A time to remember

Phyllis Watson still wears her nursing badge as a reminder of working at Auckland Hospital. Photo: Sharnae Hope.

Phyllis Watson can still recite the alphabet backwards and everyday does four ‘laps' to the letterbox and back.

Like many people, she is young at heart and wasn't expecting to live to see the day where a letter would arrive on her Tauranga doorstep from the Queen.

Last week she celebrated her 100th birthday with more than 80 family members and friends, some of which she hadn't seen in years.

Born in 1917, Phyllis grew up in Auckland with her two younger brothers close to what is now called Auckland Zoo.

At the time, when the zoo was first developed, she says they had very few animals, but the ones they did have often escaped and found their way into her neighbourhood.

“When the zoo first came we used to have a little monkey named Weeny that would come and sit on my roof and would chase our cat around the yard,” she says.

She also recalls men marching around the streets and her family hiding away, while a wild cat was on the loose.

“They also had baby lions at the zoo, and I remember them putting a boy in a box with the baby lions and they started biting at his feet. They tried to put me in as well, but I was five at the time and knew a bit better than that.”

Due to caring for many animals over her lifetime, Phyllis naturally picked up the skill of nursing during the 1940s.

She didn't always know she wanted to be a nurse, but with her future husband's persuasion, she changed her mind.

“Some of the girls had known they wanted to be nurses from the time they were little children, but I had never thought of it.”

She says nursing helped her through some of the harder times in her life, such as World War Two, the depression and the polio epidemic.

“It was quite fun working in the hospitals during WWII because we had all the young Americans at Auckland hospital,” she says, “They were interesting people.”

“When they came into hospital they took all their clothes away and locked them away so they couldn't go out, so the men used to go across Grafton Bridge in their pyjamas to go to two hotels and drink.”

Phyllis also broke New Zealand history by becoming the first nurse given permission to marry a doctor.

They married in 1943 and around three months later her husband went off to war.

She says it was quite scary at the time, but it was something they both knew would happen.

“Wars have been a real mark in my life, because when I was born my father had been called up to fight in France. He was wounded twice. He had a cut right on top of his head and a piece of shrapnel in his hip.”

She didn't meet her father until she was more than three-years-old.

“Then, in the second World War, my husband and two brothers were called up. One brother went into the army and the other went into the air force.”

She says overall she has had a wonderful life and has many great memories to look back on.

“I was born into a Christian family and I think that has a lot to do with my health. I also never smoked or drank, which in those days was quite uncommon.

“I never thought I'd live to see 100 - I thought my husband would far out-live me.”


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