I met Ben when he was 92 years old. I never met Elsie.
My husband Tony met Ben and his wife Elsie four years earlier, when Ben was 88 and Elsie 97. It was soon after Tony was appointed by St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church Rockhampton as Assistant to the Minister. Ben and Elsie were no longer able to attend church services, so it was considered important that a member of the ministry team, as well as their elder, visit them regularly and continue the church’s ministry to them. Tony was assigned as their pastoral carer.
Despite their advanced years, Ben and Elsie still lived in their own home.
It was a highset weatherboard (timber) Queenslander, with an enclosed front porch and side verandah. A wide timber staircase led to the front door. What was immediately noticeable was the yard: the house was situated on a large (¼ acre) fenced block, but with not a shrub or tree in sight!
Almost always when Tony visited, Elsie was seated in the squatter’s chair on the front porch, with the front door open, and Ben was hovering around or sitting in the director’s chair next to her. It seems that they used to sit there for hours, side by side. Together, they would watch the cars, trucks, cyclists and pedestrians passing by in the busy street below.
Ben, at 88, was Elsie’s carer. It was immediately evident to Tony that they were a devoted couple and that Ben was the more able one. Elsie, at 97, was almost blind and her mobility was limited. She was completely dependent on Ben. He did all the housework and cooking and the weekly shopping. Ben still drove his own car, so he was able to go to the shops himself. He had given up trying to maintain the yard, though. He paid someone to mow the lawn (no other gardening was required!).
Ben and Elsie were fortunate to have the loving support of Ben’s brother-in-law and his wife, close friends Ken and Heather, and our church elders Nev and Marge, who assisted Ben in many practical ways as he cared for Elsie.
It did not take Tony and Ben long to make a connection. Ben had a personality that was instantly likeable and welcoming. Tony recalls: “You didn’t have to be with him for long before you discovered that he had a genuine interest in you and what was happening in your life. He asked the right questions and the next time you visited he remembered what you had said and inquired about the results.”
Ben and Tony discovered that they shared a love of sport. Ben’s special interest was rugby league football. Growing up, Ben lived in Albert Street, Rockhampton, over the road from what is now known as Browne Park. As a result he attended many footy games at Browne Park: for years he went every Sunday. He wouldn’t miss a game. In later years Ben was an avid Broncos supporter. One of his favourite players was Wally Lewis. “At least he had some go in him,” Ben told Tony, in his deep sonorous voice.
Elsie was not Ben’s first wife.
One Thursday evening in December 1937, at 31 years of age, Ben married his sweetheart Frances Gwendoline (“Gwen”) in St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Rockhampton. Theirs was a happy marriage. They settled comfortably into their new home in North Rockhampton. Ben had this house built especially for himself and his new wife. Life was good.
Ben had a good job as a tradesman with Rockhampton’s Wilson Hart & Co. Although he trained as a joiner, Ben ended up working for the company as a glazier. He remembered being called out on many an occasion to repair broken windows for some of Rockhampton’s well-known retail stores, such as James Millroy and Williams’ Limited, both in East Street. Ben told Tony that he worked on the windows of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church a number of times. In place of plain glass, he inserted the new stained glass windows into the original timber frames.
In 1941, after nearly 4 years of marriage, Gwen conceived, and the young couple awaited excitedly the safe arrival of their first child.
This was not to be: Gwen died during the birth of their child, a daughter. The little one also died. Needless to say, Ben was devastated. Gwen’s funeral was held on 12 March 1942; the couple had been married less than 5 years.
Then Ben met Elsie. We are told that Ben’s maternal grandfather, with whom Ben had social contact, arranged for Ben and Elsie to meet and encouraged them to wed.
Ben and Elsie married in 1945. Ben was 39, Elsie 48.
Elsie was a nurse. Over the years she was employed in a number of different positions and locations: Rockhampton Children’s Hospital, Westwood Sanatorium, Dr Shields’ Surgery (Dr Shields was a well-known Rockhampton identity) and the Milk Board in Brisbane (where Elsie was a laboratory nurse). Ben was very proud of Elsie’s achievements.
Ben loved Elsie. By the time Tony met them, they had been married almost 50 years. Ben would often speak of Elsie’s dedication to his welfare, especially when you praised him for how well he was caring for Elsie. “It’s only right,” he would say, “she has been good to me.”
Ben was Elsie’s carer for at least 10 years. He took on this role when Elsie was 90; he was still caring for Elsie when she turned 100.
Elsie celebrated her 100th birthday on 10th July 1997. Tony recalls feeling greatly privileged to be among the few relatives and friends present at Elsie’s 100th birthday morning tea, which was quite an unremarkable affair held in the family home.
It was not long after Elsie’s 100th birthday that Ben spent some time in hospital. His health was failing; his heart required a pacemaker. He continued as Elsie’s carer for about a year, but eventually admitted that he could no longer care for her at home. Happily, he found suitable accommodation and care for Elsie at Bethany, a residential aged care facility in Rockhampton. He was grateful for the care she received there, and he often said so.
Ben’s dedication to Elsie was exemplary.
Ben visited Elsie regularly, two or three times a week. He relied on others for transport to and from Bethany: his brother-in-law, friend Heather and a couple of folk from our church helped out. Ben had relinquished his driver’s licence by this time. Tony was one of the people who used to take Ben to visit Elsie.
