Story's spark: Cecilia Moar
When Cecilia Moar decided to help out at the Central West Family Support Group in Condobolin, she could not have known the way her life was about to expand with work, love and stories. The following is an essay from this rural leader about the powers awakened in a very special group of women by words and pictures. This piece is long, but the Foundation tips you won't be able to stop reading once you start!
“You don’t have enough to do, come and help me down at Family Support.” Recruited by Sue Thomas, then Manager of Central West Family Support Group (CWFSG) in Condobolin, my role as an Art Narrative project facilitator had begun.
Each Thursday morning I met with a group of Aboriginal women at the former bowls club building that houses CWFSG, also known as Family Support. The building is awaiting demolition whilst being utilised by CWFSG who have converted it to a welcoming space where Aboriginal families are supported in life and parenting skills, mentored, counselled, listened to, engaged in conversation, included in group activities, and provided with assistance in practical matters such as housing, transport and health.
From my vantage point at the back of the room I observed weekly playgroup sessions, lunches to celebrate community events and milestones, makeup demonstrations, shopping, cooking, financial management and nutrition lessons. I watched a boxing program, picnics at Gum Bend Lake and a dance rap team that included performers from diverse backgrounds visited to guide young people in negotiating safe sex. With the support and inspiration of their mentors the young people wrote lyrics and danced the health education messages that they’d learnt. I observed applications for credit for household goods, interviews with case workers from assorted agencies and people seeking help with accommodation for the night.
The women and I worked together at round tables whilst the district nurse came and sat with us to talk about the programs designed to assist people in this remote town to access specialist health services. These services for diabetes and other chronic diseases, are a two hour drive away.
The old bowls club
For fifteen months we gathered each week down the back of what was formerly the dance floor and food servery area of the Bowls Club. The bar is decorated with seventies design carpet; desks placed in the lee of the bar comprise the office area. A tin ashtray runs along its base.
The building is barely holding itself together. The staff toilet is dominated by an old, stained urinal. The large old stoves are no longer useable and provide shelter for vermin. Training in healthy eating and preparation of food is a key aspect of the mentoring provided at Family Support.
Despite their woebegone surrounds the staff have placed positive parenting messages on freshly painted walls and formed a bright children’s play area with a cubby house and toys. Books, pamphlets and photos of group activities are arranged around the walls, along the bar and on top of the old piano. The space is wonky with its undulating floor boards and at the same time, welcoming, accessible and spacious enough for the many activities Family Support hosts from play group to boxing club.
Inspired by her years of experience with CWFSG, Sue’s idea was that each foster carer could write her story. The premise being that the children in care may connect more closely with their foster mums by understanding their carer’s background and knowing more about their family stories. When I first attempted to explain the concept of recording their story the women seated around the round table at the back of the dance floor regarded me with grave incomprehension.
A practical demonstration was necessary. I’d written a draft of a story about my mother with input from other family members. The book was handed around the table and examined. The unfinished nature of the manuscript modelled an achievable goal. The women began by telling one small story to each other and with their permission, I wrote whilst they spoke. The women brought in photos to be scanned to accompany the stories which were gathering momentum. They encouraged their friends to join them at Family Support and tell their stories at the now two round tables beyond the dance floor. One memory led to another and soon each woman had a book full of stories. I’d print a draft copy of the book for each author; they would edit and add to the collation as more memories were triggered. I suggested that they could draw or paint some of the memories which were difficult to express. The women were initially reluctant to attempt this type of creative work as they feared they lacked artistic ability. “The last time I picked up a paint brush was twenty years ago when I finished school,” was among the comments as they agreed to try. We used brown paper and some pastels I had brought from home, progressing to acrylic paints on blank newsprint used by the children at the Tuesday morning playgroup.
Ken Jeffers from Many Rivers Microfinance, a support service for enterprise in remote communities, became a regular visitor to our Thursday morning group. He was seeking potential applicants to assist if they had a desire to establish their own business. As part of his work Ken meets with the principals of most of the businesses in the area. Having noticed how much fun we were having, Ken was relaying the story of our group’s activities to a group of business people when one of his listeners decided to write a cheque for $500 to give to us.
