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.


  1. Man, you are a champ! Thank you for sharing.

    How beautifully you present your story of love - and that's what is, isn't it, love. Love knows no colour, it just is, or it is not.

    I feel for your loss and am so glad that you had such loving people in your life especially in those earlier years.

    Stay vocal, keep writing - you have a truly unique and wonderful gift.

  2. Dallas, that piece lit up my day. How well you show the difference between "doing" and "seeming".

  3. A timely reflection written by a generous, caring human. Thank you for your heartfelt memories. Watching "The Project" last night and the government reluctance to allow adoption of any children to caring parents was highlighted.The total adoption figure last year...200! I do hope common sense will prevail soon for the happiness of many children is in the balance as they are being denied the chance of a loving family to call their own.

  4. Beautiful story Dallas. You're gratitude and big heart will open many doors for you. Many blessings on your journey.

  5. "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"

    Truly what we learn when we are young for good or bad stays with us the longest. You were abandoned and then, at the hands of both your foster parents and your biological mother, learnt that it is an individual's actions that defines them. (Bloody hell, I am channeling Batman). I don't mean to make light. It is a great story. And you come across as a great bloke. As fallible as the rest of us, sure. But, you don't judge the shell, rather, the soul that inhabits it. And as you have experienced, there are quite a no. out there who reject this road entirely.

  6. There are people who deserve the privilege of raising children, and people who don't. Doesn't matter what colour they are, what church they go to, whether they wear a tie to work, or how many languages they speak.
    Raising kids is the most important thing any parent will ever do, and yours did an outstanding job. I include your Dad and Nan, for making those decisions on your behalf.

  7. Dallas, mum is in tears in heaven. With those words you have validated her life's work. And her reward, apart from recognition of her incredible contribution to child welfare? A proud black man with the ability to influence public opinion, both black and white,with his amazing talent for words.
    Never stop writing Dallas!

    1. A good response, Big Nana - but forget the "black man" and "white man" eternal divide.

      Dallas is an Australian - same same you, same same me, same same him.

    2. Unkown, you are right, and I stand corrected. We are all born the same, it is our upbringing that separates us. I guess I am simply in awe of the courage Dallas needs to enable him to not only fight white prejudice, but to withstand the even more vicious black prejudice he cops.
      Within the "black" culture of Australia, nobody is more hated than the perceived "coconut" in the community. "Coconuts" by the way, are any indigenous people who stand on their own two feet, contribute to society and never use the race card. You know, people like Dallas and others who propose basing all government funding upon need, not race. People who threaten the status quo.

  8. Reading this article brings an overwhelming desire to meet you in person. There are few in this world with the insight and understanding that you possess. I would have been glad to meet your Mum and Dad as well. They were obviously wonderful parents, to have raised a man of your caliber. I expect the other 39 foster children are similar, but of course in a cohort that large there are bound to be some that lack your writing talent and maturity. I can appreciate that you wrote this so beautifully and that it was difficult. Thank-you. It is a very enjoyable read.

  9. Beautiful! R.I.P to your beautiful Mum and Dad. You are a beautiful son. Thank you for sharing this Dallas. Your story of love and appreciation brought tears to my eyes. Keep writing Dallas.

  10. Beautifully written and logical too. Well done. Keep your perceptions on the "aboriginal situation" coming - the country needs them!

  11. Mate - that's a great story and I can understand how it would be very emotional for you to write that commendable account.

    A head full of happy childhood memories is a treasure every adult should have.

    God bless your father and grandma who did the right thing in making that very difficult decision in organising for you and your two siblings to be cared for by foster parents, and God bless your Mum and Dad for all they did for you as a young bloke - as well as for everyone else they also cared for.

    All from love.

  12. Dallas: reading this, all I can say is that wherever they are, both of them would be immensely proud of their child, and would be elated at the wonderful memories you have of them.

    I am also proud of you, and happy that you remember your parents with such love and devotion.

    Love is indeed the greatest power of them all.

  13. Truly moving to read. You are lucky to have a perspective on your mob and our mob that allows unbiased appraisal of good and bad aspects of each.
    Education is the only road to progress for all humanity and it is lack of knowledge that creates the worlds problems.

  14. Please, please, please, become more prominent ..I want your message to be heard far and wide. If we dont have Aboriginal children property cared for and educated what hope is there for them.

  15. Dallas I was very moved by your story and feel that some of those exhibitionists who attended that " Sorry" show the other day would benefit from the same humility and maturity that you always show.

    I feel sorry for all those children in dysfunctional homes who will never experience what you have. This bleating on about " stolen" children has created more heartache and despair than one could think possible. Thank God your Mum and Dad were strong people and stood up to the baseless criticism from both black and white whingers. Good parenting isn't the exclusive domain of any one culture over another. It comes from love and commitment. You were fortunate that your father and Nan were good judges of character and that you and all the other kids they raised had the best. I came from a broken home and have felt that lack of belonging all my life. I envy you.

  16. Thank you for sharing. Your parents and family did an outstanding job.

  17. Your mum and dad would be proud of you! Love really is colourblind! Fabulous piece which should be compulsory reading for all the do-gooders who are currently depriving so many needy kids of a stable and loving home for whatever reason!

  18. My Mum was given away to a white family to work as their Nanny, because my Nan saw no hope for her living on the mission in mid-north coast of NSW. My Mum still speaks highly of them and is glad of what my Nan did. My Nan always talked of the crap of the stolen generation, and would be turning in her grave about what is going on about this. What a great post you have made Black Steam Train. Keep up the good work.

  19. Reading someone write so lovingly about their mum and dad, seriously, bought tears to my eyes. Made me think about my mum and dad. You are a credit to your parents, mate, and a living testament to their goodness and integrity. That's huge! Congratulations.

  20. Brilliant..

    I'd like to shake your hand bro. Well done.

  21. Insightful post. Well done mate. Kids need love and an education. Yes it really is that simple.

    My Mum and Dad are still alive. Best go call them right now.

  22. Hugest of thanks to everyone who has replied - (apologies to not write back individually to everyone, I can't keep up but have read each and every one) - I don't have the words to explain how much it means to me that other people see the beauty of their lives and the good they did while on this earth.

    It is very humbling stuff, thank you.

  23. Dallas,

    Great to read something from the heart, I hope my kids feel the same about me when they grow up.

    The way you have turned out would be thanks enough for your mum and dad.

    Best of Luck

  24. You are what " The World Needs Now " in every person not just especially in Australia

    At 78 I cried as read this true story - with Sadness and with Joy .

    Best wishes for the future for you and all the others your mum and dad loved so much


  25. Dallas,

    I have often read your words. I am jealous of the gift you have of making sense of and relating those difficult thoughts and feelings we all have. I hope that when I lose my parents I can do them some of the justice that you have done to yours.

  26. Why don't you write a book, Dallas? Share your insights and personal perspective and history. You are in a position where you are able to shed valuable light on the issues that face Aborigines, not to mention white-fella and white-fella attitudes.

    I am sure it will be a landmark publication.

    You should not have too much difficulty getting a publisher.

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  28. It's contributions like those that your parents made that are what 'Australian of the year' is all about. Your story has helped me realise that great families can come in all shapes and sizes if the people have big enough hearts. Your parents were lucky that you have had the courage to share your story so others can appreciate the huge impact they have had on so many lives.

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