She always wore a flowered frock, sensible shoes and a blue beanie, cowled almost to her eyes. Every time I saw Aunty she was in the same uniform. Tiny, stooped and ancient. Sometimes during the winter she may have added a cardigan and some socks.
I feel that the passing today of this beautiful and unique Noongar woman at 91 years of age should be marked somehow but of course just writing about it is troublesome to both Noongar sensitivities and also to the knowledge of how much has already been taken. In Otago, a Maori man said to me, "The difference between the Australians and us Maori is that all of our ancestors are on the page, on the wall. Every marae you walk into, the ancestors are up there, carved on the wall." It's different here.
I first met Aunty in the Centrelink office when she used to hold my babies while we all waited in line. She was an old lady even then. Sometimes I would drive her home from the supermarket when I found her at the bus stop laden with shopping bags. Later, I knew that she grew up working on the soldier settlements east of here. To this day, there is not a lot of credit given to the Aboriginal families who did so much work out there in twentieth century clearing, fencing, shearing and shepherding.
"Mum rose each day at daybreak and made breakfast for us, which was often porridge. She would soak the porridge oats over night so it would be soft in the morning and easy to cook. Sometimes we ate kangaroo meat, onions bacon and tomatoes and damper. We dipped our damper into the juices. Farmers often gave us mutton, tomatoes and vegetables. Mum used to snare rabbits and shoot kangaroos with a .22 rifle when dad was away." 1
Aunty was born and lived through the era of the West Australian 1905 Act, similar to Victoria's Aborigines Protection Act. She may not have noticed it as a kid but her family's life was quite controlled by this piece of legislature.
One day, out of the blue, Aunty turned her milky eyes to me and said, "I rode a horse up Stony Hill." She said it like she'd done it the day before and perhaps in her mind, she had. But later someone told a story about Aunty when she was a young woman. There was a wild black horse that nobody was game enough to ride. Aunty got on that horse. Her hair was long and black. She was wearing a black skirt and a yellow sash around her waist. She stayed on that horse and galloped it all the way up Stony Hill!
Aunty, sixty years or so later, was in the same room as that story was told and she cried and cried. Later, she told me it wasn't true. I have no idea. I don't think it matters.
1. Winnie Larsen, Memories of a Noongar Childhood, R.M Howard, Albany, 2005, p. 27