Jen’s voice had that urgent, excited tone she gets sometimes. ‘I think you should come over to Aunty Bet’s place, guys. I really think you should see this.’ It was summer, 2015. Our friend Jen Saunders’ aunt had recently moved to an aged care place over in Carlton, entrusting her niece to sort things out at the house on Williamstown Road, Port Melbourne.
‘While you’re here,’ Jen said, ‘you can help me pick some plums. Then I’ll show you around. My God!’
A solitary wizened plum tree stood at the bottom of the garden, a long bare rectangle of mown grass surrounded by paling fences of variegated browns and greys. The tree had one great, tired limb drooping to the ground, counterbalanced by a spray of laterals spiking up like an ancient’s hair. The whole, bony thing was bedraggled with cloth bags as if they had washed up in a passing flood.
Linda and I and our daughter Esther found the ruby-red fruit safe and warm inside the bags. We collected a boxful, supervised by Jen, as Aunty Bet had supervised her. Until recently, Jen told us, a grand apricot tree had dominated the backyard. Her nanna had planted it from a seed back in the 1930s in the one place poppa agreed it wouldn’t shade the vegetables, behind the converted garage they called the ‘flat’ where Jen, her brother and her parents crowded in for several years when she was little.
Every summer, when the fruit was round and heavy, Jen would come and pick apricots from the tree. Aunty Bet was getting on, her parents both long dead and buried. In early December, Jen and Aunty Bet would have bagged the tree, covering the young fruit in ancient pillowcases and pegged-together pyjama pants to frustrate the ever-hopeful parrots. In a good year there would be boxes of apricots to share among the extended Saunders clan on Christmas Day.
Apricots, of all the summer fruits grown in the backyards of Melbourne, tend to come in a rush. Only a concentrated bottling or a jam-making operation can fend off over-ripening and decay. Aunty Bet gave Jen nanna’s recipes and tips for jam and chutney, and nanna’s funnel for pouring hot jam into sterile jars. Year on year, Jen made apricot jam and chutney for Aunty Bet’s perusal: flavours, textures, colours. Aunty Bet thought they were pretty good, even excellent. Picking the apricots, Jen said, was the first thing for which Aunty Bet accepted that she needed help.
In 2012 the tree blew down in a mid-winter storm, taking out the original Hills Hoist as it fell. Looking back, Jen said it felt like the beginning of the end. She didn’t know then that something new was starting:
Date range c. 1940s–
Accession ID 2017-015
Quantity 1 box
Provenance: the Saunders Family
Unsure where in the house these items came from: 1 × bundle of repurposed old clothing sewn by Elizabeth J.T. Saunders (nanna) used to bag the garden fruit trees c. 1940s onwards.
We carried the box of plums inside to the kitchen table. ‘This was the only room we were allowed into for 40 years,’ said Jen. ‘If we wanted to visit Aunty Bet we had to ring for an appointment. She would have us come down the driveway and in this side door to the kitchen. She’d be in here waiting, listening to the fishing reports or the news. She didn’t even have to say it; we just knew. Don’t go in past the dining room door.’
Aunty Bet, baptised Elizabeth Euphemia Saunders, lived in the house on Williamstown Road for 87 years. She was 18 months old when her parents took possession of the brand-new bank house in 1928. The bank houses of Garden City were a pioneering low-cost housing estate the government had built through the State Savings Bank, back in the days when some banks in Australia were still owned by the state and pursued a social charter.
From the upstairs sewing room, a blue tin box containing:
Correspondence and various documents regarding contract of sale for 392 Williamstown Road, housing loan and repayment rates between James Saunders, Elizabeth Saunders and the State Savings Bank 1929–56;
Correspondence from the State Savings Bank to James Saunders regarding connecting electricity and gas to the house 1928;
3 × deposit receipts from the State Savings Bank 1928.
