RIP Ann Gruen

The video above is a recording of the speeches at a funeral for my mother who died at around 10.15 am on Sunday 7th June.

Sadly she was far gone – not with it for several years. As her mind gradually failed her, even when she didn’t really know what was going on, her eyes would light up when she saw me across the room when I’d come to visit her at John Flynn house. Until the last year or so when she showed no sign of knowing who I was. So it was a strange business going to see her. What did I think I was doing there? I haven’t answered that question, but then the more important the questions are, the harder they are to answer.

In any event it all worked out as well as it could. We were told of her impending demise a few days before she died and I was able to go to Canberra and say my goodbyes the day before she died. David and his daughter Emma happened to be there visiting her at the time. She stopped breathing several times for a fair while – as she had when I’d visited her the previous day – before starting up breathing a few minutes later. Then she stopped again for ten minutes and there was no pulse. Very peaceful which is a relief. A very good death at least in the last little bit of it. But quite strange for the grievers. In my mind she’s really been gone for several years now.

My sister in law Jenny created the lovely tribute to her below, with just the right music (much better than my maudlin choice!) And beneath the fold is the written text of David’s and then my speech (I deviated a little from the text from time to time). Thanks also to my oldest friend John Chandler for being MC.

Text of David Gruen’s speech

It’s lovely to see so many of you here to celebrate the life of my mother.

The onset of Mum’s dementia a few years ago gradually stole her away from us all. She became almost unrecognisable, not physically of course, but mentally. Yes, there were mannerisms that were obviously hers, and sometimes flashes of her old self. But they became less frequent. I think she recognised me until quite near the end, but that was about it.

On the brighter side, I don’t think she suffered. She always seemed quite cheerful, even when I had no idea what she was talking about. And of course, it wasn’t all grim. I remember visiting her with Jessica about three years ago. After Mum acknowledged me, as Jessica walked into the room, I said to Mum: You know who this is? Mum looked up, and exclaimed, in her distinctively dismissive tone: Yes of course. She’s the Prime Minister.

Jessica was understandably taken aback! An aspiration perhaps.

Over the past few years, I have thought many times how important it was not to let the more recent experiences dim the memories of all the wonderful times we had with Mum over the long sweep of her life. From what I saw, her’s was a life well lived.

Let me take the opportunity to reflect on some of the important aspects of her life as they were manifest to me. Let me start not with her childhood, about which I don’t have particular insights, but with her decision to marry Fred. That was brave.

Fred was a Jewish refugee from the other side of the world, fresh from 18 months internment in a prison camp in Hay. He was definitely not the catch Mum’s family had in mind. But her choice was an inspired one. Although many members of her family – including her father – remained horrified by what she had done, Ann’s mother quickly came to a different conclusion: “I think you’ve picked a winner, dear” she opined.

Despite Dad’s protestations that Ann should not expect their marriage to last long – his father was a poor role model in this regard – it lasted for 50 years; until Dad’s death 17 years ago.

They were remarkably well suited. They revelled in each others’ company, they enjoyed a good argument, they had fun together, they shared strongly held social democratic principles, and an abiding interest in politics and current affairs. And they enjoyed farming together – first, on a sheep farm where the Tuggeranong Hyperdome now sits, then on a cattle farm near the Dandenongs outside Melbourne, and finally at ‘Bedulluck’, where Mum lived until about six years ago, when it became too difficult to stay. Their’s was a marriage anyone would aspire to.

I remember Mum as a conscientious mother. I don’t think it came naturally to her, but she worked at it. And Nick and I were quite a handful at times – we knew how to wind each other up, and of course our young minds were grappling with all the big questions of the day.

One of the stories Mum liked to tell was of me walking backwards 10 meters in front of her asking: Do fish go ‘o-ah, o-ah’ or do they go ‘ah-o’, ‘ah-o’? At the same time, Nick was walking 10 meters behind her asking: Mum, are there more ambulances in the world or cars in Canberra? Mum diligently tried to answer all our questions. Eventually, a friend to whom this oft-repeated ritual had been explained, offered a new perspective: neither Nick nor I were really interested in the answers, and there was an endless supply of new questions that could be summoned up to take the place of any one that was answered. But Mum remained ever diligent.

And then there was my year 12 Chemistry, when the curriculum required us to learn the first 20 elements of the periodic table for the final exam. Mum took up the challenge, and it didn’t take her long to come up with a mnemonic to cement the first 20 elements in my brain.

