Seeking out stories in storage

Thelma Burrowes reflects on her life.
Carly Thomas

Thelma Burrowes reflects on her life.

The stories of the aged can often be overlooked, so Carly Thomas went in search of them.

When I look into the face of Doug Edmiston, I see an old man. When Doug looks back at me, he knows that's what I see. I speak a little louder, a little slower, I mind my manners.

But Doug's as sparky as they come. He shrugs off my ridiculous question of "if there is one thing you could pass on what would it be?", with a straight-off-the-bat reply: "Play rugby".

Doug Edmiston with a model that he made of St Michael's Church in Highbury, Palmerston North.
Carly Thomas

Doug Edmiston with a model that he made of St Michael's Church in Highbury, Palmerston North.

We laugh, Doug more at me than at himself. His body might be giving up on him, but Doug is still the man he was, and he'll tell you, if you give him half a chance. 

But here's the thing. We don't always listen. Doug is 93 years old and the stories he tells go way back to when he was young, serving in the navy during World War II.

He  joined the ministry on his return, meeting his wife and starting a family. His stories take time because they span a lot of it.

But time is a commodity that we don't always have and so stories are often left sitting in rest homes, or hospitals or in a one-bedroom unit on a residential street. 

A generation passes and it's gone.

When I ask about rugby, he leans forward in his armchair, hands an oval-ball length apart.

"When I was a vicar I was playing rugby in Mangaweka," he says. "I'd go along to a rugby practice and they'd all be muttering under their breath 'oh, it's a bloody vicar, he's a vicar, what does he want? To say a prayer?' and I'd say 'no, I want to play rugby', 'where do you play?', they'd ask. 'Lock, in the scrum'.

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"So then someone would have to lock with 'the vicar' and they would put a nervous arm around me. But once you went down in that scrum, then bam, finished, I was one of them."

He was the vicar who was always "one of them" – no pretensions, no barriers. He wanted to serve everyday people and his great joy was the work he did at St Michael's Church in Highbury alongside his wife.

He says he learned how to get along with people in the army, and then later the navy, when he worked as a wireless operator.

"We sailed out into the Tasman right up to the coast of Japan and I was up there when they dropped the atomic bombs. In our wireless room we had all sorts of radios and we always ran the BBC, just to get the news from the world around us. So it happened that it was through the BBC in London that we found out that we were sitting in the fallout."

Doug talks his way through an extraordinary life, from being 16 and working in a bank in Palmerston North, where he slept at nights with a loaded revolver under his pillow "ready to defend the cash", going to war on the coast of Japan and then becoming a vicar "of the people".

Doug isn't an old person, he's a person.

Someone will be in later to see Doug. He gets plenty of visitors, his family looks after his big, beautiful, old house and they are close by.

In an apartment upstairs from Doug's home in the hospital section, Thelma Burrowes doesn't see so many people through her door, although right now, it's open.

"I don't really have a story to tell," says the 95-year-old, before she launches into an endless stream of them, some funny, some sad, others that draw a gasp.

Thelma, like Doug, says she is still the "same old Thelma".

"Your mind doesn't age. I still think in the same way. I'm still me. That's why I think I can do things that I can't. I think so many people just don't think about it, ask us if we want to go for a walk, have a chat, talk to us, take us out.  But then, I never thought about it when I was younger, did I?."

Thelma has 10 children and many other foster kids. She's past keeping tally on how many grandchildren and great-grandchildren she has.

"It's not bragging", she says, "but we could afford to have a lot of kids and give them a good life, so why not?". And her husband was "a goodie". "He was very patient," she says.

The pair met before WWII. When he was called up, they got engaged. Her fiancee became a hero, a torpedo bomber, who was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery. He had been at war for three years.

"He was sent the letter to come to Buckingham Palace and he declined because he would  have missed the ship home to his beloved," she pauses and smiles, "that was me". Thelma giggles, "you're not supposed to refuse a royal invitation, but he did".

"In the end they changed the date and he got there to receive his medal. I had gone to Wellington to see his ship sail off, until I couldn't see it any more, and then I was there when it came back."

They were lucky, "in the group he was in, only two or three of them made it back".

Thelma talks about her childhood, her parents "parted when I was barely 3. It was just my sister and I".

"We went out for a year and lived with my dad near Inglewood and then at the end of that time he said 'who do you want to live with, your father or your mother?'. Well, as a girl I had spent every night howling for my mother and so we said 'our mother'. I think now what a rotten thing to do to a man who had looked after us for a year. And it wasn't easy for him." 

Thelma didn't see her dad again but her clear-as-day memories remain.

"He used to work on the railway and he had a hand jigger. We weren't meant to, but we would all get on it and go up to the pictures in Inglewood. I think they were still silent then. But coming home, it was great, it was all downhill. It was his way of giving us a treat and showing us some love."

It wasn't an easy childhood and it seems so different to how things are now. It shaped this woman and it went a little way toward making her children, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren who they are. 

Thelma is good company, but time starts to catch up.

I tell Thelma I have to go.  They're words I can see she has heard before.

"I told you I didn't really have a story," Thelma says.

I smile and shake my head.  She has a life lived and she has who she is right now. 

Thelma Burrowes - a 95-year-old worth all the time in the world.

 - Stuff

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