A friend so Kind – Irene Gruber

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Irene’s beloved Dragons

Oh you’re a Manly fan?  What are we going to do about you!  And like this, for many Manly fans, great friendships start. 

A dear friend of mine Irene Gruber passed into glory this Monday.  As passionate about her Dragons as I am about the Sea Eagles, she nevertheless deigned to watch many a Friday Night Football with me.  

We met when I arrived in Canowindra to study at the Cornerstone Community there.  Ian and Irene had gifted the land the training centre was built on, and their farm was, back then, the principal source of work.  Their cottage at the end of the quaintly named Cucumber Lane became a cherished haven away from the deprivations of first year training at Cornerstone.  

Irene was born in Carcoar, into the Kind family.  And I have this song called “A friend so Kind” which just seems so incredibly pertinent to Irene’s passing.  

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Being commissioned onto Cornerstone staff in 1997. Irene in blue at the back, standing with Ian.

A Friend so Kind:
Lyrics by Steve Hindalong (with liberties by Andrew Grant)

Sometimes you’ve gotta laugh
Even when it hurts
Better still with somebody brushing off the dirt
Who knows we’re all ridiculous
Yet somehow sublime
She celebrates the journey
And tells you to climb
She tells you to climb

Early in our first year a group of us first year gentlemen (ruffians really) were caught huddling around a 2 inch, battery-powered television trying to watch the ARL 7s competition.  It was promptly confiscated as a “distraction”.  It must have been discussed at staff meeting because the next week Irene, hiding a wry smile, invited us to her place for Friday Night Football.  So four of us turned up at her place, half starving which was something of a theme for the year, to be plied with raisin toast, scones and hot chocolate.  Suffice to say we were back every Friday night for the rest of the season!

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Pythons vs Cumnock

Over the course of that year I was playing first grade Rugby for the mighty Canowindra Pythons.  Irene took to dressing up in their sky blue colours, replete with scarf, which she’d rip off at the game and wave wildly above her head whilst stalking the sideline screaming exhortation at the side, but particularly me.  Initially dressing room talk turned to working out who she was and why she was there, but as that season progressed, and many more seasons came and went, I came to embrace the mad, wild-eyed lady on the sideline and the intimidating effect she had on visiting teams.

There is no mountain of virtue
Higher to ascend
No quality
More divine
Than to be a friend
Ah to be a friend
So Kind

Eventually their little cottage became a sacred space for me.  I hadn’t intended it, but I stayed in Canowindra for seven years and throughout it was a place of hospitality, warmth and counsel.  Irene and I watched Manly defeat St George contentiously in the 1996 Grand Final.  Anne, then my fiance, walked outside afterwards and asked if Irene and I would ever be able to talk to each other again.  We were best of buddies again the very next day.  I was the first person to get her on the phone when St George finally won a Premiership in 2010 to share in her joy.  

Many times we sat around their beautiful dining room table, discussing lucerne production on the farm (which became the community’s lifeline), renegotiating leases which were extraordinarily generous to Cornerstone, and listening to mind-boggling stories of Ian and Irene’s courtship and ministry.

When you feel ashamed
And ugly inside
You need someone who cares
With whom you dare confide
To stare into your dark soul
To see hope and light
And tell you, “You’re glorious
I know you’ll be all right
You’re beautiful, I love you
I know you’ll be all right”

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Irene (in blue) stares down the Manly supporter in church.

The second last time we sat around that table was five years ago when I was leaving Cornerstone after giving them fifteen prime years.  It wasn’t going very well.  Ian and Irene, tears streaming down their face, affirmed me, my effort, commitment and loyalty and apologised for the injustices they saw.  In a community numbering more than 100 people they were two amongst no more than a handful to do so.

There is no mountain of virtue
Higher to ascend
No quality
More divine
Than to be a friend
Ah to be a friend
So Kind

Ian and Irene’s story was amazing.  Irene had been on the train that breakout Japanese prisoners had attempted to hijack during the Cowra breakout.  Ian was on of the first pioneers to penetrate West Papua (Irian Jaya).  Their great love story unfolded when they met, but returned to their separate stations, Irene on the Papua New Guinea side of the border.  Ian could talk over the short wave radio on the Irian side but Irene could not send back messages from the Papuan side.  So night after night Ian would dutifully detail his day, hoping Irene could hear on their other side, she exercising the discipline of silence as she listened to her beau.  

Irene loved Ian passionately.  She gave Anne and I tons of marital advice as we prepared for marriage, sharing deeply and personally.  Her love for Ian was reciprocated, theirs being a passionate love story of service, diligence and sacrifice over many decades.

So now you’ve gone away
In a sudden gust of wind
And we’re sadder on earth than hell
‘Cause we miss you, dear friend
Still it’s good to know your great heart
Is glad and restored
Forever cheerin’ for St George at the table of the Lord
At the table of the Lord

The last time I sat around their table was a couple of years ago when we passed through Canowindra on our way to Canberra for Christmas.  I arrived unannounced, kicked off my shoes in the laundry, assailed by the familiar smells of love and hospitality.  Irene peered through the door, embraced me and ushered me to the table before raiding the fridge and flicking on the kettle to ensure I was well-fed.  The hours flicked past as we caught up and reminisced.  A wonderful way to remember a dear friend.  

There is no mountain of virtue
Higher to ascend
No quality
More divine
Than to be a friend
Ah to be a friend
So Kind

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