Tilba’s 'Wedding of the century': A story of love and reconciliation
Thirty years ago, the future changed course for Glen Atkinson and Merryn Apma. But neither would realise it for almost two decades.
Now, they are sharing their story, in the hope that it will bring the rest of Australia closer together.
“I was about 21. I was in Geelong at my sister's house. And my sister's best-friend at the time was Merryn,” says Glen. “We’d bump into each other on and off.”
“Around the traps of Geelong and Victoria,” Merryn adds.
“But he always says to me, ‘I saw you before you saw me,’” she laughs.
In those early years, Merryn and Glen had different partners, but remained friends.
It was a connection that grew, in part, because of their similar histories. Both Merryn and Glen had been stolen from their families.
“I was removed from my mother at birth from Murray Bridge, in Adelaide, and taken to Shelford in Victoria,” says Merryn.
A non-indigenous family, with four children of their own, adopted Merryn and seven other Aboriginal children. None were her biological siblings.
Merryn didn’t know she had been removed from her family until she was a teenager.
“I certainly knew we were different,” she says.
“At that young age, you want to know things and you start asking questions.”
Merryn began looking for her family. She was the first in her family to do so.
She still remembers the day she met her biological mother.
“I jumped on the old red rattler that went from Geelong to Melbourne,” she recalls.
“I was with one of my sisters and the train rolled into the station… and my sister stuck her head out of the train, because you could do that back then.
“And it was a real culture shock, ‘cause she said, 'well your mum's here, and she’s real black!’”
Merryn says she was ‘blessed’ to find her mother. But it was a later trip, back home to her Arrernte country in Alice Springs, which completed her journey.
“That's when my cultural experience began, and where I really found out who I am, and really proud of who I am.”
Glen has a different story, with similar heartache.
“I was removed at around about 18 months old and placed in the Ballarat Children's Home, and was there til I was about 14,” he says.
Taken with two of his sisters, Glen says the orphanage was incredibly ‘isolated,’ allowing for only ‘minimal contact,’ with family.
“It wasn't until I was 18 that I realised that I had two older brothers, actually I had 3 older brothers but one had passed,” Glen says.
At the time, Glen and his sisters weren’t aware that their parents would try and visit them.
“The orphanage always told us that they never come,” he says.
“But later on in life we always found out that they had come.
“That's very sad, that part.”
The story the orphanage painted of his parents shaped the way Glen saw them for much of his life.
“That my parents were no good, alcoholics, bludgers, no work,” he says.
“I blamed [my father] for us being in the orphanages.”
‘We’ve just been able to heal each other’
On his journey to forgiveness, Glen and Merryn’s paths crossed again.
Merryn had found her family, and wanted to help others. So, for a decade she worked for different organisations, including the Bringing Them Home report and Northern Territory Stolen Generations.
“I came to Merryn at a time when I was searching for answers … of why I was removed,” says Glen.
“Merryn got me all the files from the government.”
What those filed revealed changed everything Glen thought he knew: both his parents were hardworking people who fought for their children.
“I was 41 when I forgave my father,” Glen says.
“Merryn taught me how to forgive.”
“I've always been aware that I was removed, from a very long time, since I grew up.
“And I didn't understand why. And Merryn melted away those rough edges, what growing up in those orphanages did.”
“We’ve just been able to heal each other,” Merryn adds.
‘Wedding of the century’
From this healing, their friendship grew. But years would pass before the two entered into a relationship.
Merryn says it was a trip back to her country with Glen, when she started to see him in a different light.
“I said I was going on a trip to Alice Springs, and he said, 'well you don't think you're going without me?' And it sort of happened from there,” she says.
“But, it still wasn't until two years later that we actually started to realise that there was a spiritual and cultural connection between Glen and I.”
Now, more than ten years later, the pair is living happily on the New South Wales south-coast, in a quiet town called Tilba.
Merryn has been running a successful art gallery and gift shop, called Apma Creations, with her soul-mate, and now husband, by her side.
“Ten years or so now, we've been together, and I thought, ‘well best time to make an honest woman out of her, and make her a Yorta-Yorta woman’,” Glen laughs.
To honour the community that has embraced them, and their business, the whole town was invited to the wedding. It was held under a gumtree, with Mount Gulaga watching over them.
“That’s true reconciliation, what I’ve seen here,” Merryn says, calling the town her ‘Tilba family.’
While the pain of the past still lingers over Australia, it seems the healing in this community has just begun.
“If Glen and I can give our people some hope, that would make me really happy,” Merryn says.
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