Determined to make her time count

Elizabeth Quinn is a writer who has immersed herself in the achievements and challenges of ageing and older Australians and shares her discoveries on her website, diywoman.net. Today, she celebrates the life of a ‘late bloomer’: 67-year-old Kathy Subic who realised a dream and delights in working six days a week.

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Australian women are among those with the highest life expectancy in the world. Statistics tell us that 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, it’s an opportunity to achieve the goals they set out to reach before life got too busy or too messy. Kathy Subic is one such ‘senior citizen’, determined to make her time count.

Kathy’s journey – from what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – began 50 years ago when she was 18. 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. Her conversational style is pure Aussie, delivered in an eastern European accent and peppered with laughter in a smoker’s register. Her personal wardrobe, however, consists of comfortable pants and a tunic in a muted palette. Short of stature, grey hair pulled back in a flyaway bun, her lack of vanity is at odds with her fashion pedigree and her big personality.

Talk of her past reveals a glimpse into a life that could have ended so differently. Back in 1969 and within weeks of arriving in Australia, 18-year-old Kathy doorknocked every business in Flinders Lane in Melbourne, determined to forge 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, and she worked for a time as head pattern maker for fashion designer Norma Tullo, who Kathy describes as ‘the Coco Chanel of Australia’.

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 altered prior to cutting out the remaining 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 3pm and produce a fully graded set of garments by 9am the following day. Her clients used to say, “If you want the impossible, Kathy will do it today and a miracle will take an extra day.”

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 Yugoslavia. When Kathy was eight, one of her teachers detected signs of post-traumatic stress and called in her mother 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 anti-depressants, 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 leave. Kathy sought escape in an ill-fated marriage, but ended up 10 years later divorced and once again living with her parents, who she supported financially.

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 the rare occasions that Kathy would book a flight for a short holiday, her mother would pretend to have a heart attack. She would be rushed to hospital and hooked up to an ECG machine, but 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 six 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 out and I found a little azalea in there. And I thought, ‘My god, there are 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 re-ignite Kathy’s zest for life by doing what she does best – creating a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

“I always say he saved my life,” Kathy says.

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’s tale is one not only of survival but of thriving, and one to which, as a survivor of sorts and a late bloomer myself, I am drawn. Kathy moved to Flinders in the early 2000s – bringing with her a cutting of the white geranium – and started her Zeega label 12 years later. Business has grown steadily over the past seven years. In the past 12 months alone, the demand for her handmade designs in natural fibres has more than quadrupled.

Kathy’s long-held dream of having her own fashion label is now a reality. Her life’s work is designing garments that help her customers overcome nature’s design faults and create beauty in their place. She likens herself to the once-stunted white geranium hidden beneath the weeds in the Sorrento garden. It took a year or two to flower, but now her garden at Flinders is overgrown with white geraniums.

Kathy Subic is firmly rooted in Flinders soil and her passion for her profession burns brighter than ever.

“At 67, I’m working six 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.

Do you know a late bloomer? Does Kathy’s story inspire you?

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Written by ElizabethQ

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