because her mother had died.

I have done some family history research as has my daughter and with Dad still having an excellent memory I ask him about his late mother-in-law  and her life. She lived a hard physical life. It was in a rural/small town area of the south coast of N.S.W. Interestingly she and her brother (Don) married a brother and a sister (Ettie). So there was a closer blood relationship between the families. My grandmother worked at home, and kept the home fires burning even after having 3 children because her husband had been blinded in one eye in an accident at the local coal mine. In fact, he was in Sydney Eye Hospital having surgery on his eye socket and to have a glass eye added when my Mum (Noreen) was born in Dapto.

From that time, of course, there were hardships relating to one person unwell and unable to work full time again, even though he did what he could. Vera lived by Christian convictions (she was Presbyterian) and her strictness around the family life and upbringing may have contributed to her courage. I do know she tried to have me read the bible from a very young age. I still have it.

Then, tragedy struck.

In a way that no-one could envisage but would in some ways become a life saver of sorts. Vera’s sister-in-law, her husband’s sister and married to her brother, died giving birth to her third child – a daughter. This was in mid 1920s. Neither survived. Nor did her husband and father of 2 sons, ever recover. Vera, whose own situation was pretty dire, agreed for the family’s sake that she, her husband and 3 children – Poppy, a son, and Noreen, would move to the house that was being paid off by her brother. This allayed fears of being evicted from their rental as work was thin on the ground during the Great Depression.

Now I add what I know is hearsay. From my Dad, telling me Mum’s memories. That house was full. It had 3 bedrooms. Your Nanny and Papa slept in one room, Uncle Don & his son, another, and your mother & Poppy in the other one. Bobby (son of Uncle Don) slept on one part of the verandah as did your Uncle Keith. This pattern continued even as I recalled as a child. Over time, the children became adults who could work. And they did. It was the start of WW2. Your grandmother had not only a house full of family but made the house available for soldiers stationed near by and of course was encouraged to give back due to her Christian upbringing. She worked. As did those other woman, your mother and aunty, just to keep the household fed. Her brother contributed nothing other than the shelter. He sunk into a deep, life lasting depression, only emerging on days when his beloved greyhounds needed training and then to catch up with other trainers. 

What Have I Learned About Myself From This Woman of Courage?

I have learned that despite life’s biggest and hardest challenges we can survive. However, sadly, that did not help Vera live. Her life stopped. Prematurely. In 1957 Vera died. She had been unwell with blood pressure causing a stroke and then another one ending her life. I remember my Mum’s sadness the most. I learned that I have strong women in my mother’s family but that their health frailty and anxiety about health is something I have been given. I am more resilient as a result of recent life events like my cancer but I also am wary of my health because of my lineage. I do take medication for high blood pressure and it is controlled well.

I hope Vera was happy on her wedding day.

About Poppy.

As I prepare this post, it is Poppy’s birthday and she would have been 98.  Dear woman she was to me and my brother and to our kids as well.  Born Thora Doris, that was shortened to Poppy by one of the relatives and that’s who she was to us. She was the middle of 3 with Mum, Noreen, the younger. These two shared a bed in one room until Mum left home to marry Dad. They were a  sporting and community minded family even with the hardships at home and little money. Poppy’s intelligence was good enough to get her from the local primary school into the selective  Wollongong  H.S. in the late 1930s and funnily enough she was in 2 years up from my father! But she still had to leave school, as Dad did, aged 15.

Poppy and Noreen played competition sport: Hockey to be exact. They played at representative level and  it was a great way to meet others socially too.  They travelled around N.S.W. and to Sydney.  This was mostly by train. I have included both of their Hockey photos in this post. I am the least sporting person ever but I did inherit a love of competition from someone!

I only ever heard dribs and drabs about Poppy’s life as a young adult. I know she was shy. I know too, that she trained to be a telephonist. Those were the women who sat at large banks of phone lines and plugged in calls.  First with the Post Office in her local area on  the South Coast, and then after the war, she went to the Steelworks to work  in their section. Before that, I understand she may have had a boyfriend but that he  was  killed in the war. My mum seemed to attract more male attention  but I don’t think my aunt  was ever jealous. She was already friends with my dad before mum met him.

But what about her courage?

It’s in sharing this story that I acknowledge one of mental  ill-health, sadness and grief. She lost her Mum  (Vera) at an early age. Work at home fell to her, even though she was a full-time  working woman. I was a  young kid and my brother and I were spoiled a lot by her: lollies, taking us to the Dapto Show and more. She loved to read and I devoured her women’s magazines when I stayed with her.

Life  challenges took a big toll.

As I understand it, she had what was called a nervous breakdown based on her workload and went into a Sydney private hospital  for electro convulsive shock  treatment. I was about 11. I remember visiting her but not much else. She was able to return home and was given modified duties with her employer away from the switchboard. That continued until she turned 60. She was well-respected. An ardent follower of sport – Rugby League in particular- and a kinder and more caring Aunty and Great Aunty I am yet to  know.

What Have I Learned About Myself From This Woman of Courage?

I have learned selflessness is something that needs to be balanced with self care. I saw Poppy taking care of everyone else first…and then, over time, herself last. She used to eat for comfort too but was incredibly lonely as well. Her latter years of life were spent in a new-to-her house, which was almost hers along with her older brother who was severely unwell due to depression, and excessive alcohol intake and more. She rarely saw people once she stopped work and so that was something I, along with my parents would try to rectify with visits and encouraging her to come and stay with us. She was the kindest hearted person and totally devoted to her family. I have learned that overdoing it via work can cause issues with our health (yes, I know I too suffered) and that seeking treatment and continuing life afterwards is not to be discounted. In fact that IS an act of courage right there.

