Did you have an ‘Aunty Betty’ too?

Two months ago, I lost someone precious. I’d like to tell you about her.

When I was born, I was the youngest in the family by a LONG way. I had three older sisters, to whom I was a novelty, a plaything, a cute little baby… but that cuteness eventually wore off and I soon morphed into an annoying child that followed them around everywhere.

So, they responded, as big sisters can do, with taunts and jeers, and all sorts of nastiness, to which I would respond – “I’ll run away from home and live with Aunty BETTY!!” After all, everyone needs a Life Plan, right?

There was literally no downside to this plan – the Fernandez family – Aunty Betty, Uncle Tony, and my cousins, Shirin and Zeena – had a very beautiful home. It was 70s chic, ultra modern, with shiny polished floors, and everything was ordered and cool. Aunty Betty was sophisticated and attractive, while Uncle Tony cut a striking figure as the Chief of Police and yet he was very, very kind. He was in fact my mum’s first cousin, and Aunty Betty was not an aunt at all and related us only by marriage. But she was my Aunty Betty.

Growing up in Penang, our home was a centre of CONSTANT activity, events, people and general comings and goings. My mother, bless her, was a busy woman who seemed to live two lives in one lifetime. And she did EVERYTHING at the last minute, so she was constantly late for any and all events in BOTH those lifetimes. And it also meant there was little or no structure or routine in my life (especially as being the last in the line, the novelty of parenthood had certainly worn off by the time I came along!)

Not so in Aunty Betty’s house. I spent nearly every school holiday with the Fernandez family. I loved it. Mealtimes were regular, (this was new to me) and we ate at the table together at every meal, (also a novelty). Aunty Betty was kind, but I couldn’t get away with anything. So if I didn’t like something that was served, I sat there until I finished it. While I didn’t enjoy having to eat spinach, I think my child-heart really loved the clear boundaries their family structure provided.

Running away from home and living with them was perfect. I would still see my mum all the time cos my mum and Aunty Betty were best friends, and I’d have built-in playmates in my cousins, Shirin and Zeena, instead of my Very Mean Big Sisters (who, by the way, turned out to be Very Nice Sisters later on!). Uncle Tony would take us to the movies and to A&W’s to eat hot dogs.

It was a near flawless plan.

The one problem was they lived in Petaling Jaya which was 400 km away from Penang, and while I had mastered wearing really really long socks with frilly skirts, I hadn’t yet worked out how to take the ferry from the island to the mainland of Malaysia, and do the train journey across half the peninsula on my own.

I was after all only eight years old. 

Me flanked by Zeena on the left and Shirin on the right

Fast forward ten years, and I’ve just transferred to the University of Western Australia to enter second year of my Bachelor of Science degree. It was my first trip to Australia, and I had come to live with Aunty Betty.

My cousin Zeena has just picked me up from the airport and is pulling into the driveway of their home in Como, Western Australia.  I can smell the eucalyptus trees in her front garden. The air is crisp and clear and the stunning vast Australian sky seems magical. In that moment, Perth instantly becomes my forever home. And Aunty Betty’s home became, yet again, my sanctuary.

Turns out, I did manage to fulfill my Life Plan formulated at age eight. Sometimes, these things just take time 🙂


My new life in Australia with Aunty Betty wasn’t quite the party I had imagined as an 8 year old.

For a start, each of us, my cousins Shirin and Zeena and me, had ROLES and CHORES, and things happened according to a Plan. This was eye-opening. I had never done a chore in my life, nor had I been part of a household with such seamless systems in place. 

There were also specific days set aside for grocery shopping, floor mopping, clothes washing, and the three of us girls had assigned tasks … It was like I had entered a bizarro, but comforting world of order and systems. 

Aunty Betty was probably just trying her best to manage a group of hormonal teenagers, (including the “new daughter” who didn’t know how to use a washing machine), but what she actually did, was teach me about discipline, routine and structure and how it can, when used well, help create inner and outer peace.

(Marie Kondo took it to another level for me, but it all began with Aunty Betty!)


One of her other gifts to me was to model the power of friendship.

For a woman of commanding presence, Aunty Betty had a surprisingly girlish giggle. And my mother had a belly laugh that was infectious and memorable. When they were together – these two – the joy, love and laughter that radiated from them is one of the most cherished memories of my childhood. Mum was her happiest when they were together. Seeing one’s mother experience true friendship and joy is a powerful thing.  I think it teaches children so much more than we imagine.

