Funeral for a friend

The first time I met Wendy she asked to see my report card. By asked, I mean demanded.

This was a lady I’d known for a matter of minutes. As I was 16, stomping away muttering that my school performance was none of her business was a possible response. Instead I found myself slinking back into the kitchen and compliantly handing over my academic record. Wendy had a way of getting results.

It transpired that this loud and unusual woman wanted intel so that she could make an informed decision about recommending me to a new school – if my father got the job she was scoping him for. Dad got the job. Wendy made her referral. While I’ll never know how influential it was, I was accepted into the school. It was a reluctant transfer for me but proved to be one of the most formative intersections of my teen years, if not my life.

In my first month at the new school I was asked to partner a lovely girl in the debutante ball. She must have mistaken me for someone who could dance. Wendy was one of the deb coaches and far from fooled. Her commentary on my waltzing (or my version of it) was brutal but humorous. Not that I appreciated it at the time. I knew Wendy was forthright. It took a little longer to see the funny and caring side of her personality.

This formidable lady would become ‘Aunty Wendy’ to my family. She was someone who spoke out, often, and took no prisoners. As the fantastic saying goes, she would truck no nonsense. It’s fair to say she ruffled a few feathers and lost a few friendships because of this trait. It’s also true to say that if she saw the good in you, you gained a generous and unfailingly loyal supporter.

When I moved out of home, with little in the way of furniture or furnishings, Wendy loaded up my car with mugs and bowls and items a 21-year-old male wouldn’t have thought of. I probably failed to fully appreciate how good she was at anticipating need and striving for a solution.

Wendy grappled with several illnesses, some of them prolonged. My contact with her in recent years mostly involved hospital visitation, during which she was always remarkably resilient and good humoured. During a recent visit she insisted I hunt down nursing staff, not for her own welfare but out of concern for a lady sharing the ward. Wendy’s astute eyes missed nothing. Even facing her own trials, she was alert to the welfare of others.

Wendy passed away in August. The small bluestone church where her funeral service was held was packed to the rafters. A video camera was set up to screen proceedings to the multitude gathered in the adjacent church hall. Three people spoke at the funeral, one of them my father. Listening as they stitched together the fabric of a life I was struck by how we might know some of the stories that explain a person, but rarely all of them.

I’d known Wendy for the best part of thirty years. I knew she had an extensive track record serving church and sporting groups and the Country Women’s Association. I didn’t know she’d been a pioneer in the field of welfare for women and children, working side by side with the indefatigable Dame Phyllis Frost.

Having met Dame Phyllis during my work as a social justice journalist (even experiencing a lock down in the women’s prison that bears her name), I can say with confidence that she and Wendy are probably enjoying a riotous reunion now. Perhaps over Devonshire tea. They will no doubt tut-tut over the way services for women experiencing domestic violence in Australia can’t keep up with demand now. But they will also see progress and hopefully feel pride that women have more options for assistance and independence today.

As for me, I’ll miss the strident, ‘Hello, Timothy’ greeting at family gatherings that could come from no one but Wendy. I’ll miss the incisive questions that, like a good editor, could cut away unnecessary verbiage and access the heart of a story. I’ll also miss Wendy’s laugh, a chuckle that outlived umpteen challenges.

Thank you Wendy, for your friendship and support. You will be missed.

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