You can’t ask that


14 Jul 2022

In honour of the second World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly to be held on 24 July (the fourth Sunday of July), we revisit an article that appeared in the Winter 2021 edition of Madonna magazine.

The past often exerts an exotic pull – what was life like back when? The elderly provide a link to the past and in this article agreed to be interviewed by their, mainly, grandchildren to talk about their lives, hopes and dreams.


Most of the interviewees were born around the time of WWII (1939-1945) or just after. Despite many experiencing what could be considered extreme poverty, the majority of childhood memories are happy.

Thresiamma: My childhood days are the most precious memories that I cherish. Our morning routine included going to church early morning and then helping my mother with household chores before going to school. I still remember playing games on our chalkboards and secretly eating snacks while the teacher was teaching. After school, I used to hang around the school premises and play games with my friends. When I get back home all of my siblings would study together, help with farming, pray and have dinner together. Those days bring back memories of good health, lack of responsibility and stress-free times.

Lumeng: My family was quite poor, but we weren’t starving. I couldn’t get an education due to our house being quite geographically distant from the village where the school was. But overall, I will always cherish the warm feeling of playing with my friends who lived next door. The whole neighbourhood was one family, and it was very joyous and happy all the time.

Nancy: My brother Jack and I were born in a split log cabin in Chester County Tennessee. No running water, no electricity, you pull water up if you want it. Kerosene lamps in each room. We had two rooms in the house: a kitchen and a bedroom, and we were happy. Daddy was a sharecropper. He worked weekends at a sale barn where they’d sell the farm’s extra animals.

First jobs

Ann: When I was 13 or 14, I spent my Saturday mornings at the local chemist. They tried to teach me to serve customers, but I was embarrassed to talk to people. I didn’t last long because we were transferred so it didn’t matter!

Ken: I was about 11 or 12 and I was the money collector for the local newsagent. They used to deliver the papers every morning and there were lots of people reading it in those days. And I used to go around every fortnight to a certain set of streets and give them the bill and collect the money.

Kevin: Building a haystack with hay on the farm, my father’s farm. I helped with the hay every day to feed the horses. I was about 16 and in Year 10.

Catherine: My first job was a local job being a wages clerk during the holidays. When I stopped studying, I became a statistical clerk in the heart of the business district in London.

Xerxes: My first job was a salesman’s job at Burlingtons of Bombay. I saw an ad in the paper and applied. I always wanted to be a clothes designer. Always. As I went to work every day I knew I had to do this on my own. I wanted to design. I would sketch on the job and sell my designs without even knowing what I was doing. I just had to be a designer and I did. 

Huang Man: I started as a teacher after graduating with a chemistry degree. Teaching was a very honourable job as it provides both knowledge and culture, allowing these young saplings to become mannerly and kind people. It wasn’t simple, but I enjoyed it a lot. Later, I worked as an engineer that aims to protect the environment through reducing the harms a business makes to the area. I encouraged sustainable processing and was responsible for documenting and suggesting ways for a business to reduce waste emitted. It was a very tiring job but purposeful as it supports the environment and was filled with responsibility.

First dates

Catherine: I was 17, and he was a medical student within my friendship group at the university. We went to the theatre to see the musical Salad Days, and then went for a meal at a restaurant afterwards.

Ann: Ohhhh. I remember – I – I do I remember I was in grade – wait I have to remember the schools I was at! I was in grade 5 in Cairns, and his name was Earl Peterson. There you go. I remember! Grade five! We used to bicycle to school together and that’s as far as it went. But only sometimes, not every day!

Kevin: [I was] 18. it was quite exciting and a little nerve racking all at the same time. We went to see a musical. Although I can’t remember the name of it, I did know that It was a long musical and an American production. I felt very happy to be there and share the moment with Marea [his wife].

Advice to younger self

Helen: I wished I could have gone into nursing. Having the ability to help other people and make a difference. But, I have no regrets – having kids was one of the best experiences of my life.

