|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: November 16, 1995
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
How long were you at Green Valley?
From 1972 to 1978, what's that, eight years, isn't it? Eight going on nine years, something like that.
And why did you leave?
All the kiddies had grown up and branched out and gone their own way in life and there was only me and the young fella, Jefferey, there in the house, and it was a four-bedroom house, and I didn't need a four-bedroom home for just myself and him, you know? And, so we'd leave, so we went into town and stayed with Dianne for a while until ... it took about three weeks to get a little one-bedroom flat in Charles Street, Erskineville. That's where we were.
And during the next stage of your life with your children pretty well grown up, what was life like for you?
Oh, I suppose it was alright. You know? I was pretty set in my ways. While I was living in that little flat in Charles Street, I began going to the Aboriginal medical service, they advertised for a sewing teacher, you know, and I, being a seamstress, I got the job. It was only for one day a week, but it was better than nothing. And it was an outlet, and Jeff was still in high school, Cleveland Street High School actually ... yeah ...
The old people predicted that you'd have a hard time with your health in old age because of all the hard work that you did when you were younger. Did that come true?
Yes, yeah. It really did. I've put on a lot of weight because at the time I was drinking. And I went to Weight Watchers, this was when I was in the Valley, before I went there, and got in with the Weight Watchers program there, and lost something like one stone, two pounds the first month I was there. I was queen of the month and I had a little sash ... [laughs] ... But, with the dieting and just not eating right, I ended up losing nearly four stone, and I nearly had a heart attack 'cause I was cutting the calories down and not eating right, you see, and this is what made me sick. I went leg up and I ended up in hospital with nearly a heart attack, you know? So the doctor went crook at me and told me to start eating right again, you know, and do it properly or it would make me sick, and, at the time I was on Valiums still from the children, recovering from the loss of the kids, and I'd go to the pub to socialise with my friends at the Big E and I'd feel a little bit uptight and I'd pop a Valium, then I'd wash it down with a beer, and I didn't know but that was a potent mixture, and it nearly had me climbing the walls. You know? And made me real sick so I had to give 'em away, flush 'em down the toilet and I said I'd never ever take another antibiotic, and I have — not antibiotic — antidepressant, yeah, and I've never taken one since, you know? But, because of all the gut busting and that, yes, I had to have more surgery on my stomach, and in 1980 they cut nine kilos off my stomach. I was 27 stone. I think all the fat was my security blanket to hide me from all the pain and suffering that I've been going through. But, the doctor's name was Dr McGlynn [sp?] at Prince of Wales Hospital, and he just used to look at me and shake his head, but anyhow, it come out okay. And ... it left me pretty weak and that, you know, and I did lose more weight than that, too. But, there were other things that were going wrong with me as well. I had blood sugar levels, and it was caused I think by the drinking and not eating right. Stuff like that. I don't know how many times the kids used to rush me in an ambulance to get me to the hospital because I'd be going out of it, going hypo, you know, sort of thing.
Have you got diabetes?
No. But I was a borderline diabetic. But it was controllable by the diets, you know? Mm ...
And you also had a battle with cancer?
How did that happen?
Well, that that was only a recent thing, 1991, after doing all the research for my third book, My Bundjalung People. I went up for my son's 25th birthday, up in Raymond Terrace when they used to live up there in the housing estate. And I noticed a lump and it was painful, and I'd never discovered it before, and then the year before that I had a mammogram and nothing showed up. And, oh, my daughter-in-law said to me, ‘You'd best get that checked out, Mum.’ And so as soon as I come back to the city, I went in and had it checked out, and it was cancer. It was only two centimetres and I had ... they put me in hospital on a Sunday night and on the Monday morning I had the lump taken under a local anaesthetic and then 24 hours after they come back with the results and said, yes, the rest has to go. And so I had a massive mastectomy. And I was in hospital for about a month, but they said I'd beaten it. And I was on tomoxophin, that wonder drug, for three years. And I'm still clear. And will remain clear, because if you can beat cancer you can beat anything, you know, but I was too busy with the research and what I was doing, you know, to even notice, actually, and it was good that it happened so quick so that we just got it [done], you know? But I was still in mourning over that. You know, I mean, losing part of your body and, oh, you can live without a boob, but you know that it's not there. And besides ... I'm that round you wouldn't even notice that I haven't ... that I only have one boob, you know? But anyhow, I know. I knew. And I was in mourning for a little while there. Doc said it'll settle down after a while. You do. You start to get a bit of common sense about yourself, and say, well, you know, enough's enough. You know? You're alive. And I'm grateful for that. I told you, there's good spirits up there watching me. Not one, but many of them ... [laughs] ...