For Jen’s nanna and poppa, it must have been beyond their wildest dreams: a solid two-storey semi-detached with a driveway and a generous plot of land behind. It was close enough to church at Holy Trinity Anglican on Bay Street and to the port for James to travel to his work unloading ships on Station Pier or to cross the river on the punt to other docks. James, who worked full-time as a wharfie until the age of 72, was a proud member of the Port Phillip Stevedores Association, then the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia and finally its Retired Members Association. When he died in 1974 the union remembered him. Various documents found loose all over the house (including under the kitchen table):
1 × letter from the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia to E.E. Saunders offering $80.00 cheque for James Farr’s funeral (including E.E. Saunders’ practice reply).
The day we visited the house, the kitchen table was still piled high with the requirements and residues of a frail elderly person living alone. ‘I’m going to clean all this up before I allow anyone else in,’ said Jen. ‘She wouldn’t want people seeing this.’ This wasn’t what Aunty Bet had intended be preserved. This wasn’t part of her design.
Poppa’s death followed three years after nanna’s. At the age of 48, Aunty Bet found herself alone in her beloved parents’ house. Each day she went to work as usual but returned home not to the sounds and scent of the delicious meal her mother would always have had prepared and waiting. She returned home to nothing, silence. That’s when she grew to depend upon the radio. All around her hung the family’s possessions. Nothing wasted, nothing thrown out—you couldn’t afford to in the Depression.
For a time she coped with her grief. But one day in the early 1980s something unravelled. She had a breakdown. She stopped answering the phone. Jen’s mum and dad went down to the house to check on her and found her sitting at the kitchen table, frozen. They took her off to be admitted to a psychiatric clinic, where they dosed her up with Valium. It took weeks before she was well enough to go home.
The house was covered in dust. Her mother, her father; all of their most precious things. Fading, threatened, eaten. After the breakdown, Jen said, Aunty Bet realised she had to work out how to manage her anxieties if she were to keep hold of her house and independence. She self-medicated, judiciously. She started to bag everything, to relieve her stress by knowing things were safe. Only once she had it absolutely locked down could she be sure. No human interaction or observation. It was her house until she died, that had been her father’s wish. She would look after it as she saw fit. The word that moved among the family when they spoke of Aunty Bet was: ‘sad’. This gloomy house, all shut up, full of old stuff, who knows what.
It was lucky that Aunty Bet had Jen. Jen is an artist of the unconventional and the vernacular. She spent her youth working on feminist community art projects such as Vivienne Binns’ Mothers’ Memories, Other’s Memories. That’s where she met Linda, who later became my wife, in the Sydney arts scene of the 1980s. Later they both worked at Circus Oz, one after the other, and shared a house. Jen curated exhibitions, ran a not-for-profit in the arts. Now her son Nic is grown up, Jen lives alone on a small farm just outside Melbourne where she masterminds a large organic garden.
As a gardener she is an artist, or perhaps a craftsperson. Or both. She maintains a highly evolved and evolving interplay of theory and practice; one eye in a book or on a YouTube clip, both hands in the dirt. Soil, seeds, water, sunlight, the moon (don’t forget the moon, she says!), microbial elements, predators large and small: the movements of them all flow together in her mind and body like the threads in the colourful woollen blankets she crochets when she can. Digging in the garden and walking up and down the steep hill through the orchard has honed the muscles Jen first developed in the time she administered Circus Oz and doubled as an acrobat. This gave her the stamina needed for the job with Aunty Bet. Also, she wasn’t working full-time—she had time she could give.
• • •
Jen opened the dining room door and ushered us inside. It was a small house by contemporary standards. Upstairs, three bedrooms, room enough for nanna, poppa and their sweep of five children, of whom four survived and Aunty Bet was second youngest. The stairs, in a steep L-shape, landed just by the front door, made of the same dark wood that laced each room with picture rails. Downstairs, the good room at the front, the dining room and narrow bathroom. The kitchen and laundry formed the annexe at the back, added in the 1950s.
