In 2005, I was studying for a master’s degree in writing. I was also into my eleventh year of living with my grandparents, Alf and Betty. What had been an invitation to stay with them when I was 17 and moving to Melbourne from Bendigo to study a bachelor’s degree had extended into another two-year course, my first job, my second job, my third job and my fourth job. It was during my fourth job that I decided to study for my master’s degree part time.
One of the subjects was called Writing History. Because I had such immediate access to Alf and Betty, I decided to write my major project about them. We had some wonderful conversations about growing up, when they met and their life together. The first eulogy that follows was taken from that project. I was also asked to write a second more personal eulogy, which follows the first. I almost can’t believe I had to write two. And even more unbelieveable is the fact that I actually got up to read the second one myself because I don’t do public speaking, ever, and my debut performance was at my grandmother’s funeral.
Elizabeth Bell, known as Betty, was born on the 2nd of April 1926, the fifth and youngest child of John and Elizabeth Bell. She was the first of the Bells born in Australia. The Bell family had immigrated from Northern England to Australia in 1922 after the death of the brother Betty never knew, Russell. Russell was hit in the head by a rock thrown by another young child, developed pneumonia in his weakened state and never recovered.
The Bell family that remained, parents John and Elizabeth, daughters Doris and Gladys and son Jack, settled in Wonthaggi, Victoria. Every school holidays the family would travel the eight kilometres to Inverloch where they would stay in the two-room hut the family owned and the children would play on the sand and in the surf. It was a well-rounded Australian childhood, encompassing the beach and the bush.
At fourteen, Betty left school. Her highest level of education was Year 8 or second form as they called it back then. She had never been encouraged in scholarly pursuits and her parents did not mind whether she left school or stayed, so she decided to leave. The only thing her mother did care about was whether young Betty could get a job.
In a town as small as Wonthaggi, jobs for women were as rare as hens’ teeth. Elizabeth decided to send Betty to Melbourne where the chances of securing work would be much greater. Betty left Wonthaggi and never returned.
Her first job was in a fruit shop. She lasted three days. Her next job was in a factory making gloves. She worked there for six months before again moving on. Over the years Betty would work at a variety of places, including the Maryborough Knitting Mills, Kayser, the Metro Theatre, Kodak, the Austin Hospital and Vasey House. It was rarely interesting but it was honest work.
World War II began when Betty was thirteen. By the time Betty was sixteen, her mother, Elizabeth, was so fearful of the war arriving on her doorstop in Wonthaggi in the form of a military attack from the sea that she announced her intention to relocate to Maryborough. Betty chose to go to the country with her mother. They stayed in Maryborough for six months. When they left Maryborough, they did not return to Wonthaggi but settled in the Melbourne suburb of Kew.
Alf Harrison and Betty Bell met in 1946 at a dance. They were introduced to each other by a woman Alf had grown up with and Betty worked with. They talked and danced and made a date for the next week to see a movie. The distance between their respective family homes in Port Melbourne and Kew meant an extra effort was required as their relationship blossomed. Alf often made the trek out to Kew riding his bicycle and on two or three occasions he even did it while pushing Betty’s bicycle, which he would borrow to ride home when the trams were on strike or had stopped running for the night. Alf and Betty dated for over twelve months. In early September of 1947, just after his 21st birthday, Alf bought an engagement ring for fifty pounds and proposed to Betty. She accepted.
Alf Harrison and Betty Bell were married on Saturday the 29th November 1947 at St Andrews Church in Gardiner. The service was attended by Alfred (Snr) and Frances Harrison, Elizabeth Bell, Betty’s sisters, Alf’s brothers, and a variety of aunts and uncles. Betty wore a powder blue dress bought from René Rose on the corner of Flinders Lane and Swanston Street that fell to mid-calf and carried a bouquet of daisies and roses.
A reception was held at the house of Betty’s Aunt Phoebe and Uncle Joe and then Uncle Joe drove the couple in his Baby Austin to the Club Hotel in Ferntree Gully where they spent their honeymoon. It lasted two days. They returned to the city by train on Monday and Alfred went back to work on Tuesday.
Alf and Betty moved into Betty’s mother’s house in Kew. But the distance between the home and Alf’s job proved difficult and after six months, the young couple moved into the Harrison family home in Port Melbourne where Alf had grown up.
By this time, Betty was heavily pregnant with her first child. It was an easy pregnancy, although on many social occasions Betty would break out in itchy hives and would have to retreat home to scratch in relative privacy.