Now the battle of cancer ... cancer was one of a long line of battles that you'd had in your life with different things?
And one of those was ... was a battle with the grog?
Now, can we talk just a little bit about grog and its place in Aboriginal life, because it is an issue for so many Aboriginal people, the question of grog, when they're in a bad situation. Could you tell me from your own point of view, from your own experience, and from the experience of people that you've been close to, how that works?
Yeah, well, I think it was my way of handling the deaths of my kids, was the hardest thing that I ever had to face, and, well, the booze, it hid the pain for a little while. You know? But then you'd wake up next morning and the pain'd be still there. It was something that wouldn't go away. But, I never drank or had a drink until I was 29 years of age. 28, 29, something like that. And I never had a cigarette even, 'til I was 33 years of age. And I did that on a dare. You know? On ... on my birthday, my 33rd birthday. They dared me to have a smoke. A juhm , we call it in my language. So I lit up and then I coughed and sputtered all over the place and I nearly chucked up, you know, and it was the same with the beer. The first time I ever had a beer, I said, ‘That bitter stuff, who'd want to drink that, yetch it's horrible,’ you know? But anyhow I drank to drown my sorrows, and yes, it is a problem with our people. It's not drugs, it's the alcohol. And I'm just lucky that — how can I put it? — with my problem with the booze, I had a family to raise and one day the girls come and said to me, Mum ... this was ... there was only me and Jeff left in the place, you know, that I had in town. ‘Do you know why the young fella goes away every weekend and doesn't stay home? Because you go to the pub and socialise with your friends and havin' a whale of a time and having a good old party and drink up.’ I said, ‘No, he's gone there because I'm not home, I suppose.’ ‘No, Mum,’ they said, and this is my four women, called me up for a family conference to do this, and they said, ‘He goes away to the pub, to the one of the family of a weekend to get away from you because when you come home, after your drinking, you abuse him and call him all the names you can lay your tongue to because you think he's Lance. Because his name is Lance.’ You know? And I said, ‘What?’ I wasn't even aware that I was doing this to my son. My baby especially, you know. And oh my god. I said, God, my father, reared me to do this to my children? And I gave it away and I haven't been back since.
And you gave it away just like that?
Yeah. It's true. Thank goodness it never addled my old brain or I wouldn't be able to do what I've been doing, you know? And memory to be so good, but I used it as a ... the alcohol, it was a form of relief to get out and get amongst friends.
It was part of the socialising, was it? Because ...
It was a part of the socialising, you know.
The Empress ...
The Empress was like a home away from home ... it was a meeting place ...
... for Aboriginal people.
What was the place of the Empress Hotel in your life as Aboriginal people in the suburbs of Sydney?
It was our meeting place, it was the only place that we had as a meeting place. You see, for Kooris coming from the bush to the city, they'd only have to go to that pub in Redfern there, The Big E, we called it, and they'd find somebody who knew where their people were. So, in this sense, it was a meeting place. Somebody would know where their family were, you know? And that's how they'd connect up again. It was a meeting place. And besides, they sponsored our All Blacks football team, they were ... trophies ... God knows what else around there. And that old publican, he must be a multi-millionaire by now, I think, you know? But ... like of weekends there'd be dances, disco, and they'd have a band, talent quests and stuff like that. It was a way of socialising. And no matter where they'd come from, which they'd come from all over the place to meet there at that pub of a weekend. You'd see no fewer than four police wagons out the front at shut up time. Back in the 60s they used to have a curfew there for Aboriginal people, and those police would wait out the front until they ... they'd come out as the pub shut, these were 10 o'clock closing times, you know? And then grab them and just take them in for drunk ... pinched for drunk. It was a whole ... they'd be waiting there. Always. Just to herd them off the street.
