As part of 10 Stories from Bankstown, Bankstown City Council’s Community Harmony project, Sylwia interviews Mary Ryan* who was born in Goulburn (NSW) in 1920. Mary migrated with her parents to New Zealand in her early 30s and returned to Australia 38 years later.
I understand that you have a foster brother. What led your parents to foster a child before you were born?
My foster brother’s mother died in 1917. She died with pneumonic flu. His father was a drover with four children. His father couldn’t cope with the children because in those days, a drover was on the road most of the time and there was no one to look after the family. So, the kids were split up and they were sent off to different people, but they all kept in touch with one another.
A friend of mum and dad’s had taken one of the girls and said there was a boy still to be taken and were they interested in taking him for a short time. The father never found his feet so my parents kept on looking after him. They took him when he was three days off two (years of age), that was before I was born.
How was it moving from Australia to New Zealand with your family?
Well, it was fairly easy because New Zealand is very similar to Australia, you mix in with people and I think I’m a fairly good mixer. I’m shy to a certain extent, but then once I get to know people, I can come out and do what I have to do. I really loved nursing, so it didn’t matter where I was, as long as I was nursing.
What was it like being a nurse?
I was 32 when we went over to New Zealand. I did my certificates in trainee nursing here in Australia. It was very hard work but very rewarding. I was doing all my nursing training during the war, and I trained in Goulburn for General, Ryde Denistone House for Obstetrics and Woollahra for Karitane. So I had my three certificates before I went to New Zealand. When I went over there, I did some general nursing and then I went into maternity nursing. I loved the maternity nursing.
I’ve heard of a few people who’ve gone from general nursing to maternity nursing and they say it’s a very big change but a better one.
Yes, a much better one. It’s so rewarding to see a new baby being born, it’s wonderful, and then to be able to cope with them and everything.
I nursed until I got married in 1958. Then in the 1960s, I worked part-time for a bit longer. After that, I had an elderly father-in-law, and looked after him for about 3 years before he died. Then I had my own parents to look after, and they were in their 90s when they died. So I was looking after old people from the 1960s up to the 1980s.
Then my husband took sick about four to five years after mum died and I looked after him too.
How did nursing a loved one compare to nursing a stranger?
You knew your loved one’s disposition, whereas with a stranger you had to learn about them. But you treated everybody with respect no matter who they were, and you did what you possibly could for them.
As a carer did you have many opportunities to take a break?
There was no way of getting a break. With my father-in-law, my husband was at work all day, but he would help me when he could. With my parents my husband helped me too. Other than that, there was no getting away for a rest, and you were there 24 hours. Towards the end with mother, one of us had to be in the house all the time, because we couldn’t leave her on her own. My husband and I seldom got out together.
Did you find there was a hierarchy when you were practising nursing?
Well, the doctors respected the nurses as well as the nurses respecting the doctors. Everyone was “Doctor” so and so. Even with the nurses who were your mates, you didn’t call them by their christian names. They were Nurse ” ….” and whatever the surname was. Also, there was respect for the patient even if you knew them, when they came to hospital they were still referred to as “Mr” and “Mrs”.
How has nursing changed from when you were training?
There’s such a big gap in between and everything has changed. Then, we didn’t have half the equipment, the mechanical stuff. The drugs weren’t in either. Penicillin came in when I was nursing, and the sulphur tablets. At that stage they were regarded to be the miracle workers. There are many more drugs now.
It was hands on nursing and you did everything for the patient. Very few got out of bed even to go to the toilet, no matter what they had wrong with them. Even for an appendix, they were 10 days in bed before they put their foot over the side. The babies were kept in the nursery and only taken out at feeding time. The staff bathed the babies and did everything for them. We did not have any ward people and the nurse did those duties as well, the cleaning and meals. The sister dished out the meals and the nurses distributed them and fed the patients if they needed it.
When you were training to be a nurse how did the nurses’ home run?
There were restrictions and discipline. You were allowed one picture pass a week and one late night pass a week. With the picture pass you had to be in by 11pm, and the late pass by 12, and you reported to the night nurse when you returned. Once we finished the four years training, we became sisters and we could live at home.
What social activities were around for nurses in those days?
We use to have dances in the nurses’ home. It was during the war and we would entertain the troops. We might have one every six months. We also had lots of country dances, “Woolshed Dances” they were called. This was in Goulburn and for the outlying areas as well. If any of the nurses wanted to go to the dances they were accommodated.
