Sunday, June 20, 2010


Here is a long ago poem based on facts.


The house had massive verandahs,
I remember that, if not the snow
that settled overnight & loomed
large in my mother’s photo album.

There are so many jogs to memory
but some are in the down deep-cells.
my brother & I had grown tired of
waiting so she dished the roly-poly

pudding we’d been clamouring for ahead
of the main course. This five-year-old
ignored the knocking on the door
until she returned distressed followed

by two uniforms, the Salvation Army
had found my father draggng from
his horse. The scenes blur until
Uncle Tom’s laden truck laboured out

of Pigeon Bay and that chapter closed.
A few years later Mum was taking me
past the wards at Christchurch Hospital
for an x-ray when she suddenly turned,

leaving my grandfather to lead me along
to the cold machine. He explained that
my father had died there. That was the first
day I ever put Brylcreem on my hair.

1939. I was a pre-schooler. That winter snow fell right down to the seashore and for days flakes swirled past our windows to settle in a weightless hush on trees, shrubs, shed and lawn, the hills completely curtained off. My parents couldn't drive out for well over a week and the power was cut.

My father, John, had stacked piles of firewood so Mum kept the kitchen stove going full bore. She kept filling our hot water bottles all night and in the morning wrapped us in blankets to run shivering to dress in front of the opened firebox. It was so cold that the jagged spikes of ice hanging from the guttering didn't thaw for over a fortnight. John spent his days rescuing sheep caught in the drifts.

Then, shortly after World War 2 started and I had turned five, John failed to arrive home on time for the hot midday meal. His back was broken in the fall from his horse. He lingered for a few days before dying. Except for Mum's distress, I remember little of the blurred events after that. Ever since then a woman's tears reduce me to helplessness.

The day of John’s accident remains clear, but the day of his funeral is completely cauterised. The event must have been traumatic to an imaginative child, an unexpected ambush of grief and loss. It created a deep guardedness, a distrust of happiness - existence is not reliable. The present cannot guarantee the future. John’s death welded a strong sense of insecurity on to me - an obvious grounding for a life in education, an occupation that attempts to bring some order out of the chaos.

My memory-banks are quite clear on two events. Uncle Tom's old whey-eaten truck laden with our furniture stalled near the top of the Pigeon Bay Rd. My grandfather's Oldsmobile was right behind. A rope was attached. Mum, my younger brother, Doug, and I were left on the snow-covered bank watched by curious heifers as the rope took the strain. After towing the truck to the Summit Road. Pop came back to collect us.

The other is Pop taking me to the X-ray machine. The nurse said 'what a smart young fellow I was.' I pointed out rather proudly that I had put on hair cream. What Mum must have been feeling.

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