Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea

BOOK: Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea
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About the Book

There is no stolen and there is no lost, there is no black and there is no white. There is just me. And I am perfect the way I am. And I know now that I have to leave this place because I've learnt all I can for the time being and this lesson is over now.

Delivered on the banks of the Mainoru River by her two full-blood grandmothers, Marie Munkara was born with light skin which meant one thing – it would only be a matter of time before she would be taken by the authorities and given to a white family to be raised.

Then twenty-eight years later an old baptismal card falling out of a book changed the course of her life forever. It was a link to her past.

Knowing that she had to follow her heart or forever live to regret it Marie set out to find the family that she had lost, leaving her strict white Catholic parents aghast – why dig up the past?

With devastating honesty, humour and courage,
Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea
is a fearless account of this young woman's journey.

 

Dedicated to my beautiful mum

Judy Burmalwanga Munkara

PART 1
1.

As a little kid I knew I hadn't grown under my foster mother's heart like her two sons had. And I hadn't grown inside it either like our sister who needed all the love she could get to survive a frail constitution and being unwillingly relinquished by her mother when she was a tiny baby. And I knew I wasn't a daughter for the man I had to call my father to make it look like we were one big happy family. I knew this because memories and dreams came to me at times to remind me of people and places that had once been. And some were good memories with sunshine and smiles and gentle black hands, and I was at peace with these. Others were scary with angry faces and sharp edges and discordant sounds and they made me afraid. I spent a lot of my childhood afraid.

Then one day when I was twenty-eight years old the Past, where these memories and dreams stayed when they
weren't visiting me, turned up out of the blue without any warning. And everything changed. Nothing was ever the same again after that.

It was a weekend when this happened and my parents had gone away. This was nothing unusual. As kids my sister and I never had holidays at home like we wanted to, we lived out of a suitcase while our parents argued about where we'd be staying or where we'd be going next or whose fault it was because something wasn't packed and had been left behind. It gave us the shits. But on this particular day on this particular weekend when the Past arrived, my childhood travelling woes were a dim and distant memory as I located the spare key and let myself into my parents' place to borrow some books. I wasn't on particularly good terms with my parents so it was always far more pleasant to visit when they weren't home.

The crispy sauvignon blanc that I had brought to help pass the time left a subtle lingering citrus taste on my palate as I headed to a part of the bookshelf that I'd always given a wide berth: the place where the Bibles and hymnals and other books of religious persuasion lived. I'd been having a debate with a mate about the many contradictions in Catholicism and I was going to find something to prove that I was right and he was wrong. As my parents had a great affection for God there was plenty of stuff to choose from so I got to work, but then a garish blue
book among the dull hues of grey, navy and black caught my eye. I'd never noticed it before despite the fact that it looked completely out of place so I picked it up, the Book of Ecclesiastes. It smelt like all our parents' books and their whole house for that matter, old and musty, there wasn't the sweet smell of love and kindness anywhere in that place. I could see there was something wedged between the pages and when I opened the book, it was a card, old, faded and blue.

I examined the card in more detail as I took a swig out of the bottle. It was a baptismal card. The name and place of birth were unknown to me but then my eyes were drawn to the date of birth. The sixth of February 1960. The day I was born. Although millions of people on the planet came into the world on that date, there was a weird sensation in my guts as I realised that this card had something to do with me. And this was like finding treasure buried in the garden because I knew bugger-all about myself and how I had ended up with this family. Our mother had a strange aversion to discussing the past, and anything I had found out had been by accident or by shameless eavesdropping at doors. Her standard smug reply that I had been found in the gooseberry patch was obviously a ploy to put me off so in the end I did what she was hoping for and gave up asking.

But sitting there with the card in my hands I felt excitement singing through my veins and, cursing my sneaky
parents while blessing fate for my serendipitous discovery, I rushed for the atlas. The card stated that I was born at a place called Mainoru, but close inspection revealed that Mainoru was in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. In the space of an instant, excitement was replaced with mortification as old geography lessons began to resurface. According to Sister Clavier from Grade 3, Arnhem Land was a wild and untamed place where Aborigines hunted kangaroos and walked around butt-naked. Where they lived in humpies and sat around campfires on which they cooked their food.

But surely there must be some mistake, I can't be from there, I thought. I can't be from some shithole in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere. Old fantasies of a gracious and refined birth, of being a love child, of being a real somebody dwindled to dust as I poured the remains of the bottle straight down my gullet and went in search of more alcohol, this definitely needed some rumination. After replenishing my glass with a nice fruity cherry brandy I reluctantly consulted the card again. Daly River was where the ritual of baptism had been performed on me at the age of eighteen months by a bloke by the name of Father Fallon, and yep there it was, a westerly few hundred kilometres from Mainoru. I went and looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. I still looked the same. But I didn't feel the same, that's for sure. In the space of ten minutes my world had risen to dizzying heights of
joy only to be smashed to pieces on the cruel and fickle rocks of fate. I took the book and the atlas and left. On the way home I thought about how our mother in her more generous moments would refer to me as her ‘dusky maiden'. How I was told that I could ‘pass for anything'. How I now felt an ugly piece of shame taking root in my heart at my embarrassing and humble beginnings.