The house was ghostly quiet, strangely dry and odourless. Furniture was shrouded in cloths, cardboard boxes sealed with tape. Everywhere plastic bags, white, yellow, black, blue, lime green, ochre; folded, taped, bound, stacked, nestled like packages in a mysterious installation, cargo of love and obsession. Aunty Bet had had made hand-written inscriptions in permanent marker: two clean boxes. Nearby, two clean boxes for packing. This on masking tape stuck to the outside of a carefully stored, black plastic-wrapped cube. Empty boxes?
On another plastic shroud, Aunty Bet’s hand: Lovely cream silk stitched summer hat. Even if it weren’t lovely it would have been worth keeping. But it was lovely. Look at those five adjectives she had strung like pearls across the plastic: lovely—cream—silk—stitched—summer … There would never be another hat quite the same as this one, or quite as loved, or quite as carefully preserved. Unless it were the cream straw with tan and brown trim or the brown stitched silk that share a bag nearby. As if her mother might return one day and like to choose which hat best accompanies the home-stitched summer dress hanging ready in the wardrobe. From E.E. Saunders’ bedroom:
1 × grandmother’s outfit c. late 1940s (outfit includes handmade gown, satin dancing sandals (handbag?) and offcuts of the blue material used to make the gown);
1 × red box containing James Farr Saunders’ bow tie collection c. early 1900s to 1940s.
Written on the side of a Siranna shoebox: Lovely Navy Blue Dress-up shoe—to be worn with mamma’s navy bag. Inside, the shoes, still wrapped in the paper they came in from the shop, worn but as if brand new. In another fastidiously wrapped box: Bits and pieces I don’t know what to do with. Used plastic bags. On these boxes Aunty Bet wrote her history.
The linen press was jammed full of home-sewn linen and haberdashery. It had been washed and wrapped in multiple layers of plastic, individually or in sets, as Aunty Bet deemed appropriate in each case. Each labelled in her hand. Cakes of scented soap, some worn as river stones, others freshly moulded from the factory, etched in cursive with their brand names, were distributed in every nook and cranny to fend off pests. Under the stairs, another stack of intricately if chaotically stored treasures. And so on, each room and every surface.
Jen said that when she first ventured past the dining room door, her first impulse was to take photographs. Of everything. Just as she found it. The instinctive archivist. Afterwards she photographed everything again, unwrapped. It took her five months, six days a week, to begin to acquaint herself with all of Aunty Bet’s family possessions. Not that the family had been excessive in their acquisitions; quite the contrary. The house revealed a working-class family who, for 100 years, mended and minded each and every personal and household item they made or spent their savings on, and who kept them all. Not to mention gifts, invitations, correspondence, everyday financial records. From the upstairs sewing room, a blue tin box containing:
Family correspondence from Devon 1886;
Family correspondence from Devonshire 1889;
1 × souvenir menu for allies’ peace dinner ‘Suez to Australia 1916: The ANZACS Return’;
Clauscen and Coy receipts for furniture, carpet, etc. 1915 and 1916.
With Aunty Bet, the keeping became elevated to a systematic, self-taught science of preservation, using all of the techniques, substances and materials she found best suited to the task. Epsom salts. Soap. Cotton wool balls soaked in chemicals. Obsessive-compulsive? Dotty old lady? Hoarder. Preservationist. Historian.
Unsure where in the house these documents came from:
Multiple blank family tree forms from the Genealogical Society of Victoria;
Book, documents and handwritten notes by Elizabeth E. Saunders on family history research c. 1981;
Handwritten notes by Aunty Bet on family history;
Various documents found loose all over the house (including under the kitchen table);
Bag labelled ‘C’ containing: E.E. Saunders’ shopping lists and family history notes 1987.
Historian! Lifelong member of the National Trust and the Royal Historical Society. Under the stairs, a stack of history books: Port Melbourne life, the docks, the wharfies. But: 1 × ‘Time to dejunk your life’ newspaper extract (undated).
