Betty Winifred King (1928-2015)

by joelmckerrow

A few days ago on Friday 7th August the last of my Grandparents breathed her last. I had written a poem about her life in my book, ‘These Wandering Feet’…I give you her story now as an honouring… Tomorrow I read this at her funeral…


Betty Winifred King

Betty Winifred King first opened her lungs in 1928,

the daughter of Benjamin Alfred Bruce King.

A farmer’s child, out of breath,

she would ride her horse every Sunday to Myrtle Creek Station,

catch the train to school and let the pony find his own way home.

Two years before the birth of Betty,

Neville Raymond McKerrow opened his lungs for the first time.

Was the son of a blacksmith-cum-dairy farmer.

The grandson of a Scotsman who rode waves built of promise.

The exhale of the ocean to a new land Down Under.

My grandfather would walk the cut dry skin of Australian soil collecting stones,

the bones of the earth.

I tie these stones now around my neck.

My grandfather is a stone.

I tie my grandfather around my neck,

close to my lungs.

He listens to me breathe.

When depression struck Australian shores

like the short breath sweat-wet blanket of humid skies,

Betty Winifred King consistently insisted on inhaling the humidity.

When her home and all that she possessed later burnt to the ground around her,

she would exhale the smoke of memories lost in black ash.

My grandmother is the breath of resurrection,

exhaling redemption again and again.

Neville Raymond was a fisherman, ocean lungs and salty lips.

Betty King liked falling in the water so that Neville would have to rescue her.

Fish never tasted so good.

In the ocean they found each other.

my grandfather,

my grandmother,

pressed breath together.

The inhale of her exhale,

these lungful pauses.

Betty was told her belly could bear no children.

These lungful pauses.

How desperate the prayers of a barren womb.

Surely God would take notice.

And perhaps He did, when

in 1949, my father, the eldest of three,

from the belly of a barren woman, breathed his first.

My grandmother is a miracle worker.

My father is a miracle.

My grandfather was a banana farmer.

In the year that Sue was born,

God blew hard till a cyclone whipped strong around such holy families.

The eye of the storm enclosed their house till intake turned to exhale and stripped bare banana trees and smashed the fruit to pieces.

But still they persisted.

Hook, line and sinker, thrown once to the water as fun,

now, the very food that fed the family.

My grandfather the fisherman.

My grandfather the sugarcane cutter.

My grandfather the bricky’s labourer.

My grandfather the road worker.

My grandfather the construction ganger.

My grandfather.

Many are the faces of a man who keeps his family alive.

My grandfather is a hero.

Betty and Neville built themselves a wooden rowboat, sailed the ocean together,

fished the seas, ran the wind.

They pressed breath together.

Till, on the 18th of May 1985, I was two years of age.

Neville and Betty were camped by a river on their way around the circumference of Australia.

During the song of the night my grandfather’s lungs contracted within his chest, held breath too long.

He breathed his last.

These lungful pauses.

I wish that I could talk with him. Inhale the smoke that rose from his pipe. Inscribe the dirt of his history into my skin. Sinewed muscle wrapped around brittle bone. Feel his whisper on my cheek when I am lonely.

Winter settles in my chest.

After his death, one year on, Betty McKerrow bought a campervan.

She completed the trip that was left unfinished by the gravestone of my grandfather.

My grandfather is ash, spread across the ocean.

My grandmother is a survivor, weathered years spent staring at the sun.

On nights where I am lost inside myself,

may I remember that I, too,

am ash upon the ocean.

I am fish and I am stone.

I am sugarcane cutter.

I am banana farmer.

I am resurrection. I am redemption.

I am barren woman who holds a baby.

I am the inhale.

I am the exhale

of all that have gone before me.

Within me,

the histories peal back

till the lines of men

meet the lines of men.

Their story is my own.

I draw sweet air through these lungs, deep and long, as pure as prayer.

These lungful pauses.