You can’t ask that! - Madonna Magazine

You can’t ask that!

28 April 2021

The past often exerts an exotic pull – what was life like back when? The elderly provide a link to the past and in this article agreed to be interviewed by their, mainly, grandchildren to talk about their lives, hopes and dreams.

Thresiamma Varghese
by Ann Maria Sabu
Thresiamma Varghese was born on 19 August 1939 in Kerala, India. She has six siblings and married her husband when she was 19. Both her father and her husband owned large farming lands and she was involved in a lot of farming activities since her childhood. She proudly boasts of her skills in cultivating everything from rice grains to chillies and looking after her favourite animals such as sheeps, cows, rabbits, pigs, ox, dogs, chickens and cats. She has six daughters and 16 grandchildren. She loves to sing and has been deeply exploring spirituality and religion for the past few years.

How would you describe your childhood?
My childhood days are the most precious memories that I cherish. Our morning routine included going to church early morning and then helping my mother with household chores before going to school. I still remember playing games on our chalkboards and secretly eating snacks while the teacher was teaching. After school, I used to hang around the school premises and play games with my friends. When I get back home all of my siblings would study together, help with farming, pray and have dinner together. Those days bring back memories of good health, lack of responsibility and stress free times.

In your perspective, what has changed the most within families and within the society?
I genuinely feel a lack of connection between family members and this could be due to busy work schedules that lead to less time being spent together. During my childhood even though our parents worked we still had an hour or two dedicated for our ‘family time’. It helped strengthen our bonding as we discussed each of our problems, issues within the society and our individual thoughts. But at times I fail to see such bonding between my daughters and their children. In terms of changes within the wider society, it is technology that has had a rapid expansion. I am grateful to have lived in this period where I have seen so much innovation and new products that I probably would not have dreamt of even in my wildest dreams. I am still waiting to see driverless cars!

What is your biggest achievement?
My biggest achievement is being able to raise six empowered and strong daughters and being able to provide them with the best possible education and opportunities. I feel so proud of their achievements and their work for the community. It was a huge hurdle to solve their fights, stay unbiased and to support each of them in their own preferred ways. At times it was hard especially when we were financially unstable, but I still am proud of being able to be there for them at all times. Now I look at my huge loving family and smile gladly that my efforts did pay back.

What advice would you give to your younger self or your grandchildren?
My advice would be live your life without being afraid of judgment from the society. Societal values and prejudices keep changing but every individual has only one life to live. I lived my life constantly thinking about what other people expected from me. I do not want anyone to repeat the same mistake because such a mindset will limit your potential and your opportunities to discover new experiences. I want all my grandchildren to be adventurous and open to new experiences and ideologies. I want them to live a life without judgments and as happy individuals!

What is one thing in life that you did not think was possible but eventually it became a reality?
My sister settled in the United States of America and her children were born and brought up there. Whenever I saw aeroplanes, I always wished to be able to fly to another country someday. I really did not expect my wish to come true as the concept of going overseas for a vacation was not a common one in my younger days. But eventually as four of my six daughters moved overseas for work and settled in different countries, I was able to visit each of them. I still remember how excited I was for my first international trip with my husband. Both of us had never thought of going overseas for a vacation and even though we were a bit old by then we still were very appreciative of such opportunities.

Ann Maria is a member of the Syro-Malabar St Alphonsa Cathedral parish in Melbourne’s north and has written for Madonna’s sister publication – Australian Catholics. 


Kevin Arundell
By Felicity Arundell, Year 11, Mount St Benedict College, Pennant Hills, NSW
Kevin Arundell is the middle child of seven children. He grew up in Leighton, NSW, where he lived with his mother, father and siblings. He studied medicine at Sydney University from the age of 20 where he met Marea Burrow, who also studied medicine. Kevin and Marea had seven children, one of which was Anthony, my dad.

Did you have a happy childhood?
Yes, six siblings all looked after me when father couldn’t look after me. I was the middle child which made life quite fun in a way. Could fit in with the younger siblings and older siblings.

