My memory of Aunty Emily

From a young age I had a deep love of reading and writing. As a child books were how I experienced the world and I dreamed of one day becoming a writer and creating my own stories. So when I moved to Sydney in my mid 20’s I took advantage of opportunities to attend the NSW Writers Centre at Lilyfield in Sydney’s inner west whenever I could. The Centre was based on the grounds of the beautiful heritage listed former hospital, known as Callan Park. The buildings were made of sandstone and were stunningly preserved from the 1800’s when it was originally built but it held a dark secret, and one that was particularly personal to my family. A secret that was at the front of my mind as I drove into the grounds of the stately buildings for my first writers workshop.

As I pulled into the carpark I took a moment to just sit in my car as a flood of childhood memories came back to me. The beauty of the sandstone buildings took me back to when I was six years old, coming to this very same place with my Mum, Aunty Isobel, and my brother & sister-in-law for a reunion that, by the intent of a government policy from back in the day, should never have happened. Even as young as I was back then, it was another formative moment that added to my awareness of what could be done to Aboriginal families. It was the memorable day when I first met my Aunt Emily.

Although I had never met my Aunt before, I knew who she was. My Mum, Aunts and Uncles held the space of her presence in our family through recalling childhood memories of her whenever they were together. My Mum loved photos and in her handbag she always carried a picture of her mother, father and her uncle Bunda Darlow (her mother’s older brother). I don’t recall seeing any photos of Aunt Emily when I was a kid but from the stories I grew up with she was as familiar to me as my grandparents and great uncle in Mum’s photos, even though they had passed before I was born.

As a six year old I had no way of comprehending the significance of that day. According to records I’ve read my mother would have been around 13 when she last saw her sister. On that poignant day in 1980 she stood with her sisters, as a 47 year old woman, poised to right the wrongs of a government policy that destroyed many Aboriginal families, at least in a small way for our family.  The enormity of that tremendous moment was lost on me that day.

Mum and Aunt Isobel had come to Sydney’s Callan Park Hospital, formerly Callan Park Mental Hospital, to which Aunt Emily had been committed to years earlier. From 1878 - 1914 the hospital had been known as the Callan Park Hospital for the Insane. My Aunt had been committed there in 1959 and in 1980, some 21 years later we had come to take her home to Toowoomba, back to Ancestral Country. The emotion that would have charged that day would have been overwhelming for some. Oddly enough I don’t recall any sadness surrounding the moment, which I think speaks to the resilience of these three strong Aboriginal women who had endured so much injustice in their lives. Having been raised on Qld Missions, also known as Aboriginal Reserves, by William (Billy) Turbane and Jane Turbane (nee Darlow), these three ladies had a unbreakable foundation of courage and cultural strength, with a strong sense of who they were, who their people were, and the Country they belonged to. Even though my Aunt Emily had been committed to an asylum for most of her adult life she knew who she was, who her sisters were and that she was about to go home to her Country.

The road trip to collect Aunty Em was nothing unusual to me. My brother Peter was often driving Mum to different places for family catch-ups. I have so many childhood memories of being in my brothers car with Aunts and Uncles. This trip was no different, we were all piled into the back of my brother’s HR panel van. Mum, Aunty Isobel and me, with my brother and his girlfriend in the front seat. You would think we were just a regular Aboriginal family on a regular holiday. The day before collecting Aunty Em, Peter drove us around Sydney to see the sights. Redfern, the Coca-cola sign at Kings Cross, the Harbour Bridge and Opera House were firmly etched in my mind from that trip.  As a young adult living in Sydney I would often recall the first time I saw those landmarks whenever I passed them.

The drive back to Qld was uneventful. The only distinct recollection I have of it was that I was sitting snuggled to the side of Aunt Isobel while Mum sat beside Aunty Em.  Although I don’t recall interacting with her much I was enchanted with her.  From my position firmly tucked in beside Aunty Isobel I sat and watched this fascinating woman who was wearing colourful bangles and beads, and who laughed and sang easily, and smoked like a chimney. At one point Aunty Em noticed me looking at her bangles and gave me one. I don’t recall any sadness or tension in the car, just three sisters enjoying each others company. Her features were so similar to my other aunts, and she had mesmerising eyes. I have a photo of my grandfather Billy Turbane, and he has the same eyes, the same piercing stare which told you that they had suffered, but it never broke them. A stare of defiance and resilience.

