Farewell to Pauline Helen Hensley (née Lappan). Pauline’s six children buried her this week – and the experience is still with me, still resonating.
I’m getting that unique way of missing Pauline that comes soon after the death of someone you knew and loved. It’s that slightly heightened, urgent feeling of ‘let’s go visit’ mixed with a sense she’s just out of reach – around a corner, behind the next door maybe. It’s that feeling which hovers for a little while before your subconscious finally adjusts and clicks into the latest update – the world is now without her.
It was great to see that Pauline’s family placed a photo of her aged well into her nineties, on the cover of her order of service booklet at her “Catholic Mass of Christian Burial.” There Pauline proudly stands at Canberra’s War Memorial Pool of Remembrance.
Pauline looks proudly into the camera, facing it almost square on, with immaculate posture, a woman of immense style even at that grand old age. Her coloured scarf picks up the rich red of her jacket and the poppy in its lapel, a twist of black and white pearls bring a touch of light to her neck. (She knew how to put colours together – she was a very skilled oil and water colour artist.)
Sometimes you see people a little more clearly when they’re gone. What hits me most now, apart from Pauline’s beauty, is her gobsmacking strength.
I sat beside an old school friend, Jill, during Pauline’s burial service. She and I are still friends with Pauline’s youngest daughter, Donna.
Apart from the years we spent together at our Catholic school, taught by that special brand of feminists – 1970s nuns – we three have something else in common: all of us were single mothers at various stages. Each one of us somehow survived, then thrived and brought up the wonderful young women who now surround us. (Yes, all our children are daughters.) Each one of us has been blessed to find a partner happy to take on the complexities that our blended families have entailed.
I thought we did it tough. Yet there was Pauline, a single mother for nearly 59 years. Her husband, Jack, died two weeks before Donna was born. Two weeks. When I reflect on Pauline, this is at the core of what I admire so much about her. All her extraordinary and heroic qualities radiate from this pivotal point: she looked as though she was just doing the ordinary things: just getting on with it because, as she said, you’ve got no choice. But she was being absolutely extraordinary.
Working full-time, putting food on the table, keeping her family of six children together, teaching them how to meet their societal obligations and supporting them as they reached their full potential (high achievement, no less). Contributing to her community, being patient, playing a mean game of Bridge, mounting another painting, being absent long enough for her youngest two to hold the best parties in town, (then stepping inside the front door at just the right moment to signal that it was time for decorum to return.)
When we were all growing up she was just like everyone else’s mother – minus Jack. She had had a very full career working for Labor Premier James McGirr, something that as a younger woman I was very impressed with but now she worked in schools. She made the responsibilities she juggled look perfectly natural and straightforward – if not exactly easy. God knows how difficult it must have been, how much harder her legs must have been paddling under the surface, than the other hard working mothers around her, say like mine, who also had six children but happened to have a loyal, supportive husband bringing home the bacon, tinkering under the bonnet of the car, actively fathering and sharing the burdens of bringing up a family.
I study the photo of Pauline now and I wonder how much she must have struggled at times, how tired she must have been. I’m sure she must have complained – she had every right to – but very few people would have heard it. We got instead her face that crinkled up with joy when she saw you, her enthusiastic suggestion that she put the jug on for a cuppa, her generous offer of whatever food she had, the special biscuits in the back pantry, in honour of the visitor, no matter how humble.
She was so astounding, so amazing, so extraordinary.
Pauline was buried with Jack. He was someone who her daughter Donna never met but of course, as Donna stood there, watching Pauline returned to the earth just above him, you could see that through her mother, she knew him very well.
Goodbye Pauline, we will miss you, we, the many kids who came for the parties but stayed on for the cups of tea.
To read Pauline Hensley’s funeral notice go to:
“Birth is a beginning and death a destination” at Good Grief!:
For the full words of Rabbi Alvin Fine’s immortal poem: