Rena Beryl Chapman
On the 14th May 2011 Rena Beryl Chapman (nee Hendley), reached a significant milestone in her life; she celebrated her 90th Birthday. Ninety years – it’s an amazing achievement even more so when you consider all the highs and lows she has faced over the journey – moving from town to town, family tragedies, becoming a war-bride in India, raising a family, relocating – first back from India to Akyab, Burma, then to Rangoon and then to Australia where starting over involved caring for a sister with a disability – becoming a Grandmother, losing her husband, learning to make it on her own, becoming the Great Grandmother of Macy, and all the while maintaining her dignity, good humour and independence!
Rena’s story unfolds on the 14th May 1921 when she was born in Rangoon, Burma, the first of ten children. Poverty, poor medical facilities and nursing skills resulted in the deaths of five of the children and one with damage to the brain that would cause mental incapacitation for all of her fifty years of life.
The family moved to Maymyo where Rena completed her schooling. Her father working long hours to support the family and her mother’s poor health meant Rena did most of the caring for her young siblings. The family then moved to Akyab in 1940, when Rena was a young woman. There she fell in love with a very nice young man but her father would hear nothing of it and put a stop to the relationship, suggesting instead an older man who she immediately detested! She then came to meet another older man, Alfred Chapman, who was kind and handsome but was quite the ladies’ man! The relationship blossomed, on the quiet, but then in 1942 a war was to separate them. He went to India to be with his relations and joined the War Office. She followed even though her father swore to disown her. He never spoke to her and banned the rest of the family from having anything to do with her, for many years after.
The marriage was a hurried affair during Special Leave after which she went about the process of learning how to manage a household on war rations, all the while riddled with guilt about the family left without her help. Two babies born “one year, one month and one day” after each other, soon added to the responsibility of a young bride. A year later under the cover of darkness the family sailed back to Akyab on a dodgy boat with nothing but their meagre possessions and set up home in a bombed out building once belonging to the British Army. These days you would call them ‘squatters’! (To this day Rena hates sailing!) ‘Home’ soon became more solid, with a thatch roof; bamboo weave walls and proper wooden floorboards eventually replaced old plywood boxes hammered together. Gardens flourished where once toilet blocks existed and life after the war took shape. Alfred, ever the humanitarian, organised not only the social events of the town but was very much involved in helping the two schools of orphanages with help from his influential friends. At Christmas there was a Christmas tree and presents set up in a private estate where every orphan child received a present from his fund-raising efforts, with Rena as his back up. The home was always open, not just to friends but random travellers, visiting seafaring folk, and anyone who needed to chat. Many lifelong friendships were forged in that time; friendships that last till today. Sadly distance and ill health prevented them from being here to celebrate her 90th birthday. Life was simple but good in Akyab but with the ‘babies’ now into their teens it was decided to move to Rangoon to ‘better their education’. Alfred secured a good job with the Government on the docks as a Stevedore and Rena learned to set up home in an apartment above a busy market place.
Tragedy hit the family when news that her brother Stanley, who was a test Navigation Officer for the Royal Air Force stationed in Germany, had been killed in an air crash, filling in for a sick mate, while on his day off. However, while tragic, the incident brought the family together and her father finally welcomed her back to the fold; Alfred had to wait a bit longer.
Life started to take shape again when life as they knew it ended abruptly with the Burmese Army ousting the Government and subsequently taking over all Government departments including Alfred’s, and set about establishing their authority. The family was forced to move hurriedly to live with friends before they managed to find a place of their own. It all but crushed Alfred’s spirit as he had always been his own man and the ever present threat of a sacking or worse, being thrown into jail, as was the fate of many, was tearing the family apart. Rena’s father died of cancer. Her mother went to live in America with her other daughter Yvonne, leaving her with the care of her disabled sister. The stress of everything took it’s toll and Alfred was stricken with his first heart attack. The eldest daughter made the decision to immigrate to Australia and once established there, encouraged the family to follow.
