I’ve spent years researching my heritage. There is still so much I don’t know, so much I may never know. And it makes my heart ache.
I was born Rae Therese Andonopoulos. I’ve only been able to trace my Dad’s side back to his parents, who travelled from Patros, Greece to Sydney, Australia by boat with my Dad and his four brothers in 1951. My Dad doesn’t talk much about his life in Greece, or his parents’ life before him. He says he doesn’t know or remember much, but as the years go by he gradually reveals more. Recently he told of how my Pop hid in the walls of the house from “the Turks” as a small child – and through a gap, witnessed the beheading of his father.
Growing up I only experienced Greek culture during visits to my “Nanny Nop and Pop’s” in Riverstone, Western Sydney at Christmas – which meant shortbread, chicken, bread with olive oil and baklava. And Easter – another feast, this time with the addition of eggs, the shells dyed red, which we would crack together to make a wish. My cousins taught me swearwords but I wanted to know more. I would ask my Dad to teach me more of the Greek language but all he really knew was “gata” (cat) and “skylos” (dog). He was six years old when he arrived in Australia and quickly learned at school to speak only English “in the dumb class”, as he calls it. He was christened Greek Orthodox but the only exposure I’ve had to the religion was at my Pop’s funeral, incense swinging as the priest chanted hymns. This was the closest I’ve ever come to feeling genuinely connected to my Greek heritage.
My Mum grew up as a “typical Aussie” of Anglo ancestry – a bit of Welsh, German, Irish, English, and surprisingly dating back to the King of Turkey in 149 AD – in Western Sydney’s Mt Druitt. My Nan and Pa went on to live in the same housing commission house they raised their children in until they passed away – my Pa when I was 11, and my Nan recent enough for the mention of her name to spring tears to my eyes. Nan and Pa’s place meant cups of tea, games of cards, reading The Phantom comics, prawns at Christmas and chocolate eggs at Easter. My Nan visited a Catholic church once a year on her mother’s birthday to light a candle for her. My Mum and her brothers and sisters aren’t necessarily religious, but are definitely spiritual. Stories of precognitive dreams and “ghost” sightings are not uncommon, amongst our female family members in particular.
My parents met and moved to where I grew up – on Dharug land, South Western Sydney, in a rural town called Werombi at the base of the Blue Mountains. We had dirt roads, no street lights and what my Dad has dubbed an “Oxygen Farm” – natural bushland. My earliest memories include going for a walk “down the back where the fairies live” with my dog to spot platypus in the creek, or just lay under a huge old gum tree watching the clouds. I’ve always had an incredibly strong connection to the land that I found difficult to explain. I was drawn to studying pagan religions in my teens as a result, but ended up practising a conglomerate of nature-based faiths that never quite sat “right” with me. Something was always missing.
When I was 22 I enrolled in a theatre course at Eora Centre for Indigenous and Performing Arts (which accepts non-Indigenous students). When I shared the news with Nan, Mum’s Mum, her instant reply was “Did you know your Pa was Aboriginal?”
I was stunned. For the first time in generations a family secret had been revealed. My Pa was a Wiradjuri man, his real father one of the Aboriginal workers on my Great Grandmother’s farm – and he was conceived while her husband was at war. This certainly explained a lot about my “rather tanned” Pa and my curly-haired Aunties and Uncles! Everything fell into place, and I was lucky to be studying in one of the best places to learn more about a culture I never knew I was a part of, but yet somehow always knew.
Pa was born “lucky” enough to pass as white, which meant no one picked up on the fact he was Koori, so he didn’t have to go live on the mission. His name is absent from family trees compiled by other distant relatives, and although his father continued to work on the farm, and interacted with him in his early childhood, I’ve still not uncovered records of who he was. So much wasn’t recorded, or kept. He passed away when I was 11, but I remember Pa talking to me about Wiradjuri culture when I was young – tiny bits of information, sporadically, like it was a secret. Now I understood why – there was still that fear of being “found out”. He’d carried it all those years.
I remember being asked one day at Eora if I was Koori. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t raised Aboriginal. I had only just started to learn about my family and culture – is it wrong for me to identify as Aboriginal if I’ve not grown up knowing I was Aboriginal? I spoke to a lot of people about it, but the moment of clarity came when I was asked “But you feel it, right?” I identify as Aboriginal because I am Aboriginal. It’s not about being a certain percentage. It’s not about the colour of your skin. It’s more than that, and it’s something you feel.
Once I had someone say within earshot “There’s people that have Aboriginal blood, and then there’s people that are Aboriginal.” I still don’t know if that was directed at me, but it hurt. I’d love to know my family, I’m envious of those that do – with their big family photos filled with beautiful Aboriginal women passing down knowledge I yearn to hear. I’d love to know their names and meet my cousins and brothers and sisters and fill that missing void in my heart.
I’ve been blessed to be around some of the most supportive, welcoming, creative and talented Indigenous Australians through my career as an actor. The highlight was when I worked on the play “Winyanboga Yurringa” at the National Play Festival – written by Andrea James and directed by Leah Purcell, idols of mine who fight to have a range of Indigenous stories told on stage, screen and in print – by Indigenous people. I’ve posed for Wayne Quilliam, Indigenous Artist of the Year in his “Lowanna” series, landscapes infused with the female form representing connection to the land. I’ve been taught language, dance, song, from nations all over Australia.
Identifying as Aboriginal and having the privilege of these wonderful experiences comes with a responsibility I place on myself. I research, and study, and learn more every day. Like so many others, I am determined to find my family. I hope to find the missing pieces of the puzzle that is my heritage, and soothe that ache even just a little.
First published in Artview, Febraury 2014