People we love and who have had a big influence in our lives: How do we honour them? What is the connection between Auntie Dulcie and the Bung-in Cake?
Dulcie was a special aunt. She and her husband tried but were unable to have children; I think I was to her the daughter she hoped for but never had. As far back as I can remember, Auntie Dulcie was part of my life.
In 1937, Dulcie married Harold, my mother’s oldest brother. She was just 18; he was 22.
My mother was one of Dulcie’s bridesmaids. A report of the wedding in the Queensland Country Life, 3rd June 1937, included the following details about Dulcie’s and her bridesmaids’ outfits:
“The bride, who was given away by her father, wore a lovely gown of ivory georgette, inlet with silk lace, and finished at the neckline with a deep cowl. The sleeves, which were very full at the shoulder, were moulded at the wrist. A lovely embroidered tulle veil, loaned by Mrs W H, was worn caught to her hair by a dainty coronet of maidenhair fern. She carried a bouquet of roses. The two bridesmaids, Miss Evelyn B, and Miss Joyce L, wore gowns of coffee lace cut on princess lines, and carried posies of maidenhair fern and roses.”
Harold and Dulcie settled in Rannes, a small rural town in Central Queensland. Here, in 1912, Harold’s grandparents had taken up a landholding they called “Mons”, a few kilometres from the township. Harold’s parents settled on an adjacent property “Woolein View”, where Harold and his siblings grew up.
By the mid-1950s, Harold’s father (my grandfather) was unwell and no longer able to manage the family property. He and my grandmother handed over the operation of the property and the family home to their second son, Leslie, recently married. My grandparents “downsized” (using today’s jargon) and took up residence in a former railway worker’s cottage in Rannes. It was right next door to my Uncle Harold’s and Auntie Dulcie’s place!
As a child I lived in Rockhampton, but I spent many school holidays with my grandparents in Rannes. Sadly, my grandfather (“Pop”) died when I was just seven years old. So, from that time on, my holiday visits were to my grandmother (“Nan”) and my mother’s youngest brother, Allan, who lived with her. Auntie Dulcie and Uncle Harold lived next door, so I spent a lot of time with them, too. In the early days, they operated a fuel depot from their home, and Uncle Harold had a couple of mail runs (one was from Rannes to Banana).
Auntie Dulcie taught me many things, including how to tell the time. She patiently showed me, coached and tested me – about the big hand and the little hand, hours and minutes, o’clock, half past, quarter past, quarter to, and so on. I can still remember when and where this instruction took place: in the warm summer afternoons, as we relaxed to catch the cool breezes on the front verandah of their highset timber (weatherboard) home. I was five or six years old.
It was around the same time that Auntie Dulcie taught me an important lesson. I can’t remember the circumstances, but I do remember that I was “cheeky”, defiant, in response to a request by my grandmother. My aunt asked me to apologise. I refused. Not only did I refuse, but I ran away! Auntie Dulcie took chase. When she caught up with me, she grabbed my arm, and marched me back to Nan’s place. My aunt insisted I apologise to Nan, which I did, then I received my just punishment: a spanking. It hurt. I cried. I felt ashamed and humiliated. At the time, I thought my aunt was the worst person in the world. But I had a renewed respect for her. Never again did I deliberately disobey Nan, or my aunt, or run away when I was corrected.
Auntie Dulcie showed me what it meant to care for an ageing parent. Dulcie’s mother lived with my uncle and aunt for a time in the latter years of her life. The old lady was bedridden and needed constant attention. I recall she was quite demanding. I think she had dementia: she always seemed vague and distant. I remember her being pale, washed out, with papery thin skin with brown blemishes, wispy white hair and expressionless dull eyes. I did not really understand at the time just how great a sacrifice Auntie Dulcie was making by caring for her mother in this way. Little did I know but I would follow a similar path in caring for my own mother who lived with my husband and me in the latter years of her life.
