Four days ago, I received a call from an unfamiliar number. Celtic feyness or a sixth sense made me pick up, instead of my usual practice of letting the call go to Voicemail.
‘I’m Sylvie, a friend of Kay Watson’s,’ a voice said, ‘and I’m ringing to let you know Kay passed away yesterday morning.’
I’ve reached an age where news of illness and death more frequent than I’d like and in recent times coming too often! Kay was one of my oldest students; first attending writing class at 80 years of age and publishing her memoir at 89. She only left when a move to a distant nursing home in her mid 90s made travelling and attendance difficult.
Sylvie informed me that Kay had celebrated her 100th birthday at the beginning of the year and was thrilled to receive the obligatory greetings from the Queen. This snapshot of a grinning Kay in February speaks volumes!
We live in Covid times. The death of a family member, friend, or acquaintance presents difficulties when lockdown dictates funeral rules and visits to homes, especially to those in the aged care sector. So this will be a digital trip down Memory Lane to celebrate and farewell the life of one of the wonderful students I’ve been fortunate to meet during my time as a writing tutor.
Kay was remarkable and touched my life in many ways. The desire to honour her legacy has motivated me to shake off a torpor that’s had me avoid blogs and blogging for several months.
Many of those who follow Up The Creek With a Pen are ex-students or members of writing groups and will have met Kay in class or at the regular Sunday readings held by Mordialloc Writers’ Group until I retired in 2017. When writing, Kay preferred to be called by her Welsh name of Ceinwen, a language she still spoke fluently. Ceinwen was one of the few Welsh speakers in Melbourne, who could also read and write in Welsh, skills she often used on behalf of St David’s Welsh Church when they wanted to welcome visiting Welsh celebrities like the Welsh Choir or celebrate St David’s Day, the Welsh National Day in March.
Ceinwen means lovely, blessed, and fair – well-chosen descriptions of the Kay Watson I knew!
My association with Ceinwen, inextricably, linked with Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, where we met because of common interests in writing and social justice. Between first volunteering, then being employed as a creative writing tutor, plus running the Mordialloc Writers’ Group and Readings By The Bay, my association with MNH lasted 21 years. Ceinwen attended Monday morning writing class for 13 of those years, also the Sunday Readings and meetings of the Union of Australian Women Southern Branch, which I coordinated. Her memoir launched on the 15th anniversary of the writers’ group, epitomised what local community writing classes and groups encourage and celebrate.
The Launch of Ceinwen’s Journey, 2010
Good Afternoon – my name is Mairi Neil and I coordinate the Mordialloc Writers Group. Before I begin…
I acknowledge the people and elders, past and present of the Boon Wurrung Clans and the Kulin Nation. I acknowledge and uphold their unique relationship to this land and surrounding sea, a relationship of over 40,000 years. The Mordialloc Writers’ Group believes reconciliation is about recognition and healing with Australia’s Indigenous people. Together, we are Australian, let us bridge cultures and create a just society.
Croeso – a Welsh welcome for those who have specifically come for the launch of Ceinwen’s Journey, Shining in Reflection, a memoir by local writer, Kay Watson. Kay attends my writing for pleasure class here on a Monday; is a fellow member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group, and the Union of Australian Women Southern Branch, but above all she is a friend, so I am honoured to be able to launch Ceinwen’s Journey, which is a super read.
Kay is here today with her son Clive and daughter-in-law Sheila. We are also honoured to have publisher Hassanah Briedis, and I’d like to acknowledge our local member Janice Munt and convey the apologies of Federal member Mark Dreyfus and Senator Mitch Fifield both in Canberra this weekend. Several regular members of our writers’ group who couldn’t attend send congratulations too. Just as well not everyone could attend because we have already run out of chairs!
Before I extol the virtues of Kay’s memoir, I’d like to remind you of the group’s record of achievement – seven anthologies that have enabled 55 local writers to be published – many for the first time. Anthology number eight to be released at the end of this year will ensure our stories, poems, memoir, and novel extracts continue to represent this community’s culture. Local anthologies are valuable historical documents. We are the keeper of your stories as we write our own.
A word or sentence, an object or photograph, a line of poetry, a colour or a memory, and many other triggers besides, inspire writers and the breadth of Kay’s writing provides examples of all of these starting points.
Kay Watson does not suffer from writer’s block! When she first attended writing class a decade ago I acknowledged her wonderful ability to tell stories, and to tell them well. She is blessed with an amazing memory and the stories she wrote in class (and still does) are rich in detail and prompt fabulous discussions, tears and laughter, plus wonderful history lessons when we share lived experiences!
