I grew up in a small Victorian country town with my mother, Heather, my father, John, and my siblings. Two brothers and a sister. This town, Morwell, was — and still is — the coal-mine capital of Australia. It is surrounded by power stations that emit pollution 24 hours a day. Set in a rural area, and with a quickly expanding population, it used to sit on the main highway to the state’s capital. Nowadays, the main highway bypasses Morwell, along with my memories.
I am an extremely proud Aboriginal woman, belonging to the oldest living culture: a culture that has survived invasion, colonisation, genocide, and epidemics of smallpox and tuberculosis, which ravaged communities and killed many. My people have survived oppression and dispossession, and yet we are still here.
I come from a long line of strong women. I don’t remember much about my early childhood — and the parts I do remember I wish I didn’t — but I have always known that I am an Aboriginal. We were a poor family and lived from pay cheque to pay cheque. My dad always had good vehicles, though, which he saved for. The old Holdens; they don’t make them like they used to. In those days, for an Aboriginal man to own a vehicle and to have a driver’s licence — man, you were something. Back in the 1970s, most vehicles weren’t fitted with seatbelts, and therefore it wasn’t compulsory to wear them. So, the family drive was a tight squeeze, with four in the back seat.
We had the cleanest house, and the nicest yard with roses growing in the front and immaculate lawns. My mum was so clean; she swept the floor every day and would place a page from an old newspaper on the floor, wet the end so that it wouldn’t move, and use it as a dustpan. Then she would mop the floors with Pine O Cleen and place squares of newspaper randomly around the wet floor like stepping stones, so that nobody would step on her clean floor. That was the worst offence in our household and the most disrespectful: to walk on our mother’s mopped floor. She was so pedantic when it came to cleanliness that I recall when she was bathing me, even from an early age, she would be scrubbing my elbows so hard she would take skin off. Apparently, she was rubbing the dark patch on my elbow because she thought it was dirty. It wasn’t; what she had failed to realise is that black children have darker elbows.
What I also remember is alcohol and violence.
We lived next to another Aboriginal family: an older lady, maybe in her fifties, and about five or six children. All the children but one were over 20 years old, and the youngest was my age. Actually, I don’t think the ‘older’ lady was that old, but she drank alcohol every day, and that made her look a lot older than she was. I don’t think we were related to them, but I knew that they came from the same mission that we were from.
They had moved off the mission to Morwell because one of her children had been murdered. She must have suffered, because every time I saw her, she was drunk. The children were all drinking alcohol with her as well. Every night, I would hear loud arguments and fighting coming from next door. Beer bottles smashing, and the sound of furniture and other things being thrown around. The sounds were deafening and very frightening. Then screaming, footsteps, and banging on our front door to call the police. We never opened the door, but police were called. Many times, us kids would run to our kitchen window, where we had a bird’s-eye view into one of their bedroom windows. The window had no curtains, so you could see right into their house.
On several occasions, I saw angry grownups smashing beer bottles over each other’s heads when they were fighting. I sometimes thought that the people who’d had beer bottles smashed over their heads were dead, because they lay on the ground motionless for the longest time, but in the following days, I would see them again, and I always wondered how they survived. Cuts and blood spilling from their wounds. Often falling to the ground. Several times, while peeping through the kitchen window, I saw the youngest girl, the same age as me, sniffing something from a plastic bag. I found out later — after she collapsed, and my mum had to call the ambulance — that she had been sniffing glue. I also saw the older lady drinking white vinegar, and methylated spirits straight from the bottle. As young as I was, this saddened me.
These were the first experiences I had with violence. Though it wasn’t directed at me, I still felt frightened when I heard the fighting. I also understood, at a very early age, that people who had suffered trauma and grief almost always displayed self-destructive behaviours. It was their way of coping with the extreme sadness they were feeling.
My father — a proud Aboriginal man — has always provided for his family. He always worked, had good jobs, always was and still is a good father. I remember that he built us a tree house in the backyard. The tree house was high above the roof of our house, in a large tree, and you could see the yards of our neighbours. A ladder stood against the tree to reach the floor of the tree house. It was one of my favourite spots.
I played netball as a child and can recall my parents coming to watch my sister and me play. My father would shame me out by screaming top note. I think he thought that if he screamed at us, we would play better.