Poppy is next to little girl in pink hat, and to my Dad in blue shirt. I think this might have been her last Christmas with us.

About Noreen.

It’s only been in the recent 5 or so years that I have been interested in, and talking more to Dad about, Mum’s history. Dad and I are the talkers. Mum sure could talk but she also had an impediment for as long as I can recall. Mum was left very deaf in one ear in particular, which her specialists back in the mid 50s attributed to having children. In fact she and Dad were told not to have more. Before I go back to earlier times, even before she met Dad, I remember her being upset because she couldn’t hear. I know Dad always came to us kids in the night because when Mum was lying on one side, she heard nothing. But what I want to recall is her immense courage in doing something to help her hearing. She was a shy woman from the South Coast but it would be an operation of big magnitude that her ENT specialist in Sydney said would help restore some hearing….and she went through with it.

We were under 10s then and I remember feeling sad about Mum’s absence. Dad took us up to RPA one time. Interesting fact, when I was in Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, my room overlooked Gloucester House where Mum had that surgery. And it helped her for some time but in her latter years, she needed more hearing aids. It frustrated her so much when we would talk and she wouldn’t know what we were saying, and in a group setting, or people around a table it was more annoying too. Sigh. I am wondering about compassion here. My husband tells me I talk loudly and it is true and it is always clear (OK, bit rough since my mouth reconstruction) but we used to have to do that at home.

Mum was the baby in her family. However that did not coming spoiling as I wrote in Vera’s story, Noreen and Poppy had home duties even when high school and work called. Mum did enjoy fashion. She worked locally in a store and eventually, for her, got the job of her dreams selling shoes. Honestly, I am so not like that. Mum had the best collection but was a small size, frustratingly for her granddaughters. She became someone who loved her competitive sport and I have seen that in her as a tennis player (it was a way to become friends in Sydney, when she joined a club). She was lithe, fast moving and skilled. Hockey made her very competitive.

About the courage she had. I talked to Dad about this not long ago. As a woman who had met the man to become her husband through the Scouting Movement, she became friends with his friends, and her sister often accompanied them on picnics and overnight stays. All above board. They were wed, he continued study to be an accountant whilst building their first home, and Mum worked each week…and I was eventually born. Just into the new house too and Dad was transferred to the Melbourne office, very unwillingly. He made it a deal, that he had to be home for his daughter’s first birthday and he did. However, in the midst of that year, Mum very courageously took us both by plane (1950 people!) to Melbourne from Sydney. I cannot fathom how much courage that took but love won!

But after marriage, and having one child, when she saw Dad not only get his driver’s licence and a family car, she decided that was for her too. She got that licence soon after my brother’s birth and had independence not many 1050s women enjoyed. Yet, she loved her house, her neigbourhood and more. And then all that came undone.

She had already dealt with the death of her mother. But her husband had some news she did not like. He was being promoted to head office in Sydney and he really could not turn that offer down. She did not want to go. Everything was unknown. Dad eventually convinced her it was the right move but he was challenged by the circumstances too because of the time between when he had to start and when he could move us up after selling the ‘first home’ built together.

My views on Noreen’s courage from there:

  • she accepted the move, despite her anxiety and loss of family and friend support
  • she ended up, as parents often do, making friends with a woman whose son was in the same class as hers and from then on, it was great..over time of course. But she had met many people close in age, interests and more. That remained the case until her death!
  • she joined P&C, Scouts & Guides parent groups, tennis clubs, card clubs, was part of the first V.I.E.W. Club formed to raise funds for The Smith Family, she did Meals of Wheels and more
  • she became more of the sole parent at times, being independent with a car helped, as Dad travelled interstate and then…the big one:
  • 1966 he was flown by the company he worked for, around the world, ending in Hawaii for 6 weeks at Harvard Management of Business Summer School. It changed his life. Mum cried at the kitchen sink after he left. I had never seen that before.
  • But, as in all things, she rallied and we were teens at school, and she even drove us with friends to Port Macquarie
  • Over time I saw Mum grow in her personal strength indicating a change for the good in terms of courage
  • She did not do well however, with her own illness. Who does?
  • Well, she became so unwell at the end of her life because she lost her confidence, her ability to manage her body well and I believe that in keeping Mum as safe as he could, Dad was right but it was at the expense of ever knowing what had happened inside her to cause her death.

What Have I Learned About Myself From This Woman of Courage?

It’s taken me till the past few years to realise that I could learn to “talk less” as they say and listen more. Noreen used to say I rushed my kids too much in the mornings, getting them to school and pre school, and I agree but I also had to….and I liked work outside the home. In fact I needed it. But I also look back now at Mum and admire her quiet courage…especially when she did not want to “be” or “do” what she was. In the end, and it was her almost end, it was her words “no more test, nothing” that set the path for her once it was discovered she had secondary brain tumours. That’s courage done confidently and quietly but firmly.

We all agreed, as did her team.

Thanks Noreen, for my life, and for me making better inroads into understanding you and your life way past the time when I could tell you so. I had to get to now to know this, aged 71. You died when I was 58.

Such a favourite. Noreen, with her first granddaughter, at the front of 61, with Andrew, Dad.

Thank you to readers who came this far. I really appreciate it.



Joining with Natalie here for Weekend Coffee Share.

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