Vale “Nancy”

Betty Nolan 6 December 1923 – 24 January 2019

My mother-in-law Betty recently died. Betty was a quiet and unassuming woman who described herself as a “home body”. Her focus was always her family, pets and home. Betty’s taste was simple, elegant, quiet. She never liked a fuss, a crowd, or to be the centre of attention.

Growing up in the depression years in a working class inner-city suburb of Sydney, Betty won educational scholarships but had to leave school early to earn her living. Learning advanced secretarial skills and with a gift for organisation, Betty worked in a series of small business around the city. She would replace chaos with order and efficiency, then move on to the next challenge.

The Grace Hotel
Photo: Edward Howard

During World War II Betty was assigned to work in the Sydney headquarters of the U.S. armed forces. It was there in the Grace Building in late 1945 that Betty met her future husband, visiting as a Lieutenant in the Australian Army. It was five years before they could marry, Ken earning a medical degree during that time, Betty continuing to work. Ken died in 1971 aged 49, a result in part of illness related to his war service and of a punishing schedule as a GP. Their two boys were just 12 and 14.

Betty was a welcoming, kind and thoughtful mother-in-law to me. She always offered help. She never interfered. Betty was a loving and much loved nana to my two boys.

Entirely by chance, on her last day both Betty’s sons visited her in the nursing home where she had lived for almost nine years. Betty was happy, lucid, interested and involved in the conversation. Just an hour or two after the boys left Betty was found, apparently having drifted off in a nap. Betty endured some hard times over recent years, always with grace, humility and concern for others. Her death in this way seemed like a gift, everything that she would have wished for.

Last week in what is now the Grace Hotel we had a quiet memorial gathering – Betty’s two sons, her two grandsons, me and my mother. We shared stories about the life of this loving, resilient, generous woman. We ate strawberries with cream and icing sugar (a favourite my boys remembered). There were white daises, there was laughter, and there were a few tears shed when we played “Danny Boy”.

It may seem strange to introduce this personal note in a blog focused on art and making. In fact, under the pseudonym “Nancy”, Betty has appeared more times in this blog than any other individual. It’s not a good story. The last decade of Betty’s life was not of her choosing, and I have been angry about her situation for so long now.

Betty (“Nancy”)

This is one view of Betty, ink pen and wash, based on an old photo, in a 2012 sketchbook. The photo was taken at a happy time in her life, and in it she looks beautiful. You can see a copy of the photo at the top of this post, at Betty’s memorial gathering.

A month later I did a pencil sketch while visiting her (the face on the left). A very ordinary drawing of a woman resigned to her fate.

My final project for the OCA Textiles 1: A Creative Approach course was “Aged Care”. My view of Betty’s situation:
Trapped and in pain, bound by merciless platitudes and good intentions.

There was a lot of material leading to that. Below I’ve copied in the set of links to the process.

Part five: A piece of your own

Quick links to theme work prior to Part five:

Project 10: A design project

Sketchbook during time period of Part Five: Sketchbook 6

——
It’s six years since that project was done. I continued to visit each Sunday afternoon, bringing little stories of the doings and foibles of myself, family and friends. Betty would laugh at the little sillinesses I recounted, and remember snippets long after I forgot. We’d talk about TV shows, the weather, sometimes current affairs. I learnt never to ask how she was, never to wish her happy birthday, never to stay when her supper came because she didn’t want me to see her struggling to eat (no solids – her dentures were too painful to use). The worst hour of my week gradually got shorter as her strength failed, or would be abandoned if there was another bout of gastro. Betty didn’t want to show her pain. I looked forward to her release for her sake, and I was so happy at the gift of her final day. I just didn’t anticipate the void of her loss in my own life.

2 Responses to “Vale “Nancy””


  1. 1 kath February 16, 2019 at 1:11 pm

    sorry for your loss. my condolences. she sounds like a wonderful woman

    • 2 fibresofbeing February 16, 2019 at 1:21 pm

      Thanks Kath. She was very quiet and unassuming but so strong – in her adaptation to circumstances, and in her clarity of focus on what was important to her.


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