Music and sport were big parts of my childhood. I come from a very musical and athletic family. My brothers played guitar, drums, and any other instrument you put in front of them. My grandmother was also musically talented and played piano. I dabbled with the guitar and sang. A lot of our family get-togethers were spent playing guitar and singing. I sang a lot with my older brother, and even wrote songs, which we recorded in the bathroom so that we could get that recording-studio effect. They were fun times, and are good memories. For birthdays and Christmas, I was the child that was given musical items. One year I got a pink stereo, the following year I got a little red piano accordion. Which I might add, I never got to master. But I had fun with it anyway. I also thrived playing my school recorder, but I think I drove my family crazy because the only tune I could play was ‘God Save the Queen’, which was the old Australian anthem before it changed to ‘Advance Australia Fair’.
My mother was a first-generation white Australian. I don’t have many memories of her from my childhood, and the ones I do have are not fond. The main one that stands out is of her being drunk, screaming, physically attacking and assaulting my father.
I remember a time when our family were visiting an aunt’s house, which was in a tiny country town, Sale, some 200 kilometres from our house. Sale now has a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base in it. It may have been there back then, but I never knew of it. We would visit often, and when we’d get there, the house would be full of relatives — aunties and uncles and cousins. The night would be a mixture of alcohol and playing cards. This would go on for hours and hours, until my parents were ready to go home, but by that time, they would both be drunk. I used to beg to stay the night because I was frightened to get into the car, but my pleas were ignored. So off we’d go; I would have been five or six at the time, sitting all cramped up in the back seat with my brothers and sister, feeling petrified because our mum and dad were arguing, which they always did when alcohol was involved. They never just argued and made up; there were almost always punches flying, swearing, and violence. I recall on one particular trip, my mum and dad were violently arguing when, all of a sudden, my mother opened the front passenger door and threatened to throw herself out of the moving vehicle. She kept the door wide open for what seemed like an eternity. At the time the car was travelling at least 100 kilometres an hour on the highway. I was terrified and didn’t want to witness my mother throwing herself out of a moving vehicle, so I sat on the floor behind the driver’s seat and covered my head with a blanket. She never threw herself out, but it was the longest trip home. She ended up falling asleep. I’m pretty sure my brothers and sister were traumatised by this event. I know I was! In fact, every time I saw or smelt alcohol, whether it was my mum and dad drinking or someone else, I associated it with violence. My mother was the violent one. My dad left when I was around seven, and I was glad when he did, because I thought it meant no more fighting. How wrong I was.
I may speak badly of my mother throughout this book, but I love her with every bone in my body. I have been described as a baby animal that’s been wounded by its mother, but no matter what the mother does, that baby will always return to her.
Before my dad left, the only family members we were close to were my paternal grandmother and grandfather (Linda and Carl), my Aunty Dot and her younger brother (who were my father’s cousins, the children of my grandfather’s sister), and Kevin.
Kevin was my grandmother’s cousin’s son, but my grandparents had raised him since he was a baby. He was a couple of years younger than me, and had a brother, Nicky, who we would call ‘blue boy’, and a little sister, Patricia. These siblings came and went all through their younger years — they’d stay with my grandparents, and then go back to their mother. They were technically of the same generation as my father, and culturally, they were our Uncles and Aunty, but because they were all younger, we never called them that.
My grandfather was very close to his two sisters, Vera and Marina. When my grandparents left the mission, they gave the house they’d been living in to Marina and her husband and their two small children. Marina was only in her mid-twenties when she died suddenly, found sitting in a chair at home, lifeless. She must have known that she was ill, or even that she was dying, because the night before, she’d had a conversation with her husband, saying that if anything ever happened to her, then the children should be cared for by my grandparents.
My grandfather was out working the land for the shire council when he was approached by the foreman, who told him about the death of his sister on the mission. Hours before the news, my grandfather said that he’d seen a white kangaroo, which is rare if at all possible. But if my grandfather said it, then he must have seen it.
My grandparents headed straight off to the mission. When they arrived, they were advised of his sister’s wishes. So, after the funeral, they returned to their house with their niece and nephew, who became my father’s sister and brother. Their father moved in with my grandparents as well, but they were the primary carers for the children. He died when my aunty was 16 years old.