CREATIVE AGEING:  Writer, painter, pianist; the extraordinary 93-year-old Joan Benbow.
CREATIVE AGEING: Writer, painter, pianist; the extraordinary 93-year-old Joan Benbow. Tracey Johnstone

CREATIVE AGEING: A novel full of life for past nun

JOAN Benbow's fine memory still holds a fabulous collection of stories from her past as a nun, nurse and teacher, living a life of faith, drama, disappointment and joy.

Over the years Joan has recorded her life experiences, filling many exercise books.

She is currently working on her fourth book, due for release later this year, which she said will provide a rich history of outback and native nursing case histories covering almost 62 years starting from the early 1950s.

"I had nothing in the 1950s, just a bottle of Dettol and a bottle of cod liver oil. They were the only medicines I had," Joan said.

The 93-year-old crisply recounts one of the most dramatic stories within the long list.

"The principal matron of Papua New Guinea asked me to come there to train nurses in public health and tropical medicine," Joan said.

"The administrator drank all night with the intention of killing me next morning.

"He screamed and yelled at me as I walked towards the people's market, where people were saying 'let him touch her and we will kill him'.

"As he was a breath away, I called out the name of God.

"Two orderlies rushed out and grabbed his arms.

"The administrator was a nice man and we kissed the next morning."

Later in her time in PNG she was stalked by a local who left a love letter in her mailbox.

"The cottage was on a lonely hill. We three staff members locked ourselves in by 4pm as then the rascals came with their bush knives poking through the louvres.

"At other times we received heavy breathing on the phone."

Joan's extraordinary life journey started well before she was born. Her grandfather was one of Sydney's first dentist and another relative, Dr Burchell, was an African explorer, while another was a famous opera singer.

CREATIVE AGEING: Joan Benbow still plays the piano every day, finishing each day with John Denver's song, Perhaps Love.
CREATIVE AGEING: Joan Benbow still plays the piano every day, finishing each day with John Denver's song, Perhaps Love. Tracey Johnstone

She grew up during The Depression and then joined Our Lady of the Sacred Heart convent in her early teens.

Throughout her 25 years with the convent Joan said she pushed herself and her superiors to achieve the best at every mission, but not always with good outcomes.

She left after a tumultuous time in the 1970s, after overseeing the construction of a hospital in PNG which the church then deemed "too good for natives" and being attacked by a priest.

"I was a good boxer; I learnt to box with my brothers, so I gave him a good box and told him to reform himself," Joan said.

Because she left the convent of her own accord, signing out of her vows, her actions were considered "disgraceful" and she was rejected by many of her family members.

She had $600, no home, but she felt someone was looking over her.

"At one stage I was homeless with no roof over my head and having to go begging around until I got work," she said.

Luckily Professor Black from the University of Sydney offered her a nursing position near Sydney I a facility for Aboriginal health. From there she returned to PNG as a matron and tutor.

"I think God was looking after me," Joan said.

"I think they (the church) might have learnt a few lessons now. I think they have learnt that cruelty and punishment and penance is a bit old fashioned now. I did my share of it."

Her work with Aboriginal people on Bathurst Island and in the Northern Territory made up for so much of the sadness of her time with the convent.

"I loved it. As I came to each mission I used to look at it and think of the potential; now what can I do here," Joan said.

"I went back to the mission I helped found, the Arltunga, for their 50th anniversary.

"They found out I was still alive so they invited me back.

"They wept and cried because they didn't think I was still alive. I did the rain dance for them; they had forgotten it. The sky was blue, but it rained."

Joan has to dash now leaving her carefully nurtured jungle garden behind her.

She's already had a busy day starting with her daily 6am swim in the retirement village pool. Then there is more writing to be done and an hour's piano practice in the village hall.

To finish the day she has been called to the bedside of an elderly member of Joan's local parish where Joan will continue to practice her life-long compassion for others in need.

She'll then stop to watch SBS to catch up on the day's news, because "they are all broad minded" and they cover the world.

Finally, in the quiet hours of the evening, Joan said she will return to her piano to play her nightly lullaby to all her friends, present and past.

Tomorrow she will back to work on her nursing history, sharing more of her extraordinary life.

 

CREATIVE AGEING:  It's only recently Joan Benbow has stopped one of her passions, painting.
CREATIVE AGEING: It's only recently Joan Benbow has stopped one of her passions, painting. Tracey Johnstone

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