Time to dejunk your life, Aunty Bet! How she must have struggled with what she was doing. The weight of it. How could any one person ever hold back time? In any case, even if she wasn’t ready, she kept the clipping.
The house, when Jen first opened it, looked more like a storage facility than a home. As she methodically unwrapped, she consulted regularly with her aunt, who could only trust now from afar. Over the months, Jen came across old family photographs scattered in the most unlikely places. The photographs had no inscriptions indicating where they were taken, or when, or of whom. Somehow the importance of this particular task had eluded Aunty Bet, or time had got away from her; she had so much to keep in mind, after all, and her energies were failing. Jen put the photos into albums, and brought them with her each time she drove across town from the house at Williamstown Road to the aged-care home in Carlton.
‘What’s this one, Aunty Bet? Who’s this?’ Jen would ask, her iPad resting on her aunt’s shoulder, recording video, as Aunty Bet lay propped in bed. ‘That’s me on my good old Malvern Star bicycle,’ Aunty Bet would say (the bike Jen found inside the entrance to the flat). Or: ‘Yes! that’s the dental caravan we used to tour with, all around Victoria,’ her 90-year-old face lighting up.
Aunty Bet left school at 13 to go to work, as was common at the time. Her first job was as a milliner’s assistant in the city; she sewed headbands into hats. For a time she was ‘attached’ to the underwear, sportswear and art needlework departments of the Myer Emporium, from which she retained (of course) a glowing reference. She worked variously as a receptionist, telephonist and secretary, but in her 20s set her sights on joining the Victorian School Dental Service as a nursing aide. She persisted and finally landed a position in which for 13 years she crisscrossed country Victoria, helping treat children’s teeth in a specially fitted caravan.
Monday to Friday she was on the road, each week a new adventure for a woman who had never travelled, returning to her parents at the house on Williamstown Road every weekend. Only when her mother became ill and no longer capable of running the household did Aunty Bet give up the touring life so that she could be at home each night.
She transferred to the School Dental Clinic in inner-city Fitzroy. Many of the kids were the children of recent Italian migrants who didn’t speak English. Aunty Bet took herself off to summer school at Melbourne University to learn Italian so she could translate essential information and materials for the children and their parents: Student Information Circular from the Saturday School of Modern Languages 1971 with booklist and ‘basic grammar for students of foreign languages by Miss F. Folk’ (filled in exercises by E.E. Saunders).
Coincidentally, around this time, Aunty Bet caught a virus that left her deaf in one ear. In response, she learnt to lip-read. She enrolled at a technical college to become qualified as a teacher and, in her retirement, taught lip-reading with Better Hearing Australia: copies of handwritten letters from Elizabeth E. Saunders regarding her lip-reading course 1986.
Throughout her life, although severely dyslexic, Aunty Bet remained what would now be called a lifelong learner. Various items found loose:
Bundle of books and booklets on mental health, religion, happiness, etc. 1950–85;
Documents from CAE course ‘Time and motion study in the home’ (undated);
1 × certificate of completion of course ‘Introduction to computing’ by E.E. Saunders with floppy disk 1996.
The one daughter who never left home, the one daughter never to be married. In the telling of any history there are gaps. Jen found some things in the house that even now she finds too private to do more than glance at. From the fourth drawer of the small chest of drawers in E.E. Saunders’ room: 1 × cardboard box labelled ‘Queen’s Velvet’ containing two bundles of love letters between E.E. Saunders and John—1963–67.
There are other things she finds more strangely shocking: 1 × envelope with ‘Mrs Taylor’s hair. Mother of Harriet Elliott’. Besides the hair of Mrs Taylor, who was Aunty Bet’s maternal great-grandmother, that Jen found upstairs in the bedside drawer, where nanna left them carefully wrapped all those years ago, two long thick swatches: chopped-off ponytails. One was the grey hair of nanna, whom Jen remembered nostalgically from her childhood. But the other was a bolt of chestnut red. Hair from her grandmother’s young body, unfaded and not aged, as Jen had never seen her, resting uncannily in the granddaughter’s middle-aged hand. Time bent and warped.