From an early age, one thing I had in common with Auntie Dulcie was a love of music. In those days, it was unusual for a family in the country to own a piano, but Auntie Dulcie had one and she was justly proud of it. It was a well-kept instrument, with brass candle holders above the keyboard. It must have been old. I don’t think Auntie Dulcie ever played the piano. Thus, there it stood, in the dimly-lit lounge room in the middle of the house, waiting for someone to bring it to life. So, from the time my brother and I learnt to play the piano, she would invite us to play for her whenever we visited. I remember sitting at that piano for hours, entertaining myself and giving much joy to my aunt (and anyone else who happened to be visiting at the time).
My uncle and aunt taught me how to play cards. Euchre (with its tricks, trumps, left bower, right bower, and so on) was one game they taught me. We played it in a foursome with Uncle Allan or Nan making up the number. Many a pleasant evening passed in this way. We always sat at the big old table in their small but homely kitchen, under the yellow incandescent light supplied by their 32 volt electric generator.
Auntie Dulcie was a brilliant cook. Often when I visited she was at work in her kitchen. She did a lot of baking: cakes, scones, biscuits, puddings. In fact, she won a prize for her sponge roll recipe (Queensland Country Life, Thursday 11 March, 1948, p.6). Like my grandmother, she used a wood-fired stove. But Auntie Dulcie was an innovator, skilfully using electrical (32 volt) appliances such as a mix-master and a blender as kitchen aids. My mother didn’t have such appliances at the time, so I was intrigued with the process and impressed with the results. Many years later, Auntie Dulcie gave me the recipe for her trademark Bung-in Cake, which I will share in my next post.
During this time, my uncle acquired a small property, on which he conducted dry farming (cotton and sorghum) and grazed cattle, but Uncle Harold and Auntie Dulcie still lived in Rannes. There was no house on the property.
Trying to make a living “off the land” was not easy. As a child and a “city-slicker”, I don’t think I understood – or could understand – just how difficult their life was at times. During the 1960s there was an extended period of drought in Queensland. My uncle and aunt cut down trees and bought fodder to hand feed their animals. Many landowners sought agistment for their cattle to keep them alive. Uncle Harold and Uncle Les brought their cattle to Rockhampton, and camped alongside their animals for several months during that period, on the land where the Central Queensland University is now located.
In the late 1960s, Uncle Harold and Auntie Dulcie bought an adjoining property, and had an old house moved there. They planned to relocate from Rannes and live on the property. Despite years of preparation, they never did.
When I was older I wrote to Auntie Dulcie, and so began our decades-long practice of exchanging letters and greeting cards. I remember clearly corresponding with her when I was studying at university in Brisbane, and later when I was married and living in Bundaberg. In this way, we remained close although we lived far apart. We always kept in touch. Whenever I was in Rockhampton and she was visiting or staying with her sister who lived there, I would call in on her. We always remembered and feted each other’s birthdays and special occasions.
In appearance, throughout her life, Dulcie was thin, wiry and somewhat gaunt. (I will drop the “Auntie” from now on, as I relate the remainder of this story from an adult perspective.) In her 40s, Dulcie was diagnosed with an overactive thyroid, and underwent corrective thyroid surgery. The scars she bore on her neck were testament to this. She also suffered from anxiety (“nerves” as it was referred to in those days) and I recall that she took a lot of Bex and Vincent’s APC powders to help alleviate the symptoms. Dulcie’s continual use of these medicines contributed to her developing stomach ulcers.
Dulcie was a smoker. I never knew a time when she didn’t smoke. She took up cigarette smoking on her doctor’s orders, to help relieve her anxiety, to calm her nerves. That’s what I was told. She became addicted to nicotine and, even though she tried on numerous occasions, she was unable to break the habit. In her later years, she developed emphysema, the result of years of cigarette smoking.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dulcie spent more and more time in Rockhampton with her sister who was also unwell. They comforted each other. Dulcie was hardly ever at home in Rannes. Given this situation, Harold and Dulcie bought a house in Rockhampton, so they could be together. They furnished the house with the intention of making it their home. But it was never lived in. Dulcie remained with her sister; Harold stayed in Rannes. I think he was reluctant to make the move from the country to the city.
