My heritage

The women in my family were tough.

Lifelong poverty. London. Early 1900s. Ten children. Sickness. Death.

Having lived in crowded and squalid Victorian London, my great-grandmother married but then spent more than a decade as a casual in the workhouse – returning time and again with her young children in tow. The children were separated from their mother and put into the workhouse school. The workhouse was so shameful or horrific that the family never spoke of it. Alice lived through a war, the great depression, the death of six children – two infants, one soldier, three suicides – and the emigration of two more, who she never saw again. Alice was a widow for 20 years and 84 years old when she died.

Lifelong drudgery. London. The war years. Unmarried and pregnant during World War Two. Single mother.

Familiar with the workhouse from an early age, my grandmother lived through two world wars and the great depression. Following the deaths of some siblings and the and emigration of others, Dorothy was an abandoned single mother solely responsible for her young daughter and elderly, bed-bound mother. Post-war London required her to work long, long days in low-paying jobs, while navigating hardships like the rationing of food, fuel and clothes. Dorothy retired to Australia and was 81 years old when she died.

Lifelong fear. Australia. 1970s. Drunken and violent husband. Four children.

After marrying an Australian and emigrating from England, my mother was isolated in a new country. Like all mothers she tried to protect her small children. Foregoing meals so that her children would not know hunger was nothing compared to the sacrifice Joan made when she refused to cower at each manifestation of her husband’s anger. Making the desolate and wretched choice to stand as a shield, she often distracted him to keep him away from us. We heard it all. We saw the bruises. Her pain is etched on our hearts.

The women in my family were tough. They were strong. They survived.

They survived so that I might live.

©SD Wheelock


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