‘Lots of times when you live in a country where you have everything, you don’t learn those special lessons of what it is like to not have everything, to have to make do.‘ – Dorothy Sherman.
As I wandered down the pathway past a meticulously cut miniature hedge, that hemmed in a beautifully kept flowering garden, my concerns that I had arrived at the wrong address melted away. The obvious care that had tended to this garden, mirrored a perfect reflection of the lovely lady who I was about to visit.
“Come on in,” Dorothy called from within the house, “I’m just putting the jug on.” I removed my clunky boots and was greeted by Dorothy in the hallway with a welcome hug and kiss.
Already feeling very much at home, I took my time to enjoy the myriads of photographs lining her living room walls in the form of collages and assorted frames. ‘This is when John and I first met’, Dorothy said as she pointed to a large canvas of her second husband who had recently passed away. Then she told me how he had always called her ‘princess’, even into their mature years. He would tell her that she ‘always looked like a princess and behaved like one and that inside her heart she’s as young as she always was‘.
He was the love of her life. Each photograph had a story and each story was inviting me to tell it. But I can only choose one and this is the story I shall share with you. A story of a very gracious lady who lived a life that had much love, pain, joy and sorrow, each element as necessary to her life as the other, the good as well as the bad.
Dorothy Shea was born on the 22nd May, 1944 in the city of Calcutta, India, to parents Robert and Louise. She had two sisters. Her Father was in the Army and also worked as a railway station master. Her mother was a teacher by trade.
Dorothy recalls a beautiful childhood where her fun spirit was evident even as a little child. She would follow her father onto the oval during the weekly army parades that he was a part of. She would line up with the soldiers after they had started, and march along with them, much to their amusement. There was nothing they could do to remove her without breaking formation, so she would continue to march with them until she was close enough to the crowd for her servant to grab her from the edge.
Dorothy was home-schooled by her mother until the age of eight when she attended school. At the age of nine, she began boarding school where she spent the rest of her schooling years. Dorothy thoroughly enjoyed her experience of boarding school. It gave her a sense of responsibility and independence. She had no one to tell her to do her homework so she learnt to be organised for she knew she would be penalised the following day if it wasn’t done. Dorothy recalls that the only times she was sent to the Reverend Mother’s office was if a family member came to take her home due to a death or illness in the family.
She then went on to begin college but pulled out, as she was not sure of what she wanted to specialise in and returned home in pursuit of a job. Her family had moved from Calcutta to various country towns according to where her father’s employment took him. When he retired and when Dorothy returned home from school, the family moved back to Calcutta.
On the very first day after their move, Dorothy’s mother, Louise, went to the Queen of the Missions Convent looking for a job, which she was immediately successful in acquiring. Her new job was to deliver medications to a nun who lived at the top of the same street as Dorothy’s family. This particular Nun’s name was Mother Teresa.
After feeling called to help the poor on the streets of Calcutta, as opposed to staying within the comfortable walls of the convent, Mother Teresa had acquired a very run down house to set up her hospice for sufferers of leprosy. When a group of young women joined her order, they used their bare hands to restore the house. Dorothy recalls with a grin, one of many times she was asked to accompany her mother to the house.
‘Mum,’ she said, ‘if we’re going to Mother Teresa’s house, remember that I’m going to the movies with my friends so don’t stay too long.’ Dorothy had no idea at that stage of her life, what an enormous privilege it was to witness this lady in action. ‘I didn’t know any of that when I was there, I just thought she was a good person,’ she told me.
Mother Teresa would sit and talk for a long time with them about her work and asked Dorothy if she would help her Mum when she had spare time. Dorothy would help her mum carry the medications down to the dispensary where the sick people were. There were rooms where the beds were made of very thin coverlets, just enough to hold the patients off the ground. It was like a big dormitory or a hospital ward and Mother Teresa would sit on the floor with them.
There were a lot of teenagers who helped at the time, including Dorothy’s sister who was part of a group of people called the ‘Children of Mary’. They helped to apply the medicines and dress the wounds of the sick and dying every week. They were never afraid of contracting leprosy, even though in those days there were no gloves. Mother Teresa just made sure none of the helpers had open wounds.
Dorothy felt extremely sad for the patients that she saw. Some were pregnant mothers, little children and men with half of their bodies falling off due to the extent of the effects of the leprosy. She would watch Mother Teresa comfort the dying and tells how Mother Teresa hand-made the coffins and bought a piece of land to bury them in.
‘She was love on two legs,’ Dorothy said. ‘She would always wear this blue and white sari. She shed her habit so that she could move around the people and they would look to her in a sari and relate to her’.
Dorothy witnessed Mother Teresa on the streets with sick and dying people, attending to their wounds. She would tear the hanging part of her sari and dip it in water that she had retrieved from the water hydrant on the side of the road. Then she would wash their wounds.
Dorothy took these memories with her throughout her life. When she moved to Australia, her life took a turn for the worst. Caught in an abusive marriage, Dorothy suffered at the hand of her violent husband and watched her mother die of old age. She then fled into hiding to protect her children and herself from her husband’s anger. Throughout this time she drew strength from her dealings with Mother Teresa and was able to love, protect and provide for her children throughout extensive hardship.
‘You learn your lessons through life,’ she said. ‘Sweet are the uses of adversity, if you see it that way. You learn. If you’ve never had anything bad happen to you or anything that was distasteful or uncomfortable, where would you be?’
Once settled into her new life, she met and fell in love with John (her second husband) and he with her. He took on the family as his own. He loved them, provided for them and was very involved in the children’s lives and they in turn, loved him. Dorothy and John had a child together, Clint, whose birth unified the family to complete the portrait. They adored their children and these pleasant years were a welcome reprieve after such difficult times. Dorothy is not bitter about her difficult years. Instead, she sees them as a learning curve.
“My mother used to say, ‘What happens to pure gold? It has to be beaten before it gets there’. Diamonds are rough until they are cut so that’s what happens to the human spirit.”
Before John passed away, Dorothy’s eldest son said to John, ‘Dad, the thing I want to thank you for most of all, is for the smile you put on my Mums face’.
He recalled how he remembered his mum with tears in her eyes for most of his younger years, but since she had been with John, she has had a smile on her face and he knew that was because of the love they shared.
John said to Dorothy later, ‘suffice to say, I couldn’t buy him his first car, I couldn’t buy him a house but… I think I gave him the right things’. Dorothy says, that material things mean nothing. The things they gave their children that mean something are plenty of love, a very good upbringing and a good education.
‘That’s how you go through life. You find little treasures along the way like a little path. There’s a lot of rough rocks and things around, but hidden here and there are little gemstones. You pick them up and you keep them because they will come in handy one day.’
Dorothy now spends a lot of her time helping at the nursing home near her house. She takes her dog to visit those who are not allowed to have pets, many of them sick, some of them dying. She sits and chats with them and they love her. She gives them the most valuable gift possible, the gift of love and time, and this is a legacy she will leave to everyone who has had the privilege of knowing her.
“Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you” – Mother Teresa.
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Written and first published for the Goodlife Magazine ©Rebecca Moore 2012