Betty Tierney: Eulogy
It’s an absolute privilege for me to be able to speak today about my wonderful Aunty Betty as I know how incredibly special she was to all of us here. She was a fabulous Aunty, a much-loved sister-in-law to my mum Coral, a friend. To me, she was also a role model on how to live an adventurous, full life as a single woman. Aunty Betty was surrounded by love because she gave so much love herself.
I had a bit of trouble putting this together because Aunty Betty didn’t really like talking about herself. I was chatting with Jimmy the other day and he admitted that he'd been trying to coax stories out of her for years but she always successfully managed to fob him off. She spent Christmas Day this year with me and mum and four of my friends, and they were all so excited to be in the presence of this 92-year-old woman who was still undoubtedly so full of life and possessing such a wicked sense of humour. And at one point, one of my friends sat next to her and said: “Aunty Betty, can you tell us about the most significant moments in your life?” And Aunty Betty just gave her that look and said: “No love, because I can’t remember them.” But then a few minutes later went on to tell her how she’d been the first person at St George Hospital to administer a penicillin injection. And Aunty Betty’s humility is probably the one thing that stands out the most for me. She achieved so much during her long and extraordinary life; she served God in her tireless service to others but she always downplayed it.
So today, I’m simply going to reflect on events and moments that I do know about and that attest to what a courageous, generous, and funny woman she was. And there will be an opportunity for people to speak after this so please if anyone can fill in any gaps that I miss, I encourage you to do so.
Aunty Betty was born to Clyda and Tom Tierney on January 3rd 1925. She was the second youngest of seven children, a loving sister to Florence, Edie, Tom, Harry, Celia and my dad Rodger. The Tierney’s were a Christian family and, by every accounts, an immensely close and happy one.
After finishing school, Betty did a short stint training as a Dressmaker before entering into nursing. She trained at St George Hospital from 1942 to 1946 and one story that I know about this period of her life, thanks to Yvonne, paints a picture of an exceptionally brave and selfless woman. And I have Yvonne to thank for this tale. Apparently, Aunty Betty was on ward duties on the night when the Japanese mini subs entered Sydney Harbour in 1942. As the attack took place, the air raid siren sounded all over Sydney and at the Hospital, the nurses and orderlies began evacuating patients to the basement of the building. There was, however one patient on Aunty Betty’s ward who was in an iron lung and who couldn’t be moved. So, a 17-year-old Aunty Betty volunteered to stay behind; she camped under the man’s bed and stayed with him until the all-clear sounded.
Following her training, Aunty Betty went on to do Midwifery at Crown Street Hospital. She was an active member of the Australian Christian Nurses Movement during this time, and through this association she joined the Bush Church Aid Society. In 1948, when she was just 23-years old, she was posted to Ceduna in South Australia as a relief nurse for a 3-month-stint. She ended up staying 16 years.
At that time, Ceduna was a real frontier town, and the doctors and nurses who went to work at the Bush Hospital were true pioneers. Ceduna is the last stop in the east before you hit he Nullarbor plains which makes it subject to extreme weather- blistering heat in the summer and biting cold in the winter. The hospital had very basic facilities and equipment and if you wanted to be a nurse there, you had to be prepared for anything. The staff at the Ceduna Bush Hospital battled dust, snakes, spiders and drought; they often worked seven days a week for very little money. At one stage a polio epidemic saw all the domestic staff flee with the nurses having to take on their chores on top of their nursing duties. At another time, a highly-valued doctor tragically died from a death adder bite. It was truly gruelling stuff but Aunty Betty served there with a deep and abiding Faith and an absolute love of humanity.
She worked extensively with indigenous children and there are some wonderful photos of Aunty Betty holding her tiny, little patients. Whenever she talked about this time, she did so with great joy and affection.
Over time, Aunty Betty became a nurse with the Flying Medical Service which operated out of Ceduna. The service covered an area of 90,000 square miles and she regularly took to the skies in a single engine plane. She visited homesteads and aboriginal missions to attend to accident cases and the critically ill, flying through dust storms and landing in paddocks where airstrips were never intended. You can’t help but be impressed by her courage and strength. It’s something that has served as an inspiration in my own life.