Nanna and poppa’s bedroom lay shrouded in dust and memories. Jen remembered being put to bed here as a child, listening as the sound of the grown-ups watching late-night variety shows on the new TV wafted up the stairs. Golden afternoon sunshine glowed through the northern window shades, as if it were still 1947 and the family out somewhere for the day. Except the dust: here in her parents’ most intimate of spaces, Aunty Bet had even, perhaps unable to do otherwise, preserved the dust, letting it fall and rest on the sheets that chastely draped the bed, pillows and bedframe; fall and rest on the old wooden furniture; on the picture-framed prints that hung, where they always had, above the bed. In grandpa’s chest of drawers beside the bed, we could see, incredibly, all the most important documents of his working life: the record of stamped absences for stop work meetings of the union in 1932, his various union membership cards from different eras, a letter from Tom Hills inviting him to a meeting of the retired members in the Town Hall in 1971.
Not as if these items had been collected there; more, perhaps, that they had never moved. On nanna’s dresser, next to where she would have laid her head at night on her pillow, rested a shallow box full of tiny hand-rolled Anglican prayer scrolls. Jen, the grandchild put to bed, would be asked solemnly to choose a scroll to unfurl and to read the prayer. In the small freestanding wooden wardrobe that stood at the foot of the bed: on one side, poppa’s good suit, a navy-blue woollen three-piece, handmade by Louis Epstein down in Flinders Street, with the place cards, poppa and nanna’s, for their golden wedding anniversary, folded in the top pocket. On the other side of the wardrobe, nanna’s best Sunday dress, a beautiful blue floral frock and coat she had made on the treadle Singer sewing machine that sat in the room next door, which her mother had given her in 1916. What couldn’t nanna—Elizabeth Jane Saunders—sew, embroider or crochet?
Large collection of doilies and table cloths (embroidered and crocheted) mainly handmade by Elizabeth J.T. Saunders and her sister Lavinia Harriet c. 1930s–50s (some possibly handmade by their mother, Harriet Elliott);
—Bundle of aprons handmade by Elizabeth J.T. Saunders and E.E. Saunders c. 1940s–50s;
3 × tablecloths (embroidered and crocheted).
And see too how she taught her daughter, who cut her teeth on smalls. From the small chest of drawers in E.E. Saunders’ bedroom:
1 × Peter’s ice cream box containing various embroidered handkerchiefs;
1 × striped box containing various embroidered handkerchiefs;
1 × Taranto’s ice cream box containing various embroidered handkerchiefs.
In the hardest years of the Depression, nanna sewed and mended for friends and strangers throughout the parish. If the reverend at Holy Trinity mentioned that the Harvey boys, starting high school, were in need of some long pants, she’d set to work, reusing whatever fabric she could find. Under nanna and poppa’s bed, Jen stumbled across one of the objects she found most moving. It was a blanket put there to protect the mattress from the wire springs. Nanna had stitched it together from poppa’s thermal underwear, which he wore all winter on the docks. You could see where the underwear had been darned and darned again, until it could be darned no more. Leg, arm and torso-shapes lay together side by side, in shades of straw and wheat-yellow. The working lives of wharfie and seamstress literally pieced and threaded together. Resting in a place once only sensible. Now secret, as if forever.
• • •
Wandering through the dark, mysterious house, I too felt the irresistible urge to document: to capture time, however clumsily. Aunty Bet’s obsession was contagious. I took a series of photographs that I hurriedly arranged into a little book and gave to Jen. It was fun. I made them all black and white and grainy. Meanwhile, Linda introduced Jen to our friend Trev, a graphic designer and photographer long fascinated by the lingering material traces of the past. For a month of Fridays, Trev joined Jen at the house on Williamstown Road to photograph things. In the kitchen, he photographed a silver fan, its metal kidney-shaped blades behind a flimsy wire guard with swirls like a drunken flower. He photographed quiet cupboard shelves sheltering sets of cups and saucers in eggshell blue and custard yellow, those familiar ones it seemed everybody had.