Aunty Betty (L) and Mum (R)

The friendship between Aunty Betty and my mum, Shantha was legendary. They were separated by more than a decade in age, ALWAYS by hundreds or thousands of kilometres, but their souls were connected in ways that were mysterious and powerful. The love between them created a synergy that was keenly felt by my sisters and me.  

It modelled for me the power of true friendship and connection. To this day, what I treasure most in my world are the ties of friendship that have held me together when life has threatened to unravel me.

I feel fortunate to have had Aunty Betty’s influence in my life, especially during those formative years of early childhood and then again as a teenager. The sanctuary she provided, the gifts of structure and routine, and the model of true friendship she created with my mother, have been helped build the sturdier, more resilient parts of my complex inner life.

I wish I had noticed more of these pieces before she died. It is only in retrospect that the puzzle pieces of childhood anxieties and teenage traumas found a peaceful place in the picture of life … and my understanding of Aunty Betty’s role: She helped make the pieces fit.

I hope you had someone like that in your life. And if you didn’t, perhaps you are now someone else’s ‘Aunty Betty’.

We all need one!

art classes perth

PS  Thank you for reading my post. Let’s reminisce together – you can do that in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you and I read and reply everyone!

PPS  If you’d like to work with me and make some art in my peaceful and lovely Perth Hills studio, my classes are listed here.

art classes perth, painting for beginners

Comments 40

  1. You’ve described what Aunty Betty meant to you quite perfectly. So many memories evoked! But hey! Your sisters weren’t that mean

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    2. Loved the line, “my Very Mean Big Sisters (who, by the way, turned out to be Very Nice Sisters later on”! Says it all.

  2. I just love your syories Malini I do have an Aunty Betty (Ruth) she was always on my wave length , we just understood each other. She is now in a nursing home with severe dementia i miss ger so much and i treasure the times we had together

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      Thank you for your kind comment on my stories, Vicki. I’m so sorry that Aunty Ruth now has dementia, but it’s marvellous to know that she was a beautiful influence in your life. We all need those.xx

  3. I had an Aunty Betty to Malini, my mums best friend in England who lived in the next street to us. Very fond memories of Aunty Betty and Uncle Colin

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  4. Beautiful story Malini, I’m sorry for your loss. I don’t have an Aunty Betty to run away to – but I have collected some likely characters around me in my work!!!!

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      Thank you so much Chris, I appreciate that. (and I’ve met some of those characters in my class! They are a great mob indeed!)

  5. Malini – I really think you should write a book: a book of musings on life, you have SO many. They are relatable and stir up the imagery in all of us about the past, who and why we are. I didn’t have an Aunty Betty – I wish I had.

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      Oh Nola, that is so kind of you, and actually, I am writing a book. It’s taking awhile, but I’ll get there with lovely encouragement from people like yourself. Thank you so much.

  6. Dear Malini you have given us some beautiful images of your Aunty Betty, she must have been a very special lady, just like you.
    Thank you for sharing your memories & I’m sorry for your loss xx

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      Aww thank you Maxine, that is so kind of you to say. You would have liked her 🙂

      I think she had a kind of stamina for life’s big adversities that I feel you do too.


  7. Malini I am so glad you had Aunty Betty. I had an actual Aunty Betty (my mother’s sister-in-law) whom I got to share heart to heart discussions on life in my early twenties. That was so lacking in my biological family and I have been forever grateful to her. Glad you are writing a book!! Your writing is always a ‘must read’ for me!!

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      Another “real” Aunty Betty!!! How delightful! And like mine, she too wasn’t a biological relative. Thank goodness for the Aunty Betty’s of the world, and for those of us who can be “her” to other people.

      And thank you Ruth for your kind comments about my writing, it means a lot to me.

  8. Such beautiful and well put together little story. You are a beautiful soul and a inspiration to me and many others. Shirley Mashman.

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  9. I got to know Betty in the last 10 years. In this relatively short period , short because we live in different countries, she really is the person you describe her to be. Sweet, gentle, caring, selfless and compassionate. I have always told her that I want to emulate her ways. I do think of her often and miss talking to her . May she rest in peace.

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      That might be one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me, Carmel. Aaah, I wish… but I think I’m just your Aunty Mal. But thank you for even that tiniest hint of a possibility 🙂 xxx

  10. Dear Malini, I finally found the right time to read your amazing post. I was able to savour every little detail of it as I too was so very close to my first cousin Shantha and my sister in law Betty, beautiful Betty.
    Thank you so much for this, it all just sounded perfect! They’re together now up there, wonder what they cooking up? RIP Shanth & Betty

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      Hello Aunty Mani!!how lovely to see you here! You were such a part of that childhood and those fabulous holiday periods I recall! And your dear brother, Uncle Tony was such a sweetheart. I hope they are all reunited in joyful peace and love ♥️

  11. Thank you for your beautiful story! She had a block painting in her living room done by her niece—it had to be yours. She had a photo of your mom on her special shelf. I do miss Betty. She had a powerful spirit❤️ I miss her!!

