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Thinkers back as far as Socrates have known that we each construct our own reality. As Descartes and more extremely, Bishop Berkley, pointed out we cannot be certain that anybody, or anything, exists except ourselves. To put it in Shakespearian terms: our lives are a tale we tell ourselves to make sense of our sensations; our experiences.
For each of us this tale begins when as children we realise we can do things that change our world. From that moment on, this increasingly complex universe we create in our head; the tale we compose; is the only reality we have and it ends when our brain stops for the last time.
For Vera Storey who became Vera McKie the tale she told, that created her universe and her reality, became less insistent during the last month; fading away into a quiet, painless sleep and ending completely last Sunday morning.
Each of you has your own unique tale and perspective too.
I want to tell you a little about the person who made my universe possible and whose universe has just ended.
Vera McKie was an extraordinary woman. She was born Vera Storey in April 1923 in Newcastle on Tyne, the only child of parents who were themselves extraordinary. Both had already distinguished themselves before her birth: her father won the Military Medal for heroism among heroes, on the Western front; and her mother won a civil award for bravery when still a teenager. Her father ran a successful plumbing business, as did his father before him. Vera believed that his being gassed in the Great War contributed to his early death at 64. Her mother would go on to be the Sheriff of Newcastle and a long serving Alderman of that city. She died in her 86th year.
As a child Vera was a high achiever. She was academically gifted and might have gone on to university but for the great depression that began while she was in primary school. At her mother’s insistence, she left school at 16 to become a contometer operator, to help out the family finances. Contometers were elaborate mechanical computers, used for ‘number crunching’ in the days before electronic computing. She got a job using this machine at CA Parsons, the Newcastle engineering company that manufactured steam turbo-alternators for electricity generation and turbines to power ships. There she met Stephen McKie, who was a cadet engineer, with a sports car and a bit of a reputation.
Soon after they started courting the Second World War broke out. Stephen immediately signed up for pilot training with the RAF and they made a fine couple. Vera was exceptionally good looking at 17 and Stephen who was 23 was dashing in uniform. When he got his wings and was on coastal patrol in his Hurricane fighter, he could fly in to see her, a romantic figure in his fighter pilot’s Irvin Jacket and silk scarf. But the war was not a game, many people got killed. Invasion was a real possibility. Vera’s father commanded the local Home Guard. Her mother ran soup kitchens. Meanwhile they all maintained the family plumbing business with tradesmen called out at all hours as the bombs fell. Although it was a major industrial city with shipbuilding, Newcastle was not as frequently bombed as London but there was still considerable danger. One night during an air raid the house behind was destroyed; a heavy lintel stone crashed through the back of their house and all the windows blew out.
All Stephen’s squadron, except him and one other, were killed. He was still a Flight Sergeant and was given the opportunity to take an officer’s commission and go to Canada as a flying instructor. But he skipped the officer course and instead flew to Newcastle to marry Vera so that she could accompany him to Canada. As he told us, his choice was between keeping Vera and dining in a different mess; an easy choice. In four days in July 1942 she had a wedding dress; bridesmaid; cake; ring; church; and a reception with all their friends. She was 19.
And so she went to Canada. Stephen went ahead and Vera made the Atlantic crossing, with a lot of other women; at the height of the U-boat activity. Unlike the return trip this was a high speed run to outrun the submarines. Then all she had to do was cross Canada. She and another girl missed their train and had adventures on the way.
There are lot of photos of the newlywed’s time in Canada. It was obviously a new world. They did a lot of horse riding and my father did a lot of flying; teaching Canadians, South Africans, Poles and Australians to fly.
They admired the Australians they met, and that influenced an important later decision. But Stephen had been in a serious ‘prang’; an aircraft crash that began the worsening spinal injury that eventually stopped his flying and had him repatriated to England.
Vera had been pregnant in Canada but my older sibling did not survive to term. She was very distressed by the loss of the child and the potential of a crippled husband and had a miserable 21st birthday, alone in Medicine Hat in Canada, waiting for transport to follow Stephen back to England.
Unlike the fast trip across in a lone ship, the trip back was in a convoy that zigzagged as slowly as the slowest ship and took 16 days.
And so at last the War was over and I was born. Apparently I was conceived in hospital as an experiment to see if ‘things still worked’. Stephen was in and out of hospital but back working at Parsons and completing his engineering thesis on high voltage insulation. Then Peter was born. They were busy renovating their 3 storey house while food and materials rationing was still very much in operation. Vera kept all this together: two small children a wounded veteran, a house in turmoil, and oh I didn’t mention Juggins, our huge Bullmastiff dog.
Then bad news, Stephen had every prospect of becoming a paraplegic. Unless they moved to a warmer climate he could not be expected to recover. They booked passage to Australia but the waiting list for a sea passage was so long he might have to pass another winter in northern England. So they sold the house and with all the proceeds they bought, three very expensive, one-way air tickets to Sydney.
It wasn’t what they expected. Australia desperately needed engineers and Stephen quickly got a job so the family settled in semi-rural Thornleigh. Post war Australia was still very socially conservative and areas like Thornleigh were still in the grip of Catholic Protestant schism with separate schools and schoolchildren hurling abuse, and sometimes more. Vera, raised as high church Anglican, fitted into neither camp. She told me women she met laughed at her clothes and English ways. She felt completely isolated and very far from home. She was still only 25.