I can only imagine how sad her farewell from Ceduna was. But in 1964 she returned to St George Hospital as a Sister where she was ultimately promoted to Deputy Director of Nursing.
And it was around this time that Aunty Betty came into my life – or rather I came into hers. From the time I was born, Aunty Betty was a constant presence in my life. I can’t overstate the positive and important impact she had on our family and I just want to read now something my mum, Coral, wrote for Bella’s 90th birthday:
You came home to stay when Adam was about two and you were always there when I needed you. We were living at Oyster Bay. You bought a car. You would take me shopping and Nanna would babysit and probably do the ironing. Whenever you came down the driveway, Adam would race up to you and go straight to your pocket, looking for a new matchbox car. You gave Adam a dog, Candy, for his 4th birthday. What a faithful dog she was.
As the children got older, you took them to the Easter Show and Christmas Lights and shopping in the City …
And can I just say that Adam and Jenny and me, going to the Easter Show and Christmas Shopping were the high points of our year!
… A friend reminded me the other day, she took you to Bankstown to buy the children dressing gowns. You took me to the doctor at Blacktown – we took our own lunch because we always waited so long. There were a few holidays when we ran out of money. Who do you think we called? Once we were flood bound and had to stay a few extra days. Who do you think we called? You once caught us up with our Health fund ... and besides all of this, you looked after your mum. Your family always came first.
In 1978 Aunty Betty became the Matron of Cheslon Nursing Home at Jannali. My mum also worked there and according to her, Aunty Betty ran a very tight ship but a fair one. And she never expected anyone to do anything that she wouldn’t do herself. If they were short staffed, Aunty Betty would inevitably be found mucking in to help- scrubbing pans or helping out in the laundry or kitchen. Her mum, my lovely Nanna, lived there at that time and Aunty Betty would go to work early every morning to shower and attend to her needs before starting her day’s work. When my mum was cooking at the Home, Aunty Betty would always come and help her with the dishes after putting Nanna to bed at night.
Even in Retirement, Aunty Betty never stopped working to help others. When she went to live at John Paul Village, she became a regular social butterfly, always making time to visit people and chat. Up until just a few years ago, she would go every morning to help feed people in the Nursing Home who couldn’t feed themselves. And when cousin Gary Martin went to live at the Home she was a constant source of love, assistance and support. She was a woman of extraordinary compassion and we are all truly blessed to have had her in our lives.
In finishing I just want to share one personal story that I think reflects just how funny Aunty Betty could be. Her humour was quite wicked and even up until her final days, she could cut you down with a single, withering line or a cagey look. This story I’m about to tell took place in 2008. Aunty Betty asked me to take her to Manly on the Ferry and so we set off one day on our little excursion. I put her in a wheelchair and we caught a train to Circular Quay. The ferry ride over was lovely but while we were having lunch at the Corso, a storm had started to brew. And halfway back across all hell broke loose. We were sitting outside to get the best views and suddenly it started to pelt down. Huge waves were breaking across us and while everyone else scurried inside, we just had to sit it out. For starters, the boat was rocking wildly and it was too precarious to actually get all the way across the deck and inside. Plus, we were laughing so hard that we couldn’t even begin to get our act together. By the time we got off the Ferry we were soaked through and Aunty Betty was sitting in her wheelchair shivering with cold. It was really uncomfortable because I felt as though everyone was looking at me like I was some abusive, neglectful caregiver. On the station, I went off to buy us some water and when I returned she was talking to a man. He was kneeling beside her and I heard him say: “Are you alright? Can I help you?” And she smiled and replied: “Oh no. My niece just tried to kill me but I’ll be okay.”
Aunty Betty quietly and quickly left us just over a week ago and she was strong and brave and awesome to the end. And she left this world in the certainty that she was going to join her mum and dad, her brothers and sisters in Heaven.
I think I speak for all of us when I say that this world without Bella in it takes a bit of getting used to. But I just keep reminding myself that she lives on in all of us; that her indomitable spirit, her laughter and her love is always in our hearts.
The Graduate Nurses have made a donation to the Bush Church Aide Society of $200 in memory of all the years of service Betty gave to the St George Hospital, and the extended stay she had of 16 years in the outback of Australia sharing her nursing skills and very strong religious beliefs.