Honouring a long life of love and laughter

As her mother’s 90th birthday approaches, Christine Engel shares the story of a resilient woman who will be fondly remembered by (among others) many former students of St Anne’s High School, Adamstown.

Recently I heard Julie Andrews singing, 'Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start'. Patricia Mary Little entered the world on 24 July, 1927.

Mum's sister Eileen recalled, when she was 11, “After lunch, there was a storm and when the sun came out, Aunty Alice told us we had a baby sister.” Joan was 9 and remembered Mum as “a pretty little doll”.

Born into the parish of Tighes Hill, Mum was a tiny 6lbs and grew to a petite five and a half feet of pure energy. She's lost half an inch and may be a tad slower these days, but she thrives on welcoming visitors and is revitalised by visits with her three grandsons, their wives, great-grandchildren Gabrielle, Reuben, Miette and Aidee and step granddaughter, Jamaica.

Laurie, five years Mum’s senior, once told me, “Patti could not be still. She always wanted to help and make us laugh.” Her baby brother Kevin said, “She was always singing and dancing.”

As The Sound of Music returns I hear nuns attempting to understand their young novice’s free spirit, “How do you catch a wave and hold it down?”

At school a clever nun found a solution to containing Mum's energy. During class time she anchored Mum on her lap and peace settled over the class − until recess when Mum led the charge outdoors to freedom!

Her first job was weighing and packing produce in a grocery store in Mayfield. She then moved to Selfridges Emporium in Hunter Street, Newcastle where exposure to various departments may have seeded her passion for fashion, especially shoes!

When very young, sorry times came to the family. Her eldest brother, Ron, worked to provide income and eldest sisters, Kath and Joan secured a family home. During those turbulent years Mum, Laurie and baby brother Kevin stayed with their mother. This experience was the foundation for Mum's devotion to her mother and determination to protect her as much as she could.

At 15, she fell head over heels for Ronald Engel. When she turned 21, they took their vows at St Columban’s, Mayfield, and to achieve their dreams, began buying and selling houses. Over the years she worshipped at Mayfield West, Hamilton, The Hill, The Junction, Merewether, Charlestown, Edgeworth and finally back to Sacred Heart Cathedral, Newcastle West.

In 1950 Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. The need for ray treatment meant frequent train trips to Sydney. Her mother accompanied her, took her home and nursed her through the unpleasant side effects and finally to full recovery.

Twenty years later, Mum's mother was diagnosed with bowel cancer and given weeks to live. Mum took her home and learned to dress a wound that could never heal, monitor drugs for pain control and provide suitable meals. She opened her home for her seven siblings and their families to visit their mother, mother-in-law and Nana as well as to priests who came with the Eucharist.  Only God knows our time to die and the doctors complimented Mum whose care, they believed, extended Nana's life by many years and allowed her to meet the first of her great grandchildren.

In the early years of marriage Mum spent Saturday baking biscuits, slices and cakes for family outings on Sunday.  A favourite destination was the Paterson River where gramma grew within easy reach. Seasonal gramma pie was a favourite of Dad and Pop.

Sadly, Mum was widowed at 44. She was determined to pay the mortgage and keep Myamblah Crescent, the last house Dad designed and built. She'd established a reliable routine for Nana and with support from her sister Joan she moved from years of focusing on home, family and nursing her mother into the workforce.

Initially, she was day nanny to the infant children of three families. Accepting work as canteen supervisor at St Anne's High School, Adamstown, meant shorter working hours and she stepped into “the happiest years with my girls”. She also made a record profit for the school!

After her mother died she managed the canteen at Sacred Heart housie. Three nights a week extended into years, built a lasting friendship with co-volunteer Bessie and significant return for the church.

Mum’s vibrant energy extended to regular participation in her young grandsons’ activities. After her mother died, she went to Indonesia for the birth of her third grandson, Nathan, and healing time, playing with Matthew and Simon. Our houseboy, Supundi, said she had so much energy he thought she was my sister, not my mother!

She joined the parish walking team, visiting aged parishioners, identifying needs and organising minor repairs to their homes. Today, driving around the streets of Wickham, she fondly remembers the people she visited.

A bonus of the walking team was meeting Wal Fitzgerald. They married in 2000. Both in their 70s, they loved being in love, but sadly, Wal died in 2002.

In 2015, Mum passed the aged driving test and at 89, revels in driving Wal’s 25 year-old Subaru.

Mum met her school friend, Evelyn, 84 years ago and the pair reserves Fridays for lunch and shopping.

Learning that a friend feared storms, Mum invited her to stay anytime a storm threatened. When a country friend was caught between late afternoon and early morning medical appointments, Mum insisted she stay. Medical visits were punctuated by late night snacks and DVDs, proving friendship and laughter are the best medicine. Times change and now I take Mum to visit her country friends for the same medicine.

In her ninety years, Mum has given half her time to others, reflecting the values of Catholic community in which she was raised.

I hear the lyrics of “Climb Every Mountain”, which could be Mum’s philosophy. It’s easy to believe that a life is simple, yet closer examination reveals courage, sacrifice and resilience.

Happy 90th birthday Mum!

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Christine Engel Image
Christine Engel

Christine Engel is passionate about encouraging all to tell their stories, especially the elders of the community.

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