In the flat out the back, Trev photographed the double bed that filled the room, still covered head to toe with sheets of newspaper. Jen had removed piles of plastic bags and miscellaneous items from the bed, the better to reveal its paper skin of classifieds, births, deaths, marriages and the shipping news. Somewhere, no doubt, the personals. Above the bed, on an old clothesline, Trev pegged the paper kite Grandpa Saunders had made to entertain the grandchildren—Jen and her older brother Dave, their cousins—in the park across the road. The kite’s cloth tail snaked across the bed, as if brushed still by the wind. Stiff and with a patina revealing its age, the kite looked surprisingly sturdy, so many times grandpa had patiently repaired its balsa, thread and glue skeleton, its paper wings. Inside the house, Trev found other things to photograph, workaday or private, eloquent in their silence. A row of women’s shoes on a shoe stand under a single bed. In a drawer, a handwritten note on a card on a folded, ironed, cream embroidered handkerchief:
To dear Elizabeth
‘Thank you’ Chris
Thus the collaborative project between Aunty Bet and Jen admitted a new member. In his day job, Trev worked at Museum Victoria as a designer. One day he organised for some curators to come to the house. They agreed, Jen thought, mostly out of politeness; it was almost Christmas, work was winding up. After two rooms the lead curator grew quiet and began taking photographs. Of everything. Once again, it was there: the mysterious spell of Aunty Bet. An ordinary house on an ordinary street. An ordinary family. Lives lived, lives remembered, lives suddenly decades in the past. Cars going by. Days and years accelerating. Inside: the plenitude, the assortment, the miscellany, the memorial. The museum wanted to take up to 100 items into their permanent collection, but for reasons of space began with 28:
Blanket made of pieces of identifiable clothing including a knitted jumper, used to protect single-bed mattress from the wire base;
Cushion made from layers of fabric;
Box of scrolled paper religious verses;
James’s stevedore jackets × 2;
A kite made for Dave and Jen by their grandfather James …
The National Trust came and acquired grandma’s 1916 Singer sewing machine and many of the items she had sewn on it. The Better Hearing archive collected Aunty Bet’s original hand-made lip-reading props and materials. The extended family—nieces, nephews, cousins, even those who had been sceptical in the beginning about Aunty Bet’s predilections—took whatever they loved or fancied. Of what was left, Jen kept a precious taste; many of the quirkiest objects, some of the most beautiful. After all of this, so much remained, much of it paper records. What to do with it? Archivists from the University of Melbourne, who heard about the house from the museum curators, recognised the value of these artefacts. They offered professional help for Jen to begin a formal archival process of accession: cataloguing and describing every item. The archive thus far fills 19 archive boxes, a leather suitcase and two postal tubes. Whence comes the inventory of objects and ephemera. From a drawer of the dining room dresser … From the linen press … From the outside flat …
The archive boxes, containing their unique record of one Australian family’s daily life across a century, during the great and final pre-digital era of paper records, wait in storage for the next phase of history to unfold.
• • •
‘Did you ever think, Aunty Bet, that the museum or the National Trust might be interested in any of the things that you were keeping? Did you ever imagine that could happen?’ So Jen asked her aunt in the nursing home as she reported to her on progress at the house. Aunty Bet ‘just smiled a tiny smile, looking sideways up at me, and nodded her head with this most knowing look’. Her face lit up when Jen told her what the museum would be preserving for posterity in their state-of-the-art storage facilities and sharing with the public; what the National Trust would be collecting. Afterwards, the curator from the museum realised that the collection of videos in which Aunty Bet described for Jen the stories of the family photos was remarkable in itself, as a unique set of digital artefacts of oral and pictorial history. She asked if the museum could keep a copy of those too.
