This story is a tribute to my late mother, Evelyn. It is about my mother as a young woman, during the 1930s and 1940s, in the years before I was born. It reveals a lively, courageous and competent young woman. It is a personal story, but one that I hope inspires, challenges and touches your heart.
My aim in sharing this fragment of Evelyn’s lifestory is to encourage you to find out more about your own mother, including her life before motherhood. Don’t despair if your mother is no longer with you. I continue to discover snippets of information about my mother even though she died 5 years ago. It is still a blessing. However, if you have the opportunity, take time to ask your mother about her life, especially her early years. Spending time together looking at photographs (or digital images) and memorabilia, and talking about them, is a great starting point.
It is my prayer that learning more about your mother’s life and times will help you to understand her better, appreciate her more, and maybe (for some) forgive and be reconciled to her (or her memory).
Evelyn’s lifestory: The background
In 2007 I gave up paid employment to look after my mother, whose health had deteriorated to the extent that she needed full-time care. Evelyn was 91 years old at the time and living with my husband Tony and me in Brisbane. I realized that she was in the early stages of dementia, so I looked for ways to stay connected with her, stimulate her mind and keep her memory alive for as long as possible.
I decided to write Evelyn’s lifestory. It was an ambitious project, but well worth the time and effort. Indeed, it was no burden: the process itself gave me much joy and satisfaction. I thought that I knew my mother well, but there was so much more I had to learn about her: especially the young woman I never knew.
In fact, the more I discovered about my mother’s early life and times, the more respect I had for her, and the more I cherished her.
Evelyn was an active participant in the process, even though I soon discovered that she had already forgotten many of the details of her lifestory. Fortunately, I remembered things she and her mother (“Nan”) had told me over the years, so I was able to fill in many of the gaps. Importantly, Evelyn had a large collection of old photographs and negatives, newspaper clippings and memorabilia, which we examined together and I sorted. It was helpful that some of the photographs were annotated or dated. However, many were not. To help identify people, places or dates for some of the photographs, especially the wartime ones, I did a lot of research online and at the Queensland State Library, and I even arranged for my mother and I to meet one of my mother’s wartime colleagues (after 60 years!).
What I produced was a photographic record of my mother’s life to accompany her lifestory. There are three volumes: three large annotated photo scrapbooks. While she was still alive, I completed Volumes I and II, covering her life from 1916 to the end of the 1960s. Volume III remains unfinished.
As my mother’s memory faded, I found that the photo scrapbooks helped her recall and recount important events in her life, marvel at experiences long forgotten, remember people who had been part of her life, and be thankful. She was always so thankful!
Researching and writing Evelyn’s lifestory taught me a lot about my mother but it was also instructive for me personally. It helped me realize the necessity and importance of upholding the dignity of older persons (like Evelyn), and honouring them, despite their failing competencies. It also helped me deal with my own grief and pain during the years I witnessed and dealt with Evelyn’s gradual physical and mental decline as the dementia took hold.
1935-39: A coming of age
In 1935, Evelyn was 19. She lived with her parents and three brothers on a small cattle property, “Woolein View”, near Rannes in Central Queensland. She was a typical country girl: natural, unsophisticated and naive. She had little formal schooling: she left school after Grade 8. Nevertheless, she was intelligent, dexterous and quick to learn. Under her mother’s and an aunt’s tutelage, Evelyn was already proving herself to be a capable cook and dressmaker. As a young woman still living at home, her role was to help her mother manage the family household (“home duties”), which she performed happily and without question.
In June 1935, at 19½, Evelyn made her debut. It was the norm for every young single woman to make her first public appearance in adult society (the “debut”) as a “debutante” (or “deb” for short). Like all young women of her day, Evelyn looked forward to this occasion with much anticipation and excitement. As a deb she would be “presented” at a Debutante Ball, her first official dance, by her male partner. She would wear a full-length evening gown for the first time – a white dress made especially for the occasion – and carry a bouquet.
