Ian and Blanche

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3.4 Blanche at Lancaster Road

For six months after Ian died, Blanche was oppressed by the feeling that he was watching over her. Then she broke away through something Ian would never agree Blanche, with Maud and John, 1984 to—travel outside Australia. She made two wonderfully liberating trips to Pacific destinations, one in company with John and Maud on a cruise to Bali and other Pacific islands and another with Mae and Clen to Japan. She later made an extremely enjoyable trip to New Zealand, this time in the company of Joan Alford. Joan had been a widow since 1955, when Tom had lost his life in an accident at work, but Ian and Blanche had kept in touch with her over the years.

On her return from the first trip, Blanche felt that Ian’s spirit had left her. She was lonely still, but felt free to do whatever she wished.

She had long set her heart on a certain alteration in the house, to glass in the north-facing porch of the house and put in a door for access from the kitchen. Ian had Blanche at Home at 25 Lancaster Road squelched the idea, but now there was nothing to stop her from going ahead and having the work done. The result was a bright and cozy "sewing room," as she called it, the most attractive space in the house, and she subsequently spent much of her time there.

Blanche resumed her activities at the Bowls Club, at the same time retaining close to family. She did what she could to comfort Ethel when she was suffering from cancer (Ethel died in ca.1976).

Though she had left Tambellup twenty years before, Blanche retained a strong interest in recent and not so recent happenings in what she still thought of as her home town. She received old acquaintances from there with tea and sponge cake and an appetite for gossip. On one occasion she and a visitor swapped tales of births, marriages and deaths in Tambellup for one hour and five minutes.98 

Of course there remained one tangible connection with Tambellup—Gilella. According to Alexander’s will, the property was to pass to the sons of Ian and Dave. It was agreed that Graeme should prepare the place for sale, and starting in 1975 he made a number of improvements and repairs—fencing, dams, clearing and the like. Through the addition of the trace elements copper, zinc, molybdenum and cobalt, the land had been made more productive than it had been in Ian’s day. In 1978 Gilella was sold to Gwenda’s brother Ross Temby for $130,000. For the three years prior to the sale it was leased to Glen Mills and son, relatives of Gordon McRae’s wife Florence.

Given her good looks and pleasant disposition, it was natural that Blanche should attract male admirers.

A relationship with a wealthy retired farmer started promisingly but foundered after an unfortunate misunderstanding.  Having noticed that Blanche’s heating system was not functioning well, the gentleman took it upon himself to have a contractor install a new system.  Blanche appreciated the surprise gift as kindly meant, but she saw it as a threat to her independence.  She insisted that the contractor dismantle the new system and restore the old one in its original decrepitude.

Another friendship worked out better.  Roy Lewis was a retired builder, but his wiry physique and crafty manner seemed more in keeping with the racetrack than the construction site.  The great gift he brought to Blanche was a zest for independent travel abroad. He knew the tricks of taxis, tickets, passports, visas, time zones, hotels and B-and-Bs—topics mysteriously menacing to Blanche—and upon arrival in a foreign country he displayed a knack of savoring instead of recoiling from the unfamiliar.

In 1978 Blanche traveled with Roy to England and then to the USA where they stayed with Eion and Jean and their two sons at their home in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.

From Berkeley Heights, thirty miles west of New York City, the couple made a number of excursions into the city and to more distant points including a visit to Niagara Falls and a tour by bus and train of several of the southern states.  On their travels they had trouble with one American custom—the outsize portions in restaurants.  "Too much food," Blanche kept complaining, but she could not bear to leave any portion uneaten.  Roy solved the problem by ordering one meal only, and dividing it between two plates.  Blanche was appalled at the way he secured the waitress’ cooperation—by shoving dollar bills in their apron pockets99  with a conspiratorial wink and a whispered "that’s for you,"—but she admitted with a laugh, "by jingoes, it worked!"