The mnemonic starts: He he little bear burbled. Of course, that’s hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron. Cry not on father. The nerds among you can work out what elements that refers to, but I’ll spare the rest of you any more chemistry lesson. Never name Mg. All signals please send clearly. Arriving K called.

Anyway, the mnemonic was memorable enough that I was able to rattle off the first 20 elements of the periodic table, and do quite well in my year 12 Chemistry exam. And it has stayed with me ever since – so much so that Angus and Jessica have used it to good effect, and Emma has now learnt it off by heart.

As I said, I don’t think motherhood came naturally to Mum. Later she volunteered that she did a little jig each morning when we went off to school – which left her time to do the things she really enjoyed.

A key attribute of my mother’s life was the depth of the friendships she developed and nurtured with lots of different people. Margie Bell is here today. She along with Juddy Carson have been close friends of Mum’s for more than 70 years. Don Russell, Juddy’s son, last night relayed to me one of Juddy’s strongest memories of Annie – a time when, as teenage girls in rural Queensland, they chased feral pigs on horseback. Sounds pretty alarming to me, but I do remember that Mum was an accomplished horse rider in her younger days, so maybe it was all relatively safe, harmless fun.

I also remember Mum’s tight-knit groups of female friends. Tennis groups, a book group that turned into a lunch group and then, as everyone got older, into a brown-bag lunch group so that no one felt burdened by having to cater for the whole group. The only rule at these brown-bag lunches was that you were not to talk about your husband or your children.

In another era, a woman of Mum’s intelligence and strong will would have had a professional career. Rather than a professional career, Mum put her energies into running a succession of farms. She very much enjoyed farm life — she stayed on the farm for many years after Fred died, and only came in to Canberra when the loss of her driver’s licence made it too difficult to stay. She developed all the attributes of a long-term farmer — including an endless capacity to complain about the weather. Whenever it rained, I would enjoy ringing Mum up to share in the good news. But of course I knew that the rain was not in fact unambiguously good news. It was either too little – and would run off rather than seep in because the ground was too dry. Or it really was the wrong time of the year, and rain at this time wasn’t much help to anyone. Or, despite it having rained quite heavily in Canberra, on the farm there was very little rain because, as I should know by now, the farm was in a rain shadow. As I said, Ann became the quintessential farmer.

The other deep long-term friendship I want to talk about is with Sam Scott. Sam arrived on the farm in the late 1970s, and became the day-to-day manager of the farm – jointly with Mum of course. Later you will be able to see a picture of Mum in her 70s and Sam in his late 50s doing what they did best – peering at a large bull in the crush in need of some sort of attention. Mum and Sam came from completely different worlds, but they developed a genuinely close friendship that lasted from the time Sam arrived on the farm till a few years ago, when Mum’s advancing dementia rendered it increasingly difficult to have meaningful interactions with her. They enjoyed – well sometimes they endured together – the endless trials and tribulations of jointly managing the farm – especially our farm which was held together by wire and string, so lots of things broke. They enjoyed talking about politics, about rural life, about the foibles of the rich, powerful and influential and about a wide range of ethical issues.

One of Mum’s other admirable attributes was a heightened sensitivity to injustice, and she came to Sam’s aid, hiring a prominent Sydney QC, to defend Sam against charges that proved unfounded.

Pete Godbee, Sam’s stepson, is here today, and will speak soon.

It is desperately sad to no longer have the Mum I remember and cherish around anymore. And I often think about how she and Dad would have enjoyed our kids as they have grown up.

But I am comforted by the fact that she had a full and rewarding life. She was brave, and strong-willed. She had a wonderful marriage with Fred, she was a great and loyal friend to many, she had a strong intellect and an admirable moral compass – which attracted her to most people who met her.

For me, she was a great role model and a wonderful mother. I will miss her terribly.


Text of my speech

Mum was born in Leeds England on 4th November 1922 and as a baby lived in a nice house called “Corby Steps” 1. With Australian parents and indeed Australian grandparents and great grandparents, what was Mum doing in Leeds?

Her father, Roy Darvall sought to enlist in the British army as something that was a cut above the Australian army. Not the only misjugement that Roy made in his life.

Mum was an only child – or not exactly. In fact she’d had an older brother who’d died very young. So she was a treasured child. Like most young girls, Mum loved her Dad. She’d go surf fishing with him. At dusk the tailor would run. You had just a minute or two. The faster you could cast your line into the water, the faster the fish jumped onto your line. So in a social event of great excitement, mum would wait behind her Dad and the other men and get her Dad’s hooks and lines ready. Once he’d reel in a line, she’d be ready so her Dad could cast the next one into the surf.