What was your first memory of being happy/sad?
Happy: When the Christmas gifts arrived from my aunty – favourite aunty. It was quite a generous gift. Her name was Kitty, and I was forever thankful for this gift and cherished it for so long.
Sad: When I fell off a horse when I was 4. It hurt a lot. I Landed on my backside. My father was generous enough to help me. This was a happy memory of me and him.

What was your biggest achievement?
Having seven children. Blessed to have that many children, not hard at all having seven children as Marea, my wife did all the work. That was the way society went back then.

Your biggest regret?
I didn’t pray enough and dedicate enough time to praying. Didn’t think I needed to at the time, but looking back on it I think I needed to.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Pray more, to work harder, never give up.

Who was your first boy/girl friend?
Marea. I loved her so much that I married her. I knew that she would make a wonderful wife. I first noticed how pretty she was when I first saw her.

How old were you when you first started going out with someone on a ‘date’, and where did you go?
Eighteen. It was quite exciting and a little nerve racking all at the same time. We went to see a musical. Although I can’t remember the name of it, I did know that It was a long musical and an American production. I felt very happy to be there and share the moment with Marea.

Did your parents approve?
Yes, they were both alive at that time which was great. Marea’s mother didn’t want her daughter to marry anyone and were quite hesitant on letting Marea go out with me. In saying this, my parents thought Marea was a wonderful girl.

What was your first job?
Building a haystack with hay on the farm, my father’s farm. I helped with the hay every day to feed the horses. I was about 16 and in Year 10.

How did you get it?
My dad gave the job to me as he needed someone to help with the lively stock.

Have you ever been fired? Why?
No, I have never been fired in a job, I haven’t really had many jobs. Started working in the hay stack, then worked in the local student working Sydney hospital, and after that, I worked for myself.

What did you want to be/do when you were a child?
I didn’t want to be anything at that time, I just wanted to study hard and get into university.

Where did you meet grandma? What attracted you to her?
I met her at the Sydney university studying medicine. Her beautiful smile attracted me to her.

What is the best/worst part of being married?
having a lovely and loving wife, cooks me meals, and we go out together.
Worst: can’t think about anything bad about being married. It was and still is all amazing.

What is the biggest change in society you’ve noticed that you agree with?
The improvement in health care, by introducing a government (old one) that looks after health for both the poor and rich and no matter who you are.

What is the biggest change that you’re uncomfortable with?
My present government doesn’t look after poor people. Excludes the majority. If you are poor you are not looked after.


Huang Man Hua
By Wenni Zhu, Year 11, Mount St Benedict College, Pennant Hills, NSW
Huang Man Hua is the eldest of two children. He worked as a teacher for three years and 25 years as an environmentalist engineer. He is currently 76 years old, born in the Year of the Dog and loves tourism. He lived his whole life in China and watched the changes over these crucial years of development. Huang Man Hua’s only child is Amy Huang who currently lives in Australia and flies back to China each year to meet him.

What did you experience during the Cultural Revolution in China 1966?
I was 20 years old at that time. We had to stop studying for two years in university. During this break I went into internship and interacted with society through working in factories and farms. This allowed me to understand where our food came from and changed my perspective on things. It helped me recognise the amount of effort put behind the dishes on our table and products we use. However, the Cultural Revolution caused my three-year university course in chemistry to be five years, but I am grateful for the experiences I gathered.

What were the living conditions like, and have you seen improvement?
Human behaviour and manners were raised greatly because of the awareness people gained. Back when I was a teenager, people were more focused on starving or freezing, so, we have definitely come a long way to achieve the living quality we have now. We initially didn’t have all the technology everyone has now such as TV, phones, fridges and laptops. There wasn’t an abundance of money to support tourism which I enjoyed a lot after retirement. There has been huge economic growth, so housing is no longer small. I used to live in Shanghai’s Shi Ku Meng.

How have society and people changed?
When I used to live in the traditional hallway-style-homes, people were a lot closer and used to go to each other’s house more often. If your neighbour had extra dumplings, they’d share some. Now society isn’t as close because of workload and stress. However, a lot more facilities and social gatherings for elderlies exist such as dancing in the mall. Mental health has also gained more attention by society which I believe is important. Politicians have paid more attention to climate change and waste. Since I used to work as an environmental engineer, we were aware of these issues decades ago.