Lumeng: I would say to younger Lumeng, is to take school and your education seriously. Receiving an education is a privilege that I wish I could’ve had. Also, continue to be determined in pursuing your dreams.

Tina Flora: When I was younger, I would get too emotional over things, it would fill up my life, so I would say my advice would be to not take life too seriously, to be more laid back and just enjoy life.

Bruno Flora: I would say to do what you do well, do things that you love and things that will make you happy. Surround yourself with people that support you and make you want you to be a better person.

Catherine: I would tell myself that I should think what would make myself happy first and that when making a decision, it should be for me.

Thresiamma: My advice would be live your life without being afraid of judgment from the society. Societal values and prejudices keep changing but every individual has only one life to live.

Most vivid memory

Nancy: It was a hurricane that stayed on the ground 1000 miles, came up through Mississippi, and tore across Tennessee. That storm took my Uncle Isaac’s house. Uncle Isaac was putting his wife and children in the fruit cellar and went back upstairs when his wife caught his shirt and jerked him back down the stairs just as the house was taken away. I remember we had a chair in front of the fireplace. During the storm, Mother was holding me in the chair and reading aloud with Daddy standing behind, wrapping his arms around us.

Huang Man Hua: One student gathered all of his students 40 years after he graduated and invited me as I was their homeroom mentor. 40 years later they still hadn’t forgotten me, and it made me feel very warm inside.

Societal changes

Helen: Obviously there has been a development in technology, but the saddest thing, I think, is when young couples now have children and they so quickly put them in childcare. They miss so much of their childhood and their development. 

Tina Flora: That females can now do more, they can pick whatever career they want, as when I was young, we didn’t get a choice, it’s good to finally see women be able to live life how they want. 

Bruno Flora: When I was a little boy it was a primitive situation, we didn’t have any radio, TV, phones. I like the use of technology as it made a large difference, when I was young you had no lights or electricity, I use to go out with friends close by and play games till about 10, there were streetlights, and we would use lanterns to see. When I was 6 or so electricity appeared, and it had a big influence on society.

Catherine: The rise and expansion of public healthcare throughout the world to ensure a healthier population.

Xerxes: The biggest change in society is the awareness in people in regard to climate change. This was not there in the ’60s and ’70s.


Catherine: I regret not being as out-going, independent or confident as others in the peer group and giving up studying medicine when I was growing up.

Bruno Flora: When I was 12, I had to go to the US for study, but I didn’t end up going as it got cancelled. So, I think my biggest regret would be that I wanted to go the USA, because if I did go, I would have missed out on the life I have now with my children, grandchildren and I wouldn’t have met my wife.

Kevin: I didn’t pray enough and dedicate enough time to praying. Didn’t think I needed to at the time, but looking back on it I think I needed to.

Ken: Mine would be not having a stronger relationship with my father before he died. Getting to know him better while I had the chance too.

And the last word goes to Xerxes: I have no regrets. Surely one regret, at least? Not one.


Thresiamma Varghese, Kerala, India. By Ann Maria Sabu
Ann and Ken Jones, Australia. By Annabel Jones
Kevin Arundell, Leighton, NSW. By Felicity Arundell
Helen Schyvens, born The Hague, Netherlands, migrated to Australia in 1950. By Anneke Van Zoggel
Huang Man Hua, China. By Wennie Zhu
Lumeng Salome Dalisay, Malawak, Philippines. By Lindsay Austria
Tina and Bruno Flora, born Italy, migrated to Australia. By Ruby Hinden
Nancy Holland, California, US. By Shelby Marie Holland
Catherine Skene, born Iraq, lived in England and Australia. By Victoria Saxby
Xerxes Bhathena, Mumbai, India. By Vivana Bhathena
Ann Maria is a young writer for Madonna’s sister publication, Australian Catholics; Annabel, Felicity, Anneke, Wennie, Lindsay, and Victoria are Year 11 students at Mount St Benedict College, NSW; Shelby is studying for her Masters in biomedical engineering at Melbourne University; Vivana is a Year 10 student at Avila College, Mt Waverley, Vic.

See for all the interviews in full.

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