Sunday, March 1, 2009


My mother’s first husband, a farmer, was killed, thrown off his horse when I was five. Seven years later Mum remarried. Dick my stepfather, a returned soldier, also died young, of lung cancer. She lived alone for 35 years after that, never voicing the grief I've sensed in her. The dislocation of loss is the theme of her later life. It prematurely aged her, not just physically but socially. Young widowhood was frequent in the 19th century, but much less so in the later 20th. Still, she’d married two of the most eligible young men in Little River. Photos reveal a striking young woman.
She pre-existed me for over 22 years. It’s hard for me to imagine those years. Young and supple, she and her brothers were good at climbing trees. They’d collect sparrow eggs, blow them and when they had a shoe-box full they’d take them to the county office to collect a bounty. Gravely the clerk would count the eggs, pay them, enter the transaction in a register and then crush the box. She played knucklebones and marbles with her school mates. But her dreams and desires are lost. I’ve asked her once about the courtship of John McQueen. "We just went out together." That’s what people did then – they became a number, a step along the way to a church wedding, a honeymoon, and a family. I experienced the wooing of Dick Lee. My presence must have been a trial to them. I was a clingy child, the loss of a father didn’t help. The fact I have so many fond memories of Dick suggests she choose a good man.
"I've had a good trot," she says. As a life draws to an end there is the need to keep perspective – the events and experiences of a lifetime. Mum was born in 1912. So much has happened. She started life before the welfare state was envisaged. During her mature years it was constructed and now in her twilight years it has been partially dismantled. We are all part of history – it’s not just kings and queens, battles and pageants. That continuity thing.
She has never left our shores. But during her lifetime our isolation has dramatically lessened. She often recalls the day Kingsford Smith landed at Wigram after the first successful cross-Tasman plane flight. The family had been listening to the radio. Pop, her father, suddenly said we'll go through and see him land. Granny said she hadn’t done the dishes and Pop said "blow the dishes." They got there from Little River just in time to see the plane land. Mum's elder brother Charley climbed up the steps and looked inside. Mum touched the fuselage. "I wish I'd gone up those steps." She was there at the beginning of a new era.
She was fleet-footed, winning the hundred-yard married women's race at Little River sports meetings year after year. The same agility would see her on the farm racing across the paddock to head off a breaking flock of lambs. Dick said she was as good as his best heading dog. During the war-years she made all her, my brother Doug’s and my clothes as well as knitting khaki mittens, balaclavas, socks and scarves for the troops. She was always gardening, even right up until recently.
Now she is frail and bent. But I recall radiance and exuberance at the farm at the top of Okuti, a valley off Little River in Banks Peninsula, In 1947 she and Dick moved there. Leaving the township, the road skirted across the head of Lake Forsyth before turning up the valley, past the school and tennis courts, crisscrossing the bush-covered creek several times until it reached our cattle-stop. The gradient then steepened as it wound past our cattle-yards and the old bullock wagon - a rusting relic of pioneering days - before bursting out at the top of a ridge in front of our house. The farm was at the head of the valley. It was a place of country silence, though the rooster's call heralded every morning. Valleys, like islands, form a unity. This one provided shelter and challenge. Years later when I studied Wordsworth’s poetry and read what he claimed about the healing power of Nature his ideas made sense - Okuti.
The farm was run-down, over-grown with primary manuka and kanuka, the fences dilapidated, the yards in need of repair, the house in need of paint and maintenance. Part of the condition of the rehab loan was that the house be painted. Two painters from Christchurch moved in with us soon after we shifted. Dick and Mum fretted while they burnt off - frightened their blowtorches would leave a smouldering spark in the tinder-dry weatherboards. Crotchety men they didn't want two kids underfoot or playing near their ladders. Turning their blowtorch around they'd shout "Get to hell out of here or I'll burn you to a cinder". We'd scramble but not for long - their activities were too fascinating. One lit his hand-rolled cigarettes from the burner. Then an old mouse nest did catch fire. "Hey kid, get the hose here quick." I obliged. He was running round in small circles when Mum quickly arrived to assist me with the hose. She put the blaze out. The house survived. "Townies" she muttered as she went back inside.
Money was extremely short. In Dick's words we "lived on the smell of a oily rag'. Her labour was an essential component in those early days on the farm. She loved being out with him, active duty I think it could be called, a soldier’s terminology for it was a form of combat. Young as I was I sensed her blossoming. She looked after Dick's hearty appetite, tended her sons, did the washing - copper and tub at first - and housework, fed the lambs and the occasional calf, took care of the chooks, made butter and provided coherence and comfort to our lives. Her farm-work was interrupted by two pregnancies, twin boys, and then thirteen months later another son. The three youngsters bound her more to the house. Often I was called to hang nappies on the line, jiggle a child to stop him crying, burp up wind or rock to sleep. Trying to get a small child to eat mashed up vegetables proved challenging. They would watch with interest as I ate a spoonful (an experience that has put me off spinach for life), and then present me a tightly closed mouth and shaking head. Pups and piglets just tucked in; obviously human babies needed teaching or maybe the food tasted nasty. "Just get on and feed them," Mum would say when I raised such questions.

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