Once back in Qld Aunt Emily had to go into Bailey Henderson Hospital, which was the mental health facility in Toowoomba.  Another hospital that left an indelible childhood memory as we were often up there to collect Aunty Em for weekend stays at our home, or some days we just visited her there for a couple of hours.  Another old heritage-listed group of buildings which had the most stunning flower displays in the Spring. A beautiful outward appearance that held many horrific dark secrets for the people committed there.

Never to be released. Four words that Mum & her sisters often spoke about when talking about Aunty Em, which had no meaning to me as a child, but as an adult, disturbed and incensed me. Who made that decision? What had happened that had caused these words to be marked on her files? Why had her children been taken from her?  How did my Aunt end up in NSW, so far away from Country.  So many questions, but still to this day so little answers.

As I grew into a young adult my awareness of my Aunt’s situation, and my sadness at the injustice of it, and of life as an Aboriginal person in Qld, shifted to an intense anger. From a very young age I knew of the massacres, and that Aboriginal people could be shipped around to various parts of Qld like cattle, at the lodgement of a signed document from someone called a ‘Protector of Aborigines’, amongst other inequities. My anger and resentment towards ‘white people’ grew stronger but Mum, obviously having already experienced all those emotions herself, helped me channel my rage into my education and other pursuits to ensure it didn’t consume me. Our family also had a ‘white’ history which contributed to the strength of who we were as a mixed-race family that lived in two worlds, so I learnt to understand my anger and unpack what I was actually outraged about.

Life went on for our family, and Aunty Em was still a permanent fixture of life for me, even if I didn’t always see her.  We moved to Dalby when I was 10 but Mum and I would often hop on the train for trips into Toowoomba to catchup with family and visit Aunty Em. Nothing had changed, she was still the feisty effervescent woman I remembered from my first encounter with her, and she seemed content. Her and Mum had a very easy going relationship and Mum always respected her as the older sister.

My mother was a staunch family oriented woman, who spent a lot of her life searching for the children of our extended family, always asking me to do some research for her. Whether it was for Aunty Em’s children, or Granny Maude Chambers (nee Darlow, my Grandmother’s sister) children, Mum never stopped searching for missing family. Finding them and reconnecting them to their Country, and their People, was a driving passion of hers and we would often talk about ways to find them. So the night my cousin, who worked at Link-Up, called me and told me I may be able to help a woman searching for her mother’s family I instinctively felt it was one of Aunty Em’s children. I couldn’t wait to tell Mum.

I was living in Brisbane at the time, Mum was in Dalby and she didn’t have a home phone but her 6am wake-up calls from the public payphone were a daily constant for me, whether I wanted them or not.  The urgency for me to make a meeting happen was what I remember the most about that early morning call, so with the help of my cousin it all came together one beautiful day in Queens Park in Toowoomba. As soon as Mum laid eyes on Judi she knew it was her niece, and that was from a distance, before introductions were even spoken. I knew it as well because Judi looked just like most of the women on my Mum’s side. I don’t remember how long the meeting lasted, or what we talked about but what I distinctly remember was how happy it made Mum. Another link in our family chain had been rejoined, another child had come home to Country.

Not long after that first meeting the fateful day had come, we received the call from Judi that Aunty Em had passed away. In a facility that she was committed to, deemed never to be released from, by some faceless authority who had the weight of an entire Government policy behind them. The ‘powers that be’ had been able to enact an order made decades before, but they did not win. My Mum and Aunts had bought their sister back to Country and had continued to hold space for her and her children. The journey to ensure the full extent of my Aunt Emily’s story is told continues to unfold…..and it will never end until the whole story is uncovered.

The government may have created policies intended to tear Aboriginal familial links apart, but it didn’t work with Billy & Jane Turbane and their children. These two fiercely strong-willed Aboriginal people, who had overcome so much adversity with their cultural pride and sense of self intact, nurtured an unbreakable sense of identity, and connection to Country, culture & family in their children. It is their legacy. It is something my Mother nurtured in me, and I proudly carry this on, to honour my grandparents, and the wonderful woman I was blessed to call Aunt Emily.

by Isabelle West-Turbane