This is my husband’s tribute to his mother, whose funeral took place in Brisbane on May Day:
Prayer of Blessed John Henry Newman: O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, Lord, in Thy mercy grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last, through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.
We are here to remember and honour Betty Margaret Gilley, beloved mother to six of us, mother-in-law of five, and grandmother and great grandmother of many more. She was born on 10 February 1919, and died on Anzac Day 2014 aged 95. She was loved and loving, amused and amusing, with an appetite for life which only failed as death drew near. Her valiant spirit was a model of hope and courage. The secret of her long and happy life lay in the happiness of her childhood, in her home, Dalmeny, in New Farm, Brisbane, created in the first decade of the last century by her father Richard Vaughan and her mother Florence Lorraine, nee Henriques. There was a wooden plaque hanging on mum’s wall in Bulimba which was taken from Dalmeny and which summed up its essence:
Happy are we met
Happy have we been
Happy may we part and
Happy meet again.
Mum’s father Richard came from an Anglo-Welsh family, the Vaughans, converts to the Unitarian faith who had emigrated to South Australia and made a fortune as builders. We called Richard poppa. Her mother Florence Lorraine, or granny, was descended from a long line of Portuguese Jews, the Henriques and from an American Scoto-Irish family called Montgomery. The Henriques were part of an international trading empire stretching from Jamaica to Australia. Mum always adored her father and mother, her father so gentle, indulgent and kindly, her mother so bright and direct and forthright. Mum wrote in her reminiscences: ‘Our house, large dimensionally, was also large in spirit. It radiated much of my mother’s warmth, gaiety and vibrant personality.’ It was crowded with guests and lavish in its entertainments, with Bridge parties, Mah Jong parties and Musical Afternoons, with professional and amateur singers and musicians. At one of these mum was coached by her brother Frank to recite a set of improper verses. Under the direction of Florence the house was a hive of activity, while the garden created by Richard was both a showplace for his hydrangeas and for trellises covered in bougainvillea and a boisterous playground for the children.
Mum’s parents passed their happiness together at Dalmeny to their children, and mum in turn gave this great gift to us. The poet Philip Larkin says that man passes on misery to man, and so tells us not to have children ourselves. But the opposite is also true, that happiness creates happiness, and from her background and upbringing mum drew and imparted the love of living which was with her for her whole life long. Dalmeny was her Eden, and to be touched by Eden is to live.
The other anchors of mum’s early years were her brother Frank and her sisters Dorothy and Cessa. Her affection for Frank blossomed when he lived with us; she had a deep and lifelong friendship with his daughter, our cousin Cecile. Mum was a bridesmaid at Dor’s wedding, and her love of Dor was fulfilled and completed with her visits to Norfolk Island and to her beloved niece Mary Lorraine. Mum and Cessa were inseparable when young, and after leaving for America, Cessa felt strongly their separation. Cessa took the trouble to visit her from America until both were in extreme old age. If the two were talking together, no one else could get a word in edgeways.
Of mum’s many qualities, one of the chief was her love of words. She was a demon scrabble player, and played to win, and would always claim points for a rude word. She loved crosswords and tongue twisters like Theo Thistle (‘that successful thistle sifter, who sieving a sieve full of unsifted thistles, thrust three thouand thistles through the thick of his tongue’). Her verbal fluency was extraordinary and never left her. She said that English was her only good A subject at her school, All Hallows, but from her father Richard she inherited a love of literature, and especially of poetry. She wrote poetry herself and knew reams of it by heart. Nearly to her dying day, she could recite Byron’s lines on the battle of Waterloo from ‘Childe Harold’, beginning ‘There was a sound of revelry by night’; the whole of Yeats’s ‘When you are old and grey and full of sleep’ which Susan is to recite; ‘ “Bring me soft songs” ’, said Aladdin’ and ‘The moon it is a griffin’s egg’, by Vachel Lindsey; ‘Far are the shades of Arabia/Where the princes ride at noon’, by Walter de la Mare, and those spooky verses also by de la Mare called ‘The Listeners’, beginning ‘ “Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller, Knocking at the moonlit door.’ Mum’s linguistic proficiency was inherited by the next generation, and no young Gilley was ever known to be at a loss for a word.
When I was small, the house was full of books inscribed by my father and mother to each other. One book was dedicated as ‘the cause of the chickenless dinner’, probably meaning that money was spent on the book which should have been spent on the chicken. When I arrived they wrote a book of poetry addressed to me. It was my grandfather Richard with mum and dad who made sure that we had all the adventure books of the age, from Treasure Island to Biggles, and any comics like The Phantom that we wanted to buy. Together Mum and Dad gave us the habit of reading which we never lost.