How has religion and access to it changed?
Religion is very open now and people have more access to learn about a religion. There was a significant increase in Christianity within China, especially in Shanghai. Many churches have been built allowing people to learn about it or join. There are a larger variety of religions in China. Back then it was just Buddhism, and it’s great to see a variety.

What is your job history?
I started as a teacher after graduating with a chemistry degree. I taught in Jiang xi middle school for three years then in a Suzhou high school. Teaching was a very honourable job as it provides both knowledge and culture, allowing these young saplings to become mannerly and kind people. It wasn’t simple, but I enjoyed it a lot. Later, I worked as an engineer that aims to protect the environment through reducing the harms a business makes to the area. I encouraged sustainable processing and was responsible for documenting and suggesting ways for a business to reduce waste emitted. It was a very tiring job but purposeful as it supports the environment and was filled with responsibility.  [1981-2006]

Most memorable student?
One student gathered all of his students 40 years after he graduated and invited me as I was their homeroom mentor. 40 years later they still hadn’t forgotten me and it made me feel very warm inside.

One sentence to encourage young children
You must go the path that you are interested in and must work hard to change the future into one you and future generations would want to live in.

What have you been interested in recently?
Reading news updates and cooking videos on WeChat.

Was teaching me hard?
No, teaching anyone makes me happy, but I wish you’d stop asking to go to the bathroom when I help you with your maths questions.


Helen Schyvens
By Anneke Van Zoggel, Year 11, Mount St Benedict College, Pennant Hills, NSW
Helen Schyvens (nee Chevallerau) is one of five children. The second oldest, she was born in 1940 in The Hague, Netherlands before migrating in 1950 to Australia with her parents and siblings in search of a more peaceful life. She worked as an office clerk before marrying accountant Gerard in 1966. Helen retired at 26 to become a stay-at-home mother. Together they have seven children – three girls and four boys. She continues to serve the Hornsby Cathedral Parish at Our Lady of the Rosary Church and is a grandmother of 21 grandchildren.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
I wished I could have gone into nursing. Having the ability to help other people and make a difference. But, I have no regrets – having kids was one of the best experiences of my life.

What is one piece of advice you would give to the younger generation of today?
Do not prioritise money; if it’s not there, don’t spend it. Start small within your means and create things yourself. Do not go into debt so early in life. If your main objective in life is to accumulate more money and material items, then a marriage will never last.
I would also highly recommend working in a nursing home. It taught me so many life skills, and you share so many experiences and memories with individuals from all walks of life.

What did you want to be or do when you were younger?
Although it seems quite absurd to me now looking back, I always wanted to be a ballet dancer or a florist.         

Where did you meet Opa (grandfather)? What attracted you to him?
I met him at a 25th wedding anniversary of friends of my parents. I noticed him sitting there, it was quite a noisy party. We were introduced but we were both very shy. I was observing him from a distance, and he was quite serious, and I liked serious men. I realised that we had a lot in common, and that we shared many of the same personality traits. 

What is the best / worst part of being married?
I loved being able to juggle the life of running a family. It made me happy to be surrounded by such love, and I enjoyed the challenge of managing such a busy household. I’m really lucky to share that experience with someone else.

What is the biggest change in society you have noticed? Do you believe it to be beneficial or not?
Obviously there has been a development in technology, but the saddest thing, I think, is when young couples now have children and they so quickly put them in childcare. They miss so much of their childhood and their development. 

What is your favourite memory?
I have many fond memories, but delivering my children is one of my favourites.

Where is your favourite place in the world and why?
In my home. I have lived here for 56 years. It’s my home, it’s my place to entertain. I love seeing my children and grandchildren and spoiling them. I get to create so many memories with them. The best place is home. I believe we grew with our children and it is so lovely having grandchildren.


