The title ‘Matriarch’ doesn’t seem to mean much at the beginning of the 21st century. When I was growing up I knew intuitively that Rose, my grandmother, was the Matriarch in every sense of the word. She was a figure of profound wisdom, even though she had received very limited education. She was there to offer the best advice, when you had lost your way. She always forgave you when you totally ‘stuffed up’. She could cook anything and everything. She could darn a sock, turn a collar, mend a tear, scrub a floor, polish silver until it sparkled and get the worst stain out of anything. She could prune the roses, grow flowers, till the soil, and bring a dying lemon tree back to life. She was the most wonderful person in the world for mopping up tears, and giving big warm bosomy hugs.
Back there then the Matriarchal figure was without a doubt the pivotal centre of every family. She was to be totally respected, honoured, cared for, worshipped, and above all LOVED, warts and all. This didn’t mean that she had to be clever, well-bred, rich, distinguished, intellectual, or even leave her mark on society. It didn’t mean that she had to excel herself in marital things, or have parenting skills. This was not some title that she received after having proved herself through the constant upheaval of everyday family life. All that she had to do was to survive long enough to be THE MATRIARCH.
Even during those final years of Rose’s life, spent in the confusing haze of dreadful dementia, none of us whom she had touched and cherished during her long life would have ever considered neglecting her. We were forced to hand over her physical care to the experts in the nursing home, but her two devoted daughters took it in turn to visit her everyday. It was up to us as a loving family to keep her spirit alive.
It was a time in my life that I was ‘up to my ears’ with family and career, and there could have been endless excuses not to visit. But it didn’t enter my mind not to. I would squirm at the stench of stale urine filtered with disinfectant that hit me, as I pushed all the buttons at the entrance of the nursing home. It was surprising how I would get used to it though. The other senses came into play. The sounds, the visions, the feelings.
She shared a room with another dear frail old lady, who would continually grunt,
and at any given moment could break out into a hearty version of
The White Cliffs of Dover. Most days I would find Rose (my ‘
Most times when I touched her face or her hand to let her know I was there, she would raise her bobbing head, and give me a gentle smile of recognition. She would say something, no matter how inappropriate to the moment, but it usually had that little hint of a giggle, as she did so often in years gone by. Rose had always had the ability to laugh at life, even when it lay heavily on her shoulders.
We would seek out any area, where the sunlight shone in through the small casement windows, and I would start to talk to her about things of ‘olden times’, usually before the war. I had only loved her for the 50 years of my life, and yet there were 40 years more, and I craved to hear what happened back then. She knew all the words of Roll out the Barrel. Of course she did. That song was a powerful memory of how she loved to live her life.
If it wasn’t too cold outside (and she certainly felt the cold) I would tuck a
crocheted rug around her frail legs, and wheel her into the garden. As I
negotiated the wheelchair along the path through the neglected bushes of white
and pink marguerites, she would instinctively reach out to pluck the dead
blooms. There was a certain indignation in her action. I could tell by her
strained face. She was angry that someone had not taken better care of these
flowers. It had always been part of her philosophy of life. We, human beings,
were meant to take care of the flowers. Often, especially in late summer, I
would take secateurs with me and do a little bit of necessary pruning which
seemed to please
When Rose passed away peacefully in her sleep, we were sad, but we celebrated the rich and abundant experience of unconditional love we knew we had shared with her. My mother and my aunt were happy for me to write the eulogy for the funeral service. I felt privileged and grabbed the opportunity to share the amazingly, courageous journey that I know made Rose a real MATRIARCH. But my aunt was insistent that much had to be kept ‘Hush-Hush’ and swept under the carpet. In her opinion, and I had to respect that, it was important even in death to create barriers of personal pride, to give the impression of ‘the stiff upper lip’, to never reveal the real truth of one amazing woman, who loved and lost, who was a victim and yet a hero, who suffered in silence, who gave into temptation, who took care of so many, and who kept going despite enormous obstacles.
Rose is ‘THE MATRIARCH’ … THIS IS HER STORY!
“I love the white rose in its splendour…
“I love the white rose in its bloom …
“I love the white rose as long as it grows …
“For that white rose reminds me of you!”
“Roses are blooming in
but there’s never a Rose like you.”
