A Lineage of Grace – Val’s Story
I arrived on Australian shores a few weeks after my third birthday, in December 1951. My mother, father and younger brother and I were ‘ten pound poms’. The promise of a new life, employment and sunshine had lured my family, along with hundreds of thousands of others, to leave the challenges of life in post war Britain and embrace a fresh start in Australia.
We eventually settled in a suburb of Wollongong, NSW called Dapto. My father began working at a local coal mine and my mother set up house for us in a 3-bedroom, timber Commonwealth Cottage in Yulunga Street. Compared to the small flat we had left behind in England, it seemed like a palace. Our street was full of other migrant families with young children and although the ‘town people’ were a little unsure about us, our immediate neighbours quickly became like family.
I adored my parents. My father was tall, handsome and charismatic and my mother, a gifted singer, was a bold, intelligent and beautiful woman. They were devoted to each other. Yet a shadow loomed over our lives. My mother suffered from a devastating heart condition that resulted in three open-heart surgeries and prolonged hospital stays. From as early as I can remember, I was aware that my mother’s health was fragile and that her grip on life was tenuous.
By the time I was five years old, my paternal grandmother and uncle had also immigrated to Australia. Whenever my mother was hospitalised, I went to live with my grandmother. She lived in a government flat across the road from the beach and some of my happiest childhood memories are from my time with her. Living with granny meant lazy days at the beach and lots of time spent with just the two of us. She captivated my imagination with tales of her own childhood, as the daughter of a wealthy family in a grand home in England. She had been raised with a maid who brushed her hair, laid out her clothes and anticipated her every need. Her stories fascinated me but also provided an escape from darker events that were never far from my mind.
I first experienced the trauma of sexual abuse when I was five years old. Sadly that was not the only time that my trust and innocence was violated this way. Shame descended like an invisible and heavy blanket that at times, threatened to suffocate me. It stifled my joy and sense of freedom and established a legacy of confusion and insecurity that followed me well into adulthood.
God and the church was not a feature of our family life but, from an early age, I was intrigued by the notion of a heavenly protector. I begged my parents to take me to church and still remember asking my mother to buy me a hat so that I would be appropriately attired. Sadly, despite the hat, it was made very clear that I was not good Christian material. My family were not churchgoers, I was not a local and, to top it all off, my mother occasionally worked as a singer at the pub down the road. My brief experiences with the school scripture teacher only reinforced this message of unsuitability and so my interest in church was over before it really began.
I left school shortly before my 16th birthday and joined the workforce. One of my jobs was working at a local coffee shop called ‘The Billabong Café’. It was here that I encountered a shy, handsome, young man named Allan Grey. It took him six months from our first meeting to work up the courage to ask me out. He was the son of a highly respected and very well known family from the adjoining suburb of Albion Park. There were more than a few eyebrows raised when people found out he was dating a girl from ‘Pommy Hill’ but young love prevailed and, after two years, we were engaged.
Allan’s family were devout Presbyterians and, although he was not a regular church attender, he had a very well developed sense of the ‘fear’ of God. At one point, he decided that we could only get married if I became a Christian. After my childhood experiences, I was not even remotely interested in ‘converting’ and so told him that he would have to take me as I am or not at all. After only a moment of hesitation, he backed down and we agreed that religion was off the table. Or so I thought.
Allan and I were married on 25 November 1967. We moved into a small house on his family’s dairy farm and, by the following year, I was pregnant with our first child. Marriage was not easy for either of us. We were young, emotionally immature and woefully, ill equipped to deal with the inevitable pressures of forging a life together. Despite his earlier assurances to the contrary, Allan began pestering me to become involved in church. By now, he was heavily involved in a local Seventh Day Adventist Church and the requirements of this community became more and more demanding.
It felt like my husband was having an affair except, in this instance, God was ‘the other woman’. We were both miserable but our marriage vows were sacred so, despite the strong temptation to leave, I stayed.
The arrival of our first child and my parents’ first grandchild brought great joy to our lives. At only 20 years of age, however, my joy and delight was quickly overtaken by fear and anxiety. Memories from my own childhood taunted me. How would I ever be able to protect this innocent child when my own devoted parents had been unable to protect me? I still remember one night, when my daughter Linda was only three months old, calling out to God. I was sleep deprived and an emotional wreck but from somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind I recalled this verse from Psalm 121:3,4
He will not let your foot slip—
He who watches over you will not slumber, indeed, He who watches over Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep.
I reasoned that if God was awake anyway then he could take care of this child of mine who seemed to never sleep either! From that point forward, God became a stronger presence in my life. I began to attend church more regularly with Allan and, although I didn’t enjoy the services or rules, my heart was more open to God than it had ever been. I was desperate to belong to God and to be accepted by Him and His family, the church. I also hoped that, as I became more engaged in the church activities, that my relationship with my husband would become easier.
Sadly the opposite became true. Allan grew increasingly obsessed with the religious rules and observances that were a distinctive of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. His commitment was sincere and he genuinely believed that he was doing the right thing by God and our family, but he was incredibly legalistic, particularly around the area of food. We fought constantly about what could and should be eaten and when and how it was to be eaten. What I didn’t realise, was that he was already in the grip of a crippling eating disorder that almost destroyed him and our marriage.
By 1971, we had two children and I was pregnant with our third when my whole world fell apart. My beloved granny died. Three months later my mother had a heart attack and also died. She was only 42 years old. I was numb with grief. My mothers’ illness had been a dark cloud over our family for my whole life but the shock and depth of loss was still overwhelming.
Within three months, I lost the two most significant women in my life.
