Walbiri woman finds forgiveness after pain of forced separation

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Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Maria Tomlins was born at Mount Doreen, a cattle station west of Alice Springs. Her mother was a Walbiri woman, and had her baptised as Laura Mary. Her Mum, Aunty and Grandmother used to look after the goats on the station.

Little Laura was seven years old when she was taken away. She and her brother, and two cousins, were all playing when a man offered them a ride in his truck. They jumped in for the fun of it.

But the truck didn’t stop until it arrived at Bungalow, an institution for part-Aboriginal children, which had been built outside Alice Springs. Her brother and cousins were taken elsewhere. She was given an old rough, navy blue dress to wear.

Distressed at the loss of her mother, she cried herself to sleep every night. Soon afterwards she was accommodated with other girls in the convent in Alice Springs. Then, because of the war, they were evacuated to a small town outside Adelaide. Since Laura wasn’t a saint’s name, they changed her name to Maria.

After the war Maria and the other girls, who were called “half-caste,” were taken in Army trucks to Darwin, and from there to a Mission Station at Garden Point on Melville Island.

Maria has precious memories of life at Garden Point – swimming and fishing, sewing, cooking, playing music, dancing, growing vegetables, feeding themselves on mangoes, bananas, pawpaws and custard apple.

They all had chores to do every day. Discipline was hard and sometimes she received a “hiding” from the Sisters who ran the Mission.

Once when Sr Annunciata was giving her a belting, Maria protested: “My mother wouldn’t do this.”

The Sister burst into tears. Maria persisted: “You don’t love me.”

But Maria knew she did love her really.

Sr Annunciata put her arms around little Maria, and said, “I do”, and Maria knew it was true.

She says this was a great comfort, since many times at night she would cry as she thought about her mother. “Her face was always on my mind.”

In 1954 Maria married Ambrose, a young man who also had grown up at Garden Point.

Now as a married couple they moved from Garden Point to Alice Springs. When Ambrose was away working Maria would feel lonely, and pined for the “family” atmosphere of Garden Point.

She went to work in the convent, where she had first been accommodated after being taken from her family of origin.

One day she and another woman, Daisy, were working together in the laundry. Maria was doing the ironing. Daisy came to her and said, “Look, these people on the side of the fence there, look. They’re looking in here. They’re calling out to you, but your name’s not Laura, eh?” Maria couldn’t believe it. “Yes, that’s my name.”

Maria recalls that magical moment:

“I went down there. I got such a shock. All those years when I was walking anywhere in the streets I was looking at all the black faces, looking for that familiar face I had planted in my mind all these years. That face of my mother. And then, I went over and I saw that face. I couldn’t believe it. She just grabbed me and … she held on to me.

“She was crying and hitting herself. My grandmother and aunty was also there, hanging on, crying. We just cried. Sat down like that and cried and cried. She told me that for many years, she used to come there. ‘Long time,’ she said, ‘I was coming here because your father told me you were here.’

“She told me she used to come to the convent, year after year after year, waiting to see if she could see me. All those years she came – 14 years. Because that was the last place my father told her that I was… I don’t think she realised, you know … like … she used to come in all the time, not only her. But my aunty and my Grandmother they were all coming, sitting there looking for me.”

Maria had always blamed her father for not coming to look for her. She was consoled by the fact that he had told her mother where she had been sent. She holds no grudges against him.

All of a sudden Maria had a big family. She proudly presented her mother with her first child, Anthony, and her mother fussed over her grandson. When Maria went out to visit Mount Doreen, the station where she was born, she was keen to meet her brother, who had inherited the station after her father died.

She assured him: “I didn’t come out here to get anything from you. I just wanted to see you, bless you and forgive you. I wanted to see you for my own peace of mind.

“I know it is all yours, and I am happy about that. I just came because I wanted you to know that I haven’t forgotten you, and to make peace with you.”

When Maria remembers Garden Point she reminisces with fondness.

She is not glossing over the pain of forced separation from her family at the age of seven. But she has the new eyes of forgiveness. She speaks of this in terms of her Catholic faith.

She muses about how grateful she is for the gift of her faith which only came to her because of the Mission experience.

She is deeply grateful for the love she experienced from the religious sisters who ran the Mission. She has been able to reconcile within herself the positive experiences and outcomes of being brought up on the Mission with the unspeakable pain of being separated from her mother and family from the age of seven until she was 21.

Maria has aged gracefully, not at all twisted by bitterness or resentment. She has new eyes that come from being in touch with the merciful heart of Jesus.
She is free.

This is an extract from Fr Ken Barker’s book His Name is Mercy.