And in my book I wrote about how I used to come from the Valley, Green Valley, because I missed being amongst people, my own people, you know? And when I'd go in there sometimes of a weekend to be with my ... my daughter Dianne, who lived in Eveleigh Street, we'd go down to the Big E and on coming home, I'd have ... they'd wait with me at the taxi rank which is just on the corner, so ... or I'd get a taxi from there, or I'd catch a train home, you know, if it wasn't too late. And one night the police were herding the people off the streets, back towards Eveleigh Street, get off the street. And they asked me what was I doing sitting on the seat and I said, ‘This is a taxi rank, I'm waiting for a taxi.’ And they were going to pinch me, you know? And all the footballers swarmed around me and they said, ‘Auntie, you don't move from there, that's a public transport, that. They don't have no rights to herd you off there.’ You see, our people didn't know nothing about the laws and stuff like that. But they used to herd our people off the street there, they'd be off the street by 10 o'clock, you know. That's every day of the week in that place in there, it'd be terrible.
The Empress worked in a positive way ... it could be a place where you could all get together ...
Yeah ... get together ...
and alcohol helped oil that process ...
Oh yeah ... yeah.
What was the negative side of it?
Well, the negative side of it would be that, I suppose, the hangovers that people got from it and their fighting and stuff like that. Rows which this caused. And a lot of families have broken up because of alcohol, you know. And stuff like that. So it had its effect. But then again, I guess it has the same sort of effect in white situations, too. You know? I mean, but I think it myself, it was one of the most powerful things that've been ever introduced into our culture and it had a worse effect, whatsoever, and still has, you know? And, even to drugs today. It's disgusting. Makes you think and that about what sort of society we have when, you see, you know, even young kids with booze and drugs. It's terrible.
With the men in your life, did alcohol play much part in the fights that you used to have with them?
Well, with Lance and Gordan it did. Chub ... Peter wasn't much of a drinker, but he was a terrible gambler, you see that? All had something ... well, I mean ... I think I was trying to compare all those men that I had as husbands to my father. I was looking for an image that was like my father, because of ... he was a hero, you know? Yeah. He was quite a man. But I never did find ... but they had some special quality about them, I guess. There must have been something that attracted me to them. But I had that search, same search as everybody else, for someone to love. And permanence. You know? I envied my sisters with that, their longstanding marriages. Gwen's been married for something like 36 years and Midge, my cousin, her and Dougie have been married for 43 years. Rita was married for 27. You know?
And so what do you think, what do you think went wrong for you?
I don't know whether I could say that I must have had that sign on my forehead saying, fool fool fool, or something like that, you know. But no, I was just — how can I put it? I was just not good at choosing. I was always a sucker for a sad story. A sob story. Always wanting to help somebody. And too trusting. Which was the way I was brought up to be. You know? To turn the other cheek and all this stuff.
Do you think that when you were younger and you were putting up with things from these men, that you really, probably shouldn't have put up with, that it ... that it had anything to do with the sense that you actually weren't worth what you were really worth? I think I'm asking the question, did you all through your young years not really understand what you had to offer?
That's true, that's true in some sense, yeah. Yeah. And when everything fell apart for me, as I said before, I started examining myself and saying, ‘Gee, what the hell's wrong with me?’ And it made me feel bad because I thought, what's wrong with me? You know? Why are these things happening to me? Am I such a bad person? It does ... oh it makes you feel no good, you know? And then I realised after a while, that hey, no, I think my priorities are alright. It's their problem. And their problems are on top, putting, dumping on top of me, made me feel that it was my fault and it wasn't my fault. They were just users, you know? And I did the best I could for my kids. Yeah.
And what about with your kids? How did you try to teach them to manage the world as it is today? What kinds of things have you tried to raise them to believe?
Well, I taught them most of all to care for one another, no matter what. And what else? I taught them never to be ashamed, to show love for each other. And although they have their differences, they'd always reach out and help each other. One falls down, pick 'em up. This is what I taught them. Yeah.
And did they learn that well?
Well I think, I think they did. They have their squabbles and get the pops with one another, but you let somebody else come along and say something about any one of them, you got to fight the lot ... [laughs] ...
You've now written quite a few books. Could you tell me what motivated you to write each of them? First of all, Don't Take Your Love to Town, which in itself, actually, that title, Don't Take Your Love to Town, tells of a woman who regrets some of the men that she's been involved with.