Once again the family started over and it wasn’t long before the home was again filled with friends and good times and the sad days of Burma put behind. The youngest daughter was the last of the family to arrive with her husband and soon blessed them with a Grand-daughter, Tanya. Alfred was never the same and his health and happy disposition steadily declined. He survived another heart attack. The disabled sister, Vilma, was placed in a hospital to ease the situation and they were given a government house in Balga where Alfred’s sister Isobel joined them. Not long after Vilma died suddenly and a heart broken Rena started work at the Children Protection Association in Beaufort Street where she made many good friends, Phyllis Knott, Connie Sideris and Mary Manook among them.
The older daughter Christine married and left to live in New Zealand in 1972. The younger daughter Heather, was living in Port Hedland. Her mother died in America and shortly after that life for Rena changed again when in May 1973 Alfred died peacefully asleep on a bus; he had been into town to buy her a birthday present. A few years later her sister-in-law Isobel passed away. Rena was on her own at just 52 years of age. Her sister Yvonne in America bought her a ticket to visit and so began Rena’s great passion for travelling! She has been to the USA four times, including Canada; to New Zealand eight times, this includes when both grand children Kylie and Jessica were born and three times to the UK, the last time in 2008 at age 87! In between she has managed to rack up a few kilometres within Australia, visiting family and friends in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, Sydney, Adelaide, Tasmania and Melbourne, not to mention regular trips to Port Hedland to visit her three grand children, Tanya, Brandon and Grantley to be a part of their lives growing up and being present for both the marriages of Brandon to Melanie and Grant to Natasha!
In between Rena tends to her other passion – her garden! Her lemon tree is legendary and both friends and strangers alike are welcome to its fruit. Soe Soe Martin has on many occasions taken up her offer of collecting a bag or two for her catering jobs. The tree is possibly a metaphor of her life – she has not let the ‘lemons’ of her journey sour her spirit but has instead turned them into ‘lemonade’! Her friends have called on her many times in their time of need and have been listened to with a depth of understanding and afforded the wisdom of the knowledge she has gained over the years. At her 90th birthday party her grandchildren all expressed their admiration of her strength of character, the time without question she always made for them, and the way she inspired them by the standards she set. Her grandson, Brandon, encapsulated the feelings of everyone attending the party and even those who couldn’t be there, when he said: “Your influence has affected everyone in this room and always in a good way. You think you are dependent on everyone else but it is really us who depend on you to always be there”.
For my part I will always be indebted to her for my life; for the person I am and for the values she instilled in me. My sister Christine and I are in awe of the love and respect she receives from all the people whose lives she has touched; because like most children, to us she is just – our Mum – and we love her.
Fiona Watts works as a Registered Nurse in the Main Theatre at St. John of God Hospital in Subiaco.
The Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart contacted St. John of God Healthcare requesting Western Australian
representation for their group - The Australian Youth for Mary Mackillop, to travel to Rome for the unique privilege of
attending Mary Mackillop's Canonisation.
The criteria for selection included that the care giver had to be an example of living in the spirit of Mary Mackillop and
have a strong commitment to social justice.
Many worthy people were nominated for this honour by department managers from
within St. John of God Heathcare Western Australia. Fiona and a second Registered Nurse from St. John of God Hospital in Murdoch were chosen to represent Western Australia.
The two girls join a 40 strong contingent of youth from around Australia, New Zealand and East Timor selected to represent the youth of Australia
in support of the Canonisation of Australia's first Catholic Saint.
The six day pilgrimage features a tour of Rome following the footsteps of Mary Mackillop in 1873, a tour of Assisi, tickets to events including the prepatory vigil and mass all culminating at the canonisation ceremony.
"I feel very honoured and privileged to have been chosen go to Rome to attend such a historical event.
Having attended World Youth Day two years ago in Sydney and being in awe of such a gathering of faith -
I am sure this will be an event I will never forget" Fiona said.
On behalf of our Burmese community we are proud to showcase Fiona's achievement.