Mothers and Mother Figures – Jean Margaret McGrath (1926 – 2017)

On Mothers Day we celebrate not just our mothers and grandmothers but all those women who take on the role of mothers for us. One such woman was Jean Margaret McGrath, my mother Mary’s younger sister – Aunty Jean to me.

Jean and Mary, around 1930/31.
Mary hugging the cat.

Jean was born just over twelve months after Mum on 9 April 1926 at St David’s Hospital Maffra where Mum and all her siblings were born. Jean was the third child of John Daniel McGrath and Catherine O’Connor. The family lived initially at Avondale then Boisdale. They came back to Maffra in 1932 and moved into 61 Queen Street which had been built by Jean’s grandfather, Patrick McGrath.

61 Queen Street, Maffra

She started school at Boisdale when she was a few months short of four years old because the school needed the numbers to remain open. At Maffra, Jean, Mary and their younger brother Jack attended St Mary’s Primary School run by the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

Mary and Jean’s First Communion
1933 or 1934 at St Mary’s Catholic Church, Maffra
Jean is in the front row, third from the right, and Mary is at the end of the second row, on the right.

By all reports, Jean was a well behaved little girl but she did have a story of the time her antics made it into the newspaper. Late one afternoon, when she was about ten or eleven, she and Jack and their dog Skipper were walking past the bowling green. Noticing some balls left out on the green, they climbed over the fence and had a wonderful time tossing the balls along the ground, Skipper chasing after them. The following Monday there was a piece in the Talk About Town column of the local paper which began, ‘It is said that vandals are responsible for tearing up the green at the Maffra Bowling Club’. Both Jean and Jack had the sense to keep their games with Skipper a secret at the time.

Jean and Mary in the early 1940s.

Jean left school at 14, in 1940. She had intended to go back but, just before the school year started, she saw a sign in the window of Fitzpatrick the Tailor’s saying that a junior was required so she jumped at the opportunity. She put her sewing skills to good use and spoke of making ball dresses out of curtain netting and dyeing it pretty colours during World War 2 when rationing was in place. She had a story of an airman bailing out of his plane just outside Maffra (there was an airforce base 15 miles away at Sale). The airman survived unharmed but his parachute was left behind. When the authorities came looking for it, it had disappeared. Jean said that one young woman in Maffra wore a particularly nice silk wedding dress a couple of months after that and a few of the other young woman (Jean included) were able to make silk blouses.

Mary and Jean in Melbourne, mid-1940s.
Snapped by a street photographer.
They had just been arguing, apparently.

Jean worked at Fitzpatrick’s until she moved to Melbourne in 1948. In Melbourne she worked in the tailoring department of Myers where she made men’s suits. After her marriage to John McGinley in 1955, she not only made her own dresses but curtains and bedspreads and even canvas awnings for the front of the house. Her skills with the needle and her experience as a tailoress were appreciated by many of us. She sewed jackets and coats for John and for her son and made skirts and beautiful woollen coats with little back-belts and velvet collars for my sister and I when we were children.

Aunty Jean was full of fun and her house was a great place to visit as a child. She told me my first ‘dirty’ joke –
‘Who’ll win the Melbourne Cup?’
‘Itchy Bum if it’s not scratched.’

I thought it was hilarous. I had no idea what a scratching was in the racing sense but with the word ‘bum’ in there it had to be funny.

She took me on trips into the city and warned me to stop walking with my neck craned staring up at the tall buildings – people would think I was just down from the country. These warnings were repeated at various times during my teens. Even now, fifty years after moving to Melbourne, I have not lost the tendency to stare up at the tall buildings.

Aunty Jean was very sociable woman and a great storyteller. On her visits to Ballarat to see us, she would have us laughing to the point where our faces and stomachs ached. One of her most memorable stories involved a tram journey to Essendon Airport, a old man whose trousers had fallen down and a green v-necked jumper worn as long johns. The delivery, of course, was what made the story side-splitting.

While she was a much loved aunt, it was after my move to Melbourne, aged 17, that Aunty Jean took on the role of an away-from-home mother. I suffered from home sickness for the first few months. Her home was a haven of familiarity I could escape to when I couldn’t get back to Ballarat. A phone call to Aunty Jean cost 5 cents and was untimed, calls home to Mum were timed, costing something like 20 cents for every three minutes. Like so many of those who had moved to the city, I saved up my 20 twenty cent coins and made calls on Sunday nights after 7 pm when it was cheaper. And Aunty Jean got many phone calls in between.

