“When we first arrived, we lived in refugee camps.” – Merle Lester.
Merle Lester draws every day. “It’s part hobby and part therapy. I’ve been doing it since I was seven,” she says from her home in Kurrajong Heights near the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.
The artist, retired secondary school art teacher and Australian Unity Home Care customer has inspired students since she began teaching at Narrabri High School in the state’s north west in 1969. She retired in 2000 after 16 years at Hawkesbury High School.
Gardening has been another lifelong passion and, though it’s getting harder now, Merle, 75, and Barry, 78, her husband of 51 years, still take pride in their 1.6-hectare garden.
A lucky escape
Merle’s life story, starting with her family’s wartime escape from Europe during World War II, is almost as colourful as her vibrant artwork and her bountiful garden.
Her parents fled Estonia in 1944 as the Russians were invading the country. Her mother was 21 and her father was 33.
“They never saw their parents or relatives again,” Merle says.
“Their first choice was to go to Sweden, but gold was required as payment, so my mother, Vaike, decided to travel on a Red Cross ship to Germany.
“The ship was bombed, my mother spent three hours and my father spent 14 hours in the icy Baltic Sea. Very, very few people survived this ordeal.”
The Wiitpom family spent three years in a refugee camp in Germany, where Merle was born in 1945. They emigrated to Sydney by ship in 1949.
“When we first arrived, we lived in refugee camps. My mother became a housekeeper for a manager at Colgate-Palmolive and we lived in a flat in Balmain. We later moved to Strathfield before my father built our house in Rydalmere.
“My parents intended to return to their own country, but this was not to be as the Russians took occupation of Estonia after the war.”
Growing up “different”
“The family stories of war upset me greatly as a child, as did being different. People had no idea where Estonia was and our surname was difficult because of the double ‘i’,” Merle says.
Merle attended Strathfield Girls High School from the age of 12 and was awarded a scholarship to become an art teacher in 1963. “In 1964 my family moved to Beecroft, where my father again built our home. I only lived there for three years before meeting Barry Lester.”
Barry and Merle bought their four-hectare property, which they named The Grove, at Kurrajong Heights in 1969, intending to create a flower farm. Barry worked in the printing industry and, at the time, Merle was teaching at Enmore Boys High School.
Of her long teaching career, she says: “It was the most wonderful experience to see young people flourish and be able to give them a lifelong appreciation of art.”
A family of her own
In 1974 Merle and Barry sold a 1.6-hectare section of their property and headed overseas as backpackers. “Backpacking was a new concept then,” she says.
“We travelled overland to Darwin, then East Timor, Bali and through Asia to Thailand. We intended to travel to India, but I discovered I was pregnant, so we went to London, made a quick bus tour around Europe and headed home.”
Merle has no knowledge of any relatives on her mother’s side, though there is “a huge tribe” on her father’s side. “Barry and I visited Tallinn in 2005 and I saw where my mother lived and where her parents had owned a wholesale flower shop in the heart of the Estonian capital.
“My grandmother made wreaths and I believe this is where my love of flowers comes from. I love flower arranging and have worked in a local restaurant creating small flower arrangements in vases for the past four years,” she says.
Barry and Merle designed their own home on their Kurrajong Heights property in 1978 and spent many years creating their garden, which was awarded grand champion prize in the 2009 Hawkesbury Spring Garden Competition.
A special friendship
Two years after she retired, Merle suffered a stroke and doctors discovered a hole in her heart. She also contracted a virus a few years ago, which has affected her balance.
Jeanine Smith has been Merle’s Australian Unity Home Care Worker for four years and says she admires her independent and creative spirit.
“Jeanine is a caring and wonderful human being,” Merle says in return. “She comes to our home fortnightly to clean the bathroom and wash and vacuum the floors. She is a wonderful listener and communicator and I have told her she would make an excellent counsellor or psychologist.”
Merle and Barry have two children, Isabel and Leon. Isabel is an interior and landscape designer who lives in nearby Bilpin with her children Oskar, 12, and Annika, 10, while Leon is an actor and artist who lives in Sydney.
“Barry, who now has slight memory loss, was a keen photographer,” Merle says. “We were both a bit artistic, so I guess some of their talent must have come from us.”
Words: Leanne Tolra Illustration: Sara Hingle