On loss, and love

Aunty Maureen Atkinson tells the story of a hard and beautiful life.



Aunty Maureen Atkinson tells the story of a hard and beautiful life.


My people are the Barngarla people from South Australia. That covers a great area, Roxby Downs right down to Port Augusta.

In my family there was Mum and Dad of course; two older brothers; before I was born there were two other children that had passed when they were babies; and then there was myself. So altogether I found out there was eleven of us – because there was one born after we all left. So I had five brothers when I was with them and there was three sisters.

It was my responsibility to look out for the younger ones. There were two older boys, but they went and did their own thing. But I was like the little mother, and I had to make sure that they were safe. And so I was forever watching for that black car. We knew that if they caught us, we’d be taken away.

One day, I remember, we were in the middle of the lake. And there was a road right around the lake, and there was a sandhill to one side. And I saw the black car coming and I said, “Run for the sandhills!” And we grabbed the little ones and carried them and ran. Fortunately for us, the black car had to go right around the lake so we were up … just made it to the sandhills and started climbing up. And they jumped out and tried to come up after us and we were just standing there laughing because they couldn’t come, they couldn’t catch us.

One day they got us. I ended up in Port Augusta, there was a mission there called Umeewarra, meaning place under the Milky Way. I was put there. My brothers and sisters were all taken. But they did spend a little time in the mission, but soon they were all taken to Adelaide. My two eldest brothers went together to one boys’ home in Adelaide. My three youngest brothers went together to another boys’ home in Adelaide, and my two sisters went to a foster home in Adelaide. The missionary said, could you take the other, the oldest girl? And that lady replied, I only want the two pretty young girls. That broke my heart, because I wasn’t used to being separated from my family.

How old were you?

I was eight years old at that time.

I had a secret place that I would go to. I wasn’t allowed to go into the building – none of us were, through the day. We all had to play outside. But there was a nice little dark room that I would sneak in – I was being naughty – and I needed that time, I’d spend an hour or so just rocking backwards and forwards and crying. I was missing my family, just crying for them. Because my baby brother was taken when he was a baby, and I didn’t know then but I wouldn’t see him until he turned [60]. So the loss was great. I not only lost my siblings, I lost my culture, my way of life. I lost my language.

There were three missionary ladies looking after 75 children, Aboriginal children, and I felt very safe and secure there. They really looked after us. And we were brought up as brothers and sisters, boys and girls. The only thing that I found wrong with that was that my family couldn’t stay with me – and yet a lot of the other boys and girls, they had their families there. There was one that had six of their family with them, and so forth, you know? It just … why was mine taken?

I can’t speak for anyone else. I know it was better for me. When you go through experiences like this you either become better or you become bitter – and I saw a lot of bitter. And I didn’t want to be like that. I want to be a better person.

It’s hard. It’s hard. I didn’t know at this time, that I was a strong person. I’m a survivor. And I wanted the best for my life.

I did ask two ladies one day – from the mission that I was in, when they were in there – I just said, oh, it’s just been so hard. I find – I think I was about 50 then – I said, I’m finding that I can’t cope, all of a sudden. I’m finding it hard. I’m breaking down all the time – and I just kept rambling on about it, and I looked up because they weren’t answering me, I looked up and they were both in tears. So they found it hard too, not being with family. Family to the Aboriginal people are very, very important.

I got to see my baby brother – Harry, his name is – when he was 16 years old. It broke my heart. I could have helped my baby brother. I should have been there for him. I wasn’t – through no fault of my own. And all I want to do is just love him and let him know that I care about him, even though I wasn’t there.

Last year I went to his sixtieth birthday party. We shared it together and that was a great joy to me. So when his birthday came around this year and I wasn’t with him, it broke my heart, just, the memories just all flooded back and … I had a bad day that day.

Harry’s sixtieth birthday was the only time I shared with him. I assured him this year that I can’t wait to see him and all I wanted to do was wrap my arms around him and give him the biggest hug. Because we’ve lost so many years together. I want to make the last years better.

My Christian faith, I guess, has played a big part. And it shapes my life to want to be there for other people, to encourage other people. I’ve taken children from the home to come for a holiday with me, and the missionaries when they went back, they said, what have you done to this child?! She’s changed, she’s a different person. She was able to accept herself. She was a problem child before that, and then when she came to me we talked, and she became a better person. And that’s what I like to know, that I did something to help someone else. And wherever I am, I try to encourage people: be proud of who you are and what you’ve got. You know who you are, be proud of it.

When we went into the home, there was no counsellor there to counsel us. When we left the home – still no counsellor. We should have been counselled. We were just young kids, all hurting, but we didn’t have that. All we knew was the love of God, and God loved us. The missionaries really cared for us and that’s the way they showed their love. Jesus loves us and he showed us his love by dying on the cross for us. No greater love.

It’s been wonderful. It’s been wonderful being a part of the family of God. Christians, to me, should be loving and kind. There’s been no negativity in being brought up by missionaries. It was the best experience of my life, yeah. And I just wanted to be like them.