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Vale Alison Clarke 1917-2009

My mother passed away last Saturday. 

The eulogy I delivered at her funeral today is over the fold.

Eulogy for Alison Clarke

I am Harry Clarke. Alison Clarke was my mother.  I am proud to be her son as Alison was a remarkable woman.

Alison Clarke (nee Vickers) was born in Coogee on 22nd November 1917 in the latter phases of WW1.  She was the eldest child of Verlie and Richard Vickers and had three surviving brothers (Richard, Brian and Stewart) and two sisters (Shirley and Joyce).  Alison was brought up in a fairly aristocratic setting during her early years by her wealthy grandparents at Goldsworth near Uralla in NSW. At age 8 she rejoined her family in Coogee and later lived with them at Leura in the Blue Mountains. She thus came from a large if dispersed immediate family. Her uncles and aunts also had large families in turn so Alison had a vast number of relatives. She also had friends from her youth such as Margaret Murphy at Uralla – a friendship that lasted for over 80 years. My sister and I were delighted to speak with Margaret earlier this week.

This family was an important part of Alison’s life. Throughout her life Alison remained a proud Vickers.  That she came from this strong family background meant that Alison naturally developed strong people skills – she liked to get her slice of the pie but understood the ambitions of others and recognised their viewpoint.  Alison naturally liked people, was interested in them and had a network of friends across Australia and overseas. Two years ago American friends (Jean and Tony Parfitt) that she met in the United States twenty years ago while a tourist there, and with whom she kept contact, visited her at Windsor Gardens.  Alison received a Xmas greeting from them this week. Her friends Rene’ and Hariati Codoni from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia sent her a Xmas card which arrived this morning.

Alison didn’t need to think about complexities in people – she accepted people for what they were and enjoyed their company.  Alison didn’t search for friends but made them easily and kept them for decades. She took interest in the origins of people – their family connections and she made extraordinary links between seemingly disparate groups. Alison’s insights on family ties displayed the insights  of ‘Six degrees of Separation’ theory. For example, although Alison never lived in Melbourne she found out, through contacts in Sydney, who were the original residents of my house in Melbourne in the 1930s. She astonished me on the phone one day by telling me that the original owner of my house was the local butcher a fact that I confirmed by checking on the title documents. Alison seemed to know people everywhere.

Alison was also knowledgeable about and interested in my father’s side of the family – the Clarkes.

Alison didn’t have a great formal education. She left school quite young – a fact that disappointed her. Alison wasn’t easily saddened but she regretted that she had not gone to university.  Even last week she expressed her regrets – she said that she went to Sydney University Teachers’ College with her old friend Dr Cole and said that she wanted to go to university. When he  asked what she wanted to study she responded that she would study anything just to be there.

Alison was an eldest child and, in particular, an eldest daughter. This gave her clear family care responsibilities. This was not Alison’s idea of life. After an early failed attempt to relegate Alison to family duties full time via a proposed dress-making course she entered the office workforce in her teens.  She learnt sound business skills and acquired a range of friends in her early years of work that she kept, in many cases, for 50 or 60 years.  It would have been longer than this but Alison outlived many of her most treasured friends – Mary Milligan, Mea Tulley (our much-loved Auntie Mea), Peggy Cook, Susan Ellis and many others. For 50 years she spoke to Susan Ellis almost every day. These were wonderful friendships.

Alison was also a sprightly attractive young lady who sought romance and who enjoyed life particularly with her friend Del and her sisters Joyce and Shirley. She had many stories about her adventures that she related to her grand-daughters. I can’t tell you about these adventures but you can ask my niece Zoe!

Shortly after the war Alison, while living in Kirribilli, met my father Morton. 

In 1947 she married him and subsequently had two children – myself and my sister (Jane).  We first lived in Headingly Flats in Elizabeth Bay where Alison made more livelong friends of Di Price Jones (our Auntie Di), Susan Ellis and Peggy Cook.

We know that Alison and my dad golfed together before work at Moore Park in the late 1940s

As with many women of the 1950s Alison became a ‘housewife’.  In 1954 we moved to Narraweena where Alison commenced raising a family and again established a network of friends by playing tennis and golf and by helping in the school canteen – this was the way you got to know the whole neighbourhood in those years – and through arranging the flowers in the local Anglican Church.  Audrey (‘Johnnie’) Toolin who lived a few blocks away became a new lifetime friend. Alison and Audrey were long-time supporters of the Sydney Mozart Society and attended the Chalwyn Theatre in Cremorne together for years.

During these years Alison ran a household effectively. She took tough and sometimes unpopular decisions and, in the end, both of her children graduated from university.  This was no small accomplishment as neither of their parents attended university.

Alison was not an intellectual who carefully weighed up alternative options. This, however, didn’t at all mean she was unintelligent – to the contrary she was practical and pragmatic with what I think was always something of a lucky streak.  She also thought she was lucky and, more to the point, respected her own abilities and therefore had confidence in her own judgement.  At times this confidence became close to stubbornness – all who knew her recognised this – but, on balance, she got it right.

During WW2 Alison won a significant lottery prize with a friend and with her winnings she purchased the business “Copying and Typewriting” at 74 Pitt Street in Sydney from her friend Peggy Cook.  Her mother disapproved of this move – it wasn’t something young ladies did – and Alison, as she related to us in the last few weeks, questioned herself the sense of this bold business move as she knew very little about running this type of business.  But Alison was entrepreneurial and made the business a success.

