Welcome to our next ‘campfire’ story.
Campfire for the Heart is a collection of inspiring stories of
Although every story is unique, they all highlight our ability to adapt positively to bad experiences and showcase our indomitable human spirit.
If you have an inspiring resilience story to share, or know someone who does,
please contact Natalie through www.stockdalewellbeing.com.
“We can’t change what has happened,
and if we accept that,
we don’t churn ourselves up by wanting something else.”
We’re a couple who’ve had a hard-working life, not a hard life. Aileen was born on Manbulloo cattle station near Katherine in 1940. We don’t know for sure which year it was because there are no records of her birth, but we thought 1940 sounded good. I was born in Brisbane in 1937, but neither of us spent our childhood in a way that our parents intended.
In 1942, when Aileen was about two years old, she was taken from her mother by the government because she was ‘coloured’. Aileen’s mother (Kabunga) was Aboriginal and her father (Ben Ahwon) was a Chinese station cook. Aileen was too young to remember being taken away, but she does remember being told that her mother died and she has a new home. The truth was that Aileen’s mother died years later (exact time is unknown) and they never saw each other again.
For a few years, Aileen lived with the District Welfare Supervisor, Ron Ryan, and his wife in Katherine. They were kind and cared for Aileen. When Aileen was about seven years old, she was sent to Melville Island to be raised by the nuns. Aileen recalls that they too were mostly kind and she called her favourite nun ‘Mum’.
It was a regimented life for the kids on Melville Island, where calmness, independence and respect were instilled. Education, however, was a low priority, resulting in Aileen having a low literacy level, but they had time to play and have fun. Aileen fondly remembers sometimes camping with the nuns and making good friends with the other girls, much like sisters. She describes the experience with a peaceful acceptance. There was no point complaining or being upset about it. That was life.
At the same time Aileen was living far away from her mother, I was a young lad also living without mine. My mother died in 1942 while giving birth to my baby sister when I was aged five. My father was in the airforce and was away during the war, so my four siblings and I were raised by my grandmother on a dairy farm near Narrabri in New South Wales.
My grandmother, Ivy May Brayshaw, was a hard-working woman. As a widow, she was managing the farm and taking care of five kids including a newborn baby. The farm didn’t have electricity, so the cows were milked by hand and all our clothes were washed by hand. She wasn’t a soft, cuddly grandmother, but she provided everything we needed. After milking the cows every morning, it was my job to deliver the milk around the town on a cart pulled by a horse. It had to be done early because the milk wasn’t refrigerated. When that was done, I’d walk two kilometres to school. I was always late. After school, I’d have to get back home quickly and do the milking and milk-run all over again. I did that seven days a week for many years. I found time to play too, of course. We weren’t allowed inside the house.
“Get outside and play. You know you’re not allowed in the house!” she used to say.
One cold morning, our cat climbed into the wood oven to keep warm. Unfortunately, a Polish refugee who stayed with us during the war was unfamiliar with our cat’s habits and closed the oven door. He stoked the fire and headed out to the dairy, unaware that he was cooking our cat! We were all upset of course when we discovered the dead cat. My grandmother looked at me to see my reaction and I distinctly remember it was the first time that I decided to accept what happens. We can’t change what has happened, and if we accept that, we don’t churn ourselves up by wanting something else.
Aileen has the same approach to life. She finds peace by accepting what has happened instead of resisting it. The government’s philosophy that underpinned their welfare policy was terrible. They believed the black people would eventually disappear and the people of mixed colour require removal and government care. Nonetheless, Aileen doesn’t see herself as a ‘victim’ of the stolen generation. It happened a long time ago and belongs in the past. This peaceful acceptance of ‘what is’ has served us well through all our challenges.
As a young man who loved adventure and the bush, I headed to the Northern Territory where I met my beautiful Aileen. I was a taxi driver in Darwin and remember the first time I ever saw her. Wearing a red petticoated skirt and red shoes, I thought wow, what a beautiful woman. I was captivated by her cheerful smile and beautiful nature. I know I use the word beautiful a lot when I talk about Aileen because she really is, inside and out.
We married each other in 1960. Only five people came to our wedding and two of them were ourselves, because we didn’t have any money then. Two days after our wedding, I was sent to Lajamanu (Hooker Creek as it was called then) to do carpentry work. I stayed there for three months to earn enough money to buy our first house in Darwin (with a government loan).
From then on, Aileen and I worked hard, side by side, growing our family and our financial security. Aileen was a full- time mother for our three sons, while I worked in the Darwin fire brigade. We built six houses ourselves and I mean every part of our houses. From the foundations to the roof top and the furniture inside, Aileen inspired me and helped me with everything.
Some people used to tell us to go away for holidays instead of working so hard. Life’s too short they’d say! But Aileen and I enjoyed our hard work. We loved working together and building our financial security. It was rewarding. Much of our financial security can be attributed to our property development project in Darwin. It took us 10 ten years to get council approvals for the subdivision, but our patience and perseverance paid off.
Patience and perseverance have been valuable virtues in our lives. They helped us manage one of the main problems stemming from Aileen’s childhood- the absence of her birth records. The government at the time had a ‘Stud Book’ in which all Aboriginal kids of the stolen generation were recorded. However, there was no record of Aileen in the Stud Book, which caused a great deal of angst when we later tried to get a driver’s licence and passport for Aileen. It was as though she didn’t exist. Standing in the Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages with Aileen I said, “Here she is. You solve the problem.”
Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin hard in 1974. We all crouched down in the bathroom, huddling together as it blasted through the night. Our roof was blown away and I remember thinking, “Hell, our workmanship won’t look good after this!” When the sun rose the next day (on Christmas morning), we looked out across Darwin and saw that all the houses had been flattened. Our house was one of the few that remained. The cyclone took Aileen’s wedding dress, but we were lucky.
About 70 people were killed that night. There was only one undertaker in town and not enough coffins. Being in the fire brigade, I helped to find the bodies, wrap them in blankets and bury them. A year or so later, we had to exhume some of the bodies to send back to their families in America and interstate.
One of the hardest times we’ve faced was the death of our son Mark. Aged 52, he died suddenly of a blood clot which caused a heart attack. It was a shocking and sad time for our family but again, nothing can change what happened. You accept it and look forward.
We now have four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and a wonderful life. We’ve been married for 61 years and I’ve loved Aileen every single day. We cuddle each other 50 times a day. Sometimes, when I’m in my workshop, I think about Aileen, then put down my tools and go inside for a cuddle, then return to my workshop. We love fishing and spend six months every year camping in our secret place in the Top End. We both have a strong connection to that country.
How our sons raise their families is up to them, but we hope that they teach them what we have taught our boys- the importance of looking ahead and knowing that, whatever you’re going through, it will pass. Find peace with whatever has happened, look ahead and love.