Then, as she said, the world suddenly got better, Verna Spencer moved in to the house next door. Verna was a modern girl; educated at Fort Street and Sydney University with liberal ideas and a big extended family, including her parents who shared the house. Up ‘til then I think my mother had her bags continuously packed for England but suddenly we were staying. Verna became her closest friend for many years, until Verna’s death. In Vera’s will she mentions Lyndal, Verna’s daughter, and says she loved all three next door: Verna; her mother; and Lyndal.
Stephen was still in and out of hospital (I remember trips to Concord) but this time with each visit he actually got better (Australia always had better medicine). And life got better. Vera worked from time to time, usually as a medical receptionist, generally to buy cars or to fund holidays. Stephen became the general manager of increasingly larger factories. Then he headed a research lab and finally dared to try his hand as an engineering consultant. This was through the 1950s and early 60s. Executive cocktail parties were attended and held. Vera was the perfect hostess. Stephen painted her portrait in an evening dress; it won the Woman’s Weekly portrait prize. She was beautiful, clever and for me, her son, a little frightening. Peter probably agrees.
About this time she got involved in the Australian Council for Women then because of us, in the scouting movement. John Spencer Verna’s husband was the NSW Scouting Commissioner. Then it came time for us to go to High school. Suddenly she was active in the Ladies Auxiliary at Normanhurst Boys’, where she met some of her closest and longest friends. I have difficulty even remembering the many organisations she has belonged to since but they included the Castle Ridge Resort residents.
The consulting business was a huge risk and again Vera went to work; for Stephen as his first secretary. But the gamble paid off, Japanese firms wanted to hire an Australian consultant to help them design western appliances. Vera learnt and excelled at Ikebana flower arranging and Japanese cooking and we all learnt to use chop sticks. At last we could afford to own, rather than rent, a house.
Vera was always very handy. She could cook and sew very well and we once timed her knitting and found that she was faster than the Australian champion (as published). She had a special technique, learned on the ship returning from Canada. At first she knitted, crocheted and sewed out of necessity, later she added needle point and did it out of love or charity.
She was always an avid reader, getting through a book every few days, and I have an image of her on the couch feet curled under her reading and occasionally letting out a laugh. My father would say ‘someone’s just fallen off a cliff’. He claimed she only laughed at disasters. But in fact she had a fine sense of humour, even if the joke was a little off colour. I would never dare tell my father the sort of joke that I would tell my mother. She had read Miller; and Lawrence; and Roth. She was difficult to shock. She was always interested in music and drama. She acted in amateur productions and subscribed to seats either for the orchestra or ballet for most of her life, introducing both my daughters to plays and ballet at an early age.
Like any marriage my parents had their ups and downs but they never argued in front of us as children; and from time to time their mutual affection rekindled into what seemed like a newly passionate affair. They often cuddled or kissed and quite liked a chase and tickle. More than once they had water or food fight, to our delight, and the silver sugar bowl bore a dent in memory of one such. More than once I returned home unexpectedly as an adult to catch ‘the olds’ obviously ‘at it again’. Vera has requested that her ashes be scattered with Stephen’s in the high country.
I could go on for a long time and a lot more detail but most of you know about the recent past.
I want to jump forward to her 85th birthday just a few months ago, when Vera was able to walk into a restaurant unaided and to hold us in amusing conversation; to talk of books just read and things happening in the world. And I thought: ‘that is how I want to be when I am 85’.
Vera did not believe in an immortal soul or a life after death and as a result death held no fears for her. But she loved life.
She is not anymore but she continues to live on other ways; not just as fleeting memories in the minds of others but in the same profound way as everyone who lives. Every day every one of us changes the future and everything that is yet to be. Every day we create little ripples of change that build into waves in the future. The longer we live and the more lives we touch, things or changes we make, the greater is our impact. Nothing is as it would have been without us. Nothing that Peter or I have done, or her grandchildren, would have happened without Vera’s existence. All of you have been influenced and indirectly so have thousands of others. In this way Vera’s life and works will go on as her mark in the very fabric of everything that forms the future, long after her memory has faded or become myth.
Not every one of us leaves a positive mark in this fabric. But Vera has undoubtedly left the world a better place than it might have been without her. Throughout her life she has taken an active role in community organisations and contributed to charity and those less fortunate. She has left hundreds of things she made with skill. She supported our family twelve thousand miles from her parents and extended family; at various times this was singlehanded with the imminent prospect that her husband may leave her a widow with two small children. She helped him build his career and then his consulting business. And finally she cared for him in his infirmity and ultimate death. Peter and I, owe to her our lives and many of our values and, in turn, our clever and successful children; her grandchildren, who also loved her. Throughout her life others have depended more on her than she on them.
Last Sunday morning Vera’s brain stopped creating for the last time and her personal tale and the universe she had created through it came to an end. But our tales go on; and in each of them she has a place; in our memories; and for some of us here, in our very flesh.
I hope my tale has given some of you new insights; and rekindled some fond memories in others.
Let us take a moment to remember her now.
Peter will now say a few words.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky ballet music
Sleeping Beauty - Act11 Panorama
The Nutcracker - Waltz of the Flowers