Saturday, December 19, 2009


This is the text of Mum’s eulogy, which I read at her funeral service at St. George’s Anglican Church in Glenferrie Road, Malvern, on Thursday, December 3, 2009. It was a hard job of public speaking, maybe the hardest I shall ever have to do—but Nick, Simon, and Hamish gave me all the help I needed to get it done properly, and I managed all right. Upon re-reading it just now, and, having spent recent weeks with the others sorting through her comparatively few possessions, I realize that I should have placed greater emphasis on Mum’s quietly undemonstrative but exacting creativity—pottery, spinning, dyeing, knitting, sewing (specifically the construction of beautifully smocked dresses for babies), horticulture (always taking careful account of “green” concerns many decades before these were orthodox), painting in watercolours, the writing of poetry and reams of meticulous correspondence, as well as her breadth of reading, and even her dogged pursuit of The Times crossword puzzle. Lately she was convinced that the clues had declined in quality and that someone new and younger and not quite as good was concocting them in Printing House Square. She was surely right about that, though we thought it best never to break it to her about Wapping. There is a long run of the novels of Barbara Pym sitting neatly above the phone, and the editions of Shakespeare that she took to classes she attended until recently with Nancy Shaw were taken from the exquisite boxed and monogrammed octodecimo set that was originally Gran’s. Hamish has it now. By a strange coincidence Helen died on the 116th anniversary of her own mother’s birthday. Owing to the effect of trans-Pacific air travel and the position of the International Date Line, that day, November 27, was virtually torn out of my own calendar at around the hour at which Mum’s heart stopped beating, and as a result, by some supernatural act of mercy, I was saved from experiencing the rest of it—until now.


JULY 20, 1926–NOVEMBER 27, 2009

Helen’s death last Friday evening has taken us, her family, completely by surprise. It is almost impossible to believe that she has gone. Since then it has become clear that Mum was far more gravely ill than we really understood. She was aware that her life was drawing rapidly to its close. Despite failing strength, Helen was fully, perhaps stubbornly determined to make as many arrangements as she possibly could—in her own way, and in her own time, with a minimum of fuss. She continued to come here to St. George’s at eight o’clock in the morning until the Sunday she went to hospital. As recently as a month ago, Mum was busily making grapefruit marmalade—not too sweet, not too runny, just right. She was still maintaining her titanic struggle against the possums in her garden. Lately, old friends noticed some changes in Helen, above all a certain garrulousness that was most uncharacteristic, but, when it came upon her, she approached her final, mercifully brief illness much as she lived the whole of her adult life—with resolution, calm strength, unselfishness, fierce independence, great courage, and dignity.

Helen was the third child and younger daughter of William Arthur Borthwick and Helen, the eldest daughter of the Hon. William Pearson, M.L.C., of Kilmany Park. Mum was born on the family sheep property called Raeshaw at Fulham, a few miles west of Sale in East Gippsland. Helen, her brothers David and John, and her beloved sister Anne, were in the beginning educated by governesses at home. They learned all about the Empire, and those dubious other parts of the world that were not yet part of it. They learned about varieties of gum tree, Cootamundra wattle, native birds, echidnas, wildflowers, and how to avoid poisonous snakes, or kill them. There were fairy circles of moss, to which Mum delivered letters and gifts of little cups made out of silver paper. Presently she retrieved thoughtful replies neatly inscribed on gum leaves; this was the clandestine work of Helen’s favourite aunt, Mollie Bruce Pearson, whom we knew as “Mungie.” There were poddy lambs, ponies, an old grey horse called Battleaxe, and an idiot dog named Patch who liked to climb the cypress tree; got stuck near the top, and always had to be rescued up a tall ladder. In due course Helen learned how to produce with her thumb and index finger a stockman’s whistle of really ear-piercing reverberation, a skill I suspect she was, in later life, sorely tempted to bring to committee meetings of the Friends of Grimwade. The reason why Mum was so good at virtual whip-cracking in an all-male household was that she knew how to crack a real one.

Summer holidays were spent at Balmadies, the house our grandparents built at Metung on the Gippsland Lakes. Balmadies was finished in the year when Mum was born, and thanks to our Borthwick cousins it is still standing cheerfully on the shore of Bancroft Bay—right next door to the little house that Dad built for us with his own hands, and which we love so very much. There, at Balmadies, often accompanied by a tribe of school friends and neighbours, the children went floundering, crab-hunting, swimming, sailing, and picnicking at the Barrier. In those days both Raeshaw and Metung were still comparatively isolated, but the family took the British illustrated weeklies and monthlies, and received by subscription regular parcels of books from the Athenaeum Library in Melbourne. There were after-supper theatricals, riotous charades, and games of Fish, Up Jenkyns! and really competitive Racing Demon.

Though happy, even idyllic, Mum’s childhood and adolescence were overshadowed by drought, rabbits, flood, blight, the Great Depression and, later, the Second World War. To some degree that dark backdrop holds the key to understanding Helen’s stalwart character in adulthood. Her thrift and self-reliance were learned from her own mother. Those values formed early, and were rock solid. They were not negotiable.

Nevertheless Mum always retained the capacity for fun, delight in simple pleasures, and a healthy sense of the ridiculous that she first absorbed as a child of East Gippsland. There, too, she must have learned those few choice earthy phrases which, because they were so seldom deployed, were for us the more stunning, and effective.

I dwell in some detail on Helen’s childhood because I think it goes a long way toward explaining her special genius for family, her knack of reaching out to children generally; to us, her own children, and her grandchildren especially. She developed a powerful bond with all her grandchildren. Nick’s eldest boy James tells me that despite his troubles he always felt safe with Mum, never judged, or made to feel anything other than that she loved him unconditionally. I know all the others must feel exactly the same way. In this respect, parameters determined by age were not especially important to Mum. She could, I think, take hold of the child in all of us.

