I ended up in the Children’s Refuge. Catholic. Parents were allowed to come and visit once a month for one hour, which was called Friends Day. We weren’t allowed to say Mum and Dad because that upset other kids who did not have a Mum and Dad. So we said we had a friend visiting. After my parents separated, my mother wasn’t allowed to come and visit anymore, because she divorced him. This is a mortal sin in the Catholic Church. I can remember when I was probably 8 or 9, I could see a kerfuffle at the back of the wee playground. My mother had been refused entry around the front and came around the back and asked the kids to find me and let me know she was there. In the meantime, the nuns who were in charge ganged up, and I can remember four or five of them physically manhandling her at the back gate.
My younger brother was in the same refuge, but we weren’t allowed to see each other because we were split into age groups. Eventually three of my older brothers were brought into the children’s refuge. But the good nuns, in their wisdom, didn’t bother to tell me or my younger brother. We didn’t discover them until later in the dining room, and somebody says, way across the room, ‘you’ve got two brothers there, and they’ve been there for six months.’ We weren’t allowed to talk to them because there’s no talking in the dining room, you’d get the cane for that. So while we’re shuffling up, going up for another piece of bread, you’d try and say something before the sister would go ‘whack’ around your head. No talking.
That was my life up to the age of 16. It was quite abusive and you got punished a lot, for reasons you didn’t know, beaten up every day for 10 years by the nuns. You expected to be beaten. It made me introverted and more subservient, they sort of broke you. You never, ever talked about it.
In the home, a Polish gentleman was allowed to bring six kids out for a Christmas dinner and I was one of the six. Very nice meal and a nice Christmas present. But none of us spoke because the sisters were there keeping an eye on us. And the poor guy had done his best. When we got up, left the room, sisters were there to collect the presents up because it wasn’t fair to other kids, so she took the presents away from us.
So when I got older, partly that experience led me to becoming a Santa at Westfield Helensvale, a great thing. I spent a lot of time trying to get presents to kids. I worked out over the years I spent close to $8000 giving donations. I said six kids at $60 a head plus $60 for mum and dad to give them a Christmas dinner. And with the Salvos and the Smith Family, in their wisdom, just put it into the general homeless fund. I said, ‘that’s not really what I wanted, I wanted kids.’ So I was really fortunate as Santa.
I went out and bought six presents to go with the presents the shopping centre was doing, with a special colouring on it, so I know which ones I bought. I got great pleasure handing out six presents that I wanted. That was really good. And I’ve been Santa for 16 years. You get little four-day old babies come and it’s fabulous. You get the photos, Mum brings them back next year and it’s one year on, and it’s the same next year. The same families come back to me every year for 14 years. I even have to print out my roster because they all want Scottish Santa.
But it’s not the kids who ‘want this, want that’ you remember, it’s the little sad occasions. ‘Santa. I’m 15. I’m pregnant, and I don’t know what to do.’ Or, ‘Santa, please make Daddy like me’, or ‘bring Mummy back from heaven.’
Sometimes you just have to give the time out. I have to just give memories. Like the child who says, ‘I only have a few months to live,’ I give them happy memories. It also applies to adults, too. Coming along in the wheelchair. I stand alongside the rail so the husband or wife can take photos together for a last time. So, it sounds a great happy time, but these are things you remember.