Those of us who write for The Disruptive Author know it is written ‘by women for women who live life on purpose’. My article this month is about a woman who has lived, and continues to live, a wonderful life on purpose.
Elskè Taylor came into the world weeks after a fierce by-election in her hometown, Lewisham in London’s south-east. It was 1921 and the election’s victor served his electorate until his death seventeen years later. Well before that though, Elskè had celebrated the birth of Princess Elizabeth, a baby brother of her own and, with her family, emigrated to Australia.
Though the name Elskè is gender-neutral, it is primarily used for girls.
“I’d tell everyone my name was Elskè M.A.R.Y, so they didn’t think I was a boy,” she said.
Her cousin, George, just a year older than she and already living in Australia, held her hand as she descended the ship’s gangway into her new country.
“He took my hand to keep me safe,” she told me. “And he held my hand for the rest of his life,” she added.
By sheer coincidence, just after George’s demise three months short of his ninety-ninth birthday, we discovered that George’s son, Andrew, is my husband’s employer. We’ve since shared stories with Andrew of the likeness in nature of the two cousins, joyous family gatherings over the century, and of how George and Elskè would sing together on the phone.
At sixteen, Elskè met Lawrie Winten, the man she would marry.
“It was at a Scout’s Hut dance,” she said. “He was an Australian, seven years older than me, with impeccable manners. We courted amongst a group of young people who picnicked, played hit and giggle tennis and were home by nightfall.”
When WWII loomed, Lawrie joined the Queensland Cameron Highlanders 61st Division. Elskè saw little of him for five years. For this gentle Christian woman, seeing much less of her young man once the Highlanders faced the enemy in New Guinea ensured she suffered deep anguish for the safety of her fiancé and the futility of war. Family, friendships, and music sustained her through this period.
Eventually, the couple married on November 20th, 1946. “We didn’t have a big wedding because of the scarcities of war. Our wedding day was a year to the day before Princess Elizabeth’s. We saved money to send to the Australian Government to buy the royal couple a wedding present.”
With the arrival of the Winten’s children, Jennifer and Peter, their home was full of the love of learning and music. Elskè had played piano since childhood and wholeheartedly encouraged her offspring’s musical endeavours. Whilst the children achieved well in Brisbane’s boys’ and girls’ grammar schools, their mum worked in the respective tuckshops.
“Each school’s tuckshop ladies kept in touch through the years. One group went out on special occasions and the other met annually on the first Monday in February. We reconnected every year for forty-five years and I kept a record of each outing. When we began our meetups, we were very dignified. We called each other Mrs this and Mrs that. As the years progressed, it became less formal, firm friendships grew, and I recorded all our children’s milestones, the women’s thoughts and opinions of the current affairs and the triumphs and sorrows of family life,” Elskè revealed.
Chief among those sorrows for Elskè and Lawrie was the loss of their dear and accomplished son from a viral infection at only thirty years old. A beautiful soul had gone.
Though only two other tuckshop ladies remain, Elskè still keeps in touch with them by phone. She sent her extraordinary record of family history to the girls’ school for its archives and an original painting to the boys’ school in Peter’s memory.
It was in the children’s high school years that Elskè was a founding member of the Brisbane Grammar School Art Show, which still exists today to raise money for the schools’ arts programmes. As an artist herself, she has a bright, distinctive style. The Queensland Gallery has hung her work and she ‘paints’ in Textas at least one hundred Christmas cards for friends and relations every year.
She and other Wavell Heights residents lobbied ardently to prevent Rode Road being made into a major multilane highway. They succeeded. Despite it still being a busy road, she stands ‘under the tree where (she says) the sergeant major made love to me in 1946’ when any of our class members collect her for Tai Chi. Knowing Lawrie wasn’t a sergeant major, I asked Elskè why she said that.
“It was a song of that era,” she said.
Music perpetually fills her mind and home.
When Elskè was ninety-five, losing the cane she uses in Tai Chi upset her greatly. She’d bought it over fifty years before, and its loss prompted thoughts of making confessions to her mother about mishaps that occurred in childhood.
This sweet interaction between us inspired me to write Great Grandma Elskè’s Bamboo Cane, a picture book for young children which documents the incident (with a bit of artistic license) and its subsequent happy outcome.
The book has brought Elskè much joy because of the reactions of people from all over the world. The words of primary school children who reviewed it at the behest of their teacher particularly delighted her. One child wrote, ‘I liked it how Great-Grandma Elskè was sociable and exercised in the coolest way!! She is a NINJA WARRIOR!!’
With her one hundredth birthday fast approaching (August 30th), Elskè continues to practice Tai Chi every week with sword and cane.
“I’m having a bit of difficulty with my twirls,” she confided to me recently.
At ninety-nine, I think that’s entirely acceptable. I’m just glad she’s still in our class to delight us with her stories of a life lived to the fullest for a whisker away from one hundred years.
©Rhonda Valentine Dixon
First Published in The Disruptive Author in August 2021