My mother would have been 100 today


Mum – Elizabeth Margaret Stewart Lawrence, born June 8, 1916,

Willoughby, NSW, Australia. Fondly known as Bet or Betty.

Mum would have been 100 today, June 8, 2016

Warren Dent

A Remembrance

When Betty Lawrence was only 6 months old, her mother, Nellie, started acting strangely. Nellie spent a lot of time reading books by the popular English author, Mary Corelli, who wrote morbid and dark stories about desperate human affairs, horrific murders, super natural beings, reincarnation, and perceived fallacies of love and Christianity. Markedly influenced by the author’s stories, Nellie become obsessed with her own past sins, claiming God would punish her unless she atoned. Sadly, her mind deteriorated as time progressed and eventually she was committed to an insane asylum. Betty was only 13 months old at the time her mother was taken away. Worse, Nellie never recovered from her illness, and died in hospital April 1918, 22 months after Betty had been born.

One wonders how Betty fared in the second 6 months of her life and beyond as Nellie’s mind wove its tormented path to self-destruction, and her eventual death. Who taught Betty to walk, who heard her first words? Her father? Perhaps. But more likely her elder sister and brother and the various housekeepers who were hired to keep up home and appearances in Nellie’s absence.

Betty’s father, David, was a busy entrepreneur with a highly successful engraving business in the heart of Sydney. His spare time was heavily devoted to the hobby of golf, for he was a founding player member of the prestigious club in the suburb of Killara, where he won many tournaments.

For the four years following her mother’s death, Betty grew torturously under the guidance of a little-caring father and a score of nannies. There were no relatives locally to help out, for David and Nellie had emigrated from Scotland in 1910. The home, newly bought in Lindfield, was markedly absent of family love.

Twice, before she was 4 years old, David tried to have Betty adopted. When that failed he sent her away to boarding school. Looking after children was not something of interest to him. When he remarried in 1922 he saddled his new wife with the charge of mothering the three children so he could spend all his free time at his golf game. Poor Ruth, the second wife, previously divorced, had no experience raising young children.

The family became exemplarily dysfunctional.

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Given the background of her early childhood, it’s no wonder that Mum grew into a woman with a resolution to maximize what life offered her. She developed an intense drive to succeed, bettering herself at every opportunity.  At the same time, hidden deep in her soul was a highly understandable burning need to be loved.

Leaving school at age 14 she helped her father as errand-girl in his city business, then became an assistant in a gift shop where she learned marketing skills and the ins and outs of the retail industry. Her father taught her golf, at which she became quite adept. Her athleticism matched that of the man she chose to marry, Ron Dent, as for four years of courtship they would go hiking and camping together in the Blue Mountains and the south coast. They both had matching loves for the bush and the seaside. In later years those interests would dominate their selection of family vacation spots. Austinmer and Blackheath became places we three boys loved to visit in school holidays.

Ron and Betty were a happy pair of young newly-weds. Dad was on the short side, denied the option to join fighting forces in WWII. However, he had strong organizational skills, managing 400 women in the supplies division at Mascot airport, helping build Beaufort bombers there.

Where Mum was naturally gregarious and out-going, Dad was conservative and relatively reserved, but had a great sense of humour. Both were good-looking, and well appreciated as a couple by the friends they made. After the war, Dad worked at a bookmaker company for nearly thirty years, rising to lead one of the operational divisions. He had accounting skills, but turned down chances to have greater leadership roles, preferring to support the creative streak in Betty who pursued different opportunities in the retail sector, culminating in her own highly successful gift shop half-a-block from Circular Quay.

Mum’s gift shop was her pride and joy. She worked hard to build her clientele, and by any measure the shop was amazingly successful. The income generated allowed her and Ron to buy their first house at Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains. A goal well achieved, for the pair had paid rent for 30 years. We boys were thrilled that they finally had a home of their own.

*           *           *

Given her birthdate, Mum exhibited many of the characteristics often assigned to those born under the Gemini sign of the Zodiac. She was independent, incredibly energetic, loved to talk, learned quickly, focused on relationships, and could be gentle and affectionate. At the same time, as a Gemini twin, on odd occasions she could behave in unexpected ways. Change was not a problem for Mum. She handled it with aplomb. But it could surprise the rest of us. Perhaps, having learnt implicitly from her father, she could be a downright snob. Many times when I was a youngster she exhorted me to “be a cut above the others.” It was like a mantra for survival. Yet, contrarily, she was the only woman on our street who would empathize and visit for hours with a neighbour whose husband was in jail for embezzlement. For years I had trouble reconciling the two seemingly contrary facets of her make-up.

Her need for love and recognition was revealed in many different ways. There were times when she was making a point to a friend that she seemed to manipulate the conversation to ensure she’d be thanked at the end. Her advice wasn’t always appropriate but she thought it was. Humility was not a strong trait. When someone she cared for didn’t reciprocate, she became terrier-like, stressed, tugging at possible sources of discord, relentless in pursuit of what went wrong. Late in life when asked how she enjoyed Christmas, her initial response was to tell me how many cards she’d received, rather than information on any gifts.

Both Mum and Dad were keen gardeners. In retirement they joined the Wentworth Falls Garden Club, and to Mum’s great delight she was appointed as a Life Member. She was the person members sought for advice on how to solve their specific plant problems. At club meetings she was in high demand, but again when asked how she enjoyed a particular meeting she would reply with the number of queries she had solved. The problems themselves weren’t of interest, the number of them was.

*           *           *

We all have our foibles, and many of Mum’s clearly were the result of the dysfunctional upbringing in her infant years. It’s amazing to me how well she turned out. I give her enormous credit for her survival and self-improvement instincts. She pulled herself up by her bootstraps and turned into a beautiful, loving, caring mother and wife. She was my biggest confidant, always there in the few times of uncertainty or self-doubt. Even as an adult I would sit by her feet and she’d massage my scalp. It was a unique characteristic of our special relationship.

Mum lived to the ripe old age of 92. In her early 80s she happily flew to the United States to visit with my family here. Always interested in new experiences, the fun-loving little girl in her would come out as she eagerly flew in small float planes, explored massive supermarkets and nurseries, or went on the rides at DisneyWorld. This was a woman who lived life to its fullest. Her aches and pains were simply there to be overcome.

I adored my Mum, loved her unconditionally. When I first moved to the United States from Australia, I missed her more than anyone else.

I still do 50 years later.


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