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      Hello Florence, thank you for stopping by. The painting may have been one of my sister Susheel’s or mine, as we are both artists, sadly I never saw that shelf and I wish I had. She was certainly a powerful spirit. Much love x

  12. So beautiful, so heartfelt, Malini. A precious, historic soul we thought we had with us in mortal realm for another decade. God had His own plans for her future service, this soaring eagle of His love. She was surrounded by so much love in her last footsteps in the 7 Valleys. We feel her presence so strongly in the house, and call on her, as we told her we would! And her qualities live on on Zeena and Shirin.

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      Hello old buddy, so good of you to pop by. I’m glad you married one of her two amazing girls! And together, created such a fabulous, loving family that was by Aunty Betty’s side as she passed away. Thank you for your poetic, loving comment. Much love x

  13. So so so beautiful ♥️

    Your aunty Betty was also my aunty Betty with no blood relations♥️

    As I was reading this I was picturing a younger aunty Betty with disciplining and cooking and everything else you described
    I was very fortunate to see that too but she had matured when I was able to see that. I too met aunty Betty at a very young age and she just radiated love and light whenever she was around

    Thank you for sharing this, it’s so beautiful
    And let’s be aunty Bettys ♥️

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  14. That is beautifully expressed, dear Malini. It was a joy to read your description of those halcyon days of the Faith’s progress in Malaysia. Your Mum was a cyclone of a Baha’i and your account shows how utterly busy she was in building that brave new world.
    Uncle Isaac from far off Liverpool.

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      Hello Uncle Isaac! How lovely to see you here! Yes, Aunty Betty and mum were wonderful sparks of love and light wherever they went, as were you and Auntie Pauline! Much love to you!

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  15. Malini, this was a great read! I always knew Grandma Betty lived a life of service, but it’s amazing to see how many people (myself included) she had an impact on. I think I could learn a thing or two about her routines as well! Love Ian.

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      Hello Ian, how lovely to have the honour of Aunty Betty’s grandchild show up here! Thank you for your kind comment and for stopping by. She was blessed to have such loving and gorgeous grandchildren (and we can ALL benefit from her orderliness!)!

  16. Malini, It’s always a joy to read your posts. How blessed you were to have an Aunty Betty, may we be so lucky.
    Friendship – true friendship is a precious gift.
    Thank you for the reminder

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      It was something I really reflected on after her passing, Esmeralda… the gift that my mother and her friendship was to US as children, particularly to me. Seeing my other laugh so much, derive such joy and support and connection from her friendship with Aunty Betty – it was a model that went into my soul!

      I’m sure that YOU are a beautiful friend &/or Aunty to many others with your radiant and loving heart! x

  17. I remember the first time I met Betty Fernandez, who came all the way from Kuala Lumpur to deliver a Talk cum Fireside to the students at Malayan Teachers College, Glugor, Penang. The invitation to join them came from Shantha Sundram who was eager that I meet more Baha’is in the community. I was immediately struck by Betty’s poise, elegance of speech and such clear pronunciation of the English language.
    As she shared the message of the Baha’i Faith her words were filled with such love and compassion, and I could not help but feel deeply moved by her sincerity and commitments to spreading love and unity through out the world. I came to see that this beautiful soul was not just a messenger of the Baha’i Faith, but a shining example of the teachings in action.
    To this day, I look back on that encounter with fondness and gratitude, knowing that it was a truly transformative experience that has left a lasting impact on my life.

  18. Hi Malini,
    I don’t believe I’ve ever posted a message anywhere before, so this is a first for me.
    A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a weeklong course to learn different techniques in drawing.
    I really loved drawing when I was younger, but lost the time and enthusiasm with other day to day demands.
    I met some really wonderful people during that one week and someone shared your web site, to which I subscribed.
    I don’t get to read everything you post or email, but I’m never disappointed when I do.
    Your story is a genuine inspiration to not give up on your dreams, no matter what sorrow or obstacles life throws our way.
    Aunty Betty just got me and I had to say hello and thank you.
    The value of our precious family can never be underestimated.
    I hope to join one of your classes someday.

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      what a lovely message! thank you for honouring me with your very first publicly posted message Pauly, I appreciate that. I hope you continue to explore your creativity. It can be surprisingly rewarding. take care, and maybe see you in an art workshop in my studio!

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