For the first forty years of Rose’s life, I was no more than an invisible creative thought, floating in the never-ending nothingness of unborn souls, awaiting the moment that had been ordained by the Gods for me to come into incarnation. So being completely ignorant of the details of our Matriarch’s earlier years, I have taken the licence of my imagination to ‘pad out’ all the corners of the narrative. In a strange way I feel that Rose is guiding my thoughts, ‘egging’ me on and allowing me that leeway, and enjoying every single moment of my sometimes ‘over-exaggeration’.
Rose was born in Elsternwick, Melbourne, to immigrants Esther Rebecca and Thomas
Ernest Williams, who met on the ship out to
They had six children who survived to live long and eventful lives. Thomas was the eldest child, followed by Freda, John (who was known as Jack), Edward (Teddy), Rose and Hilda.
Rose, who was off spring No. 5, came into the world on the 25th
March, 1898, and she lived for 92 years. From the many things that
When I married I remembered
I can vaguely remember Great-grandpa, Thomas Williams, who died when I was just
a little girl. He was a short, bald, aristocratic gentleman, who presented
himself with suit coat, trousers held up with braces, a waistcoat, tie, and a
gold watch chain strung over his rotund middle. He smoked a pipe, and had the
taint of pipe tobacco constantly around him.
I didn’t know Esther, my great grandmother. She passed away a long time before I arrived. Rose had never had the chance of going out into the world, of having much of an education, or even getting a job. Her mother was struck down with Rheumatoid Arthritis in her early 40s and, as it was in those days, she was bedridden.
I imagine that the home in Elsternwick was proudly middle-class Edwardian, headed by Thomas who commanded respect from the moment he entered a room. He was a tradesman who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, starting off mending shoes, and gradually working his way up into The Boot Trade. Once he became a respected member of The Trades Union, he took upon himself an ambience of dignity and authority. He was a force to be reckoned with, but retained the ‘rough edge’ of his roots.
As a small girl growing up Rose would have had to learn, along with her siblings, to be on their very best behaviour when Pa brought his constituents from the Labor Party home for dinner. It was a time when children could be seen occasionally, but certainly not heard. We imagine that Esther would be expected to have a wonderful meal ready for them. No doubt there would be three or four courses, and then the gentlemen would retire to the sitting room, to lounge in front of the fire, sipping their port, and sucking on their expensive cigars.
I suspect that Thomas had a weakness when it came to having a bet on the ‘horses’ every weekend. I can see him with Esther, in her finest clothes, on his arm, at Flemington Racecourse or Moonee Ponds. I also feel sure that Thomas would have been a proud member of one of those ‘gentlemen only’ clubs that were part and parcel of the times. It must have been a dreadful blow to the image of the family when poor Esther’s arthritic condition became so severe that the doctors put her to bed for the rest of her life.
The responsibility of running the home, doing the housework, the cooking, the laundry, etc. and caring for the menfolk fell on the young girls, who were only in their mid teens. Because of her caring nature, Rose was the one chosen to nurse her frail mother.
When Freda met Richard Stanley (Dick), their courting time was very short. They married rather quickly and Freda was soon ‘showing’ in her pregnancy. Tom and Jack both found wives, and left home to start their own families. Rose was now left at home with a dithering little sister and a totally indulgent scamp of a slightly older brother.
Little Hilda was always ‘off with the fairies’. She was four years younger than Rose, and what was considered in those days, ‘a little simple’. Rose was the one who seemed to keep all the balls in the air, and I guess it was through these circumstances that she learned how to manage a home and family better than anyone else I ever met in my life.
From the one photo I have of Esther Rebecca in a wheelchair, it was obvious that her Jewish genes were strong. She had a particularly prominent nose, and that same nose distinguished all of the children. It was quite aquiline, and you could tell at a glance that they were siblings. (I can’t help being very grateful that I didn’t inherit that nose!)
The children weren’t raised in the Jewish tradition, but were exposed to the Protestant faith. I suspect religion was not a high priority in the family, but Nan needed to be reassured that I knew ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and said my prayers before going to bed at night.
