Wilma Spagnolo, a great-great-granddaughter of John and Bridget McCabe, great-granddaughter of Patrick McCabe and Jane Clark died on November 19th 2015 at the Olivia Newton John Cancer Centre in Heidelberg, Victoria.

Wilma grew up believing her family name was Blanchard, but her father was actually William Penny.

Wilma’s mother Mabel married William Penny in 1942. The newly-weds moved in with Mabel’s parents, our Nan and PopClarke, into the big house on Coate Avenue Alphington. But when Wilma’s mother Mabel was 6 months pregnant with Wilma, her husband William Penny drowned in the Yarra River at the end of the street where they all lived. It was the day after Mabel’s 20th birthday.

William is buried in an unmarked grave, in one of the older sections at Fawkner cemetery.

If you asked Wilma about her childhood, she would invariably start telling you about her grandparents, Nan and Pop Clarke, and the house on Coate Avenue. Because that’s where she lived for the first ten years of her life.

It wasn’t that Wilma was just left with Nan and Pop. She lived there with her mother. William Penny lived there before he died. When Wilma’s mother, Mabel, met and married Edgar Blanchard, they lived there too. As did my mother with her first husband, and again when she married my father.

Wilma grew up in a home where family was embraced. No matter what the rights or wrongs, or tragedies or hardships.

Wilma was 4 years old, when her mother Mabel married Edgar Blanchard. And Ed was the man that Wilma loved as her father, and called ‘Dad’ her whole life.

Mabel and Ed lived at Coate Avenue from the time they were married until they bought a house in Bruce St, Preston five years later. Wilma went to Alphington Primary School but moved with them to Bruce St and did Grade 6 at Bell Primary School so that she could get residential qualification to go to Moreland High.

After high school, Wilma went to commercial college and then started work at Sher Power Tools in Collingwood where my father was the accountant. It was through friends at Sher Power Tools that she met her future husband Lideo Spagnolo.

Wilma loved her life at Coate Avenue. She loved sitting on Pop’s knee to steer his big American cars up the driveway, working with Nan in the garden, or secretly exploring the forbidden wine cellar or hiding under the billiard table.

Of course, as the first and then still only grandchild, and because of the circumstances of her father’s death – she was precious.

Wilma’s mother didn’t neglect her, but Mabel was a young, attractive woman who worked, wanted a social life and a future. And Nan and Pop were more than happy to look after Wilma.

Wilma also had great love for Nan’s family. She and Nan went by bus and tram to Duke St Richmond where Nan’s mum, Granny McCabe (Jane Clark) lived and so did Wilma’s great aunties and uncles. Aunty Dorrie, Uncle Jimmy, Aunty Ethel and the others. The family had laid their claim to their little corner of Richmond.

Wilma told me she never thought of them as great aunts and uncles. This was just the generation of adults she grew up with.

They all crowded into the kitchen in one of their single fronted houses to play cards and listen to the races on the wireless. Wilma and any other kids would find a space under the table. And it was Wilma who would take the handwritten note and a bagful of threepenny-bits borrowed from the gas meter and make her way down the lane behind Duke Street to the local SP bookie to place the bets for the next race. After all, what policeman would ever suspect a sweet 6 year old girl of being a runner for a gambling ring?
Wilma had lots of stories and vivid memories of those years. But her overriding memory was of how happy those people were and of how content they were with what they had. The values of that generation stayed with Wilma.

This is what Wilma told me about our grandparents.

“Nan and Pop were pretty down to earth. They just believed in loving the kids, and everything else would fall into place.”

That might have been how she remembered her grandparents but to me that was also a philosophy she took to heart and lived in her own life.

“Just love the kids, and let everything else fall into place.”

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