Some of the books in the house were Dad’s and were a way into strange realms of learning: Green’s History of England, Drury’s History of France, Merivale’s History of Rome, Will Durrant’s The Age of Faith, Ludwig Lewisohn on American literature, Thomas Craven’s great history of Art, which was plundered of its plates for framed pictures on the walls. Mum was much more into fiction of every kind (she was as vague as one could be about dates) beginning with the novels of Scott and Dickens. She loved romantic historical novels such as those of Georgette Heyer, and the detective stories by Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. She could remember their plots in detail, and had wonderful gifts as a story teller, especially when we were little, telling us a never-ending tale at bath time about a menagerie of animals, led by Betty Bumble Bee. When she was young she herself wrote plays, and tried to catch dad by casting him in one of them. She loved to dramatise, and preferred a good story to a true one, when exaggeration might lend an air of verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. She loved gossip and good company, which are the storyteller’s material. She delighted in being the centre of attention, and I hope is enjoying this occasion now.
In later life she herself wrote a novel Death of a Little Pirate. It should have been an international best seller, with its numerous murders, adulteries, abortions, thefts, betrayals and blackmail, and a seemingly incestuous love affair happily resolved. The story is told through the diaries, testimonies and conversations of the characters who move the narrative forward by gossiping about one another.
And then there were mum’s songs. I recently made a list of a hundred and fifty that she could still sing in 2012, and that was only part of her whole repertoire. They go back to the music hall songs which she learned from her mother. My children’s favourite was ‘Mary Ellen at the church turned up’, which involved a lot of bouncing on the knee. A few of them were more recent than any I know.
Mum also had a legendary memory for old films, which went back to her teenage years when she summarized their content for British Dominion Films. There was no major actor or actress whom she could not identify, so that watching anything with her on television had the disadvantage of drawing from her a flood of commentary and reminiscence, as well as an anxiety that her companion should be enjoying the programme as much as she was. The television age only began for us in 1959, and it is strange to see that some of mum’s old favourites like Lucille Ball, Bonanza and Our Miss Brooks are now being reshown. Mum was a highly articulate participant in her television favourites; of ‘Wheel of Fortune’ she would say loudly that anyone who knew the answer to a question which she could not answer was a genius, and that anyone who gave the wrong answer to a question to which she knew the answer was a dunderhead. The fierceness of her kind of audience participation trembled or tumbled into profanity. In her later years she became a devotee of Kevin Rudd, while the name John Howard provoked hisses of loathing.
I must thank my sisters and brothers and their families for all their care and love of mum over the years while I was in England. I must refer to Dominic who lived with mum, enabling her to continue to stay in her own home, in long-familiar surroundings, with a good neighbor Norm next door, until the end. Living at home is increasingly rare for the very elderly, at least in England, and it probably greatly extended mum’s life. She deeply loved Dominic, her first grandson, as much as she loved her children.
Mum was the last of her generation in the family and with her a whole world of memory goes into the grave. Peace to her ashes.
For mum’s 90th birthday I wrote a tribute in verse which Tim read at her party. It ran thus:
Mum at ninety.
Now that you’re four score years and ten
The ninety, which won’t come again,
Have the rare riches of the store
Of wide experience and more.
Yet you’re in spirit still as light
As when you first kissed dad good night,
And found a husband, by the way
Of trying to cast him in your play.
We think of poppa, granny, Frank,
Dorothy, Cessa, rank on rank
Of kindly shadows, many a score,
Who knocked on fair Dalmeny’s door.
They gave their happiness to you
And to this trust you answered true,
Through laughter, reading, cards and play,
By giving your great gift away.
During the now lost summer days,
When we were small, a wide of gaze,
You made our children’s books your plunder
To spin us stories full of wonder.
The tales we read, the things we made,
The endless games which once we played,
The endless songs that once were sung
When we were young, when we were young.
Christmases, birthdays, came and went,
With every one a great event,
But never having worldly wealth,
You chiefly gave to us yourself.
Whatever evil might befall,
You gave us of yourself your all
That we might ever after know
How much you loved us long ago.
Whatever destiny might prove,
You gave us all a heart of love,
Courage to face both fear and fate,
And greet the strangers at the gate.
If we have any gifts they come
From you, the mother of our home.
With all that’s dear, and bright, and true,
We now unite to honour you.
Betty with great grand baby Vienna, by Armyne