What Kay can’t remember is compensated by her vivid imagination! (Although no made up stories in this memoir!)
Her words flow effortlessly, in class every story seems true and once the excitement of this launch is over, she could produce an anthology of her short stories and poetry. But judging by her look of horror perhaps not – it is stressful putting a book together…
Kay’s memorable contribution is a story of a life spanning 89 years, written with modesty and understatement, yet she lived through the hardships of the Great Depression, the hungry uncertain years of the Great Slump, and the rationing and devastation of the Second World War when she was separated from Arthur, the love of her life. Then came children, several sojourns to Europe and the trials and tribulations of family life in the United Kingdom and retirement in Australia.
Kay triumphs over the adjustments of resettlement, not only from England to Australia at a time of life when many would be reluctant to move from their comfort zone, but an earlier move to England from Wales. This childhood upheaval perhaps the greater challenge because she had to forgo her beloved Welsh language for the scouse accent of Liverpool. (It could have been worse she may have relocated to Glasgow!)
Mind you adapting to ‘Strine’ has not been without dramas – like many new migrants she turned up to gatherings here in Australia with ‘a plate’ because she was told to, never realising it was supposed to have food on it!
Kay begins her story in 1921, a time of oil lamps, and tin baths used once a week before being hung in the yard. A time when wash day did indeed take all day, and children amused themselves with homemade toys, and their imagination, while mothers lit boilers, hand-washed everything, and if lucky, had a mangle to wring out the clothes to be dried in the back garden on a line of rope between wooden poles. The art of washing clothes no mean feat in the miserable weather of the UK.
At home, Kay spoke Welsh, at school English, and often home was a house of women because her Merchant Navy father spent time away at sea. These are memories of a time when the pace of life seemed slower, a time when not everyone had a car, a time when you made your own entertainment. Definitive childhood experiences leave their mark but it is amazing what memories are triggered in writing class.
First Love by Kay Watson
Keith Taylor was 15 years old and sat in the desk in front of me at school He had acne and hair sticking up like a chimney sweep’s brush dipped in oil. Not very tall, he was always straightening his spectacles with a forefinger and constantly sniffing instead of giving his nose a good blow.
I fell madly in love with Keith.
He lived in the next street and we walked to school together. Considered ‘grammar school material’, he helped me with my homework. We went to the cinema on Saturdays, and I watched him shine at football at the local recreation grounds. He was always there for me, saying, ‘You make me so happy you’re my girlfriend,’ and ‘I love your dark shining eyes.’
I gave him a photograph of myself and he kept it in his desk at school. ‘Why do you keep it there?’ I asked
‘To look at you often,’ he said, ‘because I’ll get into trouble turning around in class to look at you.’
No wonder I overlooked that he didn’t have film star features!
Love permeates this book: love of God and church, love of family, love of community, love of travel and love of having a good time. As all of you who know Kay, laughter is never far from her lips.
It has been Kay’s Faith and a keen sense of humour that has helped her through the sad times – of which there have been a few – especially the tragic loss of her beloved daughter, Dawn when only 21 years of age, and the recent loss of her husband and soul mate, Arthur.
You don’t reach 89 without having the rough as well as the smooth and yet this is not a sad book, it is indeed a celebration of a life well-lived.
Writing your life story is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage. When we write we reveal ourselves, expose ourselves to public scrutiny. We revisit good and bad times and often learn things about ourselves – each sentence can be as much a surprise to self as it is to the reader. It may be cathartic or be a shock but it is a wonderful gift to be able to use our very flexible and beautiful language to connect with others. And it is magic when we get it right – as Kay has done.
Sounds and Smells of War by Kay Watson
The war. Air-raid sirens screech, enemy aircraft drone overhead. Wham Wham! Anti-aircraft batteries and crump of exploding bombs. We heard these sounds and more sitting on cold slatted wood seats in dank, brick, air raid shelters surrounded by dampness and fear of death. Our five senses overloaded every night.
Glass splintered and smashed, dancing on the cobblestones as windows hit by shrapnel. The suction and compression from huge blasts, pushed us together. We grabbed each other, held tight for comfort because there were no doors on the shelter and we could see the angry red sky blackened at the edges.
City docks aflame. The acrid smell of exploding paint drums and melting rubber in the air billowing smoke and flames from the burning sugar factory, which formed a fiery sheet on the surface of the water. 4.00am. After nine hours, the all clear siren sounded. We emerged from the shelter to the scent of burning wood. Smelly black dust hung in the air. We faced our homes, many destroyed, front doors blown off, shattered windows, rubble strewn gardens. Bewilderment. We hugged our blankets and pillows, and small babies in smelly nappies long overdue for changing.
