She was married for six months when her husband got the call. He was offered a job in Australia and he was going to take it. It was 1957 and Australia was half a world away from Suffolk, the place where M was raised.
“I don’t think I would have come to Australia if my husband didn’t get a job here,” she mentions in passing.
For more than 25 years, she has been volunteering her time to teach English to migrants new to Australia.
She remembers her first student vividly. A woman who was illiterate in her own language as well as English. M says this woman was desperate to invite her next door neighbour over to her place, but couldn’t pluck up the courage because of the language barrier.
She started inviting her friends to M’s English lesson and suddenly M was teaching seven people from her living room.
M soon found she was doing more than teaching someone how to read, write and speak English. She found she was meeting a social need and a need of the heart. It wasn’t just another language group, but a way for people to care for each other.
She soon moved the class to the local Anglican Church. It was 1993, and the start of the teaching term that year was officially the beginning of a vocation that has continued to this day.
“I have been blessed more doing this work than I have been a blessing,” M insists.
I was still in high school in 1993. It was the year Absolutely Fabulous made its debut on our television screens in Australia and the year Radiohead’s Creep reached second place on Triple J’s hottest 100. First place was Denis Leary’s Asshole.
It seems like a lifetime ago. And I suppose it is for many. In this corner of Sydney, M, with some other volunteers she roped in, started supporting others new to the community, who were isolated and lonely.
Being a migrant herself, M knows what it’s like to feel alone in those early years of settlement. She knows what homesickness feels like.
She tells me that we have deep roots in the place where we’re born and raised. A part of us will always be of that country. But when we move to another place, for a time our roots are exposed and raw as we adjust to a new environment.
“That’s when we need a friend,” M says.
After interviewing M over the phone, I was able to meet her at an English as a Second Language (ESL) training day. She was getting an award for her years of dedicated service. She was slightly unsteady on her feet and walked with a cane. However, other than some issues with her hip, she tells me she was well for her age.
“I can’t complain,” she smiles before giving me a long and wonderful hug.
“It was lovely to meet you. Maybe I’ll see you again in five years when I get my 30 years of service award.”
M would be 92 years old.
Sections of this story have been published previously. It is based on a successful press release I wrote sometime ago.