Today the world lost Valerie Mildred Bracher, at age 97.
To my family she was dear old Auntie Val, eccentric but much-loved. Big sister to my beloved late father. To the Australian Defence Force she was VFX91687 (Corporal). To scores of wounded soldiers in New Guinea and Darwin in WW2 where she nursed, she was an angel.
As with many of her era, her stories remain largely untold. I have her original service pictures and over twelve months ago I took them to her to express my admiration and pride and in the hope of unwrapping her cherished memories of friendship and camaraderie, amongst the carnage she no doubt experienced. Sadly, she didn’t recognize me, nor herself in the photos and I thought the end was nigh. She lasted another year or so but that was the last time I saw her. Conspiring circumstances and my laxness denied me the opportunity to maybe grab a rare sliver of time with her when she was lucid. The flip side of that regret is the probability that her cognitive decline would sadden me and unfairly distort my memories of this lady who was omnipresent in my childhood and adolescent world.
Her military service didn’t define her publicly but she was in my thoughts during last weekend’s 75th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin. VFX91687 Valerie Mildred Bracher didn’t enlist until after this attack but she was the last living family member with a connection to the one and only time that Australia has been invaded. Some time ago she donated her uniform and adornments to the Australian War memorial.
Auntie Val was a vibrant, strong and attractive woman who never married. In latter years she became slightly more expansive and provided hints of love lost. With a tinge of sadness we often wondered about those “sliding doors” moments in her life. War time complicated matters of the heart but I daresay the spirit remained willing.
Her post-war sacrificial reality was that as the only un-married member of her family, she felt obliged to nurse both her mother and father in their cherished Cowper St Hawthorn home until their respective deaths. Her domestic liberation was not to come until at least 25 years after the end of the war and ultimately she forwent the financial spoils that were bequeathed to her from the sales of the house, in favour of sharing the proceeds with her four siblings and their respective families. Selflessness was a constant.
When finally able to cast off the anchor of caring for her parents, Auntie Val’s place became our Melbourne “go-to” destination as children. At least annually she would meet us at Spencer St in the VW Beetle and take us to her “Villa” unit. Auntie Val was insistent upon the use of this descriptor of her place of abode, as the term Unit was far too “common” (!), Flat was an unreasonable/unflattering description of the O.Y.O. and Apartment was still a notion only in vogue on American TV shows such as A Family Affair, with Brian Keith and Mr. French! Over the years she had Villas in Ivanhoe, Burwood and Glen Iris… however the latter had a distinctly “flat” feel about it!
During footy season visits she would pack us a lunch and a thermos and take me to the Lake Oval. Standing in the cold mid-winter wind that came off the bay she would put her Hawthorn allegiance aside and afford my team her undivided attention for the day. She didn’t much care for the “Swans” moniker and deferred to “The Bloods” as representing a far harder, manlier unit. That worked just fine for me. I can also recall an MCG visit where we stayed in the VW post-match listening to Harry Beitzel’s post-match summary of all six Saturday games on her large transistor radio. Inevitably, as perennial cellar-dwellers The Bloods match report was last. The traffic had well cleared by the time we tootled out into Brunton Ave.
When I moved to the Melbourne for university I was reluctantly recruited by Auntie Val into seasonal voluntary work at the Combined Charities Christmas Card shop. This was retrospective singing for the metaphorical supper that she had provided for years and also an extension of her keen sense of civic and social responsibility, honed through years of self-sacrifice.
Age did not weary her for a long, long time. However, eventually she tired of her lot and never really came to grips with the many variants of “supported accommodation”. Her tolerance for others waned but that did not impact her capacity nor appetite to engage in stimulating and often amusing conversation with family. Caught up in life, my visits to Auntie Val’s ever-shrinking places of abode became rarer. However, throughout her ninth and well into her tenth decades when I visited, her interest in vigorous debate around the usual no-go zones of politics and religion remained keen. Sport remained a conversational winner as did her increasing fixation on not wanting to live any longer. Her intelligent insight into the question of fundamental life choices (or lack thereof) has been a shaping force for my own views on this vexed question.
When we lose a connection to our youth, a little bit of us dies. Valerie Mildred Bracher was, and will remain a marker of a bygone, but mighty era in Australian life. Her military service inspired me to join the RSL and it was with pride that I used her service credentials as my key to admission. Whilst the daily detail of her brave service for this country remains untold, the cloak of selflessness that surrounded her civic and personal world remains prominent in the minds of those that knew and loved her, even with her cranky and eccentric late-in-life mannerisms.
One final memory: despite my preference to be elsewhere, on one trip to Melbourne she took me to St Paul’s Cathedral, to marvel in the grandeur of that place and the magnificence of the choir and congregation in full voice. Today I was back there, to talk to her one last time. A service was underway. It just felt right.
We farewell our Auntie Val formally next week. VFX91679 Corporal Valerie Mildred Bracher, your country salutes you.