Eulogy for My Mother

Continuing from the previous blog ‘The Secret’


‘How do we wish to remember Dorothy May Jenkinson (nee Werfel) as we bid her our last farewell?

As a woman of frail health who against great odds lived to a ripe old age?

As a mother who loved her children yet often left them perplexed by her sometimes strange and unpredictable ways?

All of these – and yet something more.

When we look at the full context of her life, with all its tragedies and set-backs, we discover a woman who was in her own way, a feminist pioneer, a woman who fought hard to determine the architecture of her life at a time when she was expected to do the opposite.

Let us recall the life of this woman in that light.

This is how she would like to be remembered.

She was proud and strong willed. She needed to be.

Born in 1929 to a German father and Scottish mother, Dorothy was raised in a religious, working class family where discipline was rigidly enforced and the slightest infraction was punished. She was the younger of two daughters and hence, arrived as a disappointment for her parents who had hoped for a son. In this loveless, cold family life, she found one great compensation: the piano.

In an age when people made their own music, it was normal for children to receive lessons in playing a musical instrument. From an early age Dorothy displayed great talent. By her late teens, she was good enough to be accepted by the Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide.

She never got there. Her parents made it clear that they would not support her if she attended the Conservatorium. In their view, the purpose of a woman was to get married and have children. This was the dominant mentality of the times.

We should stop and reflect on this episode.

How different her life might have been if she had been able to develop her natural talent.
And how frustrating it must have been to be denied that chance because of her gender.

If a woman was to gain employment of any kind in those days, it was in an office. Dorothy completed a course in typing and short-hand and went to work in the Harbours Board where she met her first husband and the father of her three children, Laurie Curtis.

When she got married, she was forced to give up her job. The rule in those days was that a married woman could not work. Their place was at home. A woman like Dorothy, who could not accept this situation was considered unnatural.

In 1952, her husband, who was in the Air Force, was stationed on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean. Dorothy remained in Adelaide to await the birth of her first son, Peter. Then she got on a ship with her baby and did the long voyage alone to join up with her husband. The three years she spent on Malta was a time of great happiness. She had a piano in her apartment and played the organ at the church services for the Australian and British contingents.

In 1956, her husband was relocated to Australia, by which time, Dorothy was pregnant with her second child, Lynette. During the following years, life was tough as the family was moved from one remote Air Force base to the other. There were none of the conveniences which we take for granted today. Dorothy spent her days alone with her two children in temporary accommodation.

Dorothy wanted more out of life. She was too intelligent and too talented to be content with the role of mother and housekeeper. She railed against the ethos of the times. She was prone to periods of depression, hardly surprising given her circumstances. But when she made up her mind about something, she was very strong willed. She would not be defeated.

With the birth of her third child, David, she was adamant that she wanted a permanent place of residence, where she could raise her family – and study accountancy. It was due to her pressure that Laurie quit the Air Force. A permanent legacy of resentment remained, which eventually led to Dorothy and Laurie being divorced.

In the early 1960’s, it was very unusual for a mother of three to be studying at university. Dorothy was one of three women in a class of over 100 men. She did something which no one questions today but was regarded as a scandal then: she studied and she had a family. She qualified with flying colours and went on to work for a prestigious Adelaide accounting firm.

But even her time of success had a shadow side. The best and only woman friend she ever had, died at an early age of cancer. Her marriage always troubled, became acrimonious. Trying to balance her tumultuous home life as a mother and her career as an independent woman proved to be emotionally exhausting. Besides a selfish and conceited husband, there was a rebellious teenage son and daughter. There was a generational conflict and new ideas of social progress were emerging. Among them, was feminism.

But Progress came too late for Dorothy.

In the wake of her divorce, her triumph in a male-dominated world came as a bitter-sweet one. She wanted peace, and she found it with her second husband, John Jenkinson. In John, she found an enduring friendship and a time of contentment.

She and John led an active life as retirees; they worked for charities – and also travelled to Europe, Asia and Africa.

In 1991 John died.

Dorothy never really recovered from this last blow.

She spent the next 26 years dealing with the great epidemic of our modern times, loneliness. Her health deteriorated. If the great battle of her earlier life was to assert herself as a woman, in later life, it was to deal with pain. It was a battle which she ultimately lost.

But even in the twilight years of her life, all of us experienced times when she was her old self: a lively woman, with opinions about world politics and a great sense of humour. A woman capable of wise insights and always ready for a joke.

Today in Australia, the right of women to realise their potential is something beyond dispute. Let us all be grateful for that. Let us also pause to remember those women who rebelled against a sexist, male dominated society – and too often, like Dorothy, paid a high price for it.

That’s how we should remember Dorothy: a woman who was raised to conform, denied her right to develop her talents, and refused to accept her position.

And if she often seemed to us as unpredictable, up one day, down the next, let us not forget the hard life she lived and the price she paid for her right to live as a woman.

The last person she saw before she died was her son David. That is more than fitting because no one did more for Dorothy than he did. ‘




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