Jan Ruff O’Herne’s two daughters always found it peculiar how much their mother hated flowers.
“Don’t get me flowers,” she’d say before Mother’s Day or her birthday. “They’re such a waste of money.”
Eileen Mitton, Jan’s eldest daughter, reflected on her mother’s disdain for flowers in an episode of ABC’s Australian Story in 2007. In retrospect, she would come to understand why her mother, who she knew had been a prisoner of war, could not stand the sight of them.
They reminded her of the first night she was raped.
The Japanese had denied Jan her name, along with all the other women. Instead, they’d come to be known as different types of flowers – perhaps just another step in the dehumanisation of women whose entire identity had been reduced to a sexual repository.
Ruby Challenger calls her grandmother Jan a ‘strong woman’.
“She’s the most wonderful woman you’ve ever met, but tough. She’s incredibly creative… always doing something. And her faith is incredibly important to her,” Ruby told Mamamia.
When Ruby’s mother, Carol, was in her 40s, and preparing to board a plane to Alice Springs, her own mother Jan gave her a handwritten notebook.
The situation was a little unusual. Carol would not be gone for long and, along with her sister Eileen, was close to her mother Jan. She didn’t know a great deal about her mother’s past except that she had been a prisoner of some sort during World War II. Her mother didn’t talk about it much.
For the entire journey to Alice Springs, Carol did not stop crying.
“The air hostesses were asking what’s wrong,” Ruby said. Her mother was inconsolable.
“How can you tell your daughters, you know?” Jan would later say on Australian Story. “I mean, the shame, the shame was still so great. I knew I had to tell them but I couldn’t tell them face to face… so I decided to write it down.”
Ruby was five years old when the full extent of her grandmother’s wartime experiences were shared. In December 1992, the same year she told her friends and family for the first time, Jan attended the International Public Hearing on Japanese War Crimes in Tokyo and told a story she never thought she would.
You can watch the short to Ruby Challenger’s film Daily Bread based on her grandmother, Jan Ruff-O’Herne’s life. Post continues.