Monday, 18 March 2013
Don't be sorry for me
When I was born in 1973, my parents were only 18 years old - and I was their third child. Before I was 2 years of age, my brother, sister and myself became foster children.
My brother and I were sent to live with a white couple, who by this stage were also taking care of several of my Aunts. My sister was fostered and eventually adopted by the brother and sister-in-law of my foster mother.
But don't be sorry for me.
That white couple, I call them Mum and Dad. And I couldn't have asked for better parents to raise me than the two people my father and Great-Grandmother (Nan) chose.
Dad was a hardworking, big hearted bloke, and Mum was a larger than life woman, who'd always wanted to have children, but after several losses was told that it was never going to happen. Thankfully, fate stepped in and our worlds collided. Her best friend was employed as the Nurse at the Lake Tyers Aboriginal mission, and introduced Mum to my Nan, who instantly fell in love with her. Turns out they were the answer to each others prayers.
My father was the eldest of a large family of 9 children, and by the time I was born, his mother had already passed away at the ripe old age of 35 - close to two years before I even arrived in the world. Before I would have my first birthday, his father would also be dead, aged only 40. After the passing of my Grandfather in 1974, my Nan, now 64 years old, was left to care for her grandchildren - three of them still under the age of 10. Adding to her headaches, my parents weren't doing such a bang-up job of things (very young, both only knowing mission life and having three young kids, I can't say I'd do better) and my Nan again had to step in.
I'm grateful that my Nan could see the value in education, as that is what she hoped to achieve for us by sending us to be cared for out in the 'white world'. She wanted the opportunities and a life for us that she knew would never be afforded to us if we stayed on the mission, and so, along with my father, made what would have been one of the hardest yet most selfless decisions of her impressive life - and sent us to live with a couple she had grown to love and admire for their generous hearts and kind souls.
My father and my Nan were regular visitors to our house while I was growing up, as were most of our extended family. By the time I was about 8 or 9, my parents had 12 foster children (including me) - all of them Aboriginal and all of them related to me. I had cousins, Aunts and my brother living in the same house, and whenever another carload of relatives would turn up to visit, the doors would be flung open and everyone was welcome. Each and every holiday, we would have a full house and then some, and there was always lots of laughter and love in the house. We had the kind of childhood that you see in the movies, we celebrated 'Unbirthdays' and even had our own special song to go with them, had regular 'Scare Nights' as most of us were horror fans, and got into everything festive and seasonal.
Mum and Dad did all of this on a tight budget, and I watched them both go without time and time again to make sure each and every one of us had what we needed first. Dad worked long hours as a pump jockey, and never complained. I remember one day he had an accident at work and burnt his leg quite badly with LPG gas, but he refused to even take the afternoon off work, hopping around on one leg to fill other peoples cars with petrol because he had 12 hungry kids to feed. Mum was a financial wizard who knew where to find the best bargains and stretched Dads pay packet out to get value from every cent. We never went hungry, we always had a warm bed to sleep in, and there was always a hug and the door was always open.
But it wasn't always sunshine and roses.
Two white people and a large brood of black kids tend to stand out. Often for all the wrong reasons. I don't know how we came onto their radar, but after finding out about us, one of the local Aboriginal organisations began making noise about our situation. They were unhappy that white people were fostering Aboriginal children, and wanted us removed from their care. We were reported to Welfare, but thankfully the world wasn't yet gripped by Stolen Generation hysteria, and when they found us to be well fed, clean and healthy, wanting to stay and very much loved, they had no grounds to remove us. This didn't stop the cycle repeating several times over, and by the time I was in my teens, Mum had a thick folder full of letters from Welfare - all typed up on blue paper - all the result of people who cared not for our situation or our welfare, but were simply horrified that the people providing exceptional care to us were, shock horror, white.
I was never denied my culture, in fact, my parents did everything they could to keep us connected and proud of who we were. My father was a regular visitor to our house, and he and Mum built up their own special connection, one that endured for decades and until death. He called her 'Mumma Dawn' and she had a multitude of nicknames for him, 'Peanut Butter' being one of the favourites.
My mother was quite a different story. I only remember one visit from her, when I was about 8 or 9. My Uncle had brought her down to see us, but when they pulled up in the driveway, she didn't come inside the house. I was told to go out and see her, and we mumbled a 'hi' to each other before I invited her to come inside. She stayed firmly planted in her seat and told me she wouldn't go inside the house, not with those 'white c**ts inside'. I remember feeling angry, and I said to her 'those white c**ts are looking after us kids and you don't even have the decency to come in and say hi'. I told her I didn't want to see her again if she was going to be like that.
I didn't see her again until I was in my 20's. An encounter in a hospital entrance - I walked straight past her and didn't recognise her. My brother had to point her out to me, and I introduced myself to her like a stranger 'Hi, I'm Dallas, remember, your son?'. The only response I got was 'Oh...hi'. Awkward silence ensued and I left shortly after. She died about a year later, and took with her all the answers to all the questions that seem to amount to little more than Why?
Mum & Dad lost friends, and even family, over their decision to foster Aboriginal kids. Mum had a sister who lived just around the corner from us, but I never met her. When Mum began fostering, she just disappeared. Another sister almost completely ceased visiting her, and when confronted as to why, she revealed her husband 'doesn't like Aborigines'. After his death, when she still didn't visit, we all realised what was really going on. Mum never had time for the mind games though, she was a very no-nonsense woman and people quickly came to realise that if we weren't welcome somewhere, Mum wouldn't go either.
Right up to the final years of their lives, they fostered Aboriginal children. More than 40 all told, some short term, but most like me, children they raised from infancy to adulthood. When I lost them both in 2009, I was gutted. The two people who had given me everything in life and asked for nothing in return, the people who had always been there to guide me, to provide everything in a role model I could ask for and then some, were gone. I will be forever grateful that I had the privilege to call two such incredible people Mum and Dad, and eternally thankful for all that they have done for me.
I wouldn't be here, writing this today, if not for them.
Vale Raymond Christoffersen - beloved father to many
Vale Irene 'Dawn' Christoffersen - beloved mother to many
**This has been a difficult post to write, and rather an emotional experience - but one I feel is necessary. I want people to understand that great foster carers come in all colours - and I believe it would be nothing less than a tragedy for the current thinking of 'Aboriginal kids need Aboriginal carers' to be allowed to gain any more traction. Kids need good carers, loving carers, and dedicated carers, and sometimes, the best person for the job will be a white person - and that is definitely not something to fear.