SUSAN Angus-MacInnes, crying and clutching red poppies in the middle of a field in France, was discovering a piece of a family tree with roots in Ireland, England, Wales and Australia.
At the time, Susan was a senior teacher at St Kieran’s Primary School at Brighton on Brisbane’s northside, and she was on holidays with her husband Mac.
After her Irish-born mother Pauline had revealed to her that two of her uncles had been killed as young soldiers in Europe during the First World War, Susan was determined to visit the places where they had fought.
It had become a special quest, especially since she would visit the Australian War Memorial each year when she led students from St Kieran’s on a trip to Canberra.
And she was spurred on by a comment from her mother.
“When I was going to Canberra, Mum used to say, ‘You’re talking about all these Australian people; what about your own family?’,” Susan recalled.
“And I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’
“And she said, ‘Your grandfather went to World War I …’
“And I said, ‘Mum, you’ve never said anything, my whole life’.”
That was when she was in her 60s.
Susan had migrated to Australia in 1958 with her parents and a younger sister, and they and another sister born later had no other relatives in Australia.
That heightened the need to cherish any connections they had with extended family on the other side of the world.
And that was why Susan headed for the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres when she was on holidays in Belgium.
A friend in Belgium accompanied her as she searched where her uncles gave their lives.
Susan’s grandfather had volunteered to fight in the same war and survived to return home to Ireland where her mother was born, but her grand-uncles Stephen and John were killed in battle.
There was no grave for Stephen, who died in 1914, but Susan found a monument near Paris with his name on it.
John’s story unfolded for her in an office near the Menin Gate.
“The (Belgian friend) helping me was beside herself with joy – we’d found a grave of my mother’s uncle John,” Susan said.
She phoned her mother immediately to get confirmation.
“I said, ‘Can you just tell me Uncle John’s service number?’, and when she gave me the number, I said, ‘Oh, Mum, I’ve got a grave to go and see tomorrow, I’ve found a grave …’
“He was 19 when he was killed in 1917 …”
On the way to John’s grave in France the next day, Susan’s husband spotted some poppies by the road so they picked them.
“(And then) we found this place in the middle of a field,” she said.
“I felt a connection, because I hadn’t had it before, and I’ve got a photo. I had to kneel and pray at his grave and lay the little flowers.
“Mum said, ‘You look terrible …’ (when she saw the photo), and I said, ‘It’s freezing cold, the wind is blowing and it’s emotional …’
“I was fine, but I was emotional.
“That brought me back to my mother’s connections and how that’s so important to me.
“For once I was close to someone (a relative) … he might’ve been dead but that was my family … and he was only 19, poor fellow, when he died.”
Susan said she had “a feeling that I’ve always been led”, and the way she’d discovered the grave was typical of that.
From the day she was born into an Irish Catholic family at Bideford, in Devon, England, right through to her career choices in becoming a teacher, and later an APRE (assistant principal for religious education) at Our Lady of Dolours Catholic Primary School, Mitchelton, and St Kieran’s, Brighton, that’s been her experience.
“I’ve always had that pull (of faith and teaching) … and of course, when I was a child I used to want to be a nun, didn’t we all?” she said.
Apart from her family, the nuns who lived across the road when she was a child in Leeds were a strong influence.
“I lived in that convent with the nuns, like they were my other mothers and aunts,” she said.
“They were beautiful, and my whole childhood was really wonderful with those sisters.”
Those memories came with her when, before she was 10, she emigrated with her parents and a younger sister to make a new life in Brisbane.
“I had always wanted to be a teacher, as long as I could remember …,” she said.
“I loved teaching; I loved to share.”
Faith and hope have been her cornerstones, drawing on what she’s learned from her parents.
“My faith has absolutely permeated everything,” she said.
“My mother, she’s a strong lady … (especially) when I think … they lost my brother when he was little, they lost my twin brothers soon after birth.
“Then to lose Paula (Susan’s youngest sister, as an adult in a road accident in 2009), and then 22 weeks (after Paula’s death) she had to lose her husband of 63-and-a-half years …
“But she’s always said you should always go forward, always go forward unafraid.
“Her faith is very strong and she’s had lots to battle.”
And Susan goes forward with hope.
“There’ve been difficulties – don’t get me wrong – and when I’ve had really horrible times in my life, which everyone has, my faith is my only hope,” she said.
“I did have a (school) parent once who accused me of being a hope addict, literally.
“’You’re nothing but a hope addict’, she said.
“And I laugh at that; my husband still laughs about that – because this child was having lots of difficulties, and I used to say, ‘Well, I was hoping we’d do this with him … And if he would respond, I hope …’
“’You’re nothing but a hope addict …’, the mother said.
“Anyway, his mother wrote me a beautiful Christmas card saying, ‘Thank you for being a hope addict …’”
Now Susan offers the gift of faith, hope and love to her two daughters and her grandchildren.
“Faith is definitely part of who I am and I’m grateful, absolutely grateful for it,” she said.
“My life wouldn’t have been the same without being involved in the faith.
“My whole life has somehow been led or connected; I’ve been meant to be working in (Catholic education).
“I’ve been blessed, I have truly been blessed but I love it. I still like teaching.
“Even when people say ‘Oh, for goodness sake, Susan, why aren’t you giving up; why are you still going?’, there’s that little something.
“I just love it.”