The family was never in a position to be able to afford any domestic help, so when I consider the everyday regime for Rose, I just shudder. She would rise early to get the fire going in the combustion stove. Then she would have to attend to her mother’s toilet needs. She would prepare breakfast for Thomas, Hilda and Teddy, which would always have to be something substantial, like eggs, sausages, bacon, tomatoes. I knew she was an expert at making porridge, so I also guess that too would be on the breakfast menu. Maybe Hilda would be able to help by feeding her mother, and straightening up her bed.
All the beds would need to be made, and the linen changed regularly. Mondays would always be laundry days. A fire would be built under the cast-iron copper in the wash-house. Soiled clothes and linen would be boiled up, scrubbed with basic soap on the washboard in the concrete trough, and pushed through the mangle to get rid of excess moisture. Then the washing was hung out on the long lines extended from one side of the backyard to the other. As the weight of the wet clothes pulled the lines down, long fork-ended poles were held to prop them up.
I guess there was a veggie patch of some kind in the back yard too. Housework would go on every single day, and plans for the evening meal. There would have been the most wonderful aromas throughout the humble home, as bread was baked, cookies for morning and afternoon tea, and cakes and puddings. As it was back there then, the cake tins were always full. Rose would never know when her father would arrive home with someone important, and tea and cake would be necessary.
With nothing much in her life, Esther would have lived from one tasty morsel to the next. I imagine that the bell beside her bed would continually tingle for someone to come to her aid, or to do her bidding. Was there ever to be any other kind of life for Rose?
Teddy, who was short in stature and had a hint of red in his brown hair, was the perpetual comedian. At least he brought some light-heartedness into Rose’s everyday drudge. In his mid-teens Teddy obtained work with a local cabinetmaker, which is the name for a glorified carpenter, making beautiful furniture. He had a natural flair for his work, which made him such a happy individual. This sense of joy spread around him continually, as if it was his inherent purpose to brighten everyone’s day. He became a young man of the town, mixing with lots of fun-seeking larrikins. They would frequent all the dance halls and ballrooms, all the places where they could find beautiful dizzy young girls.
Teddy became a show-off. He just loved being the life of the party, the centre
of attention. He loved to dance, getting right into the ragtime of the day, and
It would have added to Rose’s sense of responsibility to have to endure the drunken louts in the living room, when her father was away on business. It was left to her to clean up the chaos left after their parties, the bottles, the glasses, the occasional broken glass too. The ashtrays would be full, and there would be so many spillages that the furniture and the rugs were covered with stains.
But in the midst of this, Rose also felt a deep desire to join in. Somewhere deep inside her there was a ‘party girl’ just dying to get out. So when Gordon Cooke arrived on the scene, tall, handsome, with an irresistibly arrogant smile, she couldn’t resist him. She instantly forgot the chaos, and discovered her inherent female charm and sexuality. It was really easy for Gordon to seduce her. She was putty in his hands. I see Rose at the tender age of 17, a pretty girl of petite build. I imagine her with long, shining dark hair bound back, but just leaving a few strands here and there to soften her face. I see her bright hazel eyes, clear skin, unique but beautiful profile, and truly infectious smile. Even in her middle age I thought Rose was a truly handsome woman.
From the little I have heard of the grandfather that I never knew, I can picture Gordon Cooke as a tall, slim, man with jet black hair. He would have penetratingly dark eyes, which he used to his benefit when it came to getting his way, whether that be with the ladies, or even sealing a business deal. He was dapper in his dress, always in the latest suit, the trendiest two-tone shoes, making a statement with his choice of bow ties. Appearances were of paramount importance to him, so the image would be kept up regardless of hard times.
Teddy had befriended him at The Trocadero
Ballroom, where Gordon played clarinet
in the dance band. He always saw himself as one of the ‘musos’ of the day. It
was uncertain what his day job was. It seemed to be in the area of finance, and
I did hear from a relative that he was an excellent accountant. That makes
perfect sense because he was found guilty of embezzlement and even had a short
stint in Pentridge Prison in
In the meantime Rose was smitten, and there was no doubt that the handsome Gordon wanted to ‘bed’ her more than anything. So much so that they got married.
My imagination was triggered, when I considered the wedding, which was in 1917,
during World War I. Rose’s two older brothers, Tom and Jack, were off serving
overseas leaving their loved ones to worry continually for their welfare. At
this time in history the most terrible slaughter of young men from
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