Ben always brought Elsie something she liked to eat. Tony recalls seeing Ben pull out of his top pocket a banana or a piece of pineapple or a chocolate, which he brought especially for her. Elsie was no longer able to respond, so Ben would say (on her behalf): “Oh she likes that”. Despite Elsie’s failing health Ben was still able to communicate with her and, as Tony recounts, “You could sense that special bond of love every time you saw them greet each other or say goodbye”.
It was during one of these visits, while waiting for Ben, that Tony was reminded of these lines from Thomas Gray’s epic poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Tony realised that the sentiment expressed in these lines could be applied to Elsie.
Once young and attractive, now she was old and frail and death was imminent. Elsie was no-one special in the world’s eyes; few people would mourn her passing. But to one person at least, her husband, she was like a beautiful sweet-smelling rose. He recognised and valued her beauty, capability and achievements, and loved and cherished her as long as the Lord gave him breath.
I met Ben when he was 92 years old.
Ben was living alone at the time. I was a member of a team of eight volunteers from St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church rostered to supply Ben with meals each weekend. Every 6 weeks or so, it was my turn to visit Ben and deliver a meal or two to tide him over the 3-day “weekend”. He was no longer cooking for himself; he received meals from a Meals on Wheels service Monday to Thursday and we provided the weekend meals.
Ben was a real “sweetie”. He loved each one of the ladies from the church who delivered meals to him and we loved him too. He was an old man; most of us were about one-half his age! He looked forward to our visits and appreciated the companionship and fellowship we offered him. He would always invite us in, to chat with him, to linger a while. That was not hard to do. He was always the perfect gentleman.
On one occasion, as we sat side by side at his kitchen table, Ben told me about his first wife and the daughter he never knew. I surmised that this is why he especially liked the ladies from the church who delivered his weekend meals. We were like daughters to him. Ben and Elsie had no children; when Elsie married Ben she was nearly 50. They were never going to have children of their own. Ben had a special place in his heart for Gwen, one of the ladies on our team. He often asked after her. When Ben told me about his first wife, Gwen, I realised why. Our Gwen reminded Ben of his first love.
After we met, I saw Ben every week or so. Once a week, on Friday mornings, I used to take my mother Evelyn to do her grocery shopping at Rockhampton’s Northside Plaza. Often, I would see Ben there, doing his shopping. He was always friendly, and we would exchange pleasantries.
I introduced Ben to my mother, and told her how I visited him regularly and took him meals from time to time. After that, my mother, in her 80s, would notice him, point him out and say to me: “There is one of your boyfriends.” It was our private joke. Evelyn liked Ben too.
The week before Ben’s 94th birthday, in 2000, I contacted Ben and arranged to have lunch with him on Friday 14th July. I couldn’t come on his birthday (the following day) as I had a prior engagement. I was rostered to bring Ben a meal on that Friday anyway, so the lunch date was set. I would bring Ben his meal as usual, but this time I would stay and share the food with him: Just the two of us.
This is how we celebrated Ben’s 94th birthday.
I had discovered that Ben liked my curries, so I brought a curry with rice to share with him. I also made him a birthday cake, an orange Bung-in Cake. Along with the cake, I brought a single candle. I told Ben that I didn’t have 94 candles (which was the truth) and I told him that the cake wouldn’t hold 94 candles anyway! I pointed out that he was 94 and I was 49, and we laughed about that. He said he did not wish to be 49 again; at 94, he had lived a long and satisfying life. He did not wish for more.
We were sitting at the small table in Ben’s dimly-lit kitchen. Over the stove recess, there was a narrow shelf on which Ben kept odds and ends. When I asked for a match to light the candle, he looked first on this shelf. No matches. He looked in the kitchen drawers, the cupboards, everywhere he could think of. He reluctantly admitted he had no matches. So, I pretended to light the candle. I sang “Happy Birthday”, Ben “blew out” the candle and cut the cake. It was a real pantomime. And Ben loved it! Then we ate some of Ben’s birthday cake – just the two of us. We spent such a special time together. I still can picture it in my mind’s eye.
I knew only the old man, the nonagenarian Ben.
The Ben I knew was old, but he was young at heart. He was open and sincere and loved a good chat. He was serious but he also had a sense of humour and fun. He was both playful and proper. During my visits, I felt free to talk to him about God, and Jesus, and life after death.
I asked Ben how he thought he would get to Heaven. At first he used to say he had led a good life, and that put him in good stead. He thought his good works would be sufficient to gain him a place in Heaven. So I explained to him about Jesus’ death and resurrection, and what Jesus did for us, and that this is what we must depend on – not our good works – if we want to enter God’s presence (“Heaven”). He listened attentively and was always satisfied with my explanations. On every occasion I visited he wanted me to pray with him, and pray for him and Elsie. This was a great privilege for me.
On my last visit to Ben, at his home, my mother Evelyn was with me. Ben was happy, confident in the future and prepared to place his life in God’s hands. I prayed for him in that vein. I remember this clearly.
Ben was a man whose life touched mine, and my husband’s, for a moment in time. But his memory lingers on.
Ben died peacefully at the Rockhampton Mater Hospital on Friday 22nd September 2000. It was just 2 months after his 94th birthday and the private rather whimsical birthday celebration I shared with him.
Tony conducted Ben’s funeral 4 days later, on Tuesday 26th September 2000. It was a small affair, yet dignified, simple, and God-honouring, in keeping with the kind of life Ben lived. About 40 people were present. Elsie did not attend.
Elsie outlived Ben by almost 3 years. She continued to reside at Bethany until her death on 11 May 2003. She was 105.
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