Esma Veronica May 1928-2019

Esma on her scooter at Urunga
Esma on her scooter at Urunga

Urunga's iconic scooter-rider and prolific letter-writer, Esma Veronica May, died calmly and peacefully at Bellinger River District Hospital on September 1, aged 91 years.

Born 13 June 1928, she was the second youngest in a family of six.

Her parents were publicans, who developed the business and moved on, owning and operating hotels in Lismore, Tamworth, Scone, Sydney and Windsor.

It was on her birthday in one of these hotels that she was sexually assaulted by a guest. She was very young, six to eight years old.

Her parents responded by sending her to boarding school.

As her sons we could never fathom why we couldn't give her a happy birthday, no matter what lengths we went to. I suspect that she must have felt punished, she must have believed in her core that she had done a terrible thing.

Sadly it seemed to be a fact in her long life that she was always returning to in an attempt to understand herself.

Mum lacked example in being a parent. In this she was no different to so many who were young children in the aftermath of WW1.

A very attractive young woman, she always considered herself ugly. The photos of her as a nurse in training at Auburn and Launceston testify otherwise.

Esma May on the left

Esma May on the left

Married in Adelaide, Esma and husband Phil raised their family of seven boys in Armidale where Phil worked as a statistician with CSIRO.

As well as their seven sons John, Mark (dec'd), Stephen, Bernie, Peter, Chris and Tim, there was another who died at birth.

Paul, their firstborn, was never held by Esma and is buried in Adelaide. She went to hospital expecting a child and left hospital with John, who was the second twin, undiagnosed until he presented his foot!

It is unthinkable these days that a mother would not hold her child. Dad held Paul as he died. His turmoil is hard to imagine when he was dragged back to be presented with another child he had no knowledge of. He never spoke of this until their fortieth wedding anniversary celebration when he silenced the room.

They moved to Urunga in about 1985, living at Gundamain Caravan Park for a year or more before building on Newry Island.

Phil and Esma

Phil and Esma

In the early years, Phil farmed oysters. Together they were deeply involved with Saint Vincent de Paul where their non-judgemental and generous approach earned the respect of many in the community.

Phil passed in 1996 in Urunga, with Esma nursing him at home as he faded away with cancer.

They valued education and made many sacrifices to give each of us the opportunity of tertiary studies. It was a remarkable achievement. Dad, the son of a market gardener from Windsor, was the only one of a large family to get to university.

John, Esma and Phil's eldest, graduated in science. He is a gifted musician and mows lawns. Mark was a recluse. He died in the Bush two years ago. Steve is a kidney specialist. Bernie is a veterinarian. I am a specialist in critical care. Chris is the only real doctor (he likes to think) with a PhD in nursing. Tim works in computing.

Mum had firm views about what was right and wrong. A woman of strong faith embedded deeply in the Catholic tradition, she was never backward in proselytising.

But she was also remarkably and surprisingly adaptable. This willingness to struggle to understand others and to step out of her comfort zone was a true reflection of a fundamental generosity.

Once convinced of a wrong she was never one to let go and would happily prosecute an argument over many months and years, preferably by letter, as you are well aware.

She never split firewood nor mowed the lawn. She never changed a tyre. There were jobs that a woman shouldn't have to do, especially when she raised seven boys!

I mentioned that despite her firm views, Mum was capable of remarkable adaptability and acceptance. This was best shown with the love and welcome given to my nephew's partner David whom she first met in her late eighties and whom she was always glad to see.

A kind person, Mum extended herself nursing several of her family members and friends during their final days.

Many would remember an old lady, dressed in purple and mauve, with a cheerful smile on her scooter down the street and on the Urunga boardwalk, bailing up anyone and everyone to tell the same joke.

How little we know of each other, how little we see when we look at the aged.

We don't see a young woman who in the 1940s and 50s took herself from Sydney to Launceston to Adelaide then Armidale, who learnt to drive when few women did, who raised and educated seven sons, who held the strongest of beliefs but crowned all with love, the best of friends and family to those in need.