Irene Barrera is used to helping others, whether it’s at the BookNook – which she recently set up in Gunning to raise funds for charity – or another of her community activities.
But today, she’s the one in need of help. Her health took a dramatic turn recently when she felt dizzy, so bad that she took pain medication – something she rarely does.
“I couldn’t see properly,” she said. “Everything was blurry. I thought, ‘this is not good’, so I went to the doctor.”
Although the doctor thought she’d had a stroke, turns out she’d had a brain bleed. Her sight would return eventually, but would remain blurry for some time.
He told her, in no uncertain terms, that if she didn’t take her life down a notch at age 76, she wouldn’t have much of one to live.
At the time, Irene was running her little collectibles shop in the main street of Gunning.
When she wasn’t there she was at the BookNook, offering an ear and a cuppa for people in need. She had also just started a new business, selling home-made dog treats.
An inveterate traveller all her life, Irene was also looking at where in the world she would trek to next now that COVID restrictions had been lifted.
In the midst of all this, she was mourning the loss of her beloved cat Little One.
“It’s funny, you know, I always said when Little One goes, it will be time for me to move on,” she said.
Irene will be moving on, although it’s not by choice. Her illness won’t allow her to live alone anymore, so she’ll be moving to Adelaide to live by the sea with her daughter Cathy.
“The minute I rang Cathy to tell her what had happened she was in the car and drove 15 hours to see me,” Irene said.
“She’s been staying with me, sorting everything out, starting to pack up things.”
Hardest for Irene will be leaving her home just out of the village, the old undertaker’s cottage, which, although it dates back to the mid-1850s, she had made very much her own with her eclectic style and penchant for painting just about everything in bright, earthy colours. It also boasts a studio out the back and a large garden decorated with her quirky artwork.
“I don’t have time to muck around,” she said. “Whoever buys it can just take the lot. I’ll take what I want and leave the rest.”
She also plans to sell a building she bought in the main street of Gunning when she moved there more than 20 years ago. Today it houses the chemist, hairdresser and her collectibles shop, with a three-bedroom flat upstairs.
But Irene, being Irene, reckons the selling point for the property is the old Phillips TV and Radio sign on top of the building.
“I lived there when I first came to Gunning,” she said. “It’s a lovely old place. And the tenants who live there don’t want to leave.”
The building started its life as the Busy Bee cafe back in the early 1900s, then later became a newsagency which Irene herself ran for many years.
“I’m selling it with regret,” she said. “This building was my life for so long, but I just can’t do all this anymore. I have to go.”
Irene said she would be sad to leave the small village where she had lived and worked, a community, she said, which cared for its own like no other.
“Since this happened to me people have been wonderful,” she said. “I can’t drive anymore so people are taking me places and picking things up for me. They’ve been so kind.”
She is hopeful BookNook can continue with volunteers taking over from her so that it can continue to support charities like Beyond Blue.
Her home and the shopfront are expected to go on the market shortly.