Cousin Betty, the asylum and the EJ Holden

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Cousin Betty, the Asylum and the EJ HoldenI must say I was sad to see the old EJ finally depart. It was a last link to family — to Betty in particular — so I did regret its passing.

That car was Betty’s pride and joy. She’d wash and polish it with the care most people reserved for their children. Betty had none. She was a "spinster", so some used to say, and shake their heads. But to us she was just "Bet"; and jolly good fun she was too.

In my memory Betty was always a grown-up cousin, the daughter of my father’s older brother. A big and cheerful woman with dark, shining eyes, she occasionally wore her hair in two bunches. This did make her look a bit daggy, but daggy suited an aspect of her personality; and she knew it made us laugh.

When we had a family day they’d all come rolling in: Betty drove the EJ, freshly polished, Auntie Em in front with fox fur round her shoulders, and Uncle Phil behind in suit and tie. Philly, as the grown-ups called him, referred to himself as 'Uncle Poo'. He would press two bob into our hands, saying 'Give your Uncle Poo a hug', and laugh out of the corner of his mouth.

Despite these times of happiness, there always was an undercurrent of melancholy across our extended family; a sadness; a weight of things that never could be said. This was a burden carried by women. Even Betty had her give-away brow. For all the laughter she had a way of wrinkling her forehead. She’d look across at Em, and sometimes say 'Are you OK Mumma?'  Mumma would give a tired sigh, but that was all ...

We thought at one stage the EJ may have been Bet’s liberation from all this. But she stayed at home, as Em and Philly grew older and more dependent. The hair stayed in bunches. Betty never grew up.

We moved away. When next I heard it was probably too late.

Cousin Betty, the Asylum and the EJ HoldenAuntie Em had died while I was away in Canberra, and I knew that Betty would not cope well. 'How is she?' I asked. Following her mother’s death poor old Bet had a complete breakdown. Sobbed for days. Became suicidal. The doctor was called. She was sedated, medicated with anti-depressants, and when nothing seemed to work, committed to the Larundel Psychiatric Hospital. My ageing parents had been visiting weekly and were quite wrung out. They could go no further.

I took up visiting duty. It’s all new housing now, but then that ancient institution had a foreboding presence: monstrous brick façade, vaulted ceilings, shining linoleum down endless corridors of steel doors, each with its glazed inspection slit. It made me shiver. I was just a relative, innocent of anything to do with mental health, and with only family prejudices to go on. So nothing that was happening to Betty made much sense. I called as often as I could, and always it was the same: sitting, staring, in dressing gown and fluffy slippers. As I approached she tried to smile, but all that came was silent pleading through tired eyes. I asked how she felt, was she feeling better, what had she been doing … I gave her news from home, but it just seemed so futile …

We fell to silence.

Then we heard she’d been released. Apparently her medication had pushed Bet passed some psychiatric threshold and she was discharged, as abruptly as she had entered. Nobody believed it would last, but there she was, back in the family home — alone. We wondered how they could do this. Home alone; with no support apart from a little jar of pills. Philly had been taken off to a nursing home. He just couldn’t cope by himself, living on jam sandwiches and tea in a kitchen stained yellow from 60 years of tobacco smoke.

We spoke on the phone, and said she should come over for a meal. She said she was doing fine, as women in our family always said.

There is no easy way to tell of the end to Betty’s life. It was a tragedy too familiar: a failure of family, of professions, of community, of institutions. The end of life for cousin Bet was as violent, sad, and desperate as it could possibly have been. Her next door neighbour rang late one night and said I should come now. He’d called the police. He found her in the garage, with Philly’s old step ladder on its side where it had fallen, and knew there was nothing he could do. I can write no more…

It fell to me to make the mournful journey to the mortuary. Betty looked more at peace than I had ever seen. Involuntarily, I looked to her brow to see how she was faring. Her brow was smooth. The wrinkles of anxiety around her eyes now were gone.

We joined with Bet for a little funeral — a few family, a few neighbours, a few friends. No-one came from the hospital — the institution had left her where she lay. Was it just me; or was it in the nature of those old asylums, that they should so disable, so disempower, so desecrate all who entered: doctors, patients, nurses, family? Was there something in the nature of Betty’s illness that could not be fixed? Or was there something in the nature of those institutions that they could not do the fixing? I have no answers. But I’m glad that today there is a row of houses where Larundel once stood.

We played some music and said some words of comfort and reassurance to one another. I am now reminded of that funeral gathering on recently reading of an entry in Samual Lazarus’s diary in which he records the burial of a woman killed at Eureka 150 years ago. The article described 'her coffin trimmed with white and followed by a respectable and sorrowing group'. That was us: respectable and sorrowing.

I called the man next door a few weeks later, to see how he was managing. It had not been easy for him. We talked a little, to try and dredge some meaning for each other from those tragic days. At the end of the conversation I thanked him for at least trying to look out for Betty; and asked what had first alerted him? It was the EJ, he said. It had been standing in the driveway for a couple of days. Betty would never have done that. She would never have left it out of the garage.

She loved that car …



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a poignant reminder how we all need to acknowledge our seniors at every stage of their journey - and not 'file' them away out of site out of mind. family is all important and each generation should every day be treasured and respected. great writing.
nick | 28 September 2007


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