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Tasmanian_ Extras

Robyn Wilkinson


It was wartime Sydney and housing was scarce. Robin’s family consisted of Mother (Joyce) and Father (Ken) and the first child, Anne, and the house was also shared with the maternal grandmother and a young aunt. There were frequent clashes between
the Father and the "in-laws”.
Imagine the shock when a second daughter
(Robin) was born with several deformities, like the
Thalidomide babies that came 20 years later. She
had no lower right arm, a twisted back, and very
deformed legs. Robin knows that her mother was
not allowed to cry as "her wailing might upset the
other mothers and affect their milk supply”, so her
bed with the baby was placed in a corridor. The
medical staff told the young couple to "put her in a
home (institution), forget about her, and to try for a
‘normal’ baby next time”. Ken, the Father, said: "Over
my dead body – she is to be brought up as normally
as possible”, whatever that might involve. Joyce was
sent home with her new baby and with no advice or
help. Ken was a tram conductor, later a revenue clerk,
with a great belief in equality and pacifism. His older
daughter’s kindergarten teacher had an excellent
reputation for managing "difficult children”, so on
the night Robin was born he went to this teacher,
Margaret Moses, to ask for her help in raising his
second child.
There was a lot of tension for Joyce when she
brought home "this child who should have been put
away and forgotten about”. The kindergarten moved
into the Wilkinson home. Joyce played the piano
while Margaret taught the children. Robin was the
tiny school’s "baby” and joined in on the activities, so
she should learn to mix with others.
In that era there was no support from the
government or private sectors. Any rehabilitation
was focused exclusively on disabled soldiers returning
from the war. Joyce was really struggling to try and
be a mother to both her daughters, as well as with
the constant friction of the on-going arguments
between Ken and her own family. Adding to the
tension was young Anne, desperately trying to
compete for attention with "the difficult baby”. After
a while Joyce became ill with mastoids, requiring two
operations, and she seemed to give up the will to live.
She died from pneumonia when Robin was only 15
months old. Six weeks later, Ken married Margaret
Moses, the kindergarten teacher. The family never
forgave them.
It’s a long long story from there to the Robin
we are all familiar with today, sliding silently into
Meeting in her electric wheelchair but bringing a
bright splash of colour with her – mostly purple,
pink or magenta, clothing, accessories and even dyed
purple hair. As I sat in Robin’s unit recently, taking
notes for this piece, I could not resist the obvious
question: What did it take to survive, and to do so
well?
Three things, Robin said: "One, I must have
been born with a great sense of determination
and humour. Two, when my father re-married, it
was to Margaret (who died in 2000, and will be
remembered by many at the Hobart Meeting). Ken
virtually handed me to Margaret with the words: "to
be brought up as a normal child” – Margaret called
it "the school of hard knocks”. And three, around the
age of 20 I had a spiritual insight that it’s not what
happens to you that matters, but how you deal with
it. And that you can choose.”
It was Margaret who, on meeting Bill Oates at a
teachers’ conference and telling him how no school
in Sydney was able to handle Robin, caused the
family to move to Hobart. Bill Oates’ cheerful "Oh,
Friends can take her!” was irresistible, and from then
on their situation improved greatly. The father got
a better-paying job. He was very good with money,
Robin remembers. The older sister, Anne, initially
went to Hobart High School but then moved to
Friends. Robin’s parents worried that she might be
unfavourably compared to her sister’s achievements,
which did indeed happen for a while, but it was also
a story of overcoming, and of growing strong. There
was little outside help, so Margaret strung string
around the house to help the little one get around,
put items deliberately high up so she would learn
to defy gravity – eventually, Robin was able to take
the tram to School every day by herself, and proudly
remembers her parents cheering when, aged eight,

 

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