My sister, Valda, was one busy girl as a teenager.
She was a hairdressers’ apprentice by day. (She once coloured her hair pink, and when stepping off the bus shortly after she did, a man walked up to her and said, “I gotta tell you, honey, I don’t like it.”) By night (and any time she could fit in otherwise), she was a ballroom dancer.
She was Western Australia's amateur Latin champion and was one of the youngest State champions to come out of her dance studio. (My parent's favourite dance she performed was the paso doble.) In 1970, she flew with her dance partner, Gary, to Sydney to compete in the Australasian Ballroom Dancing Championships, taking home a trophy. She won a bunch of trophies and medals for her dancing over the years and was crowned Ballroom Queen at an annual ball at Canterbury Court in Perth that same year. (Hence, my mother's favourite ABBA song is Dancing Queen. 'Dancing Queen. Young and sweet, only seventeen.')
Whilst running from one thing to the next one day, my Dad turned to Valda and said, “Honey, you have to slow down or you’ll make yourself sick.” My sister just smiled at him and replied, “Dad – I have to live life while I can.”
Neither my Dad or my sister had any idea just how true that statement was.
On Good Friday, 1971, Valda (17) and her boyfriend, John (20), set out in their car to drive from Perth to Geraldton (430kms away) so that they could compete in the Northern Star dance festival.
They never made it.
Their car was involved in a collision with another car (containing a family of five who were injured, but not seriously, and all of whom survived) and both Valda and John were killed instantly. This April (the 9th) marked forty years since my sister’s death.
In the days that followed, my sister’s photo was splashed across The West Australian newspaper – she and John touted as the young glamour couple whose youth was stolen by the Easter road toll. A reminder to all how quickly a life could be taken.
Every day for weeks after the accident, my parents would receive sympathy cards in the mail. Years later, when I was in my early twenties, my mother and I sat on the floor of my bedroom (the same room Valda and my sister, C, shared growing up) going through all of them. My Mum explained how there were so many, the postie would deliver them to the door, as they wouldn't fit in our letterbox.
Two cards in particular touched my mum. The first was from a woman who was an ex-customer of Valda's. She wrote how she had told Valda - whilst my sister cut her hair one day - that she was unsure whether to stay in her marriage or not. My sister convinced her to return to her husband and give it another go. She did, and she wrote that it was Valda who had saved her marriage.
Then there was the card that was written by the ambulance driver who attended the scene of the accident. He expressed his heartfelt sympathy for my parents’ loss - no doubt forever affected by what he saw that day.
The funeral was attended by many. Valda was, by all accounts, a very popular young lady. She was outgoing, fun-loving and full of life.
Valda's boyfriend, John, was also a ballroom dancer. He was the 1970 professional state champion, and Festival of Perth ballroom champion. My mum believes Valda and John would have become engaged once John turned 21.
John was to celebrate his 21st birthday that year. For some reason (my Mum can't recall why) my sister held an early celebration for him. His parents, who had planned to give him a special watch on his birthday, gave it to him at that party instead. John's parents (Aunty Joy and Uncle John as I still call them - though we are not related) remain close friends of our family. In fact, they used to send me a birthday present every year (usually something lovingly handmade by Aunty Joy) until, at age 30, I begged them not to go to so much trouble anymore - a card would suffice nicely! After John and Valda's death, they would express their gratitude that Valda had organised that early celebration, as John's 21st birthday would never arrive.
At the time of Valda's death, my sister, C, was pregnant with her second child. She had not yet told Valda of the pregnancy. Whilst telling John's sister about how she wished she'd told Valda she would be an aunt again, John's sister looked puzzled and said, "But, C, Valda knew you were pregnant. She told me you were."
Not long after the funeral, my Mum came across a book in which held a receipt for a lay-by Valda had been paying off. My Mum called the store, explained the story of my sister’s death to the salesgirl, and pleaded with her that the exact same product be given to her to purchase. The salesgirl went out to the back of the store and returned to tell my Mum she had my sister's lay-by. It was a large stuffed toy giraffe.
A gift that was intended for me.
It is the one toy from my childhood that I packed when Hubby and I moved from Perth to Sydney in December 1995. Since then, it has sat by the bedside of all my three boys following their births. It, and a porcelain egg cup my sister purchased for my first Easter that year, a reminder of how much my sister loved me.
After the birth of my first son, I was changing his nappy when he was around four weeks old, and he looked off to the side and smiled. I said, "What are you looking at? Is Aunty Valda making you laugh?" About a week later, I was talking to my Mum on the phone, and she told me that my niece had seen a psychic medium a few days before. The psychic had asked her, "Is there someone who died quite some time ago, starting with the letter V?" My niece explained it would be Valda. The psychic then asked, "Is there a new baby in the family?" My niece replied, "Yes, my aunty Jodie just had a baby boy. That would be Valda's nephew." The psychic said, "Valda said to tell you that she makes the baby laugh."
When my Mum told me that, tears immediately sprung in to my eyes. After I hung up the phone, I cried. I'm a healthy skeptic when it comes to psychics and mediums etc, but I took comfort in hearing this.
The reason for writing this post is two fold. Firstly, I am thankful that my parents educated me on my sister's death and that they spoke about their feelings openly. I'm glad I came to 'know' my sister through their words (I was not quite 7 months old when she died). Therefore, this post is written partly for posterity. I hope it will help explain a little of who Aunty Valda was to my boys some day (and I will continue to talk to them about her as well.)
Secondly, I would like to think my sister's death can have a positive outcome. Perhaps someone will read this, and whilst traveling this Easter, might stop and think about what happened to my sister.
The reality is, that most of the people who will lose their lives this Easter time will lose them on country roads. Remember: getting to your destination at all is far more important that getting there as quickly as possible.*
Put it this way: as much as I love and will always cherish my toy giraffe, I’d much rather it was Valda sitting by my children’s bedside.
Easter is a special family time here at Chez Ansted. I'll be taking some time out from my blog to spend it with my husband and our boys. I wish all my readers a very Happy and safe Easter. I'll see you next week. xxx
* Speeding was not considered to be a contributing factor to Valda and John's accident. It was determined a 'freak accident'. However, many lives are lost on our roads through speeding and/or not stopping to rest. Remember: Stop. Revive. Survive.