Yeah. Well, funny thing about that first book, was ... some of the working titles for it were going to be: Ruby's Story, at one time; The Reminiscences of Ruby, that sounded a bit off, you know; Redfern Ruby; Ruby of Redfern. But I settled for just Ruby's Story for the working title, and I never got a name for that book until I was just about finished. I was doing rewrites for it when I had major surgery in 1987, you know, at Prince Alfred Hospital and it took four years, four and half years plus one near nervous breakdown to write that book. I was suffering stress when I came to this hostel where I now live. From doing that book, but I was also recovering from major surgery where they'd taken another 13 kilos off my stomach after I'd lost another two stone in weight. You see? And I was lying in bed and the nurse used to come to do the dressings 'cause my wound still hadn't healed, in that Henderson Road where I lived with the young fella, Jeff. As a matter of fact he used to do the dressings sometimes for me. She showed him how to do it. And I was listening to my radio beside the bed, and a song came on, it was Kenny Williams [Kenny Rogers] singing Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town. And I said, ‘That's it! ‘Don't Take Your Love to Town’! That's the title!’ you know, because you couldn't use the full title of the song, which is Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town. But ‘Don't Take Your Love To Town,’ anybody could say that and my name is Ruby, that's how it works that way. That's how I got the title of it, you know.
How did you come to write the book? Who suggested it to you?
I suggested it to myself. I always did say I'd write a book, you know? From as far back as you can ask my children ... oh, when they were little I used to say, ‘I want to write a book one day,’ and I wanted to write about all the laughter and happy times, you know? But I had a family of nine kids plus another nine of some mothers’ sons. They weren't all black either. The kids that I picked up, you know? On my wild journey through life. They're some mothers’ sons, and they're mostly all boys that have been in and out of children's homes and the big house. Jail. So Mum Shirl's got nothing on me. You've got, you know, we'd made a bed down for 'em somewhere, they're people, human beings, and I like people. I'm a people person.
And the other books that you've written?
The second one was a book of short stories. It was published by Angus and Robertson’s imprint in 1992. Ernie Dingo launched it for me here in Sydney, and Mudrooroo launched it over at the Adelaide Writer's Festival of that same year. And it's a book of ... I think there's 18 short stories and poems. And then there's photographs there and Real Deadly in urban Koori talk means ‘real good,’ you know.
And this is the book that's called Real Deadly?
And why did you write that book?
Well, I'd had some little short stories written for a while and I thought I'd get them together and with that I couldn't think of a title, but Tom Thompson, who's the publisher of that when he was with Angus & Robertson, and he said, ‘You've already got the title, you keep saying it in how you talk.’ I said, ‘What're you talking about?’ He said, ‘You're always saying “aw, that's real deadly”, that's your title.’ Ah, good, thanks very much, you know? And that's how that one come to be.
And My Bundjalung People?
My Bundjalung People ... I always wanted to go back to the mission to connect up with my family and tell my people's story from their side of the fence, from an Aboriginal perspective, you know? And there's nothing written from our side of the fence in this country so that's what I did and Pam Johnston, she was one of two Aboriginal artists that had a go at doing the cover of my first book, Don't Take Your Love to Town, and she took photos and that, you know, and she's quite a good photographer and that, and I said to her — I was telling her what I wanted to do — and she said, ‘Well, I've got the car, I'll take you.’ But before that we applied for ... she applied for the Women in the Arts [Fellowship], because she asked my permission, you know, to ... for me to get permission from the Elders when we went back to do a documentary ... not a documentary, a photo exhibition, photographic exhibition, and be damned ... I went for the History Fellowship and I won that, and so did she win her Women in Arts Fellowship, and so we had the money and away we went. I nearly travelled 20,000 kilometres in the first part of 1990, you know? It was just wonderful. Six Aboriginal reserves we researched on, and they're all my mob in Bundjalung country, and I got permission from the Elders for her to document my research with photographs. And I transcribed their stories and I interviewed them with a tape, on these journeys we went. Yeah. And it culminated in that. And that first exhibition was shown on the first of July, 1991, and it was an outstanding success. People came from all over and it was the first time that Bundjalung art had been displayed in Bundjalung country ever.
And during that time that you were discovering all this background that you'd not known about, what was the thing that you remember most? That happened during that time?
