Introducing classic woman Cherie Bombell
Thank you for agreeing to chat with me, Cherie. We’ve known each other for many years now. After meeting at work, we became friendly, sharing very similar values and interests. About two years ago you started talking about maybe leaving work, or retirement. What started that thinking in your mind?
I didn’t really think about it. I was about to turn 68, I was really, really tired. Mum had moved in with us, and I just couldn’t maintain the pace. Working, looking after Mum, five kids, six grandkids ….
Leaving work – more a resignation than a retirement
I recall you being very firm that this was not retirement, more a resignation from work. Do you remember that? Would you like to say anything about why you were adamant that this was not retirement?
It wasn’t planned – it was a sudden decision. Probably part of it was that I wasn’t mentally prepared for retirement, and retirement seemed so final, like ‘the end’, there’s no turning back, there’s just forward and what does that mean? You stop being ambitious and using your creativity.
When you were preparing for retirement/resignation, what steps did you take?
I could isolate five steps, which took two only working days to enact! I’m usually a planner, but not for this. It was the right decision. The way it happened for me was the way it had to happen for me.
Did you have some preconceived notion of what this resignation from work would be like?
I expected to have a lot more time because I was giving up a big chunk of my week to paid work. I was hoping to have free time to write or be involved in other activities. Even before that, when I went part-time, I didn’t tell a lot of [non-work] people, because I was afraid that my time would get swallowed up if people knew that I wasn’t working. I was very protective of this time, because I didn’t want to get filled up by other people, and I didn’t want to be judged by that.
I remember how important it was for your work friends and colleagues to give you a loving farewell and how touched you were when so many people filled the room to say goodbye. What do you recall about that event? How did you feel at the time?
I remembered feeling very, very loved, accepted, appreciated and also very uncomfortable. Even though I talk a lot, I don’t like being the centre of attention. My team put on a whole stage show! All the people that were attending were sitting behind me and I couldn’t see them all. I wanted to be able to touch base with everyone and thank them for being a part of it – my co-workers, people from non-government organisations, even people I have had a challenging relationship with in the past. They even produced a ‘This is your Life’ book!
2005 – a life-changing experience
I know you are very curious about genetics. Would you like to say a little about how you participated in some genetic screening in the past?
Yes. Ron and I participated in some genetic tracking conducted by National Geographic that placed Ron very firmly with his Italian heritage. Mine was northern Europe. The most recent testing was prompted by a Sudden Arrhythmia Death (SAD event), twelve years ago, when my heart just stopped beating. They can’t find any medical cause for it but I do have some relatives who suddenly died in their 50s. So they’re testing to see if there is a chromosomal link, which I feel is important for my children to know.
After your cardiac arrest, there would have been a big adjustment for you and your family.
It was a pretty traumatic time for Ron, who found me on the floor, and for the kids, who resuscitated me. The SAD event didn’t screw with my brain too much. But when I was shocked unnecessarily, repeatedly, by the implantable defibrillator wired to my heart – it was like torture. I never knew when it was going to go off. I wasn’t afraid of dying so much – more of being hurt if this thing went off unexpectedly. 180 volts to your heart is pretty freaky!
June joins Cherie and Ron
Your mum, June, is in her 90s and I remember you used to go and visit her at her home after work each day to see if she was okay. I remember thinking how amazing you were. Since leaving work, your mum has sold her home and is now living with you and Ron. I recall she is about 94 now and while you honour and encourage her independence, you have assumed more of a caring role.
I was going there every day to see if she was okay, and then I’d see something that needed to be done and another hour would go.
Mum used to spend a lot of time in bed when she was in her own home – I figured she didn’t have a reason to get up. She still stays in bed a lot. I think having her with me means I’m conscious of her all the time and I worry about her all the time and I check on her.
Then there’s the complexity of this being Ron’s home too. Mum’s dog came with her. When she lived alone, it was reassuring for Mum when Suzie would bark. But now Ron might be on a late shift and catching up on some sleep during the day when someone comes. Suzie barks, and he’s woken up.
Other new things we’ve had to adapt to include having a range of new people coming to the house – Mum’s therapists, the hairdresser, her friends. We’ve had to have some difficult discussions. Also, we needed to remember that Mum had lost her home, and there’s grieving in that. Plus lots of additional ‘things’ in our house that she brought with her. Then she has special diets, so the way we would normally cook had had to change. They’re all little bumps along the way.
