The strength of a woman

Waratah resident, mother, grandmother and first female Union secretary, Yvonne Heydon, has overcome many setbacks in her remarkable life. Aurora invited her to share her story.

I didn't go to a Catholic school because I didn’t know I was a Catholic. Dad was a Methodist and Mum, I discovered, a Catholic. They were married in the ‘back room’ of the church and there was always tension in the house about religion.

My only association with religion was a Methodist Church youth group. I went there to be with the other kids actually. It was an escape because I wasn’t allowed out much; Mum thought the kids weren’t good enough and always found something for me to do, even if the house was spotlessly clean.

They didn’t know it then but Mum had early dementia. She was in her thirties and some days couldn't get out of bed. As the eldest, it was my role to look after my brother and sister, prepare their lunches, walk them to school and back.

Dad had an accident in the mines and lost his fingers. When he finally received compensation, it was the only time I saw Mum happy and the first time she kissed me. I didn’t realise her face was so soft. It just reinforced my love for my children; they would not grow up without that.

I had three sons with my first husband, Bob. He was a seaman and he gave it away after we married. However, he fell quite ill not long after we had our sons and was sick for a long time.

To support the family, I started working under a cleaning contract at BHP Steel. It was a real awakening to what the women went through; I had worked in real estate, accounting and finance; always the secretary in suits and high heels.

They kept reducing the hours and taking cleaning products to other sites, leaving us with water to keep the floors at BHP clean.

We decided, after three reductions in hours for the same area’s cleaning, not to put up with it anymore and withdraw our labour. This was my first encounter with a Union organiser and with the process of negotiation – and the beginning of my twenty-three year career in law and industrial relations.

I eventually left the cleaning contract after I collapsed. It was the stress of work, my ill husband and my children, particularly the youngest who was battling leukaemia.

I worked part time at the Teachers’ College as job delegate. From there, I went into the Office of the Union, then became Organiser attending to some 300 awards – the biggest group being cleaners working in schools and colleges. Then I became the first female secretary to the Union.

The boys grew up and my husband recovered his health. That was the first time I understood my faith. Catechism was what I had learned and lived by but I discovered the Serenity Prayer and realised that all I could achieve was today, not tomorrow or yesterday. The opportunity to move into full-time work came and while I liked the balance I had, I valued the security of being able to put money away for a rainy day.

As an organiser travelling north to the Queensland border, visiting schools and colleges, it became apparent that students were missing the opportunity to enrol in hospitality courses. I was able to set up a college for hospitality in Newcastle so locals and country students didn’t have to travel to Sydney. That was a proud achievement. Others took the credit but that’s how I worked, the action person behind the scenes; I had more access to politicians than anyone else.

I began studying law and industrial relations at TAFE to improve my knowledge. Around that time, Paul, my second son, went missing and I failed the last subject in my diploma; I just couldn’t cope anymore.

Paul had been in a minor car accident and was treated for concussions and a swollen knee.

After Bob and I returned from a holiday overseas, our youngest son John told us Paul had been acting strangely. We could see something was wrong and he was admitted to hospital.

He was treated for depression. When he was discharged, he visited his grandfather. Before he left he kissed me and stroked my cheek. I felt uneasy. It was the last time I saw him.

Four months later, a schoolboy found his body. I wrote to thank the boy; it was important he knew he’d been instrumental in finding Paul.

The coroner’s findings were ‘cause unknown’ but medical evidence concluded it could have been a brain haemorrhage.

My husband took it very hard. The following Christmas, not long after visiting Paul’s grave, I buried Bob with Paul.

Before his death, Bob had booked a holiday for us. My sons told me to get away; I’d been through so much. So Tom and I did. Tom, my present husband, was Bob’s first cousin and they were like brothers. Tom used to come away with us on family holidays and the boys had grown up knowing him.

Things developed from there and after being seconded to Sydney and Melbourne, Tom and I said, “Let’s get married.” It was arranged in a fortnight at the Novena chapel, Mayfield.

I was appointed Co-ordinator for setting up industry superannuation to be implemented in award conditions. I worked for the ACTU Chamber of Commerce in addressing employers and employees about legislation and reporting back to government, also completing a year’s study of Superannuation Management at Macquarie University.

I retired and took up golf, but was asked to come out of retirement to co-ordinate the restructure of the government’s administration department cleaning service.  My heart was in this because I knew what it meant for women to be able to take school holidays and be there for their children.

Looking back, there’s so much I wonder about. After I retired a second time, a woman thanked me for listening to her. “You were the only one who understood.” That mattered to me.

I often think Our Lady and I walked together in a lot of things; Paul disappeared as Jesus did. She’s someone I can talk to, and I do.

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