Lumeng Salome Dalisay
By Lindsay Austria, Year 11, Mount St Benedict College, Pennant Hills, NSW
Lumeng Salome Dalisay was born in 1946 and grew up in Malawak, a region in Bustos, Philippines. Lumeng, who is one of 10 children, worked as a modiste and embroiderer, marrying in 1972 to Aquino Dalisay. In raising their four children, she continued to pursue being a seamstress. Lumeng retired at the age of 59 in 2005, to spend time with her grandchildren and family in the Philippines and Australia.

The following has been translated from Tagalog.

Did you have a happy childhood?
My childhood was very peaceful and joyous. My family and I lived a stable life. We had food on the table, we were healthy and happy.

What is a memory from your childhood that you remember or cherish?
My family was quite poor, but we weren’t starving. I couldn’t get an education due to our house being quite geographically distant from the village where the school was. But overall, I will always cherish the warm feeling of playing with my friends who lived next door. The whole neighbourhood was one family, and it was very joyous and happy all the time.

Your biggest regret?
I don’t think that I have any regrets in my life. Yes, I do make mistakes. However, I believe that I should be full of gratitude every day to God. This is the life that was given to me, there is no point if I waste it.

What advice would you give your younger self?
I would say to younger Lumeng, is to take school and your education seriously. Receiving an education is a privilege that I wish I could’ve had. Also, continue to be determined in pursuing your dreams.

Who was your first boyfriend?
Actually, your Lolo (grandfather), Aquino Dalisay was my first boyfriend.

How old were you when you started going out with someone on a ‘date’?
I was 24. At that time, I was passionate about being a modiste, and working hard to support my family so I didn’t have time to go out on dates. Also, my family was quite traditional when it came to courtship. It’s not like today, where children go out with their boyfriends casually.

Where did you go?
Well, it wasn’t just the two of us. We were in a group and we went bowling.

Did your parents approve?
Not exactly. I had no idea he was going to be bowling with us and so my parents didn’t know. But when he was courting me, my parents approved.

What was your first job?
My first job was making dresses and embroidering.

How did you find it?
Actually, being a modiste was a dream of mine. I was very passionate about making dresses that I secretly learned how to without my parents knowing.

What did you want to be/do when you were a child?
At that time, I sought opportunities and ways I could further support my family financially. With that, I found dressmaking. From then on, I pursued that dream and I enjoy it very much.

Where did you meet granddad/grandma? What attracted you to him/her?
I met your Lolo (grandfather) when we were young adults at his brother’s wedding. My cousin and I were invited by his brother to his house after the wedding and there we were both introduced to one another. Later, my cousin and I were selling drinks near the Church Village and he came by to visit us with his friends. That was when we got closer and had our first long conversation. After that, my cousin and friends kept asking me, if I like him. I was attracted to him because he showed me that he was committed and determined to let me know that he liked me. He would come by to our house a lot, even though I wasn’t there.

What is the best/worst part of being married?
The best part of being married is that you always have a constant friend, who is willing to understand and listen to you. I guess a challenging part of being married, is to have our values and beliefs align. As well as raising your mother – our children together, there were a lot of hard times but together we got through it all.

What is the biggest change in society you’ve noticed and what are your thoughts about it?
Well, there have been many changes. I guess one would be technology. At that time, we didn’t have phones, televisions, computers. With that, I’ve noticed that the world had more peace back then. There weren’t any distractions from the beauty of the world, no addictions, bad habits . . . everyone was united and living in the moment. My thoughts on this I would say is that I strive to find peace in this world. I can’t change the present or future; I just go with the flow.


Ann and Ken Jones
By Annabel Jones, Year 11, Mount St Benedict College, Pennant Hills, NSW
Ann and Ken Jones are a retired couple with two sons and four grandchildren. They met at Ann’s workplace and ended up getting married in 1970 and recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Ann worked as a registered nurse since she was 17, and she retired in 2001 due to ill health. Ken worked as a Brewing Chemist at a beer brewery for six years and followed onto another career path. He then retired in 2005.

