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Norma celebrates a century

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Mary Cameron and Kyra Burns

Newly-minted centenarian Norma Gray celebrated her milestone birthday with family and friends at the Granville Civic Centre in Gingin on Saturday 24 February.

Norma, one of 11 children, was born on 27 February 1924 to Anne and William Harris of Beermullah. Norma’s grandfather Joseph Robert Harris arrived from England in a sailing ship in the mid- 1800’s and came to Gingin by chance, having been offered a job by WL Brockman, the first person to lease grazing land in the Gingin district in the 1830’s.

Joseph went on to work for Robert Dewar at Bootine Spring, marrying his daughter Jane. They eventually took up their own land near the Bootine Swamp at Beermullah. William, Norma’s father, was the eighth and last child of this marriage. He in turn married Anne Brown from Koojan and they had 11 children – Norma being the fourth eldest.

Norma’s recollections of her childhood on the farm are of tough times and little money. Shoes were a luxury, with the children going to school barefoot in all weather and the family diet was supplemented with kangaroo or rabbit meat on many occasions.

There was no electricity, and water for the house was carried by bucket from a well. Travel was generally on horseback, or by horse and sulky. Norma remembers the joy the day her brother Jim got a bike, freed from the task of having to catch a horse to go into town for supplies.

Norma says, “I enjoyed life, even though it was a hard life. And it was a very hard life, growing up the way we did. My mother said it made you stronger.”

Norma went to Beermullah School until she was 16. In those days, parents received 6 pence per day per child as a travelling allowance to go to school, and Norma believes this money was invaluable to the family income, and was one of the reasons she was allowed to remain at school until she was 16. Norma paid tribute to the Beermullah School in 2019, facilitating and partially funding a commemorative plaque to mark the site, now located on private property at 42 Mayfield Road.

The year Norma left school (1940); her mother Anne died of cancer aged just 45. With a household of young children, Norma, together with her elder sister Gwen, were tasked with the role of managing the family household, which she did until marrying in April 1947.

Norma’s drive and ability to take care of people, likely cemented in these formative years, has seen her become involved in countless fundraisers for sporting groups, school activities, community projects and for larger organisations such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service and Cancer Foundation. One of her most rewarding activities has been to be part of a group that crocheted blankets for the Wheelchair for Kids Project based in Perth.

“I’ve always been a great believer in helping people,” said Norma. Her efforts were recognised with the Shire of Gingin’s Senior Citizen of the Year Award in 2018.

Norma met husband-to-be, Cyril Gray of Bindoon at a local dance. Following marriage, Norma and Cyril bought 200 acres opposite to his parent’s farm on Gray Road. They grew oranges and grapes, and used some of it as grazing land. Norma and Cyril remained on the farm for 40 years and had two children, Rodney, and Anne. Once her children were grown, Norma worked at Keaney College (now Edmund Rice College) for more than a decade as a laundry worker, cleaner, and cook.

It is fair to say that cooking is a love language for Norma. First borne out of necessity to help in the family home, then to nourish her own family, she would also provide hot soup and pies for school children in winter, cook farmhouse meals for visiting coaches of up to 50 people, and would be sure to show up to a CWA meeting or golf practice with her famous jubilee-twist in hand. Ask Norma for a recipe and you will get the ingredients, but not the quantities – it is all done by feel and sight!

During the latter part of his farming days Cyril was involved in a severe tractor accident. He recovered, and took up a position with the Chittering Shire as well as running the farm. Eventually Norma and Cyril retired in their late 60’s and the farm was sold.

After Cyril’s death in 2000, Norma remained in Bindoon, for two more years before moving to Gingin to have access to better facilities. The diagnosis of macular degeneration in both eyes meant her eyesight would progressively deteriorate. Initially, Norma lived in Fewster Street with a much-loved large garden, then she downsized to a smaller unit. Having to leave behind her glorious garden, she made great use of the Gingin Community Garden, planting and harvesting vegetables, daffodil bulbs and more in a section the committee have now named “Norma’s Patch’.

It wasn’t until she was 99-years-old that a health scare warranted the move to the aged-care facility in Madeley where she now resides. “I’d never thought I’d be in a home,” said Norma. “But I’ve still got eight marbles out of ten, which is more than what most of them have here. I’m happy to be making it to 100.”

Norma has led both a physically and socially active life. Tennis, badminton, and netball were part of her repertoire, but it was in golf and bowls that she excelled. Today her name can be seen on the Honour Board at the Gingin Golf Club as Club Champion twice and she has been made a Life Member of the Club.

In her late 80’s Norma became one of the founding members of the Gingin Croquet Group. Despite her compromised eyesight, on a good day Norma’s hand eye coordination was still true and she would score the trickiest hoop.

After 100-years, Norma says she hasn’t unlocked the meaning of life, but she does have one simple rule she abides by – or tries to anyway: “Just be a good person, and not upset people.”