Betty went into labour on the afternoon of the 25th of June 1948. Alf’s mother took her to the Epworth Hospital where she was admitted. Alf was not permitted to visit his wife in the labour ward. No men were allowed into the labour ward except for doctors. Alf’s mother later went home as the baby seemed in no hurry to enter the world. But a daughter was delivered in the early hours of Saturday the 26th of June 1948, although Betty remembered little of it as gas was administered liberally to women in labour in those days.
After the birth, Betty was moved into the maternity ward and her daughter was moved into the nursery. Betty decided to name her daughter Rae Patricia. Rae was for a young cousin of Alf’s she thought of as a nice little boy and Patricia was for herself, a name she liked and thought went well in combination with Rae.
Betty stayed in hospital for ten days, which was the standard length of a hospital stay for a woman who had given birth in those days. Hospital rules dictated that only the baby’s father and grandmothers were permitted to visit, but Alf’s brother, Stanley, was so eager to see Betty after the birth and gain a glimpse of baby Rae in the nursery that he convinced hospital staff he was a sailor on a merchant ship about to leave dock.
After Betty and Rae left the hospital, life settled into routine for the extended Harrison family. Despite the fact that there were only two bedrooms, seven people managed to call it home. Alfred Snr and Frances were in the front bedroom. Alf, Betty and Rae occupied the second bedroom, with the baby sharing her parents’ bed. And Reginald and Stanley shared the enclosed veranda at the back of the house. After Rae turned one, Betty returned to work in order to help save the money to buy a house of their own.
It took three years and the help of Betty’s mother, who sold her own house to help finance her daughter’s. In 1951, Alf, Betty, Rae and Elizabeth moved to Deepdene. They paid £3,500 for the white weatherboard. In 1953, a second daughter was born to Alf and Betty. They named her Linda. In 1955, a third daughter arrived and they named her Jill. And finally in 1956, their son, Kevin, was born.
Betty’s mother, Elizabeth, later bought her own house in Richmond and moved out, enabling Betty’s sister, Gladys, who had been stricken with transverse myelitis, a paralysis of the nerves of the spinal cord in the same family as multiple sclerosis, to move in, but only after extensive renovations were completed for that specific purpose. Betty cared for her sister for over twenty years until Gladys was finally forced to move into a nursing home for round the clock care. But it didn’t stop there. Two years later I moved in to begin my eleven years of living with them. Betty devoted her entire life to caring for her family, five generations of them.
On the 29th of November 2007, Alf and Betty celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary surrounded by their four children, fourteen grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and a large group of friends. Last year, they celebrated their sixty-eighth wedding anniversary.
When I interviewed them both in 2005 for the history project, Alf and Betty freely admitted to still being in love after all that time and nothing changed after that. Nothing will ever change that.
I was very lucky to live with Nan and Pa for eleven years. I moved in when I was seventeen so I could go to university. And then they couldn’t get rid of me. But Nan was too polite to say anything.
That was the English in her. She was very proud of her English heritage. She had that English rose skin that everybody would like to have. She loved watching English television comedies and dramas. She was the first in her family born in Australia but she was as English as anyone born in Australia could be.
She was a very young nanna but she did a lot of traditional nanna stuff like knitting and cross-stitch. She liked reading and crosswords. She liked drinking tea – tea with breakfast, tea after lunch, afternoon tea, tea after dinner. But she was also a very modern nanna. She was elegant and fashionable. She made tracksuits look stylish. She loved to go out with friends and she loved it more to stay in when the entire family came around.
But most of my memories of Nan are about food. If reality television cooking shows had been in existence thirty, forty or fifty years ago, Nan would have easily won every competition. There was nothing she couldn’t do as long as she had a packet of French onion soup mix. During the football season, she made egg salad sandwiches every Saturday morning for Pa to take to the game. Both the times she went to hospital to have her hip replacements, she spent the week beforehand cooking and stocking the freezer because both Pa and I were terrible cooks.
Nan made the best corned silverside, the best pickled pork, the best meatloaf – her meatloaf was my favourite. She also made the best crumbed lamb cutlets, crumbed lamb brains, ky si ming, roasts, rissoles, vegetable soup with perfectly cubed vegetables and perfectly clear broth, the best pikelets, the best fruit cake, the best banana bread. It’s a lot of bests. Because she was the best cook I ever knew. And I got to eat her food every night for eleven years.
Except for one night. Old friends June and George were over from Adelaide, staying in the guest room, and Nan had spent all afternoon hand rolling chicken breast fillets with ham and cheese and baking them in the oven. But as she was taking the dish out, it slipped from her hands, crashed to the ground and splintered. There was hot chicken and glass shards everywhere.
We probably would have still eaten it if not for the glass shards, that’s how good a cook she was. That’s how I will always remember her.