Steph Kent: memory lane

interview by marie Chung

In a newly established contemporary retirement home just outside of Ballarat, Victoria, Steph Kent and her husband Michael have settled down for what would be a completely new chapter in their marriage.  Born in 1928, Steph Kent has lived through the wars, fashion & music trends and changing expectations of women in society. Steph married Michael in 1950 and has since lived 65 years of a wonderful and successful marriage. They have both moved to this new settlement where Steph lives next door to the retirement home and where Michael receives care for his health and the early stages of dementia.

We wonder whether Steph has found the meaning of life at the age of 87 or whether she has the recipe for a successful marriage. Without hesitation, she lends us a narrow window to view snippets of her life experiences since those early dance hall days.

Steph, where did you meet Michael?

After World War Two, there was a course offered to ex-servicemen who applied for it and a certain number were selected at a place called Dookie Agricultural College. Most of the fellows who went to World War Two were 18 – 20 year olds and a lot came back not knowing what to do with their lives. This course was run to help them get ideas and qualifications. There was bookkeeping, building and heaps of other things. Dookie College was way out of town and Michael went there. Many different subjects and lifestyles were explored to help them, and agriculture was one.  Michael did the course of two years.  

My home town of Benalla in North Eastern Victoria, was a little way from Dookie College, and fellows from there came into Benalla and Shepparton to attend dances and entertainment at weekends.  It was at one of these dances that I was introduced to Michael.  Dances in those days were so different.  Nobody needed to take a partner along.  Someone would dance with them.  There was good music to dance to, and we did waltzes, foxtrots, pride of Erins.  Have you ever heard of them?

Balls were different. You got very dressed up in a long frock, men wore shirts and ties. In those days very few people left where they had grown up – not like today.

What was your first job?

When I first left school, I worked in a bank. In those days it was unheard of for women to work in banks but because most of the young men got called up for military service, they started employing women. The men had been assured of getting their jobs back in the Banks after the war, so at war’s end, most of us girls had to move on.  There were other jobs for us to do,  I was employed by a manufacturing company  which employed about 80 men, and remained there until I married at the age of 22.

What has been the most profound change you’ve experienced?

Life seems to change all the time doesn’t it? For me, the biggest change was leaving Benalla and coming down to the western district of Victoria. It’s about 6 hours travelling distance. I noticed a big difference in the population – the friendliness and unfriendliness. I found the people of the western district very unfriendly. My husband came from Casterton in the western District, and they did not welcome  new people.  In fact, the only close  friends we made there, were people like ourselves who had come there as strangers.

Why do you think there was that attitude?

I’ve often thought about it but I don’t know. I did think it may have been something to do with the ancestry of the original settlers.  So many of the original settlers in the Western District were monied people, who took up large acreages of the land – the ‘squatters’ – and there was a mixture of ‘squatters’ and the labourers who worked from them.  It was a real division in the population.  In the North East of the State most of the original people were small farmers who were just happy to make a living.  Not so much division in the population.

Did you see roles change over time for women from the 20s, 50s & 60s?

Yes. Far more women started to get executive jobs but it was still a seven days wonder. But I’ve seen all of that happen to the stage where they are at now, where it is completely opposite.

Do you have an opinion of women in pop culture?

I just put it down to changes in the world generally.

Does it bother you that some 8 year olds hardly wear any clothes?

Well yes certainly! So much so, that when I was growing up my mother wouldn’t let us girls wear a blouse or a top that didn’t have some sleeves.

Must be a big shock for you.

I stood behind a girl yesterday and she had on the skimpiest outfit I ever seen. It seemed to be all one piece and it barely covered her cheeks at the bottom AND then it sort of cut off about there (points to shoulders) but at one stage she bent over and you could see the back of her bra! How could anyone go out like that?

Fashion would’ve changed a lot over time. What did you wear as a baby?

I would’ve been in pink or white, because I was a girl. There was no such thing as colours for baby. Even when my children were growing up they didn’t go into colours until they were walking. It was just custom.

Do you have a favorite era of music?