An article in The Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton, Queensland) on Thursday 30 June, 1935, page 26, described the occasion this way:
“The most brilliant function ever witnessed in the Wowan district took place in the Gaiety Theatre, Wowan, on Thursday last, the occasion being the Country Women’s Association’s debutante and presentation ball.”
Evelyn’s partner was the Rannes Hotel publican, Alec Anderson, who was probably some years her elder. There was no romantic attachment. Aunt Emma (Evelyn’s father’s sister), a dressmaker, made Evelyn’s special dress. The article in The Central Queensland Herald included a report about each debutante and a description of what each one was wearing. About Evelyn it read:
“Miss Evelyn Beaumont (Rannes) chose a pretty costume of white silk pique moulded to her figure and featuring a small train. A ruffle of tulle was arranged at the neckline and bows were arranged from the shoulder to the waist at the back. A fur fabric coat was worn and she carried a posy of white roses veiled in tulle.”
Following her debut, Evelyn accompanied her older brother Harold to dances at Rannes, Goovigen or Theodore “every couple of weeks”. These dances were one of the main social activities and meeting places for young people. They were very popular and always well-attended. The following photograph shows a group at a dance held in the Rannes Hall in the 1930s. Evelyn is pictured in the 2nd back row, 8th from the left; Harold is 11th from the left in the same row; their mother is seated in the front row, 3rd from the right.
Evelyn turned 21 on 14th January 1937: This was her “coming of age”. It was an important milestone in her life. Her parents hosted a party to mark the occasion. A report published in the Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Queensland), Thursday 28 January 1937, page 3, captured the spirit of the event:
“Rannes: A very happy evening was spent at the residence of Mr and Mrs D Beaumont, Woolein View, when a large gathering of friends were entertained to celebrate their daughter Evelyn’s 21st birthday. Guests were present from Biloela, Goovigen, Jooro, Deeford, Baralaba, and Theodore. Dancing, community singing, and games were enjoyed by all. The supper room was gaily decorated with pink and blue streamers and pride of place was given to a beautiful two-tiered cake, which was decorated with 21 candles. The usual toasts were proposed and the guest of honour returned thanks for the good wishes and beautiful gifts received.”
Seventy-nine years later, I have one of Evelyn’s 21st birthday gifts – a crystal vase – in my possession! An expensive item, this vase was an object Evelyn treasured throughout her life. Evelyn told me that it was a gift from the folk who managed Rannes Station, a large cattle property in the district. Like many others of her generation, Evelyn had few precious possessions, and those she had, she appreciated and cared for.
Living conditions in country Queensland in the 1930s were so different from what we are used to today. In Evelyn’s home there was no electricity – the family used kerosene lanterns for lighting, a treadle (foot-operated) machine for sewing, a wood combustion stove for cooking and a cool-safe (an evaporative drip cooler, which the family kept under their high-blocked house) for refrigeration. Rainwater tanks supplied their water. A large black cast-iron container with a tap (called a “fountain”) was kept on the stovetop to provide a constant supply of hot water. Food was stored in a “safe”, a wooden cabinet with mesh inserts for aeration. The family “went to town” (Wowan), a distance of 15 miles (24 kilometres) by road from Rannes, to buy groceries once every two or three weeks. They bought food supplies in large quantities: bags of sugar and flour, and dried foods (such as dried fruit) were common purchases.
As a young woman Evelyn loved cooking and she was good at it too. In fact, she won prizes for recipes she submitted to the Australian Women’s Weekly. And she never told me! I made this surprising discovery on Trove, the National Library of Australia online database, a few years after her death. I always believed that my mother was resourceful and clever, even as a young woman, and here was the proof! For example, in 1939, at 23 years old, she won First prize, £1 (today’s equivalent of approximately 80 AUD), for her Kentish cake recipe (Australian Women’s Weekly, Saturday 12 August 1939, p. 70). I share Evelyn’s Kentish cake recipe with you in my next post.
1939-45: The war years
On 3rd September 1939 (just 3 weeks after Evelyn won first prize for her Kentish Cake recipe), the Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, announced that Australia was at war with Germany. Even though it was impossible to foresee at the time, this announcement heralded a long period of testing and upheaval for the nation, and significant change in the lives of ordinary citizens such as Evelyn.
