Aunty Val has a uniquely Aboriginal perspective on ageing and her life as an 86 year old. It’s like she has an eagle eye view of where she sits within the timeline of her life. When asked about her life now she starts with the stories of her Great Grandmother, who was poisoned with flour during an Aboriginal massacre in the 1800’s. Her Grandmother and Grandfather were Gandangara people from Coolangatta and Meroo near Nowra. They brought their family, including Aunty Val’s Mum, to the Aboriginal Mission at La Perouse. Her Mum married her Dad there but he spoke up against the Aboriginal Protection Board and, ‘They expelled my Dad, the [Aboriginal] Protection Board. They expelled people for life. If he came back to our home in La Perouse to see us, he was arrested by the Police and jailed. Taken to court and jailed for six months. He came through the Bomaderry Homes and he didn’t want us to go to the homes.’ When I ask Aunty Val about her current life she patiently explains, ‘When I look at me and my life, I think what I grew up in and what I grew up under, and understood, has given me the backbone to lead my life now. I think your past life keeps you going as an older person. I think your life puts backbone into you and that’s me.’
She’s not looking for sympathy in sharing the history of her family, ‘I’m not interested in them saying, you know, poor little me. No, no, no. I’m not interested in that. I want people to know. I was bred and born on the Aboriginal Mission at La Perouse in 1935. I was brought up under Aboriginal Protection Laws, I was handed to my Grandmother. We could only go from La Perouse to Wreck Bay. She got a letter of permission [from the Aboriginal Protection Board] to buy her a ticket to get on a train. She spoke her language fluently. She spoke Tharawal, Dharawal, Gandangara language. She was multi skilled. Devoutly religious. Prayed for everything and I tell you what, if there was a Lord above he was black and he must have lived next door because whatever she prayed for we got. She prayed for bread we got it, she prayed for food we got it. I really had a good life. I can’t say I haven’t been loved and looked after. I can’t say that. My aunties, my uncles were fishermen at Wreck Bay. I had people that loved me and cared about me. My family’s still at La Perouse, they still live there.
‘My mother never had electricity, we never had a wireless, we never had a bathroom. There were 17 of us in our three bedroom home in La Perouse. You’re talking about a house with one chair, a ten gallon drum you sat on. Aboriginal kids weren’t allowed in schools by the Aboriginal Protection Board but we all went to school. The Head Master in La Perouse he asked for all Aboriginal kids to come to school. He wanted to educate the Aboriginal kids because we were all on the mission and there was no school on the mission. I loved it, I loved to go to school. I never had any shoes and that, but I still went to school. But everybody else was the same because it was in the depression days and that was everywhere, the War was on.’
Aunty Val fell in love and eventually married an Irish artist named Allen and she remembers the time her Mum invited him over for tea. ‘We had nothing. The newspaper was on the table for tablecloth and she sat him down on the chair, the only chair. I was too upset to come out and eat. She made nice rissoles, “There’s salad there Allen, get what you like.” And he sat down and had a good feed. Nobody else sat at the table, only him on his own. Here’s this gubb [white boy] sitting on his own. We’re going up the street later and he said, “Val, why wouldn’t you come out and sit down and have a meal with me?” I said, “Allen you had the only plate, knife, fork and spoon that my Mother owned and the only chair to bloody sit on.” I said, “We eat with our bloody fingers when we eat, you know.” I was about 18 and I thought, “That’s it, this bloke won’t come back. He’s been in an Aboriginal home, seen we got nothing.” About a week later my Mother said, “Oh here comes Allen, he’s coming back you know.” She said, “Hello Allen.” He said, “I brought you a present.” Guess what he brought her? Knives, forks and spoons. He said, “And next week I’m going to bring you some plates.” And do you know what, that man never changed to my Mother.’
Aunty Val has used her background and upbringing to help others her whole life. ‘I’ve worked in the schools for nearly 40 years and I’ve got the Order of Australia for my work.’ I’ve done every school here in the Southern Highlands’, where she lives now. ‘That’s 29 schools, and we’ve taught the whole lot, and the preschools. We’ve done it all. I’m recognised for my work in the community. My Dad would turn over in his grave.’ Earlier in her career she joined the Aboriginal Unit in the 1980’s as one of the first Aboriginal health workers in the state. She was an instrumental bridge between Aboriginal people and the white Australian medical system, ‘Mixing with the hospitals, mixing with people and all that. I worked in Sydney teaching the nurses and TAFE colleges. I was teaching Aboriginal history, they’d never heard of it. They’d never heard that Aboriginal people were deprived and could only see the doctor on Thursday. That’s how I grew up. So, my job was to go in and say to the people, “You can go to the hospital any day of the week,” and so I had to educate for that, that was my job. I went to University at the age of 51 and I have a Diploma in Aboriginal Health and Community Development. I graduated in 1992 from University at Sydney, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
‘But in the mean time I’d lost my husband and my only son. They both died. I was only 43 when Allen died. But I was 51 when I lost my son. Shaun was only 19 when he died. He caught a hospital germ and that killed him. He had the operation on the 10th of January and he was dead on the 24th of February. I was in the [hospital] system and there was no answer to it. There was nothing I can do but I could stand there and look at him dying, and he never woke again. It took me 11 months to get back to Uni. I’m not crying, I’ve done my crying. Crying healing tears, your sad tears are healing tears.