What was a part of your childhood that you recall being happy and a moment you recall being sad?
Ken: I’ll tell you a happy story. Now I was born during the War (WWII), and my father was out fighting. They come home from the Middle East and had six weeks leave, and during that time, my mum and dad got married. Six weeks later, he was deployed to the islands for two years. During that time, I was born, and my mum always worried he would never come home, so she named me Ken, which is his name. So, when he returned, my mum would call out ‘Ken’ and she would end up getting two responses from the two Kens. So, when I was younger, my dad used to bounce me up and down on his knee and would call me Tiger Tim. This has now actually stuck with the family and I have cousins who probably don’t even know that my name is Ken.

Ann: My childhood was one big happy memory because we moved around a lot. You made friends everywhere you went, but I think that my favourite memory would have to be monsoon season in Cairns because it was just such good fun when everything got flooded and you could just play in it. And I think every Christmas holiday with the cousins on the Gold Coast. My saddest memory would be when we had to leave our puppy at one of the places we lived because you weren’t really allowed to move with them.

What would you say has been your biggest achievement in life?
Ken: I think for Ann it would be becoming a registered nurse.
Ann: I was going to say that putting up with you for 50 years of marriage has been my biggest achievement! Honestly I would say that my biggest achievement would be having two fit and healthy young men who grew up to marry and have lovely families. Yes, I would say that’s my biggest achievement.
Ken: You I would say that I agree in that. Becoming a father too little boys who now have families of their own is a great achievement.

Do you have any major regrets in your life?
Ann: Mine would be not keeping up the friendships that I developed as I moved through the towns as a child. Because I think when you’re a child you don’t think of that. I moved too often anyways so. I mean not keeping up with them. I used to move every two years after the age of seven up until I was 15 and moved into boarding school.
Ken: Mine would be not having a stronger relationship with my father before he died. Getting to know him better while I had the chance too.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Ann: Don’t worry, be happy! No but really, I think that I would say don’t take yourself too seriously and be concerned about others and their feelings, because at times I don’t think I was when I was younger.
Ken: I would say, try to make the best of the opportunities that come my way. But advice I would certainly give anybody at that stage is to seize those opportunities and get one and make the most of them.

Do you recall who your first boyfriend or girlfriend was?
Ann: Ohhhh. I remember – I – I do I remember I was in grade – wait I have to remember the schools I was at! I was in grade 5 in Cairns, and his name was Earl Peterson. There you go. I remember! Grade five! We used to bicycle to school together and that’s as far as it went. But only sometimes, not every day!
Ken: What you didn’t make it past the bicycle stage?
Ann: well sometimes we would bicycle home together. It was more of a boy who was a friend. Yes so there. Your turn!
Ken: I probably had a girlfriend when I was at the brewery (his workplace). I was in my very early 20s.
Ann: Gee he was a late starter wasn’t he?
Ken: Well, I started working at the brewery when I was 18, and I suppose I started a relationship with her by the time I was about 19.
Ann: Then I didn’t have any other boyfriends until Ken.

What was your first ever job that you would be paid for?
Ann: When I was 13 or 14, I spent my Saturday mornings at the local chemist. They tried to teach me to serve customers, but I was embarrassed to talk to people. I didn’t last long because we were transferred so it didn’t matter!
Ken: I was about 11 or 12 and I was the money collector for the local newsagent. They used to deliver the papers every morning and there were lots of people reading it in those days. And I used to go around every fortnight to a certain set of streets and give them the bill and collect the money.

When you were a child, what did you aspire to become when you were older?
Ann: I wanted to be a physiotherapist. I was probably in my teenager years, because when I was younger, I didn’t want to be anything! I just wanted to have fun and be a child because that’s what they did.
Ken: I didn’t really know, but if I had my eye on anything, it was to be either an architect or a farmer. Very different things, but they were the things I had an interest in. And the main reason I was interested in being an architect was because I did very well in technical drawing at school! That was it.

When was the first time you both met each other?
Ken: *laughs*
Ann: Uhhhh, I was 19.
Ken: Well, she met me before I met her.
Ann: Yes, that’s true. He was my patient at work, and he pursued me relentlessly after he was discharged and that’s true. Relentlessly.
Ken: And she played bloody hard to get.

