Sister Paesie was striking—young, beautiful, fair-haired, tall—and a very accomplished nurse. She was working as a nurse in the first Coronary Care Unit in Victoria—a two-bed ward set up in 1968. It was part of 5-West ward where I was working. Coronary Care Units have come a long way since those early days as has the treatment of cardiac conditions.
Medical interns in 1968 worked long hours and I was writing up notes on several patients at the 5-West desk at around 2.00am one morning when Sister Paesie told me she was about to get herself a cup of coffee and would I like one too? I said I would, and the coffee duly arrived a few minutes later with a sachet of salt on the saucer—the sachets of salt and sugar were very similar at Royal Melbourne Hospital.
Fortunately, I did not take sugar, so the coffee was fine, but it was a memorable start to a 50+ year relationship.
As our relationship blossomed, Anne Paesie told me that her real name was Ans Paesie (no middle name). She and her parents had anglicised Ans to Anne to fit in better with Australian society, particularly school—Australians were totally unfamiliar with a name like Ans in 1951 and tended to pronounce it as ‘Ants’. She also told me that her grandparents and her Aunt Corrie in Holland used to call her Annemieke in her early years. She liked that name and so did I, so Annemieke she became.
Interestingly, her father’s sister (Annie) also gave birth to a baby girl in the same room on the same ward on the same day. The babies were born within an hour of each other. Annie also called her baby Ans—so two first cousins were exactly the same age with the same given name in the same room in the same hospital ward.
Annemieke’s parents had married very young—her mother was 18 and her father was 21—partly because in 1943 only single men were forced to go to Germany to work in German factories.
After Annemieke’s birth, her mother Johanna suffered what would now be called postnatal depression and spent extended times in mental hospitals over several years. Annemieke was cared for by her mother’s parents for almost all her time in Holland, even when her mother was not in care. Her grandparents, Oma and Opa Niesten, also had Annemieke’s unmarried aunt Corrie living with them. Corrie’s fiancé (a medical student and a pilot) had been killed during the German invasion of Holland in 1940.
Annemieke’s life with her grandparents and aunt in Holland was wonderful, filled with love and security. Her grandparents devised ways to teach Annemieke about colour, texture, and fabric, with ‘games’ such as sorting out buttons by colours, shapes and sizes; sorting out cotton reels in thread colours, and heights of reels; covering Opa with the small textile embroideries (lapjes) that were included in his cigar boxes in those days; and many more. Oma taught Annemieke how to crochet.
Annemieke remembers the games of Hide and Seek when Corrie came home from work each day. It was a very happy time for Annemieke. She even thought that Corrie was her mother. Annemieke was blissfully unaware of the problems outside the house with the German occupation and then the post-war shortages of food and materials.
They had a choice between Australia and Argentina. They settled on Australia and preferred to travel without Annemieke.
However, Opa Niesten insisted that they should take Annemieke (their only child) because they were her parents and Oma and Opa were getting rather old. Annemieke remembers that her parents seemed like strangers to her on the plane to Australia with none of the warmth and love she had been used to. She missed her grandparents and aunt terribly. The journey with KLM Airlines took four days and was a nightmare. She and her parents arrived in Australia all unable to speak English. Shortly after, there was an outbreak of polio in the migrant camp at Bathurst. Returning to the camp from a shopping expedition, they learned of the polio outbreak. They had the choice of going in and then being unable to leave while being quarantined, or not going in. They decided not to go in, all their belongings were thrown over the wire fence by others from inside the camp, and they rough-slept that night at the local railway station.
Annemieke’s father had trained as a dental mechanic in Holland but had to take whatever work he could get initially. He became a personal driver in Bowral for a time before getting work as a dental mechanic in Melbourne, later running his own laboratory in Collins Street.
Annemieke attended primary school at Brighton State School and soon became proficient in English. She used to translate for her parents during shopping.
The family purchased a block of land surrounded by bush, farmland, and orchards at Mitcham around 1954, and built a new house there. Annemieke went to Mitcham State School then Nunawading High School from the home in Mitcham. During all her school years in Australia, Annemieke was a latchkey kid. Her parents were working long hours to become established in a new country and would arrive home hours after school had finished. They would expect that Annemieke had completed her allotted tasks including preparing all the vegetables ready for the evening meal. They would not allow Annemieke to go to friends’ houses or to have friends over to their house.
The wide-open spaces of the house at Mitcham contrasted sharply with her grandparents’ house in Haarlem where the front door of the house opened directly onto the street footpath, and the backyard was tiny.
