Ten hours in a lifetime

Taken away from her Aboriginal mother as a baby, Nancy de Vries spent her childhood being shunted from one home to the next ` neglected, abused, and told she wasn`t wanted. In her book, Ten Hours in a Lifetime, Nancy tells of her journey to become a nurse, and confronting the painful past to find her mother.

I was taken away from my mother at the age of 15 months. Like thousands of other Aboriginal children, I was taken away so that I could be given a better life. Believe you me, to put somebody in 22 different places before they are 18 is not giving them a better life.

My mother and I were staying in Correlli, Marrickville, a home for young mothers and babies. She tried to keep me. She kept me for 15 months. She tried. They took me away. Because I was fair.

I found out I was Aboriginal when I was five, at Bidura Children’s Home. We were having bread with honey on it and hot cocoa. It was one of my favourite meals, it was wonderful, chomping into it. So when I heard, ‘Stand up, everybody, stand up!’ , I thought, I’m not standing up, I’m going to sit here and have my bread and my hot cocoa. Because that’s what I thought was important when I was five!

The matron said, ‘Oh you naughty girl, get in the corner.’ So there I was standing in the corner, and here was an Aboriginal girl with an afro hairdo. I screamed, I got an awful fright. Then the nurse, she was an awful brute, came over and grabbed me and said, ‘You stupid little girl, you’re just like her.’ And that’s how I found out I was Aboriginal.

They said I was uncontrollable. I kept on running away, looking for my mother Ruby.

I went to Callan Park. Because I used to shoot through all the time, they stuck me up in the refractory ward, which was for the worst type of mental patients.

I ended up having shock treatment. They gave you a gag to bite, you were on your back and they’d put a pillow under the small of your back, hold onto you and boom! One day it went wrong. They didn’t knock me out. I could feel the electricity going through my body. I was terrified of electricity for years later.

I’ve wanted to be a nurse from when I was eight years old, and so I worked in nursing homes looking after old people for 27 years.
Then the nursing course at University of Western Sydney came up, I was talking to a friend of mine who mentioned it. I said: ‘No, I wouldn’t be good enough for that,’ but she sent my application in. I could have hit her!

Finally I enrolled and put my name down and paid the fees. Early on there was frustration from never having written anything down. To Aboriginal people time is different. Meal times are never set at a fixed time. We eat when we are hungry. The sun and the moon and the seasons guide us, not clocks and watches and deadlines. Deadlines and submission dates are hard to get used to. There was no ‘Koori time’ at uni and that affected most Aboriginal students.

I not only graduated with a piece of paper to say that I’m a registered nurse and that I’ve done my course, but I graduated as a person. So it was good, it gave me self confidence. I ended up doing very well, averaging about 70-75% on assignments.

After graduation I worked in the Aboriginal Health Service in Brewarrina. I used to look at the staff in our community centre and see them so neat and tidy, but my clinic wasn’t. I would be giving sex talks to the boys down on the riverbank, or talking to the mums sitting on the verandah while they were playing bingo. It was very informal.

But as an Aborigine and a nurse when I see them drinking, see the apathy, I start thinking – ‘hey, we’ve got to make these people think they are worthwhile.’ A lot of them have the idea that they are not good enough.

One day I found out my mother wanted to see me, actually wanted to meet me, after 53 years. I had to leave at 7.30 in the morning to go out to Bourke to see her. The amazing landscapes you go through! That’s when you feel how wonderful Australia is, and for me to suddenly come to grips with the fact that this is my country, this is where my people belong, the land.

I got to Bourke. My mother’s flat backed into a lane. I could hardly walk. I knew why she was sitting down when I arrived, because she probably felt the same way.

To grow up, not knowing your family, you don’t know who you look like, you know. To suddenly sit in front of somebody and it was almost like looking in a mirror, although she had dark eyes and I had light eyes.

Do you know what was the most healing moment of my life? When Bob Carr and all those politicians apologised and let me feel they were sorry that it happened to me and they would make sure it doesn’t happen again. One of the stolen generations had to be nominated to speak at parliament, and they got my name.

You’ve got no idea how wonderful that day was. Everybody was saying to me that day, ‘Are you nervous? Are you nervous?’ And I said, ‘No – I’m not letting this lot overpower me!’

So anyway, when I got up in parliament I had to say, ‘I would like to welcome the members of the Aboriginal community,’ because I was speaking on behalf of them.

It was an amazing day, I felt very humble that I had been asked to step up there. To stand there where all those older politicians had made those laws and say, ‘This is the result of those laws that you made, this is the hurt you gave us.’

Bob Carr – Bob Carr’s an amazing man, very reserved. And when he got up and spoke I thought, ‘Thank God you’re the one that’s accepting this.’

And then he gave the apology. So that was right then.

This article was extracted from Nancy’s book, Ten Hours in a Lifetime, published by UWS. The title refers to the amount of time Nancy was able to spend with her mother. The book has only had a limited print run, but a copy is available to borrow from the NSWNA library, phone 8595 2175 (metro) or 1300 367 962 (country).

The NSWNA library also has a video available in which journalist Maxine McKew interviews Nancy about her extraordinary life.