Our kitchen relatively unscathed meant I had a cold wash. How I enjoyed the aroma of Lifebuoy Soap, the luxury of feeling clean and refreshed. We gathered the broken crockery from the red tile floor. An intense smell of soot from the kitchen range permeated upstairs, even inside chests of drawers. The force of the blast had scattered clothes from cupboards. They smelt musty and wet from the fire brigade’s efforts to save the house. Mum stood motionless and stared at the mattress, pockmarked like cinders on a hot face, by the incendiary bombs. Friends invited us to stay until we found a place outside the city, wreathing our faces in smiles. We smelled their coffee. Even burnt toast, delicious in those days.
The bitter days now behind us but the way to the new is in the shadow of the old. I enjoy more pleasant smells, especially seasonal ones, each flower bringing its own smell to my garden. Also the sea and seaweed clinging to rocks, the salt tangy ocean, the red earth of the desert and most of all sounds of birds like a choir of chirping minstrels.
There are interesting photographs in this book too – examine them closely because they all hold stories.
Please enjoy this magnificent achievement, a memoir to treasure and join with me in congratulating and welcoming author Kay Watson.
That day was probably one of the highlights of Kay’s long life and made more memorable by the support she received from fellow students in the class. One of the students, Helen, arranged for her partner to make a magnificent (and delicious) cake, in the shape of a traditional Welsh hat and many people followed the Aussie tradition of bringing a plate (food included, of course).
Another longterm student of Monday classes was Amelia, in a similar age group as Kay, they shared a close friendship. Both lived in Parkdale and loved writing poetry about the environment, especially the sea. Sadly, Amelia predeceased Kay. I read some of Amelia’s poetry at her funeral.
I can’t attend Kay’s funeral but will finish this blog with some of her lovely poems that featured in the annual class anthologies where she favoured writing about her memories of the UK countryside. There are a few photographs too, of Kay’s classmates, several who have now passed away. There is also a picture I treasure of Kay with my mother, who was born in April 1921. The pair met a few times at Mordialloc Writers’ events and got on well but sadly, Mum died in 2009, a few months after this picture was taken.
It is not overstating, to say everyone loved Kay and her stories never disappointed. During WW2 she was in the WAAF’s Entertainment Unit blessed with a wonderful Welsh singing voice and the actors and entertainers she met in the concerts to entertain the troops filled a list of celebrity who’s who, but I loved her travelogues. She’d bring in pictures of her and husband Arthur’s holidays to Spain and France and write about fascinating adventures.
One travel story sticks in my mind because she had the class in stitches and there were no accompanying snaps. A group of friends had hired a yacht to sail the Mediterranean islands. When the weather turned nasty, they headed for a nearby isle to drop anchor. On going ashore they discovered it was a nudist colony and to use any of the facilities, they had to, in Kay’s word ‘conform’.
I miss teaching writing in community houses, miss the many students who enriched my life with their stories and imagination. I learnt so much and will always smile when remembering the friendship, laughter, entertaining and emotional stories, and the sharing of scrumptious morning tea that were all part of Writing for Pleasure on Monday mornings.
Childhood Home by Kay Watson
I long to see the old place again, just once on a winter’s day
frost makes white the lonely fields, and skies are silver grey.
I think of our cottage and winter walks down the lane
snowdrops nod their heads, their stems stiff like cane.
Those long dark nights, and cold short days,
the low angle of the sun casting shadow haze
adding form to the landscape and drifting snow,
patterned frozen puddles where summer sunflowers grow.
I shall return in summer and breathe the rustic air,
pause at the stream to rest and reflect on things there –
remember my childhood of long ago – and I’ll sing
of the joy and peace Mother Nature always brings.
Meadowland by Kay Watson
Warm sun thaws and meadows tenderly lie
beneath the paintbox of sunrise,
the bridle of earth and sky.
Cowslips join waves of ripening corn
to float and dance, spellbound entranced
warming my heart like a cloth of gold.
Ever changing breeze sighs through my hair
like a joyless eye,
it is eventide when sun sinks in the west
and drowsy butterfly folds his wings,
birds fly to their nests no more to sing.
Flower petals close, the daisy asleep
is that primrose buried in slumber deep?
Thoughts scatter in fancy’s flight
sweet dreams close eyelids, till dawning light.
The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.