After completing her tasks, Annemieke would pass her solitary hours observing her environment, e.g., seeing how many insects and other life she could find in a gum tree behind her house.
She began to sketch the things she found but had to hide the sketches in her maths book as her father saw no future in artwork.
Annemieke never saw her grandparents again after leaving Holland in 1951. But aunt Corrie visited Australia several times and was always very interested and encouraging to Annemieke’s endeavours in art and in her family. Corrie had a great talent for languages and spoke and wrote seven European languages fluently. She worked as a translator in the Dutch Department of Health. She left her estate to Annemieke when she died in Holland in 2003.
School in Australia presented a number of problems to Annemieke quite apart from the difficulties of language. It was very different to the Maria Montessori school she had attended during her last year in Holland which had very small classes with students working at their own pace. In Australia, there was a battle over her preference to write and draw lefthanded. In that post-war period, she was often taken to be German including by a headmaster who had suffered as a prisoner-of-war in Germany.
But there were highlights too. Annemieke trained in diving at the Surrey Dive, Box Hill, and eventually became Victorian High Schools diving champion. And Mrs Ridgway, her art teacher at Nunawading High School, was very encouraging and informative. Her emphasis on realist art (old and modern) fitted Annemieke’s preferences exactly.
Annemieke loved studying the Old (European) Masters with Rembrandt and Vermeer being among her favourites.
After school, and encouraged by Mrs Ridgway, Annemieke decided to become a secondary art and craft teacher. She started training at Melbourne State College in Carlton but after being marked down for realist portrayal of subjects and unwilling to blindly accept the total emphasis on abstract art, she left in her first year. She was still living at home and then worked with her parents assisting with the production of dentures, bridges, crowns, and other dental accessories.
Her father also made prostheses such as ears, eyes, fingers, and noses for doctors whose patients needed prostheses for cosmetic reasons.
Annemieke was sometimes the model for her clothes at fashion parades in Holland. Later, in Australia, she taught Annemieke sewing techniques, fabric handling and storing requirements, and the different qualities of different fabrics, as well as combining colours to produce a pleasing result. She was a great cook and a very competent housekeeper—her home was always tidy and artistically presented with wonderful and tasteful colour combinations.
She was tall and beautiful. In her youth she was a champion in races such as the 100 metres sprint. In her later life she was a champion lawn bowler. Unfortunately, she was unhappy and depressed for long periods of her life and was treated for depression.
Annemieke’s father—Lambertus Petrus Paesie (later anglicised to Bert, then Peter)—was 18 when Germany invaded Holland. He trained as a dental mechanic from age 16.
Later, in Australia, he did further training to become an Advanced Dental Mechanic and then was able to make dentures for the public directly (instead of the process going through a dentist). He was very successful as a dental mechanic in Australia. A few months after arriving here he was taken on by a Melbourne dental laboratory in Collins Street. Within a short time, he became a partner in the firm.
He also owned and ran a tooth manufacturing company for several years. Eventually, after gaining qualifications as an Advanced Dental Mechanic, he concentrated on making dentures directly with clients, initially from his home in Mitcham but later from Warragul.
He was very skilled with his hands and passed on many of those skills to Annemieke. She was able to use those skills for making silver jewellery using the lost wax technique. She often wears a large silver bee pendant she made in her teens.
Annemieke’s father was a complex character. To the outside world he was regarded as intelligent, reliable, skilled with high standards in his dental work, friendly, even charming.
But in the home, in his relationships with his daughter and wife, it was a different matter. He was the dominant person in the family, a very controlling man, a violent man. He controlled the finances, what was bought, who his wife could see, and who they had as friends.
He was always critical of Annemieke, unimpressed by her successes in the art world even suggesting she should quit art and spend more time looking after her family and especially her parents.
Most parents would be immensely proud to have a daughter have an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, or to be awarded an OAM for services to art, but nothing Annemieke did seemed to merit his praise. He let her know his disappointment that she was a girl rather than a boy. At times she felt more like a slave than a daughter. His own father was a very difficult man and perhaps his upbringing and his experiences in World War II contributed to his outlook on life and his relationships with others. Annemieke was terrified of him and felt that her life only really began when she finally managed to leave home.
It was a great sadness for Annemieke and me that we could never sustain a loving relationship with her parents from the time we married until their deaths (both by suicide three weeks apart) in 1996. The relationship was always rocky, on again, off again.
