It’s ten years now, since I became involved with some local indigenous families. The first four years of my life, I lived in Alice Springs and had contact with indigenous people, some of which I have vague memories of; and for about four years in the 1990s I worked with indigenous people in hospital settings. But only in the past ten years could I say I had anything much to do with indigenous people on a personal level.
Australians are highly critical of indigenous people, who largely live on the peripheries of mainstream society. That is a story for another time. But I have been privileged to experience the positive side of indigenous life, and it has been a genuine privilege.
The experience of belonging to a large extended family has been amazing. I’ve been adopted by a hundred or more people, because of a friendship and mutual respect that started out with one member of the family, and grew rapidly. Once the friendship was confirmed, I found myself transforming from friend to family – I was informed who my sisters were, and who my mothers, brothers, aunts, etc all were. I have in-laws now, and am even a grandmother – despite never having had any children of my own! Most of the time I have no idea whether I’m talking to a sister, mother, aunt or cousin; it’s just too confusing to get my head around.
I’ve been allowed to be me, warts and all, and I’ve received unconditional friendship and love. We have fun, we share time together (although my time is always limited and I know I’m seen as the one who flits in and back out again without stopping to smell the roses). We have grieved together (Pastor Eli was my “grandfather” who died at 83yo. The day before he died, I visited him and he told me I was “a good girl, my friend”). Other, much younger, mainly men, but also women and children, have also died. I never knew grief the way I have come to know it in these years.
From birth, the babies are taught my name, and told who I am / where I fit into the family scheme. When I do “whitefella” things, this is explained to the babies as just that – “whitefella way”. They listen to me when there’s something funny to say, and they listen to me when there’s something serious to say, even if it’s something upsetting. I have had to tell people that their wife is dying; that their brother is in jail; I’ve helped look for runaway kids; we have fought over things; I’ve been to the watch house, court, jail, etc. There’s no grudge holding, no bitterness, we’re imperfect and that is allowed. If I get upset with someone, or they with me, we’ll hear each other’s point, we may even stop speaking to each other for a while. But the bond doesn’t break and we continue to belong together, even in times of conflict. It’s natural and real, and there’s no fair-weather-only assumptions.
The first child to adopt me as his “mother” was Mathew, whose parents both died in the year that he turned 11. He moved in on the assumption that I would look after him when others couldn’t. Only I didn’t know that he was moving in, I thought he was “having a sleepover”. It turned into a year-long “sleepover”, and was an experience I could not have imagined or predicted. He is now about to turn 18, and we have had many ups, many downs, and I am well and truly ensconced as his “Mum”, which automatically makes me a Mum to his sister, and their many cousins.
Susie, his cousin, then nominated me to authorities and moved in. That was a different experience altogether, and she is also a very special young woman who deserves far better than life threw at her. She has a Mum, but I have been adopted as her “carer”, and she occasionally pops in to say hi, and I love her to bits.
Being “Mum” to these two kids resulted in my maternal role extending out to a lot of young people who don’t see it as anything other than landing-on-Mum! It’s bizarre, not having ever wanted to be anyone’s Mum, to have fallen into this role. They’re young people who I like, whose company I enjoy, and who I am more than happy to have around. And thankfully I get plenty of time to myself in between the visitors.
Recently Mathew’s sister called me from Western Australia. Her partner’s football team had just won, and there was a lot of noise going on in the background. She put him on to say hello, and he said to me “Hang on a minute”, then shouted out into the crowd “Hey you mob! Quiet! I’m trying to talk to my mother in law over ‘ere!”.
There have been many hilarious conversations and situations over the years.
The last ten years have been more uplifting, educational, heartwarming, and memorable than I ever imagined possible.