I’m a bit of a classic minded person. I can’t stand the noisy, screaming sort. At one stage, when we were still attending dances, the music was so loud that if you sat out a dance, you couldn’t hear each other talk.  In other days, even if you were dancing, the music was gentle enough to be able to talk to your partner.

I preferred the time when there were more amateur theatricals, with soloists and reasonably spoken people on stage.  Everyone could join in.  Now people are expected to be professionals.

Did you follow Elvis, the Beatles, AC/DC?

I didn’t mind The Beatles. What I can’t stand is not knowing what the words are – you know, when people sing, I like to know what they are saying.

[Laughter]

That has certainly changed a lot nowadays!

Ah yes, all the yelling and going on. Even when I was growing up, anyone who wore slacks [gasp]! They were a real no no.

I remember when we first moved onto our farm it was a very cold, wet winter.  We moved there in August, and I didn’t have slacks or long trousers .  Probably because I had never worn them.  Ladies didn’t wear trousers!    I remember Mick suggesting to me that it would be a good idea if I got myself a pair.  As it turned out all of us sives of the settlers starting wearing them.  I managed to keep warm in other ways.  

Now it’s mini-skirts and bum cheeks! Have you been on the farm most of your life?

We were on the farm from 1952 to 1988.  It was all new to me.  I had never lived on a farm before that. It was a big change.  For a start we had to live in a garage until our house was built.  We were part of a scheme called Soldier Settlement, where returned ex-servicemen with qualifications could buy a farming block at a low rate of interest.  There were hundreds of settlers after World War 2.

Mick does not talk much about the war.  Sometimes he mentions that he was in some place during the war.  He was in a signals Unit , so had to keep his mind on things.  These men received special training for their jobs.  They were stationed near to the fighting, and they all were affected in some way.  He was 19 or 20 when he joined up.

I wondered what it was like to have your partner going to the war. There is so much uncertainty.

Yes yes, we knew a family who lost two sons within two days of each other. Both were airmen in the European zone.  One was with a full air crew which was shot down over the sea somewhere, and none of them were ever found.  The other brother was killed somewhere else over there.  Telegrams were the way of quick communication then, and it was the signalmen’s job to send the messages.

How does the telegram work?

Well there was a machine like a computer, it was the early days of emails and things. They used Morse code, all dots and dashes, and you had to learn how to read that and someone at the other end would be able to translate it. It wouldn’t be fun. The train system also used it. I was holidaying one time with an uncle who worked on the railways, he used to use Morse. When the train left a station, he’d send a Morse message to the next station to say the train would be there in x time.

Technology has developed so much. What’s been the most interesting thing that has come about that you would’ve never imaged at 16 or 18 years old?

When I still worked at the Bank and my boss told me that men were coming back to their jobs, I was offered an opportunity to learn the latest thing – a book-keeping machine!  That was in 1945. Fancy using a machine to look after debits and credits!  The next thing was Television, and after that the Computer, Mobile Phones which I learned fairly early in the piece.

Have you dealt well with change well?

I accept some of it but prefer not to deal with some things, like Facebook. I can’t stand it. It’s so time consuming and so public in sharing content. What I found with Facebook is that once people start using it, they are not inclined to send personal messages. It all goes on Facebook and some of the grandchildren asked me to use it but in the end I took myself off it. Instead of sending an email with news in it, you had to get onto Facebook to find out anything about the family.

Emails and computers have made life a lot easier to do things. Certainly.

Now you have been with Michael for 65 years now, did you use snail mail with him at some point?

Oh we did. We used to write to each other regularly every week, that was two years before we got married. Some people used to write everyday. Michael went to work back where he originally came from, after he finished at Dookie Agricultural College.  It was a 6 hour drive to see each other!  Occasionally we would ring each other, but phone calls were very expensive in those days.

Was it hard to wait for his mail to come through?

Yes I suppose it was. The fact that we were far apart. We missed the contact with each other but now you could send 6 messages a day! Skype has been great. One thing I find difficult to deal with, is that my grandchildren have their phones with them all the time and bring it with them to the table. We had a Christmas get together at our daughters one time, the young ones sat around the edge and played with their phones all day! Didn’t bother trying to talk to anybody. I said to my daughter afterwards, “were you happy with the way things went?” She said, “yes. If I ever have another, I’ll have a bag at the front gate which says “please put your phones in here”.