The next few months I lived on autopilot. By Christmas of 1971, I had three children under three, no mother and a husband who I loved deeply but who was tortured by an illness that was, at that time, unnamed and barely understood. He was a tormented man who was wasting away before my eyes and I felt powerless to help him. The eating disorder and associated depression had such a grip on his life that eventually the medical authorities became involved. Allan was diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia. He was hospitalised in a Sydney psychiatric hospital and remained there for an extended period of time.
That season of my life was a blur of fear, anxiety, hopelessness and confusion. My fledgling faith in God had taken a serious beating. Allan’s illness was so enmeshed in his religious commitments that I was terrified at the thought of him becoming involved in church again and I was more than a little wary of God myself. Throughout this time, I leaned heavily on friends in our neighbourhood for help and support. In the absence of my own mother, I was surrounded by women, some older, some my age, who became like family to my girls and me. It was these women who provided not just practical support but also started taking my daughters to Sunday school.
When Allan returned to our family home we began the slow and arduous journey of rebuilding our marriage and our family. He had no interest in retuning to church, for which I was grateful, but I still craved a connection with God. One of our neighbours, Margaret, attended a Bible Study at the church where the girls were going to Sunday school.
I didn’t feel ready for church but I decided to attend Bible Study with Margaret and see whether this church’s version of God was kinder and less demanding than the one I had been exposed to previously.
I had felt so burdened by the demands and expectations of the Seventh Day Adventist Church that I held little hope that I would ever be good enough for God. I recall one day sitting on the floor of our home, just near the front door, crying an ocean of tears and feeling overwhelmed by the chaos of my own life. I was barely surviving, and the weight of what I thought a Christian should be and do, was crushing me. As clearly as if it was an audible voice, I heard God speak to my heart.
‘When you stand before me I will not ask you for the world, but I will ask you for the children that I have entrusted to you.’
How liberating. I was not responsible for saving the planet or being a missionary in a far away land. My focus and my priority were to be my children. I felt a lightness and ease enter my heart. My relationship with God wasn’t instantly transformed but the journey towards freedom had begun.
It wasn’t too far into my visits to the local Anglican Church Bible study that I realised that the God I had been hoping to meet all my life was actually real. Under the guidance and leadership of a community of God honouring, loving and kind men and women I discovered the grace and unconditional love of God. My response was to immerse myself in learning as much as I could about Him. I attended church meetings and Bible study, and served wherever they would have me.
Meanwhile Allan was on his own healing journey. A year after his return from hospital he had his own encounter with the grace and love of God. He described it as being just like someone turning on the light in the face of darkness; for the first time he could see God clearly and God was not mad at him. As profound as these individual breakthroughs were for us both, we still had a long journey ahead of us.
Over the course of the next few years we had two more children, both girls. I adored being a mother to our five girls and relished the opportunity to build a home and nurture my family. Unfortunately I had inherited my mother’s poor health and a related, debilitating heart condition. For the next ten years I saw countless doctors and specialists and spent multiple, extended periods of time in hospital. By the time I was 47 years old I had reached a point of crisis in my health. I was at the maximum dose of the only medication available to treat my heart defect and surgery was not an option. This chronic condition didn’t just affect my life but was a constant shadow over our whole family. With every set back in my health, I was forced to dig deeper into my understanding of God and his promises, but it was only when I experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit that the Bible came alive to me in a whole new way.
For the first time I read God’s word as personal encouragement and truth. When I read this passage from Isaiah 53:5 I had the revelation that Jesus death on the cross didn’t just bring healing for others it meant healing for me.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
After a time of prayer and reflection I made the decision to stop taking my heart medication. For two months I told no one, not even Allan. When I eventually did tell him the first thing he made me do was go to the doctor for a full, health check. I went to the doctor that I had been seeing for more than 20 years and to his surprise there was no trace of my heart condition. In fact, he told me that I was healthier than I had ever been. He was not happy that I had stopped taking the medication but he could not dispute the fact that my heart was strong. That was more than 20 years ago. Although I have battled other illnesses from time to time, my heart has not given me a day of trouble since.
My heart condition was instantly healed but the miracle of our restored marriage has been outworked over many years, through small steps of obedience in the ordinary moments of everyday life. It has not always been an easy journey but as Allan and I have grown in our love and commitment to God, we have experienced a tremendous amount of personal healing. This year we will celebrate 50 years of marriage and our love for each other is deeper than it has ever been.
Life as a family of seven was never boring or quiet! Allan was significantly outnumbered, six women to one man, in fact even our pets were female, but nothing has brought us greater joy than being parents to our girls. More than forty years have passed since first God spoke to me about my mission as a mother, and in that time Allan and I have witnessed each of our daughters grow up into brave and beautiful women of faith.
My priority was always to ensure that each one of our daughters knew how much God loved them; they were God’s girls first, He just let us raise them.
In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined just how adventurous and unique each of their journeys would be, or how far and wide they would travel to pursue them. At one point we had children and grandchildren living in four different nations! So as their worlds expanded, so did mine.
Today, my life is richer and fuller than it has ever been. My five daughters are all married to wonderful men and have provided me with 14 incredible grandchildren, whom I absolutely adore. Allan and I have been blessed to travel all over the world and are revelling in the opportunity to create new memories of our own. As I approach my 69th birthday I cannot help but pause and reflect on how grateful I am to God for the life that I have. If not for Him, I don’t know what my life would look like or indeed, if I would even still be alive. I am living proof that God heals, restores, transforms and makes the impossible, possible.
God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.
Ephesians 3:20 (MSG)