Aunty Jean had a zest for life. Uncle John was Irish and she embraced Irish culture. On ironing day she would stack the record player with Irish records and sing at the top of her lungs as she ironed. Like some of us, she had not been granted a beautiful singing voice, but that didn’t matter because she was enjoying herself. If anyone dared to say anything, she would toss her head and say ‘Oh, wisht!’ and raise the volume of her singing further.

Aunty Jean baking.
Not pavlova this time.

I attended some great parties at Aunty Jean and Uncle John’s. These were so much more than eating, drinking and noisy conversation – there was singing and story telling and even sometimes dancing. At other times, I stayed for weekends, sitting up late on Saturday night, sharing a quiet beer with Uncle John discussing politics, religion, history and how to set the world right. The night often ended with Aunty Jean’s toasted cheese sandwiches because she said we wouldn’t sleep properly with all that beer sloshing around in our stomachs. Like so many women of her generation, food was an expression of love. I remember arriving on her doorstep wearing a pair of fashionable trousers with the pleats sitting flat at the front. She took one look and said, ‘Oooh, we can’t have clothes hanging off you. I’ll soon fix that up.’ Aunty Jean was the queen of pavlova makers. If the centre fell, that was just an opportunity to fill the well with more cream. And, as well as making them, she enjoyed eating pavlova too.

Once I started work and later married and had children, I didn’t see her and Uncle John as much but I spoke to her at least once a week, if not more often, in lengthy phone calls. And, of course, there were weddings, baptisms, anniversaries, birthday parties and visits to each other. By then Aunty Jean had an adored grandson who was the same age as my children and on these visits they got the chance to play together. Despite both living in Melbourne, we were over 30 kilometres apart and, as I don’t drive, the vagaries of public transport meant that often the journey took as long as it did to travel by country train to see my parents 120 km away.

Aunty Jean in her 80s.
Still laughing and still telling stories.

I have so many memories of Aunty Jean for she was a constant in my life. And so, on Mothers Day I remember not only my mother but Aunty Jean as well.

Jean and Johns wedding photo.
They were married on 2 January 1955 at St Mary’s Church, Maffra.
Jean’s parents are standing either side of them.

Jean met John McGinley at an Irish dance in Melbourne in the early 1950s. She was introduced to him by a friend but he went off and danced with someone else. The next time she went to the dance, he was there and made a beeline straight for her. They married on 2 January 1955 at St Mary’s, Maffra. It was a grand wedding, complete with Irish pipers. A cameraman was meant to be there to film the wedding for John’s family in Donegal but his car broke down and he only arrived in time to film them leaving the Church and at the railway station before they left on their honeymoon.

And here, finally, is the minute and a half that remain of the film taken at their wedding. It is wonderful to have even this snippet not just for showing us Jean on a very happy occasion but because it also has images of other family members long gone. At 28 seconds you can see my mother in the black hat with a pink flower on it talking to her aunt, Margaret (McGrath) King. Mum then walks off, and smiles directly into the camera. At 50 seconds, my grandfather, John Daniel McGrath (the shorter man) is talking to his brother-in-law, John Joseph O’Connor. The film ends with Jean boarding the train to Melbourne in her going-away outfit of ‘dusty pink embroidered poplin, pink hat, and junior navy accessories’.

3 thoughts on “Mothers and Mother Figures – Jean Margaret McGrath (1926 – 2017)

    • I love people’s memories of the past. They often include little bits and pieces about the way people lived that don’t make it into history books.
      As children get older they often take more interest. And sometimes grandchildren can be far more interested than their parents. It can be a good idea to write down what you remember of the stories you were told. Someone in the future will treasure them – there is always one family snoop in every generation

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have a couple of folders of family photos and records which, ironically, started when my daughter had a school project on family history. I have wondered if media is a barrier, having converted super 8 to VHS and then to CD and later, pendrive – my daughter lives out of an apple phone, so typed media is a bit passe and inconvenient.
        Yeah, who knows, maybe the interest will skip a generation.

        Liked by 1 person

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