Within your relationship, what would you say is the best and worst part of being married?
Ann: I think the best part is that you grow together. With the things you enjoy doing together and I think our best years have been the retirement years, don’t you?
Ken: Oh yes probably.
Ann: I think with all the caravanning we did and the travel we did was just wonderful.
Ken: I think that’s because that was the time we spent together.
Ann: Yes, because he worked so much and would be away for months on end. And then I would say that the worst is that he was away for months on end. And I was here trying to look after the boys. That was the hardest, but not the worst. I think the worst would have to be his illnesses.
Ken: You see, they could have been better.

What’s the biggest change in society that you are happy with?
Ann: I think it’s the way men now participate more in family life. I think that’s just a wonderful change from when we were younger. It used to be that the man would go and be the breadwinner and go to work and earn the money. And it was a very sort of 1950s thinking, and the wife’s job was to go to work, raise the family and do the cooking and cleaning.
Ken: And make sure the dinner was on the table by 6 o’clock!
Ann: Yes exactly. I think I would say that’s been the biggest change that I have noticed, and I think is important to today’s society. Because it makes for happier families, I think.
Ken: I think that one of the things that has probably been very good is the development of our multicultural society. Um, we have all benefited from the interaction of the various cultures that have come here, and overall on balance I think it had been a wonderful development for this country, and for us. 


Tina and Bruno Flora
By Ruby Hinden, Year 11, Mount St Benedict College, Pennant Hills, NSW
Tina Floro is one of four children. The second youngest child, with three brothers, born in Italy, she came to Australia in 1949, post War, when she was 4. She worked at a chemist in Orange when she was 17 in 1962. She then met Bruno Floro and they got married in 1971. After having two children, a boy, and a girl, eventually she retired in 2006 at the age of 64. 
Bruno Flora is one of eight children. The third youngest child, with four brothers and three sisters, born in Italy, he came to Australia in 1962, when he was 19. His job was to maintain railways, then he met Tina Floro and they got married in 1971 and had two children Andrew and Leanne. Eventually he retired in 2019 at the age of 76.

What was your biggest achievement?
Nonna: I would say having my children and grandchildren was my biggest achievement; nothing to do with work. Because to me that’s more important than work, family, at work yes, I was a supervisor and had an important job but the people I love dearly are more important.
Nonno: Well, that’s a good question… I would say having a happy family, spending time with my loved ones, and celebrating the birth of my grandchildren is my biggest achievement. 

Your biggest regret?
Nonna: To be honest, I don’t have any big regrets, I’ve been married for 50 years, there’s nothing large that has impacted my life that I regret. I guess one thing that I do feel guilty for is leaving Orange and moving away from my parents. I wish that I had spent more time with them and visited them more. 

Nonno: When I was 12, I had to go to the USA for study, but I didn’t end up going as it got cancelled. So, I think my biggest regret would be that I wanted to go the USA, because if I did go, I would have missed out on the life I have now with my children, grandchildren and I wouldn’t have met my wife.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Nonna: When I was younger, I would get too emotional over things, it would fill up my life, so I would say my advice would be to not take life too seriously, to be more laid back and just enjoy life.
Nonno: I would say to do what you do well, do things that you love and things that will make you happy. Surround yourself with people that support you and make you want you to be a better person.

What did you want to be/do when you were a child?
Nonna: Those days I didn’t have dreams as girls were not supposed to get extra education, so I accepted that and didn’t dream, I also didn’t travel because it was uncommon. I did have one dream though and that was to just make friends, socialise and have fun; to enjoy tennis and the other sports I played.
Nonno: When I was a child it wasn’t something I really thought about until I was older. It wasn’t really a dream but instead I just chose a subject that I was interested in, which was electrical related things.

What is the best/worst part of being a grandparent?
Nonna: There’s not anything bad about being a grandparent, I love it! but the best thing would be spending time with them, making the smile, and cuddling them.
Nonno: The best part of being a grandparent would be seeing the grandchildren and the worst is when you don’t see them, and you don’t get to spend time with them. 