And there’s different family cultures, including notions of humour. Ron’s Dad lived with us for many years and I had to get used to his quirks. Now Ron sometimes thinks my Mum’s being serious when I know she’s not!
‘With babies, life makes sense’
Since leaving work, your son and his wife have had their first child – your first biologically-connected grandbaby, even though you’ve been Nan to several other grandchildren. Would you like to share a little about what it means to you to spend time with Bonnie?
It feels great. Bonnie’s middle name is June, in honour of Mum, which is wonderful – it shows the continuity of love in our family. When we’re looking after Bonnie, we need to keep a lookout both ways. Since Bonnie became mobile, we’ve been careful with Mum’s medication; on the other hand, there can be toys on the ground that Mum might not see.
Spending so much time with my mother and seeing her decline is balanced out by seeing Bonnie growing and discovering. I realized that with babies, life makes sense. I see Bonnie’s curiosity and willingness to engage with people as a reflection of Mum who still has a zest for life when she can.
With Bonnie, I see myself; I see the generations that came before me, and the generations yet to come. It’s a bond, an invisible connecting thread, that can never be broken – that blood bond.
So you have a blood connection with Bonnie. You have a much longer connection with your other grandchildren.
Yes, and I think that my special connection with the step-grandchildren is that I see them as a biological extension of Ron, and I love Ron. I don’t think that love is something that is quantitative. Love is love and it’s there for all the grandchildren.
World travel triggers an emerging novelist
You and Ron have always loved to travel to other countries. I remember you taking Spanish lessons prior to your last trip to South America. Probably the most memorable souvenir you have brought home is the commitment to re-telling the story of some people you met overseas and you have committed to writing a book. Would you like to talk a little about that?
We met ‘E’ who told me a story about her first husband, now deceased and his survival in a Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust. He went to Dachau and then subsequently to a Displaced Persons’ Camp and eventually to Australia by way of Israel. It’s an incredible story of survival that you wouldn’t believe, but also about coincidence in life. They say that truth is stranger than fiction. How people can have some sort of fleeting contact and then twenty years later have another contact and not even know there was already another connection that’s so remarkable and so absurd that you’d think it had been made up. So it’s a story that really needs to be told. E had never told her story and I hope to represent it with respect.
And you have a passion for oral history?
Yes. I tried to do that with Mum, but it has been a struggle as she tires so easily. Mum’s going to a respite centre next week and I’ve asked them if they have volunteers who might help her tell her story. She might be inclined to show a bit more stamina if she’s talking to a volunteer.
The book-group ‘tribe’
I know you as an avid reader, and along with four other lovely friends, we have come together for breakfast over the years to discuss which books to read and review them. Well, ostensibly, we meet to review them, but we’re not always 100 per cent committed to sticking to the topic! What gets you excited about meeting up with the book group?
Oh so much. I love the diversity of the group; every woman is different, in age, or sense of humour or wittiness. We have different cultural backgrounds too. I feel honoured to belong to the group – they are so intelligent and creative. We have seen each other branching off and doing new things with our lives – travel, public speaking, developing an online business, studying…It’s inspiring to see people evolve. We’ve been through a lot together without being too intimate with each other – we give each other space, but we’re still there.
The busy-ness of retirement
So you’re on the precipice now of downsizing – selling your house, and all the organisation that goes with that; you’re trying to write; you’re caring for your Mum; you’re caring for your grandchildren. So this leaving 40 hrs a week work so you can have some free time – it hasn’t quite worked out that way, has it? I don’t think I’ve ever known you so busy.
It’s true. Busy-ness is okay. The hard part is not sleeping and its possible effect on my health.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
In my twenties, I was getting ready to move to Aspen. I had to save money and I had to be disciplined to have the freedom to take off. I wrote this in my diary – ‘to be truly free, strict discipline is required.’
Are you feeling that way now?
Sadly I’m not as disciplined as I’d like – some things are out of your control!
Thank you Cherie for sharing your story and inspiring the readers of Classic Women!
Robina, Gold Coast, April 2017
I met Cherie Bombell through workaround fourteen years ago. She was born and grew up in America and has been married to Australian Ron for forty years. Cherie and I grew closer following her Sudden Arrhythmia Death in 2005. She was unable to drive for a period and I would swing by on my way to work to give her a lift. As you would expect, we got chatting. We discovered we shared some fundamental values about social justice, human rights and equality of opportunity. I have come to know Cherie as an inquisitive and deep thinker, a strong friend and a sensitive listener. She left our workplace about 18 months ago and this month I asked her if she would like to share her post-paid-employment journey.