‘It’s not that I don’t think about them. Never a day goes by that I don’t think of them both and it’s true. I say good night to ‘em of a night, and you should. It doesn’t mean it’s coz' somebody’s died you forget them. A night never goes by that I don’t say good night to ‘em and hello and thank them for the day. All my family. I had five brothers, all of ‘em, I’ll say good night to ‘em and all, I miss ‘em. You’ve got to live with that. If you don’t live with your heartaches, it stops you constantly. It can’t be your crutch to lean on. Age is a state of mind, like loneliness. I’m not a lonely person, I don’t get lonely. They’re with me. When things go wrong I just say, “Shaun I’m up to shit today. I can’t find this, I can’t find that.” And he helps me, he’s there, I know he’s there. And I was loved. My husband loved me and I knew it. He loved me because I was an Aboriginal kid who came off a mission who had no hang ups. I lived a happy life, I was loved. I had family around me that cared about me and loved me, my family in La Perouse and my friends. And I think that’s what helped me get on my feet when I lost my husband and son.
‘I play my music of a night. I love my music, I knit, I crochet, I macrame, I paint. I love my footy, I love TV, I love to watch the news. I got my certain films I watch. I’m not a lonely person, I get into another world. They’re my memories, they’re there. My strength, you know. But I think you’ve got to be interested in what’s around you, I’ve always been interested. And I think as you’re getting older you’ve got to be interested in everything around you. You know what? You still fall in love and there’s nothing you can do about it. I never want to be that old that I can’t look at a fella and think, “Oh, he’s lovely, I like him.” You know what I mean? I like people to think that I’ve got a brain and I can use it. So that’s the deal. Sometimes when you get older, with your families, they think you can’t think for yourself. And that’s what the people have got to put up with that. They’ll know when they’ve got to change, won’t they? Let ‘em have their say.
‘Don’t stay up at home thinking you’re the only one that’s ever…that’s wrong. Everybody’s got problems. But the people can’t stay at home thinking they’re the only ones. Come out. Come out and meet with other people. Come out and tell us your stories. Tell us how you cope with your lot. You’ve got problems and lots of other people have got problems too you know. I think that if you’ve got something to do, and a skill, use it. Tell ‘em, get off your backside, get out there and help. You’ve all got skills and that’s what we’ve got to do is teach them and pass them on. It’s like the lads who drive us in the community bus, they’re helping, you know. And that’s what we gotta do. That’s to help our community and that’s what I do. Get out - don’t give up, get out and do the things that make you happy. Be involved in your community.
‘But when it comes to dealing with your life, you’ve got to deal with your life. I don’t stress, anything happens, I have my say and then I’m happy. We believe - have our say. It’s not to insult the people, I’m not insulting. I don’t bring it up all the time but I’ll bring it up if I have to. If I think they’re doing the wrong thing by the Aboriginal community, I will say it. That’s my right as 86 years old. I don’t get stressed out, I’ve got no hang ups. And if something happens to me in my life, I deal with it straight away. Well, I don’t let it fester. I don’t let it get into my life and really knock the shit out of me, no I don’t believe in that. If something’s wrong, it’s wrong. If somebody dies, they die. My turn will come I know, and when it comes, I’ll be ready. I’m too green to burn at the moment. I’ve got too much to do. We’ve got to believe in what we do. Make our community better for all of us. Hey, I’m Aboriginal, I can’t be anything else. I think Aboriginal. I’m not on the Constitution for Australia and I’m 86 years old, but I’ve got to make it better.’
Aunty Val’s expanded timeline perspective is not just about her past but also about her future. Aunty Val continues to work to this day, teaching Aboriginal culture and history in schools and at the local Aboriginal Centre. ‘We did it, we still do. They still come in, they learn language, their parents come in. We teach Aboriginal history, culture, art, didgeridoos, they paint them. We have guys to come in to teach the didge coz’ that’s men’s work, so we stick to culture. Men’s work and women’s work, we stick to all that. I’ve got to teach the children the culture and all that. This is to do, we’ve got to teach. What they do with their culture is their problem, they’ve got to learn it, they’ve got to know it’s there. But I have no intention of taking all the language and all that with me when I die. I’m leaving it, I’m doing it. I’m not taking my language or my dreamtime, none of that. I say to ‘em you come in, black or white, and learn it. And I’m handing it down. Anybody can come in and learn it and that’s the deal. What they want to do with it, it’s their problem.’