Brenda is going okay.
She’s doing a lot of crosswords, and gardening, and watching replays of old footy games – presumably ones we won. (Does anyone watch replays of a game lost?).
I knocked on her door yesterday afternoon to surprise her with a delivery, five plump homegrown persimmons from two trees I planted for each of our boys.
She opened the door, called out my name – Dugald! – and this was Brenda: personable, matter-of-fact, warm-natured, engaging with the world, and in her slippers.
I asked for her photograph. “Wait a minute, I’ll do my hair”.
For all who don’t know, Brenda is maybe Richmond’s most fabulous supporter, although she’s known more widely as the longest-serving supermarket employee at Coles.
Or as she says: the “oldest check-out chick in Australia”.
You may have heard her on the radio, seen her on the TV, advocating for mature-age employees, for working until later life. She is a treasure, and a total character.
I first knocked on her door in the depths of the 2016 season, on a Sunday morning after a half-hearted Richmond loss the night before, and her pragmatism cheered me, her perspective, and back then I couldn’t imagine where we are now: two premierships and a pandemic, and me delivering a handful of persimmons to her door.
Since writing about her, a few things about Brenda I ought to share:
She’s now a sprightly 88.
A few weeks back, asking how she was, she said Coles have paid her not to work, news I found heartening. Her age and her job put her in a high-risk category for the virus. She is one in the community who needs to be especially cautious. She is also a great asset to her employer. To all of us. She teaches us things about ourselves, sets an example, shows us how a life can be lived. I am thankful to Coles for looking after her.
(And she tells me many customers have asked after her, asking when she’ll be back, concerned for her welfare).
After interviewing Brenda four years ago I returned and fixed her front gate. It’d dropped on its hinges. Needed to be lifted over the latch before it could be opened. When working, Brenda leaves home in the morning dark to start her early shift. I asked if it was a nuisance. She said it was. I returned on my bicycle, then rode to the hardware store for a few coach screws, and took me two goes at it, was a bit trickier than it looked, but it was done and now swings freely. She was grateful.
Late November I launched my new venture, Bowerbird Gardens, a calling to keep me gainfully employed, and many gathered in our back lane and Brenda came along with a few other Richmond friends – bless them all – and she interrupted my speech.
“I’ve got a bone to pick with you,” she told the crowd.
When I spoke with Brenda for her fan profile (republished, below), she said I told her how I’d once taken our two young boys to school by wheelbarrow (true), and had said if Richmond ever won a premiership I’d take her for a ride in it, too.
Was a promise made when I thought Richmond might never win another flag. Not in my lifetime, and certainly not in hers.
I have several wheelbarrows, I told Brenda and the crowd, and I was willing to uphold my promise and take her for a ride.
Where would you like to go?
Sharp as a tack, her reply: “Oh, I haven’t been to Albury for a while”.
One last thing about Brenda.
We vote for opposing political parties and probably always have and will.
When I visited her house she had a calendar on her fridge, from the then local Federal MP for Higgins. I commented on this. Her being a Liberal Party voter. Told her how my beliefs are at the other end of the political spectrum. She shrugged her shoulders, poured me a cup of tea. Was a nice brew.
I love the way football does this. It brings us together.
It reaffirms that despite all our differences – political outlook, belief systems, education and income levels – we are all roughly equal before the bounce of a ball. We all love the game, our club, it’s players, in much the same way.
These are things to hold onto in times like these.
I have much respect and admiration for Brenda, and surely always will, and know she is loved deeply by the broad church of the Richmond family.
Barrack for Brenda?
Where do you join the cheer squad?
Oh we’re from Tigerland: Brenda Palmer
Brenda Palmer, 84, “a Malvern girl”
Favourite all-time player:
Royce Hart – “There was always something happening when Royce Hart was on the field. A friend of mine who barracked for South Melbourne said to me, ‘when Royce Hart runs on the field he just speaks football’.”
Favourite current player:
Dustin Martin – “I love them all but there’s no one who stands out. I think I’ve got a fixation with who wears number four. Matty Rogers was the homecoming hero last week and I was very fond of him. I used to call him ‘dreamboat’. And I do have a real soft spot for Dusty.”
Half-time at the football on Saturday night, three goals down, a forlorn season on a precipice, and I find Brenda Palmer at her usual seat on the fence with a smile. The happiness comes with being there, with her family and friends. “Where there’s life there’s hope,” she says. “What they did in the first half, we can do in the second.”
Sunday morning and I knock on her door, where she’s lived for more than sixty years, beside where Kevin Sheedy’s childhood home, and she offers the perspective of someone who’s seen a bit of football in her time. She remembers Jack Dyer as a player (“he seemed to stand over everyone else”), the lean years of the 1950s (“before the miracle happened in Tommy Hafey”), and knows of all the grand finals and wooden spoons.
“We’re all hurting and feeling dejected,” she says. “But the sun will still come up in the morning.”
