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Edition 90 – Nellie

This Saturday, my maternal grandmother, would have celebrated her 112th birthday. Nellie was born in Cobar in North Western NSW in 1905. Her father was a miner and she was the first child of this young, happy couple. Immediately, however, life took a tragic twist as Nellie’s mother died three days after giving birth.

At the age of six, in 1911, Nellie’s father passed away in a mining accident in Cobar. An orphan at such a young age, she spent her formative years being raised by her own grandfather, firstly in Bourke and then later, in Mascot in Sydney.

Nellie was a quiet lady – quiet voice, quiet demeanour and until she passed away at the age of 87 (and when I was 25) I never once heard her raise her voice. You’d say she was shy and, being on the slightly larger side, she probably was.

On a trip to Currabubula, near Tamworth, to visit an old school friend in the mid 1930s, she met George, four years her junior and a bit of a larrikin. They immediately struck up a friendship and I distinctly remember her telling me once, in my late teens, of how they met. There was a twinkle in her eye as this shy, quiet lady also gave me the look of knowing that she was probably a bit cheeky on that occasion. They married in 1937.

Their first child, June was born in 1938, followed by Rosemary in 1943. George had been called off to the Battle of the Coral Sea and served in New Caledonia. By this time living in Oatley in Sydney’s southern suburbs, Rosemary was unwell and passed away at the age of two, just six weeks prior to Nellie giving birth to their third child, a son, Harold. The family was completed when my own mother, Lynne, arrived in ’46, then David in ’48.

After the war, George worked the farms in outer Western Sydney which, in those days, was still very rural. They lead a great life and raised their children on the farms on which he worked as the farm manager.

On the 28th December, 1951, the most tragic event in Nellie’s life occurred.

It was a hot summer’s day and the family headed down to the Hawkesbury River, near where they lived in Ebenezer. All the children were playing in the river until the eldest boy, Harold, dived in, then didn’t re-appear. The young parents panicked and immediately, George jumped into the river. The horror unfolding before Nellie’s eyes must have been so tragic you can’t even begin to imagine what it was like. Harold popped up out of the river water but George didn’t, becoming ensnared on an underwater snag and tragically drowning. At the age of 46, Nellie was a widow with four children, three of whom were six or under.

In early 1952, Nellie had to pack up her family and moved to a Housing Commission home in Narraweena on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, via a migrant hostel, which was the only place with a roof that a widow with four children could go. All this whilst she grieved for the love of her life.

The children grew up. Nellie grew older and eventually became a grandmother. When I was around seven, I was in Nellie’s bedroom in the house that she shared with Harold and his wife, Beth, that same house in Narraweena. She had a small container on her dressing table. When I asked her what it was, she explained in that softest of her voices that it was a lock of George’s hair. She’d kept it after he passed away. They were a poor family and there were not a lot of things to remember him by. This was one.

Nellie never remarried. She continued to work into her 70’s, being entrusted to be the house cleaner to a number of different people in some of Sydney’s wealthier suburbs. All the while, she continued to be close to her family, living with Harold and Beth until suffering a stroke at the age of 80.

This story warrants more than a newsletter and I have vowed one day to write a book about Nellie’s life. However, I wanted to share this with you today to share with you the story of someone who, in spite of all the tragedy and hardship she experienced, never, ever complained. She never felt that life had dealt her a cruel blow. She never saw anything as unfair. She merely endured each event in her own way and continued to keep close the family that she helped create.

This Week’s Tip

What are the lessons we can learn from within our own families?