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A celebration of life

Devoted to family, hard work and community service, this great-great-grandmother looks forward to turning 100.

Hard work and plenty of it. That’s a constant theme in the life of Isabella McBride. 

The hard work began when she was a girl milking cows on her parents’ share farm in New South Wales and continued into the Depression, her marriage and her older years. But she’s not complaining. 

Far from it. Isabella, who will be 100 in February reckons hard work has helped her get this far. She also credits being busy, doing voluntary work and eating good, wholesome food for her longevity. The occasional (very occasional) glass of Scotch or wine doesn’t hurt either. Or stout. 

Family highs and lows 

Genes are a help, too. Isabella’s mother lived to 80, her father to 84. She says that if she got to 70, she always thought she would “go on” because most of her siblings died in their 60s (one brother lived to 97). Like many of her generation, she had a brother who died in World War I.  William Frederick Hamlet Holden, the oldest of Isabella’s nine siblings, was killed in the battle of Passchendaele on the Western Front in 1917, two years before she was born. He was 20.

In 2001, Isabella travelled with her son and daughter-in-law to Ypres in Belguim to learn more about the brother she never met. 
“He has no known grave,” she says. “His name is on the Menin Gate. I found a brother and lost him on the same day. I cried for a week.”

Still independent

Isabella, or “Nana Belle” as she is known in her family, is the matriarch of a large clan: three children aged 79, 78 and 70, eight grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandson, who recently turned two.

“I’ve worked all my life,” she says from her home at Forster on the New South Wales mid-north coast. “It’s a throwaway society. We have everything, but I still eat the same as when we were first married. I’ve only bought frozen food in the last 18 months.” 

This nonagenarian cooks her own meals: oats for breakfast, loin chops with onion gravy for lunch and chicken and vegetables for dinner.

With the assistance of a Home Care Package and the services delivered by Australian Unity’s Forster and Tuncurry branch, Isabella remains independent and in the home that she has lived in since 1974.

Her package entitles Isabella to fortnightly home cleaning and shopping outings.

Until two years ago, Isabella worked half a day a week at the Anglican opportunity shop. She worked for many years for Meals on Wheels, played bowls and was president of the Anglican Church Guild for 30 years. Isabella and her husband Abraham ran McBride’s Guest House in Tuncurry for 17 years – and her cooking, especially her snowballs and caramel pies, was legendary. 

Childhood memories 

Isabella Holden was born in February 1919 in Tinonee, just outside Taree, the youngest of 10 children.  

The Holdens moved to Halliday Point to go share farming when Isabella was one. 

“We had to drive to school seven miles [11 kilometres] each way in a horse and cart. I went with my brothers and the neighbouring kids. It was a one-teacher school, and we left the horse and cart in a paddock until the afternoon.”

After school, Isabella helped milk the cows.But school ended when she was 14, during the Great Depression.

“The Depression got so bad that I went back to Taree,” she says. “I had to have a live-in job because we didn’t have enough money to pay board.”
Isabella earned 30 shillings (about the equivalent of $3) a week as a housekeeper for a solicitor and his wife. 
“They had a beautiful house,” she recalls. “Mrs Martin taught me everything I know. I worked very hard and long hours, but they were terribly good to me. I had one day off a week and every second Sunday afternoon.”

Isabella with her Australian Unity care worker Sheree McCarthy (left); and with service co-ordinator, Michelle Bull.

Milestones 

In 1939, Isabella married Abraham Mills McBride, who she had met at a dance the year before. They lived in Forster then Tuncurry and ran the guest house, where cooking for 20 residents was part of her normal day. Her husband died in 1974.

Her fondest memory was “having water laid on”. “To have hot water was wonderful, because we used to have a fuel stove with a kettle to heat the water,” she says. “I used to nearly cook myself in the summer cooking for a lot of people.”

On the cusp of reaching 100, Isabella says she has never given much thought to getting old.  
But she’s sure looking forward to the party to mark the milestone. 

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