Well, going back to do that research, Pam would be laughing at me because I was crying around every corner. She was, I know, ‘Stop crying now.’ Because every corner I turned around brought back the pain of all what went down when we were kids there, you know? Going around past the segregated hospital, coming onto the mission, and I could remember, you know? It was just ... it just knocked me for a loop. And I saw my Auntie and asked her permission and I used to call there and interview her, take sandwiches and stuff like that, for cups of tea and a yarn. And it was wonderful. And on to Cabbage Tree Island, Muli Muli Mission. Tabulum. All around.
Now, what you'd actually been taught properly about the Aboriginal ways, had all happened in the first six years of your life ...
Because when you went to live with Mother Nell and Father Sam, they didn't know your people in that way ...
So those early six years was when you ... Can I ask you about what it was that you learned in the first six years of your life that you now remember best? The stories, the ways that you were taught?
Well, I can remember the language, the language, you know, and I can remember the people more closer together and more caring and sharing all that stuff, you know. And what I found when I went back is that our people have been divided and quartered and split apart and torn asunder. It was all gone. And they lived in such poverty, you know? And sad. And that's what knocked me in the guts actually. Yeah. Just to see how they lived. And these are the people built up, as I said, the big cattle hierarchies ... up there for no acknowledgment, no nothing, you know, and living in not third world conditions, but fourth world conditions in poverty compared to the affluence of the hierarchy, of the cedar-getting and cattle-getting industry and living in mansions on the hills.
But when you were small, there were happy times ...
There were happy times.
What are some of the things that you remember?
Well, I mean, we were so poor that the toys what us kids used to have, we used to make steamrollers out of Sunshine milk tins, fill them up with sand and put the lid on, put a bit of wire through, a bit of nail and put hole through it, and one of us would pull it and run with them, or a hoop, you know? A bike wheel with all the spokes taken out of it and just with a stick run it in a groove like that. I can remember trying to ride a bike, a boy's bike, with my little legs put through it like that when I was six, going down the hill, and I ended up in a lantana bush, all scratched and bruised up from trying to ride it though — with my legs through there 'cause I was too small to sit on top of it, see? On a bike. Oh, there was a hell of a lot of wonderful things there. And heaps of guava trees growing 'round this mission of mine. There. And us kids used to have special favourite ones, and I bagsed that one and I bagsed it and ‘don't you touch it,’ and put a little mark there, you know, and watch to see that the other kids didn't go on and pinch your guavas from. That was the only fruit we had there in those days, you know? 'Cause they had the old rations. The woman, as I said before, that was the manageress of that mission when I was a child there was Mrs Hiscocks, who became the manageress of that infamous Cootamundra Girls’ Home. You know, she was an old Trojan. Yeah.
Did your mother ever teach you how to find bush tucker?
Yeah. Mum used to take me and Gwennie when there was only just the two of us and she'd sit us on the side of a creek or swamp and she take her bloomers up like that, in her dress, feel with the feet like that for the turtle — binging — and wring its neck and chuck it on the bank. And we'd be sitting there with the little chaff bag waiting to put the binging in. Back home ... [interruption] ...
Turtles. Yeah. Take 'em home when she's got enough of them. And that was like you ... it was how you'd kill 'em. Just wring their neck and throw it out. But she'd have them turned upside-down on her back like that in the old field stove in the oven. Yeah. She used to cook 'em up for us.
The stories that Uncle Ernie, the old wise man ...
Wuyun gali ... Wuyun gali ...
Wuyun gali.... used to tell you, those stories, do you ... do you remember any in particular?
No, he used to tell us about the bush animals and stuff like that. But there was a lot of knowledge that he was passing on to me that I wasn't aware. He was telling me about our culture and that, and that we were totemic people and about the Dreamtime, like this. And my totem of my tribe was willy wagtail and me being the eldest, he says, ‘Now you gotta remember this.’ And he'd sit there and tell us these stories and two girls, one was sitting on this side of his lap and the other one there, Gwen and Rita, there was no room for me, all I'd have to do is just sit up and lean up against him, and he'd start to go to sleep beside the open fire while he used to tell these stories, and he was a big drover's fat man, you know, and I'd be poking him in the belly, ‘What next Uncle Ernie? Tell us what next? Don't go to sleep.’ He used to have us spellbound, you know? But, no, that's where we got mostly all the cultural stuff was what he was telling us. And it was wonderful stuff. Do you understand about the Dreaming?
[end of tape]