Hamish reminded me yesterday that, early on, Donkey, his favourite stuffed toy animal, suffered fearfully from wear. Eventually his head fell off, and Mum carefully and securely reattached it. When Donkey further deteriorated, Helen took the radical step of knitting a whole-of-body skin graft. She carried out the intricate microsurgical procedure, and threw in a new hat and matching scarf for good measure. Other pressing matters were for the time being set aside, and Mum got this complicated job done in plenty of time for Hamish’s thirty-third birthday.

Nor were the stuffed toys restricted to animals: Simon recalls Mum arranging for the repair man to shore up with patches of leather that special variety of stuffed toy that is approximately lozenge-shaped, made of pigskin, and contains an inflatable bladder. By these timely interventions Mum made it possible for Simon to spin, handpass, and kick to kick against the harsh road metal of Denham Place, throughout successive football seasons.

Though formal and correct, at times guarded and certainly shy—actually severely shy—in private Mum had an uncanny ability to puncture balloons of pomposity, self-importance, and cant. Indeed the larger, redder, and shinier the balloon, the more likely she was to reach for her knitting needle and skewer it. I suspect that this mischievous quality was not observed very often, except lately among her most trusted friends around the bridge table. One would not, I think, describe Mum’s approach to the game of bridge as that of a recklessly flamboyant risk-taker. To our knowledge in more than twenty-five years of committed bridge-playing she never once bid six no trumps. Yet I am assured by an extremely reliable source that her game was cautious, but steady. Steady. This comes as no surprise to us; in good times or bad nobody was steadier than Mum—no matter what we tossed at her, and I’m afraid we tossed her almost everything. Except a tattoo. To my knowledge, none of us ever dared to cross that particular Rubicon. Mum, your work is done.

Helen took pride in her noble Scottish ancestors on both sides—Covenanters, pretty ferocious border people—and of her family’s prominent role in the early European settlement of East Gippsland. She honoured the memory of four uncles, two of whom died on active service—one in the famous Battle of the Nek at Gallipoli. She was proud of her brother and sister who served with distinction in the R.A.A.F. and the W.R.A.N.S. respectively. She was fiercely loyal to the school she attended when the family moved to Geelong in 1936; indeed the Latin motto of The Hermitage, ESSE QVAM VIDERI, which means “to be rather than to seem,” could have been composed especially for Helen. Certainly it suits her far better than the state of North Carolina with which she shares it. Mum cherished the lifelong friendships she made right after the War at the Headmistresses’ Association Hostel (Invergowrie) in Kew. With satisfactory partisanship she rejoiced modestly in the accomplishments of her sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. And she even learned to feel quietly satisfied with her own. For the past fourteen years she discovered the delights of retail, working gratis almost every Saturday morning in Mary Ann’s shop Lulabie, regularly reporting to me an especially good day’s business. But, above all, she was proud of Dad.

Helen married Peter in 1949, after a long engagement during which Peter survived the careful, not uncritical scrutiny of Mum’s increasingly eccentric family at Metung, while the dear Trumbles took Helen to their heart down at Portsea. Nick was born in 1950. Simon came in fifty-two; Hamish followed in fifty-six, and, after a long regenerative pause for reflection, I came along in 1964. By this neat strategem Mum and Dad contrived to pay Melbourne Grammar School fees for an uninterrupted span of twenty-five years, sometimes up to three lots at once. Throughout that period Helen supported Peter in his many professional and charitable roles. She ran up costumes for school plays, including a judge’s wig for Simon’s cameo appearance in Trial By Jury; and sumptuous regalia for Hamish, who played King Henry II in Beckett. She made time also to earn the degree of Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne, where she graduated in 1982. Mum learned to spin raw wool then dye it using natural mosses and lichens; she knitted jumpers, sewed, mended, shuttled children back and forth, arranged and supervised school holidays, washed, darned, cooked, baked, squeezed an ocean of orange juice, nursed, comforted, cajoled, occasionally scolded, read aloud, pruned, dug, raked, swept, watered, and cared for numerous elderly relations, including her own mother, and two frail spinster aunts, Aunt Kath and Aunt Jean Borthwick. Together with Joey, she also helped to look after her mother-in-law, and lately her own brother John.

But without question the biggest, most taxing, and, I think, most humbling accomplishment of Helen’s life was the one that none of us can ever forget: For fifteen interminable years Mum watched in dismay as Peter was gradually carried away by Alzheimer’s disease. She cared for him at home for as long as she could; far longer than anyone could reasonably have expected. She rarely if ever complained. Helen simply refused to give up until she could not go on. It was not merely an unostentatious expression of deep love, but a feat of physical strength also. And it seems especially cruel that having gone through all that, and remaining mentally alert to the very end, Helen should have been made so keenly aware of how badly her own body was letting her down. It simply wasn’t fair.

So, in the manner of her dying Helen has with rare symmetry shed a powerful ray of light upon the way she lived her whole life, and, with Peter, made us who we are. Truly we feel heartbroken that she has vanished, but we are so very grateful for everything that she gave us, and we shall carry all that with us until the day we die. We also draw strength from the size of this wonderful congregation in which there are so many dear, familiar faces—old and young. I am reminded of what, in times of trouble, Mum occasionally found it necessary to say to me by way of comfort, encouragement, and support: “Darling, it will be hard; it will be hard, but I know you will do your very best. Take each day as it comes, and try not to worry.” You can’t say fairer than that.

May light perpetual shine upon her.

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