Listening to Brenda talk about football, about Richmond, about her family and her life, it’s a tonic. She offers the moderation of experience, of a full-life lived, of the pluck and tenacity of what it is to be a Tiger.
“In the last forty-odd years you could just about count it on one hand how many games I’ve missed in Melbourne,” she says.
Not surprising when you consider this: just after six o’clock each weekday morning she walks up to the Coles supermarket in Malvern to start her work shift. “They’ve worked out I’m the oldest check-out chick in Australia,” she says. She took a job when the store opened in July 1967, and 49 years later she’s a local celebrity, still serving customers.
Brenda Palmer (nee Schofield) was born in Deniliquin (Sam Lloyd country) in 1932, the youngest of five daughters (Mildred, Beryl, Sybil, Winifred) to a returned soldier, a builder by trade who moved his family to Melbourne in 1939 when war broke out. They bought a house near Malvern station and as a young girl, catching the train to the city, Brenda’s eye roved toward Richmond.
“Coming past in the train, I could see them in their yellow and black jumpers, and I thought it looked interesting, what those men are doing there,” she says. “I thought I’d come back one day to find out what it was all about.”
Return to the ground she did, as a teenager, when Captain Blood was still playing, when Melbourne’s suburban grounds were like churches, when Richmond was known still as ‘Struggletown’ and the game was played between hard men with bare knuckles. “Players back then had a bit of mongrel in them,” she says. “You don’t get anywhere being a gentleman all the time.”
Brenda married in 1952, to a grocer (“he was born and bred in Port Melbourne”) who on Sundays played football for the Graham Family Hotel, in Richmond’s colours on the Lagoon Reserve oval. Together they bought a house on the other side of Glenferrie Road, in Armadale, and family life took hold with three children and a busy social schedule.
It was Brenda’s only daughter, her eldest child, Carolyn, remembered fondly by all in Richmond’s cheer squad, who brought her back to the football. It was 1967 and their next-door neighbour, Kevin Sheedy, a De La Salle boy who played for the Prahran two-blues in the VFA, moved to Richmond amid controversy and Carolyn took her mother along to see him in the big league.
For the two of them, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“We were right on the cusp of a glorious era,” she says. “Sixty-seven, sixty-nine, seventy-three, seventy-two, we played in all those finals. It’s wonderful. You have to live through a period like that to know how wonderful it is.”
On Sunday morning, the sports pages of the newspaper spread on a table, Brenda makes a cuppa tea, and talks about football and I could listen all day. She says she liked visiting St Kilda’s old ground, the Junction Oval, and “the little Hawthorn ground”, both “just a tram ride away”. Of Glenferrie Oval, she says: “It was so small if they kicked it one way it landed on the railway line and if they kicked it the other way it landed in the street. And one day we were there it landed in the fish fryer.”
Her least favourite ground was Victoria Park. “It was like stepping into a different world going over there.”
She also didn’t much like visiting Kardinia Park. “It was never very friendly down there. They used to always open up the gates for all their members, and we would be the last in, and we had to sit in a designated section. And if there wasn’t enough room for us, well, bad luck.”
What she remembers most about Punt Road Oval, and the Western Oval, is the mud. “The Footscray ground was notorious for it,” she says. “The players would be so covered in mud you couldn’t even read their numbers or hardly tell who they were.”
In 1970 her daughter Carolyn met under-19s Richmond player Graham Gaunt at a BBQ at Punt Road Oval. Six years later they married, and Richmond literally became part of her family, and weekends were spent at the games, and afterwards at the clubrooms for player roasts and mock weddings and fundraising events.
“None of my family barrack for anything else except Richmond,” she says. “Except for my son Bruce’s wife, who says she barracks for Carlton, but she wouldn’t know what a football was. Almost the first word all the children say is ‘Tiger’. Half of them say it before they say ‘dad’ or ‘mum’.”
Of Richmond’s immediate concerns, she’s philosophical. Brenda has known good times and bad, and knows how quickly they can turn, and how life’s full of hurdles. In the past 10 years she’s lost her husband, Alan, two of her sisters, one of her sons, and a little more than two years ago her most loyal football companion, Carolyn, who died not long after being diagnosed with cancer.
But still there is the football, other family and friends, and her front row seat in the Olympic Stand pocket.
She said she has read some of the “nasty things” some Richmond fans have posted after Saturday night’s loss about the team or club on Facebook. “That’s not them, that’s the hurt coming out,” she says. “You’ve got to get rid of that hurt somewhere, and that’s how those people do it.”
Each room of her house is adorned with Richmond memorabilia, keepsakes, trinkets, with boxes full of badges and framed photographs, and there’s no doubting her loyalty to something that’s been a part of her life for the longest time. “For Richmond to be so unsuccessful since the early eighties and still have 70,000 members is a credit to both the club and the supporters.”
Brenda will be at the game on Friday night, as she always is. And like the rest of us, she hopes our performance against Hawthorn, with backs to the wall, is a credit to each and every player.