What is the biggest change in society you have noticed and agree with?
Nonna: That females can now do more, they can pick whatever career they want, as when I was young, we didn’t get a choice, it’s good to finally see women be able to live life how they want. 
Nonno: When I was a little boy it was a primitive situation, we didn’t have any radio, TV, phones. I like the use of technology as it made a large difference, when I was young you had no lights or electricity, I use to go out with friends close by and play games till about 10, there were streetlights, and we would use lanterns to see. When I was 6 or so electricity appeared, and it had a big influence on society.


Nancy Holland
By Shelby Marie Holland

Nancy Holland was born 22 October in Chester County Tennessee. After earning a Master’s in Mathematics at Oklahoma State University, she taught math and physics in New Mexico and California until her retirement. Mother of three and sister of Jack Tarpley, she now lives in Redding, California with her dog Sophie, who has learned the art of bartering treats for stolen socks.


It was morning in Melbourne, but with the time difference the evening sun couldn’t help but cast rays of burnt orange and pink in my Nana’s computer room.

I asked her how she was, and she explained that she drove all over town to secure her second vaccine shot. I laughed thinking of my very stubborn Nana harassing doctors across northern California, her dog Sophie in the passenger seat barking in agreement.

‘So,’ I asked, ‘What was your childhood like?’

‘To begin with,’ She replied, ‘my brother Jack and I were born in a split log cabin in Chester County Tennessee. No running water, no electricity, you pull water up if you want it. Kerosene lamps in each room. We had two rooms in the house: a kitchen and a bedroom, and we were happy. Daddy was a sharecropper. He worked weekends at a sale barn where they’d sell the farm’s extra animals. My only playmate was a baby goat that Daddy bought to eat in the spring. The goat really loved me and lived under the back porch. If I didn’t go out when the sun rose it would cry and cry and when I went back in the house it would cry and cry. When spring came around, Daddy sold the goat.’

My Nana has always been unnaturally good with animals. I recalled a photograph of her feeding a granola bar to a big horn sheep. I then asked about other times her family gave her strength.

‘Before Jack was born, in the summer, a terrible storm hit.’ She paused, her voice a hushed whisper.

‘It was a hurricane that stayed on the ground 1000 miles, came up through Mississippi, and tore across Tennessee. That storm took my Uncle Isaac’s house. Uncle Isaac was putting his wife and children in the fruit cellar and went back upstairs when his wife caught his shirt and jerked him back down the stairs just as the house was taken away. I remember we had a chair in front of the fireplace. During the storm, Mother was holding me in the chair and reading aloud with Daddy standing behind, wrapping his arms around us. There was nowhere else to go, we didn’t have a fruit cellar like Uncle Isaac, so they held me and read so that we wouldn’t worry.

I thought about the strong bonds that held her family together. Knowing about the severe poverty they experienced during the Depression, I asked her if she had a happy childhood. Her answer surprised me.

Oh goodness yes! My brother Jack often said to me, “Nancy do you realise we had the most perfect childhood of any people we’ve ever known?” And we both agreed. Out in the country we had the whole word to play with.

We never owned anything, we never had anything. We were the poorest people, but we had each other. We did everything together; we were a family. It was a good life. If we wanted to know something we’d ask, and we were always answered. And if they wanted to know something they’d ask, and we always answered. My whole life was without closed doors.


Catherine Skene
By Victoria Saxby, Year 11, Mount St Benedict College, Pennant Hills, NSW
Catherine Skene was born in Iraq in 1942, the youngest of six children. She married in 1963 and has three children and six grandchildren. They lived in England and Australia and created many happy memories together.

Did you have a happy childhood?
An extremely happy, but very different, childhood. It was very family oriented, filled with traditions. At age 6, I moved to England for boarding school, unable to speak English.

What was your first memory of being happy/sad?
My first memory of being happy was when I heard that my mother was moving to England permanently. It was also around the same time that my photograph appeared in the newspaper for a concert I was involved in, hosted by the convent. My first memory of sadness was when I was 13 and left the convent, because it had become my home and family.

What was your biggest achievement?
My biggest achievement was being able to adapt to a new life in England at the convent and again after the death of my father and the new responsibilities that followed.