In October 1941, the Australian Labour Party under John Curtain as Prime Minister took government, and in December 1941 Japan entered World War II. Curtain declared that Australia faced “the gravest hour” in its history and he invoked every Australian, man and woman, to go about their allotted task “with full vigour and courage”.
In 1941, Evelyn (now 25) was still living at home in Rannes. Her circumstances had changed little. However, her younger brothers, Les (19) and Allan (17), had joined the Volunteer Defence Corps. They lived at home, but went on training camps and exercises from time to time. Their uniform consisted of khaki shirt and trousers, and the distinctive slouch hat.
By mid-1942, the Australian Government introduced food and clothing rationing to manage shortages and control civilian consumption of common commodities such as tea, sugar, butter, meat and cloth. This was part of Prime Minister John Curtain’s “maximum effort” mantra, an appeal to ordinary citizens to embrace a life of austerity so that most resources and production could be directed towards winning the war.
Around this time Evelyn made the courageous decision to leave her home and family, her predictable life and all that was familiar, to join the war effort. Evelyn and a fellow recruit from Westwood, Beryl Beak, travelled by train from Rockhampton to Brisbane where, on 17th September 1942, they enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF). I have often wondered how Evelyn was feeling at that time. Was she afraid? Was she excited? Was she happy? Did she have second thoughts?
The name “Evelyn” means lively or pleasant. Evelyn, at 26, was full of life and energy. She was a sociable person, warm and friendly, and she loved dancing. In the evening of 17th September 1942, after enlisting in the WAAAF, Evelyn and Beryl went to a dance at the Coconut Grove in Adelaide Street (Brisbane), a very popular dance hall in those days. Evelyn sent her mother a photograph postcard on the reverse side of which she wrote: “With love to Mother from Ev. Taken at the Coconut Grove dance on 17th Sept 1942, where I had a lovely time.” This postcard is included in Evelyn’s wartime album.
As a young woman, Evelyn’s years in the WAAAF were her most formative. They shaped the strong, determined, capable and loving person I came to know. Throughout her life, Evelyn often spoke of events and people from these years. It was always with pride and delight.
Evelyn’s collection of photographs and memorabilia from her time in the WAAAF is extensive. I could write a book about this period of her life! Although it spanned just 2½ years, Evelyn’s WAAAF period occupies about one-third of Volume I of Evelyn’s lifestory!
So, what should I include here?
In a short story such as this, I can only share the highlights. Thus, I have chosen events, experiences and people Evelyn spoke about most often.
One event Evelyn often recalled was the “Big March” through the streets of Sydney, on 17th October 1942, the day after her group’s passing out parade. Evelyn had just completed 4 weeks’ induction (“rookies’ training”) at Bradfield Park, Sydney. It was during this time she experienced institutionalized living, military discipline and drill, and donned a uniform – all for the first time in her life. The “Big March” comprised 2500 servicewomen, including 1000 WAAAFs, and a crowd of 250,000 onlookers who cheered them on. It was feted as the “greatest women’s march in Australia’s history”. Whenever Evelyn spoke about this event, it was always with enormous pride and satisfaction. Evelyn is pictured in the following photograph, in the 7th row on the right hand side of the squad. She even gets a mention in the article entitled “Sidelights on the Big March”. I think Evelyn loved the feeling of belonging, being part of a group, part of something bigger and more important than herself. She was clearly a team-player.
Evelyn fulfilled two successive roles during her time in the WAAAF: Signals Clerk and Aircraftwoman. Both of these roles were far removed from any she had performed previously. Her first appointment, Signals Clerk (“Sigs Clerk”), was an administrative position, in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Command (Head Office) in Brisbane. This role was quite challenging for her, given that she had little formal schooling and little or no clerical experience. It also involved shift work, including night work, another new experience for her. Nevertheless, she coped well and did a good job. She worked in that role for 18 months. The photograph below shows Evelyn’s group on the steps of the Trades Hall, Edward Street, Brisbane. Evelyn is in the 2nd front row, 4th from the right.
