It's hard to be the voice of a community when you’re barely past the age of 30.
So when Sheree Rankmore was approached to tell her story as part of the Wollongong Library Living Books program, she baulked at the idea.
‘‘I was very reluctant to do it because nobody thinks of themselves as interesting,’’ she says.
‘‘It’s a little bit awkward trying to impart some knowledge because I am younger. The process of sharing my story was a little bit daunting, it felt culturally strange.’’
What persuaded her to take part was a pushy friend combined with the desire to tell the other side of the Aboriginal experience.
‘‘A lot of people are happy to dwell on the negative experiences in the Aboriginal community because it becomes their identity – the racism, the stolen generation.
‘‘Although my upbringing has some nasties in the closet like most families do, I have not suffered with anything greatly.’’
Born in Esperance, Western Australia, close to her mother’s country, Rankmore came with her family to Shellharbour at the age of eight and so – like all migrants – has a schizophrenic idea of home.
That has been placed into sharp relief since the birth of her son Djarmin, now aged three.
‘‘I am teaching him that he is a Wangi and that I will take him home,’’ she says.
‘‘But it’s only when the words come out of my mouth that I realise how hardline I am with that.
‘‘My son will be taught that this is not his country but still to love it and respect it. Home for me is not an easy answer.’’
Nor was home an easy answer for her mother, a full-blooded Aboriginal who was taken from her family as part of the stolen generations because her parents were unmarried and they lived in a humpy.
Called ‘‘Patty’’ in WA and ‘‘Patricia’’ in the Illawarra, she grew into a capable woman with a good job as a social worker and relatively sophisticated tastes.
She met her husband Terry after he had travelled from Shellharbour to Western Australia on missionary work for the Baptist Church.
Rankmore grew up in the church, attending services religiously. But her life changed dramatically in mid-adolescence and religion was one of the casualties.
Now she sees it as ‘‘probably a bit creepy and a bit cultish’’ and believes that faith in organised religion becomes diluted by distractions such as raising money for buildings or running choirs.
The crunch came when the church said a dear friend would be going to hell because he was gay.
‘‘I just didn’t buy it, so I stopped going,’’ she says.
By that time, her parents had split up and her mother was about to die of a massive heart attack at the age of 42.
Rankmore was with her – they were travelling to her uncle’s funeral in Western Australia, but only made it to Penrith before her mother had a minor heart attack and was advised against flying.
Instead, mother and daughter went to a friend’s at Brewarrina in the state’s north-west, where Rankmore’s mother died suddenly.
The event catapulted Rankmore into a performing arts course in Brisbane and did much to bring her closer to her father, a hard-working horticulturist who still lives in Shellharbour.
After the course finished, she contemplated doing an arts-law degree but came home and gained her current role as cultural development officer for the Illawarra Aboriginal Corporation.
It’s a job she loves.
‘‘The community acts as a giant extended family and I boast about how great it is to work here because of those relationships,’’ she says.
‘‘Most people go to work and have a joke or maybe have a beer at Christmas with a colleague.
‘‘These women, when they leave, will say, ‘Love you’. It doesn’t feel like work, it feels like family. And you are doing your bit.’’
It’s a job that brings her into her community and is perfect for her left-wing politics, with an emphasis on community and supporting those in need.
Her inspiration comes from the aunties – a table of women, the elders of the community, who have mostly died since she came into the job five years ago.
They are Aunty Dossie, Aunty Pearl, Aunty Enid and the indefatigable Aunty Mary, whose funeral in August 2007 was attended by more than 1200 people.
It was Rankmore’s job to organise the funeral – sound checks, police guards, the venue, the usher and so on.
‘‘The magnitude of that tiny little woman and the impact she had in all tiers of community,’’ Rankmore says.
‘‘We laid a lot of claim over her, more than her family at times. We were dependent on her to be the voice.
‘‘The only thing you could do to express your grief was to create a fitting farewell for someone so amazing and so much the matriarch of our entire community.’’
But it is another event, a debutante ball she organised for the elders at the WIN Entertainment Centre, that holds a special place in her heart.
‘‘All the elders wanted a debutante ball. When it was commonplace – when they were younger – they weren’t allowed to do them because they were Aboriginal.’’
So Rankmore booked the venue, organised corsages for the elderly debs and took photos of them in their finery that later became their funeral photos. Although she is asked every year to repeat the event, she won’t, because it was unrepeatable.
Rankmore remembers sitting off to the side, tears pouring down her face, as the old women danced slowly with their partners, living the dream after all these years.
‘‘I was so proud of them,’’ Rankmore says.
However, this dreaming may be about to end after funding for her three-year contract expires on June30.
Whatever the future brings, Rankmore is optimistic about reconciliation and understanding between Australia’s first people and the settlers.