Monday, May 18, 2009

My Grandparents

All four of my grandparents were first generation New Zealanders. What a voyage their parents had made to see the wooded hills of Banks Peninsula looming up ahead, high ship-breaking cliffs guarding the various bays and harbours. The magnitude of that trip is still hard to imagine. Sailing round half a world was a lengthy and dangerous process, involving permanent separation from loved ones. Away from the comparatively sheltering, nourishing land, life became even more precarious.

My maternal grandfather’s parents came out in 1874, losing a child in the measles epidemic that broke out on the ship, indeed, only two children out of 28 aboard survived. It must have been a relief to get away from the flying spray, creaking timber, constant motion and cramped conditions.

Their experiences would be those of any settler, homeland memories, dislocation, but also the balm of a summer's sunset over land made productive. Survivors, hardened by constant labour, they adjusted and learnt to cope. Granny, Mum’s mother, kept saying to me, “with all your dreaming you’d not survived in the old days.”

My paternal grandfather, Jack McQueen, managed a large station, Kinloch on the southern slopes of Banks Peninsula. He married a local settler's daughter, Emma Rhodes from remote Flea Bay, over the hill from Akaroa. On the wall of their tiny retirement cottage hung a photograph of the cattle being auctioned when the Liberal Government forced the station to be broken up. Jack McQueen never forgave Dick Seddon.

We used to beg Granny McQueen to tell us the story of the ketch "Crest" wrecked in Flea Bay in 1868 - a dreadful story. The men were seen on a ledge in a cave into which the disabled ship drifted, but despite all efforts they could not be rescued. The kelp foiled attempts to float ropes in. Men tried to swim but they were defeated by the boiling waves. A dog was used, but it too failed to get through. At high tide the cave mouth was covered. After one tide the ledge was empty, the men had disappeared, presumably washed away. Her tale finished she would sit quietly looking in space.

I knew much more about my maternal grandparents. After my father’s death, we went to live with Pop and Granny at Little River in their house overlooking the rail station. From their window I watched the trains shunting, and the men loading sheep and cattle. Beyond the station and township was a meandering river into which all the various hillside creeks disgorged.

Then Pop brought a cottage for us ten minute's walk away, across the boundary creek of his farm, sandwiched between the railway line and Aitken's orchard. Tall hollyhocks grew on the sunny side and a bank of violets under the hydrangeas on the south. There was a large red gum in the northeast corner of the section. Year after year a pair of blackbirds nested safely in the tight hawthorn hedge that surrounded the place. The hedge also sheltered hedgehogs, there always seemed to be one or two snuffling around the lawn and woodheap.

When she cut the hedge Mum always raked it very carefully. Doug and I ran barefoot round the section all summer, shoes were expensive, but this was choice, the freedom of a country childhood. Risking thistle, thorn and bee sting we felt grit, soil and grass on the sole.

Pop and Granny, (Sam Barclay had married Alice Reed, another Little River girl at the turn of the century), figure prominently in my childhood years. Instead of being in an isolated Pigeon Bay nuclear family I’d rejoined a large network of relatives living in close vicinity to one another. Not that it was a family to parade feelings. But it was there, a supportive group and there were men around to make up for my father’s absence.

Pop called his wife, Al. I misinterpreted this as Owl. Certainly Granny with her thick glasses looked rather owl-like, but I could never understand why he called her so, for he seemed the shrewder of the two. (Cousin Marlene disagrees, we each pluck from memory our different perceptions). Pop always ate a raw apple unpeeled, Granny used to pare it with a knife. Mum, who most of the time sided with Pop, explained that vitamins were near the skin.

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