As Alison became a housewife and mother my father took over her business and ran it for nearly 20 years. Alison’s husband, my father, was in many ways the antithesis of Alison. If Alison was a pragmatic, practical person her husband was much less practical – he liked classical history, the Teutonic music of Beethoven and Bruckner and gardening.  There were both conflicts and good times.

When my father became ill in the 1960s my mother took over running the business again which she did with great skill. She also re-established many early business-based friendships.

Alison was quite a tough and determined business-woman who came home after a long day and sometimes critiqued the cooking of my father – an early (and rather occasional) househusband. But even my father who sometimes doubted the entrepreneurial skills of his wife could offer nothing but praise for the efforts of mum.  In fact my mother looked after my father superbly well for nearly a decade until he died in 1975.

Alison then found herself without dependent children but financially comfortable. She now had a chance to enjoy life and did so. She travelled in Europe, North America and Asia.  She had always enjoyed card games and now developed a serious interest in Contract Bridge. She did well at it with her long-term partner and friend Susan Ellis.

I had shifted to work in Thailand at the end of the 1970s and Alison was a regular visitor to my home there in Bangkok. Amongst these travels she attended my Buddhist wedding to Chumnian and travelled with us to the south of Thailand. Overcoming a lifetime aversion (and with some subterfuge on our part) she finally learnt to eat baked squid!

While a single agent Alison acquired several boyfriends. The most significant was a wonderfully kind person Karl Hilton who became a long-term companion and who she travelled with. Alison treated Karl’s family as her own and they returned this heart-felt affection. Gail, Samantha and particularly Kim became long-term friends of Alison. Kim is now based in Abu Dhabi but regularly visited Alison. Alison had, somewhat optimistically, looked forward to attending Kim’s forthcoming wedding in April.

About 6 years ago Alison recognised constraints on her health and she made the move to Windsor Gardens Retirement Village in Chatswood. My Uncle Brian drove her there and within a few minutes she made the decision to move in. This was based largely on the beautiful gardens and elegant old house there – maybe it reminded her of her childhood. It was another very sound decision as the surroundings were superb and the staff here proved to be wonderfully supportive.  

Over recent years Alison’s fought a number of health issues including her hearing loss over this time – this loss a crippling affliction for a social person such as Alison –  but her increasing physical frailty eventually became an issue.  Despite this she enjoyed the company of her friends and family and the staff of Windsor Gardens.

In recent weeks Alison showed much increased frailty and for two weeks before her passing shifted to Caroline Chisholm Retirement Village.  She passed away last Saturday.

Alison is survived by her brother Brian, her two children and by five grandchildren (Belinda, Zoe, Rebecca, Jennifer and William), a son-in-law Phillip and a daughter-in-law Chumnian and numerous members of an extended family of nephews and nieces.  I am very pleased that all her immediate family are here today.  She was an important part of all their lives and will be missed.

Finally some thank you’s.

I need to recognise those who wanted to come today but couldn’t: Judy and Neville Doneman, Gwen Sweetland, Margaret Murphy, Kim Hilton.  Judy and Nev were fantastic in supporting Alison.

I wish to thank everyone for coming here today and for the many good wishes and sympathy that has been expressed.  I hope those here will join us at the wake afterwards.

Thank you also to Alex the celebrant.

I wish to again single out Alison’s carers particularly those at Windsor Gardens and for a short period those at Caroline Chisholm whose professionalism and care made Alison’s last years so much more pleasant.  These are people of unquestionable professionalism who went the extra yard in terms of their affectionate care.

I particularly thank Dr David Storrs for being both a wonderful physician and a trusted ally of Alison’s over nearly 20 years. Words cannot express our family’s gratitude to Dr Storrs.

In the early 1990s Dr Storr’s persistence in emphasising that Alison’s breathing difficulties were not simply asthma clearly saved her life.  His care added almost 20 years to her life.

 When things didn’t run well Alison could always say “I’ll see Dr Storrs in a few days” – Dr Storrs was a lifeline to her.  Someone she trusted and a good friend.

Finally I wish to acknowledge the support that my sister Jane and her family gave Alison over the past few years. Jane retired a few years ago and much of her retirement has been taken up with care for Alison. While she didn’t begrudge Alison this care at all it would have been more equitable had I been able to do more. My niece Zoe is a qualified nurse and applied her skills and her kindness to help Alison on many occasions. In fact as my sister reminded me the help Zoe gave commenced before she became a nurse – the care was much more than a duty.

Finally, a purely personal note. I have relied on the advice and views of my mother all my life. The last few years I often felt that I wasn’t able to get across to her as well as I once could.  But Alison still had a keen and at times self-deprecating sense of humour.  She understood exactly her situation and sought to make the best of it.  

Rest in peace, Alison.  Rest in peace mum.

Harry Clarke


2 comments to Vale Alison Clarke 1917-2009

  • Myee

    Dear Harry

    By chance I have just come across your eulogy. My mum was Pat Hill. She was very fond of your mother. My sincerest sympathy.


  • hc

    Thanks Myee – I remember Pat and Derek with affection – they visited us in Thailand and in Melbourne. I also recall both you and Felicity as little kids at BAP. All the best.

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