I was 16 years old. Uncle Bert was the brother of my paternal grandmother. In later years I was to find out that they had a strong bond, he was a gentle man and she a gentle woman.
I was aware of him as a little boy. He always wore a suit, ill fitting and a hat. He had some kind of job with the company called Stamina, it was Melbourne in the 1950’s. I always felt comfortable with him and of course to me he seemed very, very old….
His wife had died by the time I knew him..He was a protestant and she a catholic, something which never rested well with his sister, Daisy, my grandmother..there was a palpable divide in Australia at the time, Protestant and Catholic. Strangely enough my father was to marry a Catholic, a mixed marriage was the term in the 50’s.
As Uncle Bert became aged and ill he was put in a home in Northcote run by The Little Sisters Of The Poor…He slept in a large dormitory with other old and sick men.
Through the family grape vine he had heard I was going into a Monastery, a Junior Seminary in Galong, NSW…The Nursing Home had strict visiting hours. The family adhered to these rules. However one day there was a phone call that Uncle Bert wanted to see me. My parents were to take me to the Nursing Home on a day when visitors were not permitted. We arrived at lunch time and sat with him. There was a treat after his meal, a glass of cold beer, which I still recall him drinking with gusto in his mid 70’s.
The reason he had asked me to visit was that he had a gift for me. It was a small leather wallet which had religious medals sewn into it. He wanted me to have it as I was leaving home to enter a religious order.
Not long after finishing his glass of beer he began to cough and convulse as my parents sat with me at his bed side. He was dying. Most likely already dead. My mother and I quickly pulled the rope in the dormitory which was attached to a large bell. We then left the dormitory to seek help. We walked the wide corridors of the Convent and ran into a Nun who was walking our way. I said ” I think Mr Phillips is dying’ And with that equanimity of soul that nurses have she replied ” I will attend to it”
My mother and I went to the Chapel and knelt for a short time then returned to the bedside of my dead Great Uncle.
It was an amazing experience. The first dead body I had seen, the exchange of the gift, which sadly, I no longer have, the privilege of being with Uncle Bert for his last breath..