Her second appointment, Aircraftwoman, was a hands-on signals and maintenance role at the RAAF Number 21 Operational Base in Rockhampton. Here she had to learn a whole lot of new skills and procedures, which once again she did without difficulty. She spent about 12 months in this position. In both of these roles, Evelyn demonstrated a strong sense of duty, and commitment, to whatever task she was given, and her self-confidence grew along with her achievements. In the photograph below, the WAAAFs are pictured in front of an Avro Lancaster (a bomber craft). Evelyn is pictured standing, second from the left.
Friends – close friends – were always important to Evelyn. Some of the friendships Evelyn made during her WAAAF years lasted a lifetime. She often spoke about Joan, her best friend during her time in Brisbane, and Fay, whom she met in Rockhampton. Babs was another close friend Evelyn made while based in Rockhampton. Babs was the one Evelyn chose as her bridesmaid. After the war both Joan and Fay married and returned to live in Sydney, and Evelyn always kept in touch with them. Many years later, I met both Joan and Fay.
In September 1943, Evelyn’s youngest brother Allan enlisted in the RAAF. He had just turned 19. Evelyn was 27 and had been in the WAAAF for a year. She was still based in Brisbane. She remembered Allan visiting her in hospital at the time he enlisted. She had the measles and had been sent to the RAAF Hospital at Sandgate for isolation and convalescence. Evelyn was there for 10 days, 18-28 September. She remembered having sore eyes and the staff keeping the blinds pulled and the room dark. Allan was posted to the RAAF Training School at Point Cook (Melbourne), where he trained as a Technician and Armourer for 6 months. In April 1944, he was assigned to the 8th Squadron and overseas service in Papua New Guinea. He remained there until the end of the war (1945).
Times of rest and recreation were essential for all service men and women, and they made the best of their time off duty. Evelyn enjoyed many new experiences during these times of “R&R”. Groups of WAAAFs and RAAF men went on outings or had picnics together. Many outings were to the seaside (Southport, Redcliffe, Emu Park).
But most of all Evelyn loved the dances, and attended them regularly. It was at a dance in the Brisbane City Hall in late 1943, while Evelyn was based in Brisbane, that she met the man she was destined to marry. Melbourne-born William (“Bill”) Proposch, an Australian Army officer, was visiting Brisbane while on leave from active service in Papua New Guinea. I think it was love at first sight, and they agreed to keep in touch.
On 5th September 1944, Bill and Evelyn announced their engagement. Given that she was to be married, Evelyn applied for a discharge from the WAAAF on compassionate grounds. Her application was approved and she was discharged on 2nd March 1945, just 3 weeks before her wedding. She was 29 years old.
This brought to an end the most exciting, rich and educative chapter of Evelyn’s young life.
1946-49: The post-war years
It was February 1946. Evelyn and Bill had been married just 11 months when Evelyn gave birth to their first child, a son Bevan John. It was a time of great rejoicing. By this time, Evelyn’s husband Bill had been discharged from the army, and the young couple had settled in Rockhampton.
After serving 6 years in the armed forces, Bill was keen to establish himself in business. His first enterprise was the Central Trading Company, a manufacturers’ agency, which he set up in premises at the corner of East and Denham Streets, Rockhampton.
Evelyn was still young and another challenge (in addition to motherhood!) awaited her. Bill, ever the entrepreneur and visionary, encouraged Evelyn to establish a dressmaking subsidiary of his business, in the same premises. She agreed. For a short time in 1942 (before joining the WAAAF), Evelyn worked for a dressmaker in Rockhampton. Of course, she had been making clothes for her family and friends for many years previously. Evelyn’s father owned a racehorse, so he asked Evelyn to make a silk riding jacket for his jockey, which she did without using a pattern!