At the bottom of Aunty Bet’s unused glory box, late in Jen’s unpacking, she came across a blue-lace-edged cotton tablemat embroidered with a basket of pink flowers. A gold thread ties a bow on the basket handle and floats off on either side, where a pair of bluebirds, arched in mid-flight, grasp it as if by magic in their beaks. Jen is determined every single item in Aunty Bet’s glory box will be used. No more waiting to be married. She and other women, friends and family, will use the manchester, the doilies and the tablewear, the tea towels and assorted kitchen items, the tins for storing things, the lovely cups and saucers. They will wear the handmade flannelette nighties and pyjamas, the aprons and the knitted bedsocks, the gorgeous pink wool dressing gown.
• • •
Aunty Bet died peacefully the day the auction sign went up. Jen and the family had said their goodbyes; she was ready to go. Once the house had been emptied for sale, it offered the perfect venue for Trev to show the photographs he’d taken: Jen invited him to stage an exhibition. The house was packed for the opening, which Linda launched. She spoke from halfway up the staircase, above the narrow hall, with people crowding on the upstairs landing and spilling through the rooms downstairs. It was the first big party the house had seen, Jen said, since nanna and poppa hosted the wedding breakfast for their youngest son and his new wife, Jen’s parents, in 1955. From the outside flat:
The belongings of Lily (Elizabeth J.T. Saunders’ sister)
Plain small box labelled ‘No. 26 Golden Opportunity’ containing 1 × wedding invitation addressed to Lavinia Harriet Elliot for: Margaret Dawn Witton and James Farr Saunders Jr. 1955.
Aunty Bet’s funeral was held the following Thursday, a sunny winter day in August. It was held, of course, at the Church of the Holy Trinity, on Bay Street, where, back in its heyday, young Bet had done herself proud. From the cupboard under the stairs:
1 × Stories for Young People (with inscription from Holy Trinity Sunday School awarding Betty Saunders second prize 1934);
1 × Betty Lends a Hand by M.B. Reed (with inscription from Holy Trinity Sunday School awarding Betty Saunders second prize 1936);
Like any family, Jen and Aunty Bet’s has known a few funerals. From the upstairs sewing room:
2 × Williamstown Cemetery receipts 1879 and 1900;
1 × coffin receipt 1923 (the baby—Aunty Bet’s older brother);
2 × undertaker receipts 1925 and 1937;
Bereavement cards 1946.
For Aunty Bet’s send-off, all the preparations were done on the phone. The receipts and invitations sent by email. It’s unlikely anyone, even Jen, will keep them. Those days, like Aunty Bet herself, are gone. The bigger question she might have us ask is: what remains? What remains when we have gone? What should be kept and how to keep it? What are the objects to best store memory and love, and what must be discarded? What stories will remain for future reference?
The funeral was a modest event, as befitting. Trev came, and us, and other than that it was mostly family. Jen asked me to help write the eulogy. She read it from the pulpit before playing a slideshow she’d prepared to a backing of The Seekers. Aunty Bet striding off to work in the city with her girlfriends. Aunty Bet mucking around on summer holiday at the beach. Aunty Bet on her trusty Malvern Star. Afterwards sandwiches and coffee were offered near the kitchen by the side. Before the undertakers drove the coffin away for cremation at Altona Memorial Park, Jen asked if they could drop the wreath off at the front door of the house on Williamstown Road, since they would be going right past it on their way to the bridge across the river. Then, as the cortege pulled out into Bay Street, the Reverend Father Noel, in his robes and finery, paraded solemnly down the middle of the road in front of the hearse in a brief moment of grandeur. For that short while that all the traffic paused for Aunty Bet and waited until the small procession reached the corner of Graham Street, Father Noel stood aside and the hearse accelerated south towards the water. •
David Carlin is an award-winning writer whose latest book is The After-Normal: Brief Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet, co-authored with Nicole Walker. He co-directs the non/fictionLab at RMIT University.