Indigenous Australians have a strong and proud relationship with their Elders. They are respected, deferred to and listened to. Elders are the custodians of their cultural knowledge, understanding Country and Ceremony, and far more than I presume to know. Way back at the beginning of the virus Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were fierce in protecting their Elders, knowing how much would be lost if the virus got into communities. And, so far, they have been successful. That has to continue.
White Australians are not have not been successful. Despite the examples from overseas, despite the fact that before the virus we knew Aged Residential Care Services were vulnerable places for our elderly. Indeed last year a Royal Commission was set up to look the problems in the aged care sector; it is still investigating. Despite this we did not protect our elders. However, it is not those problems that I want to talk about.
I want to muse on our elders, and what we are loosing.
Now I am deliberately using lower case ‘e’, because we don’t look at our older people in the same way that Indigenous Australians do. We love our family members ~ our mothers and fathers, grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, great-aunts ~ and are very fierce in making sure that they are safe and well cared for. We have sat and listened to their stories (and if we are honest, done a few eye rolls when we hear the same ones!) and built up a special and irreplaceable relationship with them. Quite possibly, as individuals we do see and respect them as Elders.
But as a generation? Does society regard them as Elders? Unfortunately that’s an easy one tho answer.
So, let me muse more widely, on this generation of 80 and 90 year olds, and how they built the Australia we know now. Maybe help create an understanding of why they are our Elders.
We righty spend a lot of time honouring our veterans and how their efforts shaped us, but we also need the stories of the women and men who stayed behind, who worked in the factories and on the land and taught in schools. We need the stories of the young lads who grew up in London during the Blitz, and those who lived in Greece under Nazi occupation. Or who fought the fascists in Italy or in the mountains of Serbia. Who survived labour and concentration camps.
When they came to Australia they combined with workers already here ~ a combination whose energy and labour fuelled the post-war boom. They worked on the Snowy Mountain Hydro Electricity Scheme, in car factories, in textile factories. They literally built the city ~ the oil refineries, the Westgate bridge, the new skyscrapers, the housing. In the country there were market gardeners and dairy farmers and sheep farmers. Let’s remember the huge range of businesses that took off.
Those coming from overseas forever changed our society. Food is the obvious first wave. We ‘Aussies’ learnt that coffee doesn’t come in tins, that cheese doesn’t come wrapped in foil and in a cardboard box (although I would argue that these blocks of Kraft cheese still make the best cheese on toast!) and that meals can be more exotic than meat and three veg. I remember my first encounter with an olive, the most unusual smell of parmesan cheese and my first taste of homemade sausages. We discovered places like Pellegrini’s, Lebanese House and Alyshas.
People from overseas made us look at ourselves, to realise that not everyone speaks English, that there are different ways to celebrate marriages and deaths, that there are different stories to tell, that we can adapt and change. That last one took time, as Australia has a deep vein of racism, and is still a work in progress.
This generation fought for our way of life ~ not in war, although they often did that too ~ but by demanding and fighting for rights. Unions membership was high and they fought for better pay and safer working conditions, and for societal concerns like universal healthcare. Women were demanding equal pay and more equality in their lives, lives beyond wife/mother roles. Indigenous Australians were fighting for a ‘Yes’ vote in a referendum for Aboriginal people to be included in the census. Australians overwhelmingly voted “Yes”. Aboriginal stockmen walked off Wave Hill Station as a protest against wages and conditions, beginning the Land Rights Movement, their cause strongly supported by the union movement around the country. The working class, a proud mix of old and new Australians, was instrumental in helping us find a new and more progressive voice.
So these are our Elders, who hold the stories and the wisdom of these post-war years. But they also have the knowledge of how to grow a fantastic tomato without the need for pesticides, the knowledge of how to make do and the wisdom of how to get through tough times.
It is inevitable that our Elders will die, however the coronavirus is making the dying more traumatic for everyone. We need to listen to the stories they have to tell, but we also need, as a society, to venerate our Elders, to show respect for their knowledge, as well as love. To treat them with dignity.