It was late 1983. My husband Tony and I were soon to leave Bundaberg, where we had been living for 9 years. Tony was due to take up a new position based in Rockhampton in January 1984 (read my earlier post: A loving gift, potent words). I was so excited that at last I would see a lot more of my favourite aunt.
Dulcie was living in Rockhampton; I was going to be living there soon. I knew she was not well, so I was looking forward to spending time with her, supporting her, and reassuring her that God loved her despite her circumstances. This was really important to me.
On Friday 9th December 1983, Tony and I drove from Bundaberg to Rockhampton to stay with my parents for the weekend and continue our search for a suitable house in Rockhampton. When we arrived that evening my parents told us that Dulcie was in hospital and her condition was serious. Tony and I planned to visit her first thing in the morning. That night before we went to bed, we read the set passage from Living Light, a daily devotional we used at the time. The morning and evening readings are selected passages of Scripture from The Living Bible based on a theme. This is part of what we read that night:
“And now, dear brothers, I want you to know what happens to a Christian when he dies so that when it happens, you will not be full of sorrow, as those are who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and then came back to life again, we can also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him all the Christians who have died.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 14)
Tony and I went to bed convinced that Dulcie was going to die – soon. We prayed that we would have the opportunity to say goodbye to her the next day.
In the morning, at breakfast time, my parents’ phone rang. I took the call. I knew what it would be. Dulcie’s sister spoke the words: “Dulcie passed away this morning.” I was greatly moved, but not surprised. God had prepared me for this news. That morning, the reading from Living Light included the following passage from the New Testament:
“Overwhelming victory is ours through Christ who loved us enough to die for us. For I am convinced that nothing can every separate us from his love. Death can’t, and life can’t. The angels won’t and all the powers of hell itself cannot keep God’s love away. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, or where we are – high above the sky, or in the deepest ocean – nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God demonstrated by our Lord Jesus Christ when he died for us.” (Romans 8:37-39)
Although we didn’t get to see Dulcie before she died, I was at peace. I was confident that her spirit was with the Lord. I need not fret. It was all in God’s hands.
Three days later we attended Dulcie’s funeral. She was 65.
I didn’t feel sad for Dulcie – I knew she was in a better place. I did rue my own loss, though, especially that I wouldn’t get to spend the time with her that I so long desired. But I had to accept that God overruled in this matter, and He knows best. He makes no mistakes.
That is not the end of the story.
Harold continued to live at Rannes. For some time prior to my aunt’s death, he had ceased eating properly, he was drinking too much, and he was not looking after himself. Tragically, Harold died just 6 months after Dulcie, on 23 May 1984, aged 71.
What did this mean for me? Certainly, it was the end of an era. Harold and Dulcie had no children; they left no direct descendants. On my uncle’s side of the family, there were four nieces and nephews; on my aunt’s side, there were many nieces and nephews – I’m not sure how many, but there were a lot. Harold and Dulcie had written their wills in this way: If Harold died first, Dulcie’s nieces and nephews would share their estate; if Dulcie died first, the estate would be divided equally among Harold’s nieces and nephews.
Thus, I inherited one-quarter of my uncle’s and aunt’s estate. This was bitter-sweet for me. I was extremely grateful, but at the same time overwhelmed, to be a recipient of the proceeds of the sale of their house and property and to share their worldly possessions.
I was painfully aware that my uncle and aunt had lived very simply and frugally, especially in their later years, with few material goods or beautiful things to make their lives more comfortable. Instead of spending time with my aunt in our first year in Rockhampton (as I had hoped), I benefited financially from her death and the untimely death of my uncle. This added to my grief and seemed so grossly unfair. On the other hand, I felt some vindication, and peace, knowing that I had experienced a close and loving relationship, developed over three decades, with my aunt and uncle.
So, how do I remember Auntie Dulcie? How do I honour her memory?
I think of her – and thank God for her – every time I make a Bung-in Cake and use her recipe. It is my all-time favourite recipe, and I have used it over and over again. Like real love, it never fails. I commend it to you.
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