John Marsden, a well-known author, has opened a number of schools around Australia, to train families how to talk to each other at the table, with no phones allowed.

Are you grateful that you have developed your relationship outside of this trend in phone use?

Yes I am. Now I’ve got a mobile phone, if I’m here at home I don’t have it on because I have the land line. If I’m at any meeting or appointment with friends, I don’t have it on because it’s rude to answer your phone when you are with a group of people. And also, I don’t want to be available every minute of the day for phone calls. I have other things to do.

What does it feel like to have shared 65 years of your life with someone?

Well, it wasn’t hard. We were fortunate in our relationship. I would not tell a lie and say we’ve never argued. We have, but never a real fight. Michael is more inclined to bicker about things than I am, but he doesn’t get away with it.

We’ve been such good mates always. We’ve mainly liked the same things. When it came to travelling, we went to places we were both interested in. I feel that we have been lucky we have had each other for so long. However, it is hard right now because it’s a bit like not knowing my husband anymore - it is hard to even have a decent conversation.

Now the last couple of years have changed in your living arrangements. How has that felt like?

It took a lot of getting used to. He became ill three days before we were supposed to move here, so he spent all that time in hospital whilst the family and I did the move. When he came out he was placed in the Home Residential for three weeks of convalescence and four weeks of respite, but never recovered enough to come here to live.

What are the first signs of dementia?

Forgetfulness for a start.  That didn’t worry me for a start, but then he was getting very confused about lots of things. It was very gradual, but when he  got bronchial pneumonia, the condition moved very swiftly, and got much worse.

Does it change the way you feel about him?

Well it makes me feel sad. Because he is a different person from the one I married, if you understand what I mean. In the first few weeks he was over there, I felt dreadful. I didn’t want to eat but I knew I had to. I was all swirly in the tummy. Another thing that happened, I would wake in the night and expect to find him in the bed beside me. All of a sudden, he’s gone. Yes that was hard but I’m used to it now, and I can cope with it a lot better.

Do you know how he feels about you now?

Well he must feel alright. Even when I’m talking to him in bed, he will reach over and take my hand and hold it. Because of that, there is still an amount of love.

I’ll go visit him when it suits me and he will often say, “I was waiting for you, waiting for you to come”.

Do you reminisce about your past?

A lot of it he doesn’t remember. But if we go back a bit, he can remember things. But that’s the nature of the beast, people can remember things way back but forget yesterday or today. I often see that. He’s been there for about 6 months now. His dementia is improving a bit but it didn’t improve after a certain point. Some days you can have a reasonable conversation, but others it is hopeless, and he will tell you the story over and over, and I just listen. Whether he dreams these things, I’m not sure. Some of the stories are incredible.

I’m wondering what it’d be like at a time when I knew my partner was going to leave me, how do you mentally prepare for it?

I used to wonder about it, but I never visualised anything.  There have been so many other friends who have lost their husbands, one who was young when he died after playing a game of tennis

I never really visualised it, but I did wonder at times who would go first , and what would be the cause of death.  I never thought we would ever separate.

Do you still have a lot of your friends around?

I’m still in touch with some of them who are still alive. There are three who I grew up with and they all live away from here but we do keep in contact.

Now that you are 87 and been through a marriage of 65 years, has your purpose in life changed?

Well after I got married, it was just a matter of trying to be a good mother and wife. I did go through a phase of wanting to go back to work and did so for a few weeks. I have done a lot of adult education, French courses, computer courses and got alot from that. I like to keep my interests up to keep the mind going. Apart from that, life’s been… okay.

I want to finish on one of the most popular and pressed for questions, what is the meaning of life? Have you found it?

I think I have. I’ve grabbed the opportunities for learning new things and still do. I think the meaning of life is mainly just to get on with other people and live your life with what you have to do.

I think I’ve made the most of mine.

What’s the lesson we can learn about sustaining a good marriage?

[Laughter]

Take any opportunities that are going to be helpful to you and your relationship. It’s a matter of being satisfied with things. Some people complain all the time but you’ve got to give and take. Everybody’s different.