Joan Russell saved her daughter’s life: when she was in the extremes of depression, Joan gave her daughter care, hope and the possibility of a future. At a time when mental illness was shrouded in shame and secrecy, Joan treated manic depression as any other illness.
When her teenage daughter was admitted to a psychiatric unit in 1981, Joan sent her a “Get Well Soon Card”. Months later, unbeknown to anyone, she completed an application for her to study nursing, even signing on her behalf. Committing forgery is not the behaviour one would expect from a judge’s daughter but it demonstrated her determination to support her daughter’s recovery in any way possible.
She brought this same compassion and pragmatism to her volunteer role at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau when working with women experiencing domestic violence. This was in the 1970s when domestic violence was considered best left behind closed doors. Joan was not fazed by anything, and regularly helped the mothers and their children find alternative accommodation so they could leave abusive relationships.
In dedicating herself to her family, friends and the community, she left an indelible mark. Along with her own five children, Joan helped raise countless others. When her sister, Peg, returned to medical school in 1969, Joan happily became a second mother to her seven children. She rejoiced in their lives with the same passion as in her own children’s lives.
When her extended family, friends or neighbours needed help, Joan was there to provide practical support and, in some cases, nursing care. She nursed her neighbour’s nine-year-old son when he became unwell with leukaemia so he could stay home with his family until his death.
Joan had studied domestic science at Invergowie, a course that included classes on how to cook and clean and be a housekeeper, and then nursing at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Invergowrie, Joan liked to joke, was the school where you learnt how to catch a husband. In 1948, at the age of 24, she married Roy Russell. Although she loved nursing, married women faced restrictions on remaining in the workforce.
She happily dedicated the next 25 years to being a housewife and mother. She called this period of her life “a labour of love”. She considered being able to stay home and raise a family a privilege. In 1973, Joan returned to the Royal Melbourne Hospital as an evening nursing administrator after her youngest child started high school.
In her retirement, Joan joined the Lyceum Club even though she did not have the prerequisite university degree. When a member asked Joan how she got in, she replied: “I caught the tram.” She also studied Art Appreciation at the University of the Third Age and became a volunteer guide at Heidi Museum of Modern Art.
In 2010, Joan and Roy moved to an aged care facility where she quickly made new friends. After Roy’s death in 2012, Joan established ‘her seat’ in the communal lounge room from where she observed everything with a nurse’s eye. She appreciated staff who treated her respectfully though not all did. She gently rebuked: “Please don’t talk to me as if I am a child” or “My name is Joan, not sweetie”.
Joan looked forward to her monthly trips to Mt Martha, away from the routines of the aged care facility. When she was 11, her parents had bought a block of land and built a beach house at Mt Martha. For the next 80 years, Joan was happiest when her beach house was overflowing with people. When she ran out of beds, she found innovative places for her guests to sleep. Her generosity knew no limits. Towards the end of her life, Joan came alive sitting on the deck, or in front of the fire, surrounded by people and dogs, chatting and reminiscing.
Joan died peacefully, with a smile on her face. On the morning of her death, she said to her daughter: “Darling, you really do need a hair cut”.
Joan is survived by her two brothers, five children, eleven grandchildren, seven great grandchildren and a large extended family. She will be remembered for her warmth, hospitality, kindness, intellect and great sense of fun.
15th April 1924 – 24th September 2015
First published as an obituary in The Age on 12 October 2015