When I was a kid, Mum would tell us that tailor tasted the best. She’d look out for it in the shops and had a special way of cooking them – lightly smeared with butter, wrapped in clean brown paper and baked in the oven. Delicious.

Roy’s wife – my mother’s mother – Margaret Georgina Dalrymple was better off, better educated, and better with people that her husband. In temperament Mum took after her Dad. Her mother was soft, subtle and often oblique – playful. Mum was more matter of fact. A dutiful daughter, she was both a keen and lively observer of others and solicitous of their interests. But for whatever reason, she told me that her mother didn’t much like her. At least in her own mind she was not charming to her mother.

My friend Clive pointed out that Mum and Dad’s relationship had an unusual kind of inversion to it – perhaps a little like Mum’s parents Roy and Margaret but round the other way. Dad was the one who cared more about his appearance. He was the charmer and more extravagant on a shopping trip. Mum was the sensible one. She was impatient with overdone femininity – indeed she didn’t much like the word. She would occasionally refer to a woman who had put on some show of temperament as ‘having a fit of the vapours’. She didn’t like fashion or all the fuss about it. Unlike all my school-friends’ mums, she didn’t read the Women’s Weekly. She couldn’t stand Woman’s Day.

Dad liked the civility of the inner city. Mum was more at home in the paddock and was never more at home than when she was helping with a calving.

But one fact about Mum defied all this. Mum was a great crier. I have no recollection of her ever crying out of self-pity. But she was often moved to tears. Before the dark deed is done in Julius Ceasar, the lean and hungry Cassius says to the strong and noble Brutus “Forever and forever farewell”. Mum cried.

As I came to know them, there was a pattern to those tears. She was moved to tears by acts of pure courage and kindness. She was moved to tears by the incomprehensible suffering of good men who, who’d had gone bravely and fecklessly off to World War One to be engulfed by the madness and the death and slaughter. Men like her father of whom she was proud for lasting nine months in charge of his men when the average life expectancy of an officer of his rank was two weeks.

When I was thirteen or so and Mum arranged for us all to attend a lecture against the Vietnam War by Dr Benjamin Spock. As we waited in line I remember wondering whether Mum was smiling or grimacing at some men in khaki uniforms. Then her face flushed she burst into tears. They were neo-Nazis. She lost it again a few years later as the Nazi exaltation swelled as a young Arian boy sang “Tomorrow belongs to me” in the film Cabaret.

Mum had a real thing about the Nazis and the slaughter of the Jews. Much more evidently so than Dad. Her most surreal assertion of this occurred one afternoon at the farm with me and her newly minted daughter-in-law Jenny. During a nice afternoon tea, Mum steered the conversation towards the holocaust. The temperature kept rising. She described the fate of Dad’s mum Marianne, being taken to Theresien. Jenny was sipping on her cuppa wondering where to look. But Mum went on. With all hope gone and just months left in the war, Marianne was taken to the slaughter. On and on she went now through hysterical tears.

Jenny sat through this stunned. I sat there similarly lost for words but not unfamiliar with this quirk. I was thinking “Jenny, welcome to the family”. Meet the Fockers!

Of course this sort of behaviour was incredibly rare, but also incredibly raw when it broke through. I’ve spent many years wondering about it. Of course one can never know. But I think it’s pretty obvious that Mum couldn’t bare the idea of the utterly gratuitous malice towards someone as nice and it has to be said, as innocent of malice as my father.

And I think there was something more. You see when Mum married Dad she had to make a great choice. It sounds melodramatic, but it’s also truthful to say that as she reached early adulthood she had to choose which of the two men she loved most she would betray. Because for all his protectiveness of her, and all her love of him, marrying Dad would be the ultimate humiliation for her father. For his politics were virulently hostile to her having anything to do with, let alone marrying a European Jewish refugee.

Her more urbane and sophisticated mother found it easier to accept, even approve of the marriage. Her father wrote her a long aggrieved letter which nevertheless offered her his resigned blessing. What choice did he have? Where the marriage documents called for Roy to nominate his occupation, Roy wrote “gentleman”. He was unemployed.

Until Mum met Dad, she’d given little thought to the casual anti-Semitism of the middle-class milieu into which she was born. And all her life I think Mum was asking how it could be that her father – a man of great natural intelligence whom she loved so much – could be such an active part of something so stupid, so terrible and so cruel.