Your biggest regret?
I regret not being as out-going, independent or confident as others in the peer group and giving up studying medicine when I was growing up.

What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell myself that I should think what would make myself happy first and that when making a decision, it should be for me.

Who was your first boyfriend, and how old were you when you first started going out with him on a date? Where did you go?
I was 17, and he was a medical student within my friendship group at the university. We went to the theatre to see the musical Salad Days, and then went for a meal at a restaurant afterwards.

Did your parents approve?
My parents accepted our friendship, however, they thought I was too young to be dating, and so, I needed permission from everyone in my family.

What was your first job?
My first job was a local job being a wages clerk during the holidays. When I stopped studying, I became a statistical clerk in the heart of the business district in London.

How did you get it?
Both jobs were advertised in the newspaper and I applied directly to the companies. After being interviewed I was offered the roles.

Have you ever been fired? Why?
I have never been fired from a job and both companies were sad to see me leave, but happy for me to pursue my dreams.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
I wanted to one day become a professional singer/dance, and perform on the stage, because I had a strong love of singing and dancing.

When did your ambitions change?
After starting high school, a sense of reality set in as the homework increased and thoughts turned to future careers. The concept of performing on stage would not have been accepted by my family as an appropriate profession, and it was decided that I should go to university, study medicine, and become a doctor.

Where did you meet Papa? What attracted you to him?
At the Hammersmith Palais where Papa walked up and asked me to dance. I was struck by his looks and personality plus he was a very good dancer and presented himself as a gentleman.

What is the best part of being married?
The love and companionship that you share. Accepting of each other unconditionally, creating a loving, safe and secure life together.

What is the biggest change in society you’ve noticed that you agree with?
The rise and expansion of public healthcare throughout the world to ensure a healthier population.

What is the biggest change that you’re uncomfortable with?
The decline in respect for oneself and others and general morals. There is no accountability, so people do not feel a need to ‘own’ their actions.


Xerxes Bhathena
By Vivana Bhathena, Year 10, Avila College, Mt Waverley, VIC
Xerxes Bhathena has been a grandfather-like figure in the life of my sister and I. We have always called him ‘Mota Papa’. I had the privilege of interviewing him and gained a glimpse of what his life was like in the past and how he thinks about our society in today’s day and age. 

When and where were you born?
I was born on 9 June 1950 at 10.30 in the morning in Parsee General Hospital, Bombay.

How many siblings do you have?
I have a sibling, a brother. 

What was your biggest achievement?
My biggest achievement could be my career as a costume designer in Hindi Films. 

Can you be a bit more specific?
I’ve always wanted to be a fashion designer and as I started working with the only boutique in Mumbai in 1970: Burlingtons. I was ambitious and wanted to branch out on my own. I did that by actually designing clothes/costumes in more than 300 films. 

What’s your biggest regret?
I have no regrets. 

Surely one regret, at least?
Not one! 

What is the biggest change in society you’ve noticed that you agree with? 
The biggest change in society is the awareness in people in regard to climate change. This was not there in the ’60s and ’70s.

What advice would you give your younger self? 
The one advice I would give myself is work harder. Much harder! 

What was your first job and how did you get it?
My first job was a salesman’s job at Burlingtons of Bombay. I saw an ad in the paper and applied. 

When did your ambitions change?
I always wanted to be a clothes designer. Always. As I went to work every day I knew I had to do this on my own. I wanted to design. I would sketch on the job and sell my designs without even knowing what I was doing. I just had to be a designer and I did. 

What did you want to be/do when you were a child?
I was absolutely focused. I wanted to be a designer as a child & my early adulthood. 

Is there anything else you would like to say?
Yes. I have had only two jobs in my life. The first was in Burlingtons of Bombay as a salesman, then an assistant manager, then a manager and then I became a merchandising manager. I eventually left them to join a magazine where I was a fashion editor. After that, I had my own brand name ‘Xerxes’. There was not a day when I did not enjoy my work. I loved fashion and art, and I still do.

Thank you. Papa for letting me interview you, I’m so happy I got to learn more about you.
No problem, darling. Love you, bye.