Cordelia’s home was a very violent place when she was little. Her father fractured her mother’s skull twice, and also threatened to kill her with an axe. ‘He was a dreadful creature, and no-one seemed to be able to protect us from him.’
Cordelia and her siblings were placed in care when she was nine years old, in the early 1940s. The children were not made wards of the state, but were sent to a children’s home in suburban Melbourne. Her father paid for their care, ‘this seemed to be a very important thing for me, mainly for my mother’s sake’. She did not want to be seen as a ‘welfare kid’.
This privately-run home was ‘a nightmare of a place’. Mr Travers, the groundskeeper, was ‘a dirty old bugger’. He’d always have a bag of broken biscuits or lollies, he’d say, “come ‘round here, and I’ll give you”, and that’s when he got a few of us’.
He told Cordelia she had to be a good girl, then put his hands inside her pants and digitally penetrated her. This happened at least three times. Cordelia complained that he was hurting her, but he did not stop. He also sexually abused her sister.
When they reported the abuse to the home’s matron, she told them they were liars, and washed their mouths out with soap.
Cordelia returned to live with her mother when she was 12. The family lived in fear of w workers coming to take the children again. ‘Life has just been one “on edge” episode.’ Cordelia’s mother always told them to ‘look good, and be good. Don’t smell like poverty, she’d say’.
After her parents divorced, Cordelia was called to give evidence against her father in court, when he was on trial for assaulting her mother. He was jailed, which was a huge relief for the family. Years later, when he died, ‘They wanted to know what to do with the ashes. I said, feed them to the sharks’.
The people at the home told Cordelia that she wouldn’t ever amount to anything, and would only ever work in a shop. She left school when she was 14, but completed her education at night school. Still in her teens, she trained as a nurse, and worked in maternal and child health. Throughout her life, she continued to study and work in helping professions.
Cordelia always felt different to other people because of her childhood, particularly that she grew up in a children’s home. ‘I’m always worried that people will find out who I am.’
Being in care fractured the relationship between Cordelia and her siblings, and she does not stay in touch much with them these days. In her 30s, studying welfare, she realised, ‘I didn’t know what a normal family was’.
As an adult, her mental health declined to the point that ‘I just couldn’t believe I was alive’, and she went to see a psychiatrist. She doesn’t think he quite understood her situation, ‘and I probably wasn’t at that stage able to be honest, absolutely honest’.
The psychiatrist said she needed to take medication, ‘which I did, because I thought, they know. And that was terrible too, I couldn’t remember to clean my teeth some days’. After this, she found a different doctor, and this was a better experience.
It was very important to Cordelia to never receive welfare, or to ask for charity. Due to her low wages as a nurse, and living in subsidised quarters, she was unable to save much for her later years. Though she managed to buy a small cottage for herself and her dogs, she could not afford the maintenance costs and now lives in a retirement village.
Since retiring, Cordelia has struggled to make ends meet. The retirement home is poorly maintained and run, and she cannot leave without losing a large portion of her life’s savings. After spending all of her life working hard to make sure she had a roof over her home, and could never be institutionalised again, ‘now I’m back in poverty like I’m in an orphanage’.
She finds it distressing that people denigrate old age pensioners, particularly those who have not had many opportunities in life. ‘I have tried in many ways to prove myself a good citizen and be accepted, even in old age we are referred to by governments as a financial burden ... We are not worthy to live like those who were more fortunate. We are doomed to social isolation and I fear also dying alone.’
Having worked in aged care, Cordelia is very aware of the vulnerability of the elderly to neglect and abuse. The thought of spending her last days in a nursing home terrifies her, and she draws strong parallels between modern aged care facilities and the children’s homes of the past.
A few years ago, 60 years after she was in care, Cordelia attended a reunion of people who had been in the home. A number of people tried to speak about their bad experiences there, but were shut down by staff from the institution.
Her childhood still plays on her mind sometimes. ‘I try so hard to understand why we were abandoned, left to suffer, and still cry within myself for my mother at 79 years, the loss, the separation, like sexual pain and abuse, no doubt will continue until I go to the grave.’
She counts herself lucky to have had some good people in her life, who have given her support and advice when she needed it. ‘I’ve been very fortunate. I don’t feel I want to go out and destroy anybody, or be angry to anyone, because in my life, my mother always taught us there are good people who help you.’