After a few days and a few bottles of wine I realised that I needed to take a more pragmatic view. After all it wasn't my family's fault that they lived in the scrub somewhere in the Northern Territory and it wasn't my fault that I happened to be born in such conditions. Besides I was always up for a bit of fun and visiting them might be a new and exciting experience. So with my mind conjuring up images of the long-lost daughter returning to her jubilant tribe I decided to write a letter to this priest bloke at Daly River. Although there were no details about my father on the card maybe this Judy Burmalwanga who was named as my mother would be alive and I'd have aunties and uncles and all that stuff. I pulled out my trusty old Under-wood and started typing. And what a letter it was too, a veritable tome of my life history as the pages piled up. But hang on a minute, I didn't want to scare the poor buggers off, this was crap. I ripped it up and started again. And again. The pile of screwed-up paper grew. This was crazy.

I finally ended up with a brief letter introducing myself and asking if the whereabouts of my mother was known.
Then I walked down to the letterbox at the end of the street and shoved it through the slot before I could change my mind. The letter landed in the box with a papery plop and my gut got that stirred-up feeling like when I'm anxious and I think there's something scary waiting around the corner to grab me. But it was done and there was no going back now.

I worried about it for a few days and then it slipped into the back of my mind. After all, these things take years and the Aborigines living there might have gotten the shits with the missionaries and marched back into the bush and the Daly River mission mightn't exist anymore. So I really wasn't taking much notice when exactly two weeks later a plain-looking handwritten envelope arrived. Luckily I was already lounging on the sofa with a wine in my hand when I opened it because despite wasting precious seconds rushing to the fridge to pour one I'm not sure that my legs would have been able to carry me when I realised it was from that Father Fallon.

He told me how he'd read my letter to the congregation after mass one Sunday and my godmother Roseanne Parry had stepped forth and said she knew me. I was known and my mum was alive and well and I had two brothers. Shit, how's that, I thought. I had two brothers. I hadn't been thinking about siblings, just myself, and now there were two people in the world who had used and vacated my mother's womb as well. There were two other people
carrying twenty-three of her chromosomes. There were two other people walking around on this planet because of the person who was my mother. But curiously the letter said their home was Nguiu on Bathurst Island not Mainoru or Daly River. I dragged out the atlas again. The distances between Mainoru, Daly River and Bathurst Island were considerable, so why were my birth mother and brothers living in Nguiu?

The old bat my foster mother was the first to be told that I'd found my real mum because I knew if she heard if from someone else there would be no end to her carping about it. She never let anything go and it was not unusual to be reminded by her of some minor misdemeanour decades after the event had long faded into the dim and distant past.

As expected, she was not happy when I rang to tell her I was going to visit them.

‘Why are you doing this?' she asked, her voice quavering with emotion. ‘After all we've done for you.'

I hadn't anticipated this response. I knew she'd be pissed off because as far as she was concerned nobody could do anything without her permission first, but her trying to make me feel guilty came as a complete surprise. The workings of her brain were always unfathomable.

‘I don't know,' I replied. From experience it was best to keep things simple with her or she'd have more things to get shat off about.

‘They'll take all your money. You know black people are shifty and dishonest, I've always told you that,' she said sharply.

True, I had been warned by her of shifty blacks on numerous occasions and to her credit our mother magnanimously included all black and brown races on the planet, not just my recently discovered own. But surely her premeditated attempt to suppress facts about my birth could be considered shifty and dishonest as well. Weighing up the urge to confront her duplicity or to bite my tongue and avoid an argument I chose the latter and stayed silent.

‘They'll teach you bad habits,' she continued.

Bad habits, I thought as I did a mental roll call of her own unsavoury practices which had made my life a misery over the years. I listened to her ramble on a bit longer before telling her I had to go.

‘You're not going anywhere,' she shouted as the receiver headed for the handset. ‘They'll never want you back.'

There is something so beautifully satisfying about defying a parent, I thought two weeks later as I boarded a plane bound for Darwin. There had been a few more attempts by our mother to ‘talk sense into me' after I'd dropped my bombshell but we both knew it would take a whole lot more than her nagging to make me change my mind. Tullamarine Airport's tarmac was slick with rain as I took off and clouds obscured the city below as we
gained altitude and I headed north on my new adventure. I had no idea what to expect from my real mother but I was certain it couldn't be any worse than what I'd left behind.

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