Out of the blue, into the black

On 24th Feb my inimitable mother, Yvonne Russell passed away after a short illness

Vonnie Russell always said she didn’t want the grimness of a funeral service, so we just did a no service cremation

And she forbade us to have a wake. “I want to have a party, where my friends come along and say nice things about me”

So today we (myself, my Dad, Amanda Russell and Patrick Russell) had “Vonnie’s Party” which was exactly as she asked. For an event triggered by a sad event, it was wonderful, especially for the many friends who were able to come. Many more were unable to make it for a range of reasons.

We had a playlist. We had a slideshow. and we had speeches. Here they are (my speech, at least).

The playlist is here:

The slideshow is here

The speech is here:

The previous two speakers (my Dad and sister) spoke from the heart and off-the-cuff.  I on the other hand, have written my speech, and I write long.

And the subject demands a longer treatment.

There are so many of you who have known Vonnie these last 20 or 30 years, from Springwood or Orange or Armidale; even Whyalla.  Some of you go back further, 40 years or so back to Adelaide. 

We are so grateful that you were able to make it here today.But that was only the second half of her life. I thought that I’d talk about stuff that happened way before you ever met her.   

It’s hard to encapsulate someone’s life in a few words, and Vonnie’s life touched so many others, so here goes. Sorry if it goes on.

In the words of Steely Dan “I cried when I wrote this song; sue me if I play too long”

To my mum, Vonnie Russell, my peerless and awe-inspiring mum. 

Vonnie’s constancy was endless; her generosity and love was boundless; she taught me and taught me and taught me lessons that have lasted decades and that I use pretty much every day.

I see her hands and heart and head in so many things that I do. I’m glad that I can now recognise this influence: it wasn’t always been so.

She was so strong for us: I’ve worked a couple of jobs that I didn’t really like, but nothing like the kind of boring, enervating jobs that she did over the years to keep the roof and pantry intact. 

And she did it with style and panache and art. 

Vonnie was experimenting and creating with food from my earliest memories.  

Not that I always appreciated it:  I often would wish that she would make the ordinary meals that “other kids had”, instead of the wonderful meals that she put on our tables and in our lunchboxes.

Can you imagine the self-inflicted angst of a primary school kid in the late 1960’s at lunchtime pulling out some lumpy Vogel’s bread sandwiches filled with cream cheese, raisins, celery and cashew nuts? Mum, have you never heard of Devon with sauce? or ham and cheese?

Or the sense of deprivation when, invited by some friend to have tea (of crumbed cutlets and boiled peas), Vonnie instead took me home and instead served up something chinese and tasty.

But she taught me how to read recipes and how to cook from the heart and how to be open to the new.

Vonnie had a distrust of authoritarianism and elitism. She was relentless in promoting a sense of equality in my growing brain.

Imagine her dismay when I came home from school and said I wanted to be in the Army Cadets. But she was also focused on instilling in me a capability for self-reliance.

I can still hear her “I don’t like it but if that’s what you want to do, you’re going to have to do everything yourself. I’ll teach you what you need to do, but don’t come crying to me if your uniform isn’t ready. I’m not going to touch a stitch of green cloth”. And so it went. She taught me how to wash and starch and iron.

And boy, did she know how to iron! Of course she did: she knew fabric and how to bend it to her will.

I still cannot iron a shirt without thinking of her and hearing her explain to me how to do it.  I still iron shirts better than any of my significant others ever did.

Vonnie gave me my love of wild colours that is expressed mostly in my taste in shirts.

I remember how proud she was one night in a bistro in Paris when I was wearing one of her hand-made shirts and someone at the next table leaned over and asked me where I got my shirt.  I said “I had it custom made.  I can introduce you to the designer. Would you like that?” .. “Yes of course” was the answer” “Here she is”, I said “Yvonne Russell … my mum”.

And people .. Vonnie was a people person. She had a huge heart and gave of it unstintingly. I don’t think Vonnie  ever gave up on anyone. Or failed to defend anyone who needed it.

One summer night in Adelaide, I remember there was an accident right outside our house in St. Peters on Stephen Tce. A bloke had driven up the back end of some parked cars. When we got out the driver was standing – he was unhurt but dazed..in shock.  … and pissed as a newt – he was a martini shaken but not stirred…  Vonnie brought him inside to look after him and make sure he was ok (and didn’t drive off). Turned out he was a tradie who had worked all day and then had a few beers before driving home; perhaps there were some other sad aspects to his story. i don’t know.  But when the coppers turned up, Vonnie talked to them and initially denied his existence. … “What accident?” ..  “What driver?” at first, although eventually she was forced to hand him over.

That was Vonnie: she was in tune with so many people of all ages.  She was wonderfully intuitive about what was going on and so wanting to make things better. And she was the master of the artless (think uncomfortable) question that got right to the heart of any issue.

Vonnie wasn’t a trend-setter in the celebrity sense (there were plenty of big egos and characters in her circle as I remember) but she quietly went about her things in her own way. She marched her own pace and her own path.
She was a tireless promoter of the position of women in society: for equality sure, but also sometimes just respite for women from the various cuffs and blows that society seems to visit on them.

Although she was an early member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Sydney (think big politics and big personalities) mostly she worked at the individual level, pulling together or participating in groups of women doing and sharing the things that they enjoyed in the many towns and cities she lived in over the years.

Vonnie was a problem-solver, a systematiser, a bridge-builder, a carer, a giver.

She was Vonnie Russell. And she was my mother.

Thank you