Our great need was for art materials. Artist quality acrylics, primed canvas, pastels, and pastel paper were purchased. The women’s expressive work and their confidence improved with the new tools and they began to create art works that complemented their stories which were then scanned and included in the manuscript.
We shared lunch each week as we worked. As the stories deepened, tears became part of the mix whilst the women toiled to express difficult aspects of their stories. Beryl Powel, a Wiradjuri elder and experienced Family Support Worker with CWFSG was a constant presence, gathering, encouraging and leading the participants each week. Many of the conversations over the art work at the round tables included mentoring and coaching in life skills and confidence building for members of the group.
The women’s faces would light up with surprise and delight when I showed them their work, scanned and presented on the computer screen. “It looks like we’re real artists,” they’d exclaim. The use of technology gave renewed impetus for the women to complete their books. Each week brought further stories, photos and the creation of more art work. By this stage I’d enlisted the help of two daughters, one based in Melbourne and the other in Condobolin, to help out as I was under pressure to collate, type, scan and assemble the growing stock of stories.
An idea formed for an exhibition to highlight the women’s stories. A public expression of our work would provide acknowledgement, further understanding and promote self-esteem. Together we set a date and sought funds from the Condobolin RSL Community Grants Fund and from the Lake Cowal Foundation.
The Aboriginal Child, Family and Community Care Secretariat (NSW) (AbSec) support workers, Deb Skinner and Julie O’Brien visited on their rounds each month bringing with them the makings of salad rolls for lunch. Joining in the conversation and helping out with the typing, they also brought clothes and shoes for the women to wear on the night of the exhibition.
One of the women asked to speak to me in a quiet corner of the large space. She wasn’t feeling well and had not been taking the medication she needed to manage her depression and anxiety. She said that she was not able to walk around the corner to the chemist to have her prescription filled. I explained the woman’s need to a staff member who accompanied her to the pharmacy. The Family Support worker, well used to such circumstances worked quietly and effectively to provide practical assistance to that person on that day. During my time at the round table I observed CWFSG staff responding to a myriad of different needs every day in the same practical, caring and discrete manner. The next week the author and artist was back drawing at the table and laughing with the group. This is one example of the support and care the women received during the project.
Our group was invited to a day of exploring the surroundings of the Cowal gold mine operated by Barrick Gold, ninety kilometres south of Condobolin. We approached the mine in the Family Support bus and were astounded by the scale and colour of the waste rock mound on the approach to the mine on the dirt track.
The Lake Cowal Foundation sponsored us with a cheque for two thousand dollars. Malcolm Carnegie, the Lake Cowal Foundation Projects Manager made us welcome at the Conservation Centre. He then drove us around to show us the natural resource management projects and improved land management practices skirting the open cut mine site and the land bordering Lake Cowal. Mal shared with us the photos he had taken of the wildlife in the bush surrounding the mine. We enjoyed a barbeque lunch and Mal answered our questions about the extraction of gold from the earth and its impact on the people, flora and fauna in the vicinity.
Another excursion was to the Christ the King Farm Chapel built in 2008 at the base of the Goobothery Hills fifty kilometres west of Condobolin. As we approached the chapel along the ribbon of red road we sighted the bronze cross on the domed roof atop the gleaming white farm chapel perched in the scrub. The owner of the property and the builder of the chapel, Walter Bachmann allowed us to use the residence on the ground floor below the chapel as a member of our party was unwell and needed a space to rest during the day.
Setting the oven to warm the quiche we’d brought for our lunch, we walked up the spiral steps aligned with the angle of Mt Bolo to sit in the chapel which is the work of a Swiss master builder. Admiring the fresco adorning the ceiling and the three mosaics created by a Bulgarian artist, we took some time to appreciate the acoustics of the circular, domed chapel. We held a short prayer and reflection service where the suffering and the love that the women embody expanded to fill the space.
In our group, the one who was ill was Caddy. Caddy joined the ‘Let Me Tell You Who I Am’ (LMTYWIA) Art Narrative project after some of the women’s stories were printed. Using her colleague’s memoirs as inspiration Caddy worked hard on the story she wanted to leave for the seven children she mothers. Through the winter we worked in close proximity to the heater at Family Support. Caddy brought in photos to be scanned, enjoying the process of completing the art work. Caddy’s book contains letters to each young person in her care, naming something unique about her relationship with them.