How did you meet your husband?
We met in 1957. He was a New Zealander. One of my nursing friends rang me one night and asked if I wanted to go out in a foursome. I thought “OK, no harm in that”. So, they’d arranged to go to the zoo on a Sunday afternoon. That weekend I was flying over to Australia for a three week holiday. Instead of the zoo, there was a circus in town and we decided to go there on Wednesday night. We walked down there. My friend and her boyfriend introduced me to Arthur and we went to the circus. Then when we were coming back, my friend and her boy went one way and we went another. He lived in Mount Albert as well, and he knew his way to the area. We said “Goodnight”, and on the Saturday I flew out to Australia.
When I came back, we got in touch again and that was it. He sent me a bunch of flowers that were waiting for me when I got home, and he asked me to go to his place on the Sunday night with my parents, to meet his father.
So, we kept on seeing one another. That was November, and we were married the following January. He’d made up his mind.
What type of things makes up a good marriage?
With us love came into it. Seeing one another’s point of view. Being able to come and go with people, that is, compromise so that everything ran smoothly. Not to say we didn’t have a few barneys, nothing serious though. We had a happy marriage.
What was it like getting married two months after you met someone?
I suppose being older people and knowing the nature of people, you can usually pick out who is going to be a decent person. We had very similar tastes, and a similar outlook on things, so it was fairly easy.
Did you want to have children?
We were too late in life in marrying. My husband was nearly 50, and I was nearly 40, and we just didn’t think it was fair on a child. We did think of adopting once, we talked it over … we couldn’t adopt a baby, and an older child is too set in their ways. A lot of the older ones being thrown from home to home are very uptight and not settled children.
Do you think it is as important for a single woman now to get married as it was then?
If they are going to make a commitment to somebody and really want to, they should make that commitment by getting married. I am old fashioned I know, but I do think they should seal it and try to live up to it.
At 70 years of age why did you migrate from New Zealand back to Australia?
There’s the foster brother’s family. I only have two cousins in New Zealand. We were friendly enough but they lived further away and I didn’t see much of them. Coming back to Australia was always on my mind after all those years. Though it was a different country that I’d come back to from what I’d left in 1952. It was a completely different culture.
How was it different?
Forty years makes a big difference to ways of living. I hadn’t lived in Sydney for any length of time prior to coming back. I lived in Goulburn, but a country town from a city is altogether different, the pace of everything is much slower (in a country town), and when I came back the traffic nearly knocked me.
So was it just the issue of changing from a country town to a city, or were there other factors involved?
The economy and everything else changed, and to a degree the way of living. It’s more opulent now than when I left, because I left after the war. When I returned to Australia, people had more things and there were many more amenities.
Was it hard living in Australia in the 1940s?
No, it was very pleasant. We were very fortunate, although we did have the rationing and the coupons, but we were very protected. Being in the hospitals, I didn’t have to worry too much, because we were looked after when we were training. We didn’t have to live outside, we always lived in the nurses’ homes. It was really an open sort of life because you knew what was right and what was wrong, you were brought up to that, and you did what you could for the best, and you tried to help people wherever you could.
So when you came back over to Australia, was it with your husband?
No, he had died. He died in 1988, my father died in 1972 and my mother died in 1978. It was old age with my parents, they lived into their 90′s, and my husband was nearly 80. He was older than me. He had lung cancer and that more or less took him off.
What type of activities have you enjoyed since moving back to Australia?
I used to belong to Probus (Professionals and Business People’s group), and through that organisation I got to meet a lot of new people. We went on outings. They get older people together. Every month there’s a different speaker, and that’s excellent for older people. I also belonged to the church and I knew a lot of people in the church community too. Plus, I had friends that I had made since earlier times in Australia.
After many years of looking after other people, how does it feel being in an aged care hostel, and other people now looking after you?
I am accepting it because I know I can’t cope on my own. Having nobody to look after me that’s close enough, I’ll just accept what I get and try to fit in with everybody.
What do you generally think about crime today?
The papers like to make it sound a lot worse than what it is. I mean there is crime, but there is crime no matter where you are, and there has always been crime. There are still caring people in the world, definitely, still caring people. The trouble is we don’t hear about them, we hear about all the bad things that people do. It’s very sad.