For the whole time of her life as a widow she gave thanks to the man she married commenting often that she was in danger of canonising him. It was the great event of her life. Perhaps she was grateful not just for how good he was to her – not that she wasn’t just as good to him – but also because of the risk she took – a risk that paid off.

One night over one of the dinners we shared at in the retirement village – The Grange – she told me that she always remembered something from her wedding. The story of Ruth from the Old Testament – I presume it was in the sermon and one can see its relevance to her wedding. Ruth follows Naomi back to Bethlehem leaving her own people and saying to Naomi “Thy people shall be my people, and Thy God shall be my God”.

She said she didn’t know quite why, but that the thought had always comforted her.

Rather as was the case when Dad died, the vehemence of people’s fondness for my Mum takes me aback. Children can’t help taking for granted the accomplishments of their parents – even as others look on them with awe. Those achievements are simply the way things are – the backdrop of their children’s lives.

Mum’s greatest talent was her talent for friendship. She loved a picture of the cut-lunch ladies – a group of five friends who met over cut-lunches they all brought. They included Neta Burns, Pat Horner, Roxy Booker, and Hilary Webster. Mum missed them all as they departed this world. These friends and others she’d had for decades but she also kept friends from her childhood. Pat Visser was one but the two she saw the most were Margie Bell and Judy Russell both of whom survive her and continue living on into their nineties.

She was a friend to people she didn’t know well and to some who received help from her now and again – sometimes anonymously. And the kindness of her actions and the steadfastness of her friendship changed the course of a few lives profoundly for the better – which is as much as any of us can hope for of our time here on earth.

I recall returning home from a long drive up from Melbourne, no matter how hard things were for Mum – looking after Dad or herself after Dad had gone – whenever I arrived and no-matter what season, Mum had left flowers from the garden, or if there were none, some sprigs of native plants in a vase by the side of the bed. As author Gillian Bouros observes in her own memoir recounting similar acts of grace “Nobody looks after you the way your mother does.”

So thank you all for coming today, to help us bid my Mum goodbye.

Forever and forever farewell.

  1. which you can see in the video above[]
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Phil Clark
Phil Clark
8 years ago

My deepest condolences for your loss, in these times words are of little use but the saying time heals all is the best I can do.
Sincerely Yours,
Phil Clark

8 years ago
Reply to  Phil Clark

Yes, words always fail us when we need them the most. ‘Condolences’ in some simple form or other is about all we can say.

But, at least until the very end, Ann Gruen very much had “a life well lived” and I wish we could all say the same.

john Walker
8 years ago

Our deepest condolences – Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.
yours sincerely
John Walker and Anne Sanders

Ian Milliss
Ian Milliss
8 years ago

My condolences also. It is an increasingly common experience, the parent whose physical death has already been long preceded by a different sort of death. My mother, while still alive and in no distress, has no recognition whatsoever of any of her children and hasn’t for some years. I sense we are starting to develops new semi-rituals of condolence for dealing with that.

John walker
8 years ago
Reply to  Ian Milliss

So true

Pappinbarra Fox
Pappinbarra Fox
8 years ago

Hello Nicholas, You know, on the internet, blogs etc we sometimes lose sight of the fact that the person at the other end is a real human being and we can make nasty comments about trolls, get into heated debate about their ideas and even motives and so forth but entries like yours today bring back the realisation that in the end we are all human. We have families, lives, loves and can be affected deeply on an emotional level by events beyond our control. My condolences to you and your family.

paul frijters
paul frijters
8 years ago

Condolences to you and all the Gruens, Nick. She has left a thriving family behind.

paul walter
paul walter
8 years ago

It’s a grim time when mum dies. Mine went down with cancer about eight years ago.
Some people cannot be replaced.
It’s tough also, because it is one of thise situations where your are returned to the proposition that, no matter how brave strong smart etc, in the end something happens so big that actual human powerlessness is retreived from the place from where it was placed in the past and forgotten about.
I won’t waffle.
At least your mum got to see her son grow to be a success in life and contributing member of his community.

Tom N.
Tom N.
8 years ago

Condolences seems to be the word we’ve all settled on, but some of the other thoughts above are valuable too. I can’t add to them, but I do share them, and I hope you have peace, Nick.

Gillian Bouras
8 years ago

I thought I had the Grand Champion of Mothers, but I see your mother was also a champ, Nicholas. Interestingly, our mothers were the same age, but mine died
more than 20 years ago.

Nothing will ever be the same: we re-shape ourselves and move on, sometimes
falteringly. But with deep gratitude that we have been so blessed.

All good wishes to you and your family