A highlight of their stay in the New York City area was a Broadway matinee performance of "The King and I" with Yul Brynner and Mary Martin.  A substantial minority of the audience sang along with the chorus, and Blanche joined in with gusto.   The show had its unscheduled appeal to Roy, too, when Brynner interrupted his performance to respond to remarks of a self-styled critic in the front row.

After leaving America, the couple returned to England and stayed for a time in London.   Roy wanted to travel in Europe, but Blanche demurred; she had seen all of the world she wanted to see, and wanted nothing more than to go back home and relax in her sewing room.  The time had come, she felt, to "sit back for a change and let the young ones work and worry."

Her three children were deeply engaged in their work and careers.  Of Eion’s seemingly pointless activities100  she registered only that he was paid to do whatever it was he did.  She found Jean’s ambitions even harder to appreciate.  Having herself wanted nothing more than health, friends, family and a nice house, she did not see why Jean should strive for success in research at Bell Labs.101  But she said, "You’ve done your job as a woman, Jean, so now you’re free to do whatever you want."

Ralton, Gwyneth and Brian, 1984

Blanche had a much better appreciation of Gwyneth’s interests.  Gwyneth had by this time begun to exploit the talent for art that was earlier evidenced in her "house plan."  Starting out from a casual hobby of coloring black and white photographs, she took up oil painting in 1976 and was soon producing accomplished landscapes.  With the encouragement of her husband, Brian, she eventually became an art teacher at the Warrick community center near her home in Hamersley, and founded an art association there.  She worked in a realistic style, often emphasizing detailed effects of the reflection and refraction of light on water.  Among painters she was admired particularly for her ability to modify the overall mood of a painting through the skilful use of glazes.  Blanche took pleasure in her daughter’s achievement; as a house gift on her trip to America she carried one of Gwyneth’s first successful paintings, a scene on Kurrabi.102 

Eion, Jean, Jennifer, Graeme and Gwenda, 1996Graeme meanwhile had converted Kurrabi into a productive and beautiful farm.  An expert welder, he built gates, shed frames, stock crates and special-purpose machines such as heavy-duty stone rollers.  He also designed and built devices to simplify routine farm work, such as an ingenious loader-unloader device to cut turnaround time in trucking.   He converted to organic farming, and for several seasons his organically grown beef commanded higher prices than others in the district.  Then, with Gwenda’s support and her ability to manage the off-season farm work by herself, he branched out into a different business—mining dolomite103  from a deposit of the mineral at the "Dolomite Lakes" a few miles south of the old Gittins house in Tambellup.  He pinpointed the location after a conversation with Bert Gittins in which Bert had recalled digging post holes there and finding the subsoil "white as snow."  In 1980 he bought mineral rights104  to the area, started mining in that year and subsequently became the area’s main supplier of dolomite.

Blanche’s later life was brightened by perception that the children were "doing all right" while she "sat back."  She remained in close touch with friends and family, particularly her beloved brothers John and Bert.

In the mid-80s Blanche’s old illness, cystitis, returned to plague her.  She remained cheerful and active, but cut down gradually on the time she spent at the Bowls Club.  In 1988 she was hospitalized with cancer of the bladder, and she died later that year.  She was buried with Ian at Allambie.

Gwyneth and Ian, 1953
Blanche, Gwyneth and Ian
as they were in the 1950’s

Affectionately remembered.


The End


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3.4 Blanche at Lancaster Road


Footnotes:
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98. Timed personally by the author. The visitor was Jack Groves.

99. Tipping is not a common practice in Australia.

100. Research on the structure and phase transformations of crystal surfaces.

101. Jean joined Bell Labs in 1974, completed a MS in computer science and was promoted to Associate Member of Technical Staff in the department of Statistics.

102. Gwyneth died of lung cancer in 1992.

103. Dolomite, calcium magnesium carbonate, is valued as a soil amendment in the south-west of WA.

104. In Australia, mineral and agriculture rights are sold separately.