Caddy would feel nauseated at times, taking a break to eat a dry biscuit or have a cuppa and always a chat. Her children, increasingly accompanying her, would hover as she valiantly continued to work on her book. One Thursday morning Caddy returned from a trip to the specialist in Orange wearing a bum bag containing a chemo therapy pump. At the same time her car was broken down and the staff were arranging to have it fixed. A few Thursdays later Caddy returned from her visit to the oncologist where he’d told her to go home to Condo and get her affairs in order.
At last the art work was completed, the letters to the children written, scanned and typed. The photos were all assembled. It was time to print Caddy’s book. The staff at Family Support arranged for Caddy’s adolescent triplets to spend the school holidays with their father.
Printed in Dubbo, the book arrived in the post. Caddy was at the bench as I was opening the parcel from the printers and I said, “Look what arrived in the mail this morning, Caddy.” Caddy opened the book and wept whilst she turned the pages of her story.
I left Condo, travelled for a few weeks and when I returned I made final preparations for the exhibition. We used part of the funding we had received to purchase a skin care and makeup session for the LMTYWIA group members and time for each author-artist at a local hair salon. Excitement was building as I placed the artwork in frames ready for our night of celebration at the Wiradjuri Learning Centre. I made my way back to Family Support to complete a further two books. Caddy, accompanied by some of her children and grandchildren were at the round table to greet me. I noticed that Caddy’s hair had grown in my absence and that she had some jewellery and makeup on. I asked Caddy how she was feeling.
“Cecilia, I went to the doctor in Orange again. I went for testing and I took Weenie with me for support, she’s my rock when I need support. I thought the doctor was going to tell me that I had days left. He came back into the room to see me after all the tests were done and he said, ‘Caddy, either the chemo has worked or something amazing has just happened. I can’t find any evidence of the fist sized tumour you had in your stomach, nor of any of the cancer.’ ”
Caddy returned home with the news and she said that her children almost smothered her as they hugged her in their excitement and relief.
The exhibition of the “Let Me Tell You Who I Am” Project
The team involved in the LMTYWIA project were celebrated wholeheartedly in October 2013 at the Wiradjuri Learning Centre. People from the entire spectrum of the small community came along to support us and to learn more about our project. The children ran around in the evening air whilst the adults read the women’s stories and ate supper together on the decking overlooking the grassed courtyard. We watched a YouTube video of the group’s activities which had been compiled by a visiting cadet journalist, Belinda Cleary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zg-BQqAY4LE.
Thanks were expressed to all our supporters. Family Support donated a copy of each of the books to the local library where the books are held in the reference section. A source of satisfaction for the women themselves, the books also record some important stories which the community can access.
Caddy glowed in brilliant orange on the night of the exhibition and brought a grace to our gathering that flowed to all present. Caddy’s book is full of love and so was our project. People from the Condobolin Township commented that the stories need a larger audience. The Lake Cowal Community Fund continues to support us as the books are available to a wider audience through the self-publishing printing-on-demand company, Blurb. William Hoard from Look Book Press, based in Washington, has helped to load the books into the Blurb format. William has contributed his own time and publishing expertise because of his perception from the other side of the globe of the importance of the project.
Annabelle Dargin’s book, ‘The Swimming Hole’ (ISBN: 9780992456115) is now for sale on the Family Support ‘Blurb’ website http://blur.by/1oEVWiE, as is Matilda Charles’ book, ‘Precious Memories,’ (ISBN: 9780992456153) http://blur.by/1EQNNSF and Rhonda Ryan’s story, ‘Wiradjuri Woman’s Struggle’(ISBN: 9780992522520) http://blur.by/ZoNyxe. All three books are registered and deposited with both the National Library and the NSW State Library.
Three further books from the remaining group members are in production. A soft cover compendium of all six memoirs will be made available at the end of the publishing process. More people at Family Support from Condobolin and Murrin Bridge, near Lake Cargelligo have been inspired to write their stories. The women tell me that they feel as if they’ve only just begun recording their memories. The LMTYWIA project lives on.
Post script: Rest in peace Cathy Powell 1959 to 2014. Caddy’s family want to publish her book in 2015, adding some letters of their own in response to their mum and a photo with all her grandchildren.