Her father was a relationship wrecker. If things were on a smooth basis for a few weeks, he would imagine some hurt or slight and revert back to trying to control Annemieke through fear. He seemed incapable of sustaining a loving ‘normal’ family relationship.
Annemieke’s mother was unable to have a mind or life of her own, being completely dominated by her husband. She was not able to have an independent relationship with Annemieke away from her husband. Annemieke cannot recall ever being hugged or cuddled by either of her parents. It was a great contrast with my own parents who were immensely proud of Annemieke and her artwork. They were always loving and welcoming—a great boost to Annemieke.
Annemieke made the decision in her late teens not to be like her father—she chose to be generous, even-tempered, loving, kind, consistent, predictable, non-violent, and to accept people as they are. She also decided not to be dominated by anyone else like her mother was. She has stuck to those decisions throughout our married life.
He had seen the family over several years and knew the background. He rang his friend the Director of Nursing at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and arranged that Annemieke could start nurse training.
In those days, nurse training was done solely by teaching hospitals unlike today where it is at university. The beauty of that arrangement was that she would live in the Nurses Home at the hospital.
Finally, at the age of 20, Annemieke could have some freedom from her parents.
Annemieke loved nursing and excelled at it. After completing the basic training, Annemieke went into coronary care (where we met) and later completed Theatre Nursing.
I had been called up for National Service in 1965 (Vietnam War) when the marble with my birth date had been pulled out of the hat. I had been allowed to defer while I completed my medical degree.
I decided to take a short service commission with the Royal Australian Navy which was an acceptable alternative to National Service in the Army. So, three months after we married I was sent to sea—on HMAS Stuart to join the British Far East Fleet based in Singapore.
After I fell ill with dengue fever in Singapore, Annemieke managed to wangle an indulgence flight to Singapore with the RAF. After my recovery, we had weeks of magical time in Singapore and Hong Kong exploring the wonders of Asia.
The following year saw us in Frankston when I worked at HMAS Cerberus at Crib Point, and Annemieke took a nursing job at a pathology laboratory. Joanne was born late that year.
On leaving the Navy we had six months in Toowoomba then returned to Victoria where I became a partner at the Sale Medical Group. Annemieke was a big-city girl and said she would give Sale twelve months’ trial. Fifty-two years later, we are still here, still in the same house.
Not long after we arrived in Sale, Annemieke tried to resume her nursing career at the hospital in Sale.
But Matron would have none of it reasoning that wives of Visiting Medical Officers were not welcome on the payroll because the other nurses needed to be able to have their discussions about the Visiting Medical Officers without a wife eavesdropping!
Such were the 1970s. Annemieke was devastated. She adored nursing as a profession, but she was locked out in Sale.
By then we had had two children (Peter was born in Sale in 1972). Never one to fill her day with trivia, Annemieke dabbled in many crafts for several years before settling on appliqué and machine embroidery. The rest is history. In retrospect, Matron did the world a favour, though it did not seem like that at the time.
A painful neuropathy of unknown cause means she has become unsteady on her feet, and that drawing and sewing are a lot more difficult.
Gardening is now too much for her. Multiple food allergies associated with an inflammatory colitis make it difficult to go out for meals or to order take-away.
She has lost 14cm in height due to degenerative changes in the spine. These and other illnesses have slowed her down. But they have not stopped her creativity. S
he finds that if she goes into her studio and ‘gets lost’ in a project she becomes unaware of her painful conditions. Such is the power of the mind.
So, after virtually stopping her artwork for several years while we chased cures for her incurable diseases, she now accepts the limitations of those diseases and gets on with feeding earwigs to red back spiders, sketching beetles and butterflies, using clothing labels to create textile wall works and sculptures, designing and creating textiles of prawns or queen snapper, and so on.
Her creativity continues and her life is better for it.
Looking back over our 55-year marriage, I can still hardly believe my luck. I have spent a lifetime with a wonderful, warm, talented, generous, interesting, interested, perceptive, intelligent, faithful, beautiful woman—and what a journey it has been!
Born in the Netherlands in 1944, Annemieke migrated to Australia with her family at the age of seven, and fell in love with Australia’s flora and fauna.
Over the course of more than sixty years she has developed a wholly original art that uses textiles in new and unseen ways to sculpt subjects such as birds, frogs and fish, as well as insects such as moths, dragonflies, wasps and grasshoppers.
Her extraordinary, highly detailed works are often greatly enlarged to show normally invisible colours and textures, to reveal the everyday magic of the natural world.