*(Photo: Hellie Mahony)
Born during the Great Depression, growing up during the Second World War and now living through COVID-19, Elizabeth “Betty” Borthwick has taken it all in her stride.
Of living through the biggest events in world history, the 87-year-old simply offers: “it was just how we grew up… it just came into our life as though it was normal.” This casual demeanour is a sign of an unbreakable resilience, something Betty has carried throughout her life.
Born on the 8th of January, 1933 – an only child – and raised in Braidwood in rural NSW, she has spent the majority of her life living on the land. Now, 75 years since the end of the Second World War, Betty can see similarities between wartime restrictions and coronavirus restrictions. She says COVID-19, “seems worse to me.”
Betty remembers how different it was going to the shops during The Great Depression and the Second World War. “We had coupon books. You only had so many coupons for the month. Bread and milk and clothes were in a different book. It probably was good for us, I suppose, in a funny way. You had to be economical. That’s how it was.”
Betty’s cousin Geoff Hassall, grew up nearby. “It was someone else’s problem… young children didn’t really take much notice,” he says of the war.
Betty’s father was too old to serve. “I can remember my father, we had to listen to the news every night at seven o’clock [for] how the war was going.” While her mother served by spotting planes. “She had to sit on top of the church tower and spot aeroplanes. She had to note every plane that went over in case the [Japanese] bombed. I used to have to go with her after school.
“We were very patriotic, you had to listen to the news and we all wanted us to be winning.”
Growing up on the land and during the war made Betty the strong woman she is today. “She used to boss me around,” Geoff laughs, “she used to lay down the law with me a bit! We were really [close]… she was a lot of fun [so] she made a lot of friends when she went off to school.”
Moving to boarding school at the age of nine, Betty was forced to stay strong. But she doesn’t consider herself resilient: “I suppose that’s how we had to be… that’s the way it was.”
Her oldest daughter Louise Hufton says: “I think her life was strongly influenced by being the only child [of] elderly parents. [It] influenced a lot of her attitudes to things. I think she spent a lot of time looking after people.”
In 1953, Betty married Bill Borthwick and moved to Walcha to begin the next chapter of her life. Within four years she had the first of four daughters. It was a humble beginning, she recalls. “We would only go to town once a week to get bread or the mail. It was a big event to go to town.”
Living off the land wasn’t all that easy: “I’d pick up sticks, burn-off (I’d always help Bill), dose sheep… before I had the children.”
Louise remembers her mother running “the entire business. Dad did the work and Mum was behind the scenes paying the wages and balancing the books – making sure the business ran effectively and efficiently. She was very good at administration.
“She was always just a very busy mother; she always made all our clothes. She made beautiful dresses for Penny and I and Polly. Our party dresses and dresses for show and going to town were always home-made by Mum.”
Louise says her mother’s independence shaped the women her daughters became. “Because of how she lived her life, she made sure we were all independent women. I suppose she made sure that we could stand on our own.”
Life was “pretty busy,” Betty adds, “it was full on. But I suppose four girls were probably easier than four boys!”
Last year’s drought and this summer’s bushfires brought back memories of one year in particular that required all her inner-strength. “We certainly had a big drought in ’65. It was pretty bad. We had bushfires. It was certainly a bad year for me. My mother died, my father died [and] we moved to Yerrawun. It was terrible… it was pretty tough. You’d be lucky if you went to town once a week.”
Betty is empathetic to the people who are working the land at the moment, “you feel sorry for the kids you know, I guess we went through it too, I suppose.” So, it’s no surprise that her life revolves around family.
“She wanted to make sure that we valued each other and valued the support that you get from being in a family,” Louise recalls. “She never verbalised it, but if Penny and I were having an all-in brawl, Mum’s only comment was ‘you don’t know how lucky you are to have siblings’.”
Looking back on things, Betty can see similarities in the effect on life during the Second World War and now, during the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s certainly made a change to the whole world.” She says the scariest thing is the fear “for your children.”
Long retired and still living in Walcha, she usually travels to Sydney in winter to escape the cold. But she’s stayed home this year because of COVID-19.
“I wouldn’t dream of leaving! I’m quite happy to sit here with the telly and a big jigsaw, but it’s a bit annoying that I can’t go visit my children or friends.”
Having lived through several crises, she has advice for today’s generation as they move forward through COVID-19: “they’ve just got to go with the flow I guess, and think of others.
“I guess we can take it better than the younger ones, we’ve sort of been there before.”