Aptly named “Evelyn Frock Salon”, the dressmaking business operated successfully for several years. Evelyn was in charge but she also worked in the business. Bill and Evelyn employed a couple of women to assist Evelyn. For the first time in her life Evelyn owned an electric sewing machine, a knee-operated Singer, which she soon mastered. In fact, this machine was Evelyn’s workhorse for the next 30 years! I remember learning to sew on it when I was old enough to use an electric sewing machine.
The “Evelyn Frock Salon” was the first of a number of successful business ventures that Bill established, which Bill and Evelyn operated together during their 54 years of marriage. Hard work, dedication, cooperation and trust were some of the ingredients of their success. They made a great team.
The last Mother’s Day I spent with Evelyn was Sunday 9th May 2010. As the following photograph reveals, the effects of dementia were now plain to see. Evelyn could no longer smile or respond as she used to, and she had very little to say. When she did speak, it was with few words. She was often confused and didn’t understand what was going on around her. She had difficulty eating and feeding herself. These are just a few of the symptoms of dementia she exhibited at that time.
There is so much more I want to write about Evelyn’s experience of dementia and how it affected those of us close to her, but that will be the subject of another story (or two).
Needless to say, coping with Evelyn’s dementia was difficult for Tony and me, but at times we had to laugh at things she said or did. We were not being rude or disrespectful – it was just so funny! The following scenario is one example.
My birthday always falls within days of Mother’s Day. In fact, in the year I was born it was one day after Mother’s Day. In 2010, my birthday fell 5 days after Mother’s Day. As a way of engaging Evelyn in our family celebration, Tony asked her how old I was. This is how the conversation went:
Tony: “How old is Judy today?”
Tony: “No. Try again.”
Tony: “One more try.”
Judy: “That is much closer. What’s your relationship to me?”
Evelyn [After some time]: “I think I’m your mother.”
Judy: “That’s right. You were there when I was born. You’ve known me my whole life long.”
Eight months later, on 14th January 2011, Evelyn turned 95. She was in hospital, and her condition was deteriorating. She had stopped eating. Tony and I visited her to spend time with her and to celebrate her birthday with her. We tried to think of ways we might make her day special. I made her a special birthday card. We brought her favourite music CDs and a CD player. We brought a framed cross-stitch wall hanging, one I had worked and given her as a gift several years previously and which had been hanging on the wall of her bedroom. It featured a quote from Philippians 1:3: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you”. We showed her the things we brought, played her favourite music, talked to her and sang to her, but she didn’t respond. Her eyes remained closed, tightly closed. For Tony and me, it was a sad day.
Evelyn had a few “awake” times during the next few days, in which she was able to communicate a little. She was awake when my brother Bevan and his daughter and family visited on 17th January. Evelyn responded as best she could, with an odd word or two, which was a great blessing for them. I’m sure she knew who they were.
I sat with my mum through many hours during her last 2 weeks here on earth. Even when she could no longer respond, I continued to speak with her, sing to her, read passages of Scripture to her, and pray with her. I put her hands in mine. My mother’s hands were soft and warm and tender to my touch. I loved those hands.
My mother’s hands were symbolic of all that my mother had done for me throughout my life. As I stroked her hands, I saw the hands of an old woman: pale and wrinkled and worn. This made me think about how I might remember my mother when she is gone. Will it be the strong, capable and hard-working woman of days gone by? Or the dying woman whose feeble hands I am holding?
Then the Lord prompted me:
“Why do you think like this? It doesn’t matter. This is your mother. You loved her then; you love her now. Whether young or old, strong or weak, capable or otherwise, she is still the same precious person in my sight.”
Evelyn died peacefully at 9.45 pm on Sunday 30th January, 2011.
If you are caring for a family member with dementia, or if you are simply interested in finding out more about dementia, here are two books I recommend. I found both of them extremely helpful.
The Simplicity of Dementia: A Guide for Family and Carers. Huub Buijssen. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia. 2005.
Facilitating spiritual reminiscence for older people with dementia: A learning package. Elizabeth MacKinlay and Corinne Trevitt. Centre for Ageing and Pastoral Studies, St Mark’s Theological Centre, Barton, ACT. 2006.