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Holding my mother’s face

*** Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are cautioned that this post mentions and contains images of people who have passed ***

Ruth Ryan died late last year, aged 80, leaving four children and six grandchildren. She also left her mark on her daughter’s face and spirit, as Dr Tess Ryan writes below.


Tess Ryan writes:

People tell me I have my mother’s face. It is mixed with my Irish Australian father’s, of course, but my Aboriginal, Chinese mother’s face shows through determinedly.

Much like herself, I try to show that determination but it is without a true knowing of her now, as she has left us.

We knew it was coming, we’d all sensed that the end was nearing us like a slow-moving train coming in to collect its passengers. She didn’t have a terminal illness as such, just the ageing process affecting her heart, her lungs, her blood. Then her kidneys and then she was gone.

None of us were able to be with her at the end (except my cousin, who lived near mum in a small country town), but I think mum planned it that way. Ruth was her name, a no fuss Black woman who didn’t want a funeral, and longed to be with her husband, who had died 27 years before she did.

As an Aboriginal woman, she wasn’t expected to live till 80 years of age. Our community hear those statistics all the time…’likely to die 10 years younger than that of a non-Indigenous person’, so they say.

That statistical rendering from birth does something to you. Her brothers had passed on, with all but one dying before the age of 60 from heart disease, trauma, and the impacts of living in Australia as a Black man.

Her sisters had also started to pass, with only two remaining of nine children in total. These are not unusual stories from Aboriginal families in Australia; whether it is limited access to health service delivery, or living in a country town, or dying from burnout and the stress of racism and discrimination, it all adds up to families all over this country dealing with ongoing grief.

L: Ruth in 1963. R: Ruth, Des and family in 1971. Photos supplied.

Relationships

My mum was born in Taree. Ruth Yarnold was the fifth of 10 children to Harry and Ivy, and grew up in places like Coonabarabran, Balmain, Surry Hills and Moruya before marrying my father.

She wanted to be a teacher, but was denied that kind of education. Later on in life she worked in nursing homes and after dad passed, she worked as a welfare officer for the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Alexandria with her lifelong friend, Brenda McDonnell.

My mother and I once had a tumultuous relationship, during my angst-ridden teenage years growing up in Brisbane in the 1980s. I was sullen and searching and, in the ways only a naïve young person can, I would fight with my mother terribly.

It was also a residual impact of her having great difficulties finding her place in the world. There was something as a younger woman that she was dealing with that I shall never be able to name – intergenerational trauma, yes, but also a desperate rage where she would have to release it from her system so as to breathe again. She was frustrated with something and it would release itself occasionally.

It became noise, disruption and confusion for us kids, but that’s all it was. It meant she wasn’t present in some moments. For a young pre-teen girl who was the youngest in the family, it felt like she was a ghost. I resented her in my teen years, and the hurt I gave her in my words I now have to live with.

When my father Des died, things changed drastically. My daughter was born and seriously ill for the first eight weeks of life; just as she was getting better, my father’s cancer came back. I saw mum care for him for eight months till the cancer took him. He passed at home peacefully with all of us, in the bed where my waters had broken eight months prior.

At this time, my mother didn’t know how to use an ATM, let alone navigate through life without her greatest love by her side. I was in awe of her blooming, starting again. She moved to Sydney, started up at the Catholic Ministry with Aunty Brenda, and began a new life.

L: Ruth in 1962. R: With Des in 1975. Photos supplied.

Grief and strength

From the time my child was born and I bore witness to her grief and her strength, I developed a strong understanding of Ruth as her own individual and not just my mother, but still with questions about her early years and whatever it was that impacted her so all those years ago.

I often tried to source information from her, like some sort of detective, wading through the long weeds and being ever so careful not to disrupt the strength that she had discovered. At times it frustrated me – I wanted to know more of culture, of everyday life for my extended family – but at times she would wave me off telling me she doesn’t quite remember, or that so-and-so relative had that story wrong. It was fragments, flashes and distant figures I wanted to know more about.

Maybe that is the true cost of colonisation, as it robs you of stories some other families get to hold dear? My family left their country to avoid removal, lived under compliance, wore long white socks and shiny shoes to avoid removal by the state, and shielded their children; maybe this became ingrained behaviour that internalised all our pain?

The knowledge I have acquired has come from various things but it is all snippets – family, of course, my education as an Aboriginal academic, from being around community and elders, from friends who are like cousins and fellow countrymen and women. This is possibly all I can have now, and it must be enough.

But there will always be this gaping hole where Ruth once stood, in her little 100-year-old house she had bought in the town where she had a heart attack 20 years ago and decided that this was her forever place.

Ruth was vivacious, fiercely loyal to her family, and full of all different forms of love. Her love was sometimes a tough love, blunt and forceful like I see in other strong Black women, like I feel within my body.

She would mix up words, saying something close to the word but with a completely different meaning. “I really must get rid of those obnoxious weeds”, or “I am feeling really squarmish”.  She’d say “peripherals” instead of “profiteroles” and we would love her for it.

The problem with grief is that it isn’t unimaginable for some. Some of us grieve long before our loved ones have physically left their shells. Whether that be due to illness, intergenerational trauma, never feeling you know ‘enough’ of your culture to be deserving of a footprint within the space, there are some that feel loss in numerous ways.

For myself, I look into the mirror and see my mother’s face in our shared resemblance, and in our shared story of loss. I see her strength and determination in me, I see my own secrets and traumas I dare not divulge.

Ruth and I walk a similar path. I will continue to show her how I can be strong and how I forge a life that reflects the humour, grace and dignity of hers.

• Dr Tess Ryan is a Biripi academic who also has Irish and Chinese heritage. She lives in Naarm, and is a writer and consultant, as well as a contributing editor at Croakey and a member of Croakey Health Media.

Mother and daughter in 2015. Photo supplied.

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