The performance space is suddenly flooded with color, light, and sound. As the Woman tells her story, the sounds of family, birds, and American country music can be heard. The woman describes returning home for the funeral of her God-fearing sixty-two-year-old grandmother, to which she and all her cousins wore bright floral dresses—“the only thing black at a funeral,” they believed, “should be the colour of your skin.”
As the Woman begins her performance in earnest, reaching into the past in order to share with the audience her experiences and struggles, she decides to start with a family story that illustrates the resilience of her kin and their people more largely. In the face of grief, they try to let in light and levity and stand tall.
The mourning rites and rituals, the Woman recalls, lasted a month. Her whole extended family, which is nearly fifty people, lived close together in a group of five houses, coming together each day for meals to celebrate the life and mourn the passing of their matriarch—a woman who feared hospitals, policemen, and the government. The Woman remembers her grandmother as someone who loved storytelling and singing—especially country music like the song “Delta Dawn.” Four hundred people, the Woman says, attended her grandmother’s funeral—so many that they couldn’t all fit in the church and were forced to sit in the shade outside listening.
As the Woman tells of how well-attended Nana’s funeral was—and how her death inspired togetherness, unity, and even a kind of happiness amongst the members of her extended family—it becomes clear that in times of sorrow and grief, pride in one’s identity and traditions becomes a way to stay resilient. To devote a whole month to collective mourning also shows how important grief and community are in this setting. This passage shows how, while sometimes grief can tear people apart, it can also bring them closer together, which evokes the symbolism of the block of ice held by seven ropes next to hot lights. The ropes—symbolizing grief—simultaneously hold the ice together (symbolizing how grief can bring indigenous peoples closer) and make the ice more vulnerable to melting under the lights (symbolizing how grief can intensify other forms of suffering).
Though the Woman’s family’s time of mourning was a sorrowful one, it also allowed for moments of great joy. After each meal, the boys in the family would “paint up and dance,” or don traditional clothing and body paint and perform Aboriginal songs and dances. The girls of the family would sometimes participate and put on their own shows while nearby neighbors looked on.
The Woman provides more examples of how, even in the midst of great sadness, her family’s collective pride in their identity, history, and traditions allowed them to navigate their grief and even feel moments of hope and happiness.
The Woman says she misses her grandmother intensely, and she resents that stories of her grandmother’s life, traditions, and heritage have now gone with her to her grave. The Woman, alone on stage, sings the opening lines of “Delta Dawn”—lines which speak of going to a “mansion in the sky.”
The Woman knows that while the loss of her grandmother is personal, it is also much larger than that—with each elderly member of the community who dies, some of the old stories and traditions die with them. The Woman’s grief, then, is not just for herself and her family—it is for her people and the entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, whose histories are being eroded. This is yet another instance in which the Woman’s individual grief is disorganized or disordered by her larger existential grief for the losses her people have suffered over the years.