Australian women are amongst the most long-lived on the planet.
Current statistics tell us we can expect to live to an average age of 85: twenty years beyond what used to be called retirement age. For some, the prospect of filling in those extra decades is daunting. For others – the late bloomers – it’s an opportunity to achieve the goals they set out to reach before life got too busy or too messy.
Kathy Subic is a ‘senior citizen’ determined to make her time count.
Her journey – from what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – began 50 years ago when she was 18 years old. It has brought her to the Mornington Peninsula, to a tiny boutique in Flinders. In the window of her shop is a floral jacket: tailored, tastefully riotous and made – as I soon discover – from the remnants of a roll of French upholstery fabric. It is the lure that draws me into her orbit.
The force that keeps me there is the gravitational pull of her personality, and the glimpses she reveals into a life that could have ended so differently. Loud, opinionated and with an unerring eye for colour and form, she tells it like it is. She politely but firmly steers me away from one style of dress to another (‘Darling, that dress won’t do you any favours’) and intuitively knows my size and colour palette..
Her life’s work is to help her customers overcome nature’s design faults and create beauty in their place.
Her personal wardrobe, however, consists of comfortable pants and tunics in a muted palette. Short of stature, grey hair pulled back in a flyaway bun, with no sharp edges of face or form, her lack of vanity is at odds with her big personality. Her conversational style is pure Aussie, delivered in an Eastern European accent and peppered with laughter in a smoker’s register.
Her tale is one not only of surviving but thriving, and one to which, as a survivor of sorts and one of the late bloomers myself, I am drawn. She responds to my interest with a killer opening line.
I can take you by the hand, take you on a journey through hell and bring you out unscathed.
Back in 1969 and within weeks of arriving in Australia, 18-year-old Kathy doorknocked every business in Flinders Lane, determined on a career in the fashion industry. She started out as a junior at a garment manufacturer, and rapidly rose to the role of pattern maker. Her cutting skills became renowned throughout Flinders Lane in the 1970s and 80s.
In those days, the pattern making process began with cutting out a full scale cardboard pattern in a size 10. The sample was then made up into fabric and adjusted for error. After that, the cardboard pattern was adjusted prior to cutting out the remaining cardboard patterns in the other sizes. Kathy’s 90 per cent cutting accuracy allowed her to do away with making up the fabric sample altogether. She could receive a faxed design at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and produce a fully graded set of garments by 9am the following day.
If you want the impossible, Kathy will do it today and a miracle will take an extra day.Michael Besser (Rockmans)
Tragically, her career as a miracle-worker came to a sudden halt in the 1990s.
Held in high esteem in her professional life, her family life had always been difficult. She had been subject to abuse, both verbal and physical, at the hands of a narcissistic mother since she was a little girl growing up in what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
When Kathy was eight years old, one of her teachers detected signs of post-traumatic stress in the child and called her mother in to discuss it. Shamed into action, her mother took Kathy to a doctor (after first giving her a beating). The doctor diagnosed neurosis and prescribed antidepressants, which Kathy took twice a day for the next four years.
When Kathy swapped Yugoslavia for suburban St Albans, her parents came with her. Although she felt immediately at home in Australia, her domestic ordeal continued. She describes her life as ‘like living behind a high picket fence’ – one through which you could touch the outside world but never escape. Kathy’s only ally during her childhood had been her maternal grandmother, a talented seamstress from whom she inherited her passion for dressmaking and her love of nature.
Her grandmother was logical and well-grounded, but as helpless as her granddaughter in the face of her daughter’s wrath. She did, however, provide Kathy with a safe harbour and the knowledge that she was loved. After a year in Australia, Kathy arranged her grandmother’s passage out. Her death three years later was another devastating blow.
Kathy sought escape in an ill-advised marriage that lasted ten years.
When she divorced her husband, she moved into an apartment in Parkville – far away from her parents’ St Albans home – and started a lucrative freelancing career. But her freedom was shortlived. Her mother would ring her multiple times a day with complaints and problems that demanded Kathy’s immediate presence. Travelling back and forth to her parents’ home proved too much. She invited her parents to live with her. It was this that brought her undone.
She worked from 7am to 10pm on most days so her parents could have a comfortable life, and yet her mother continued to verbally abuse her and blame her for her own unhappiness. On rare occasions, Kathy would book a flight for a short holiday to the Whitsundays where she planned to speak to no one: just eat the meals prepared for her and sleep. The first time, her mother pretended to have a heart attack, then the second, then the third. She would be rushed to hospital and hooked up to an ECG machine and the doctors would find nothing wrong with her.
When questioned, she expressed the fear that if Kathy were to die in a plane crash there would be no one to care for her. Kathy told her she would receive $5 million in life insurance, to which her mother replied, ‘I can’t take all those millions if you die. They’ll cut off my pension.’
It was around that time that Kathy contemplated suicide.
Russell, an old friend from the fashion world, found her in a suicidal state. He packed her, her two cats and a few belongings into a car and drove her to Sorrento. Kathy had no further contact with her parents. Russell found her a rental property in Sorrento. The garden was overgrown with weeds. Kathy can’t remember much about her first 6 months there, except that Russell visited her daily with fresh muffins and soup.
She slowly started to emerge from the fog of depression. ‘One day I looked at the weeds that used to be a garden bed around the verandah. I saw this little red thing poking and I found a little azalea in there. And I thought my god there’s plants. And I started weeding.’ Kathy likens that first day of weeding in the overgrown Sorrento garden to being reborn. She spent that day and the days that followed digging up weeds and revealing the precious gems underneath. Her favourite treasure was a white geranium.
Many years later, Russell told her he chose the Sorrento property because of the garden. He was hoping to reignite Kathy’s zest for life by doing what she does best: creating a silk purse from a sow’s ear. She hasn’t seen him for two years now, but when next they meet their friendship will pick up where it left off.
I always say he saved my life.
Being given a second chance at life is a theme common to late bloomers.
Anecdotally, survivors are either diminished or determined to live their bonus years to the full. Contemplating one’s mortality at close quarters can be a catalyst for positive change. Kathy moved to Flinders in the early 2000s – bringing with her a cutting of the white geranium – and started her Zeega label twelve years later. Over the past year, the demand for her handmade designs in natural fibres has more than quadrupled.
Her long held dream now a reality, Kathy Subic likens herself to the stunted white geranium plant. Like it, she took a few years to flower and now her garden at Flinders is overgrown with it. Kathy’s roots are firmly in Flinders soil and her passion for her profession burns brighter than ever.
At 67 I’m working 6 days a week I’m a very happy old chook and I just keep going and I love it.
The beautiful floral jacket has also found a home. Its new owner lives an hour or so away from Flinders, but somehow both jacket and owner find their way back there at regular intervals. It must be that gravitational pull.
This story first appeared in Your Life Choices in July 2019.