Since the Yarrawonga district's pioneer days, women have turned their skills, strength and stamina towards building both family and community. Now these efforts have been documented.
A woman is like a tea bag – you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water
– Eleanor Roosevelt
All over the Border and North East people are nodding their heads, noting the example set by the women in their lives.
The Yarrawonga and Border Country Women’s Association branch was inspired by the “wonderful women who lived, loved, worked and helped to build the thriving community where we enjoy our lives today”.
Women like World War I nurse Emily Grace Chappell, Ellen Phipps, the first policewoman to be stationed at Yarrawonga, or Audrey Wilkinson, who didn’t let the council opinion that kindergartens were “only for lazy mothers” stop her campaigning for one.
About 123 pioneers, home makers, business owners, athletes and artists have been honoured by Yarrawonga and Border CWA through the publication of Mothers. Daughters. Friends., a series of reflections on lives well lived.
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More than 200 attended the book’s launch in August and the project team has been pleased with the response since.
“People are thrilled, they love flipping through it and reading about people they’ve known or people they know of,” team member Gillian Keppel said.
“This book’s given people an opportunity to share what they want to share with others about their family or friends.
“It’s a great insight into not only the community and history of the community but it also gives a great insight into people around us.”
Written by relatives, friends and often the women themselves, the entries in Mothers. Daughters. Friends. span from the 1840s to the present day and include migrants from countries including Britain, Ireland, Canada, Slovenia, Latvia and Greece.
Some used their early days in the Yarrawonga district as a springboard to greater things, like champion hurdler Pam Kilborn-Ryan, who described a childhood where she rarely stopped moving.
“I was given the job of running errands for the teachers and each day would collect their ordered lunches from the shop before sprinting back to the classroom,” she said.
Gabrielle Dowling, now Didi Ananda Kalika, grew up on a farm outside Mulwala and later founded Lotus Children’s Home in Mongolia.
“She was ahead of her time as a vegetarian on a sheep farm, a regular jogger and the owner of a mail-order skateboard in the ‘70s,” Margy Dowling wrote.
Several women moved or returned to the region later in life after varied achievements elsewhere.
Frances Margaret Rennie was a motor mechanic in Melbourne between the wars while Liz Seeliger became one of Australia’s youngest computer programmers in the early 1960s and later a professional ice skater.
But overwhelmingly the stars of Mothers. Daughters. Friends. lived out their lives in their communities, running households, holding down jobs, leading clubs and generally ensuring the wheels kept turning.
A few common experiences include milking cows before school, joining the workforce in their early teens and the sheet on the clothesline signal for neighbourly help.
The voices in these stories tell it like it was but they are cheerful, the tone optimistic and humorous, reflecting the adage, 'we just got on with it'Rosalie Ham
Author Rosalie Ham, who launched the book, said in the foreword the project depicted generations of women “living in uneasy circumstances, the odds stacked against them”.
“The voices in these stories tell it like it was but they are cheerful, the tone optimistic and humorous, reflecting the adage, ‘we just got on with it’,” she said.
Ham, who has just released her fourth book The Year Of The Farmer, noted the challenges faced by the women before modern conveniences and comfortable transport.
“You see how hardy the women were and the gracious attitude they carried,” she said.
When hard times became worse, many women simply had to carry on regardless.
“Here I was with one child in the Children's Hospital, Melbourne, one in the Frankston Hospital and my husband in the Melbourne hospital, all at the same time,” the late Jessie Blair Cameron recalled.
Sometimes mere survival seemed a miracle – Eva Etta Bellis lived to 102, but began life at the foot of the stairs her seven months pregnant mother had fallen down.
All attention went to the injured woman, with the tiny newborn thought unlikely to live.
“It was after some time the baby was checked and found to still be alive, so she was placed in a shoe box lined with cotton wool near the wood-fired stove to keep her warm,” Ann Sloane reported.
“Her father's handkerchiefs were her nappies.”
Frances Reilly (1846-1926) bore 11 children but saw eight die of diseases like whooping cough and bronchitis, which motivated her husband James, Yarrawonga's first shire president, to make securing a permanent doctor for the town a priority.
But happy memories can also be found in Mothers. Daughters. Friends., stories of dancing, music and craft, long friendships and close knit families.
Beverley Long told of meeting actor Danny Kaye during her time as Victoria’s winner in the 1959 Miss Australia Quest.
“Other memorable moments included shaking hands with Gregory Peck, bumping into Anthony Perkins in a lift and being introduced to Princess Alexandra, the Queen’s cousin, at a garden party,” she said.
Embroiderer Marian Greaves ended her entry with her craft group’s motto, which perhaps merits a wider application.
“We don’t make mistakes, we do variations!” she said.
To buy copies of Mothers. Daughters. Friends, ring 0458 798 077.
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