Over the last few years I often got Mum reminiscing about her childhood. She was born in Little River but shortly after Pop shifted to Omana between Dargaville and Whangarei to manage the farm while his brother Jim went off to the First World War. Mum started school there. They went bare foot summer and winter. “If you wore shoes they stayed wet when it rained.”
She described watching the felling of a massive kauri tree. “It didn’t seem right, this sudden huge gap in the landscape. I’ve never seen anything more dreadful.” She and Uncle Charlie ran along the fallen trunk. She recalled the long trip back to the South Island – boat from Dargaville to the Manakau, overnight train to Wellington, overnight ferry to Lyttelton and on to Sumner to a house near Pop’s mother. Shortly after Pop shifted to a farm at Lyndhurst half-way between Ashburton and Methven. Charlie drove a horse and cart to school, with his brother and three sisters. He had to stand on a stump to harness the horse. Mum recalls frosts after growing up in the winterless north. “We had to wear shoes.”
Several years ago once when I was down after questioning her closely I said let’s see if we can find that farm. Others had tried but failed. Mum said “things have changed so much you can’t recognise anything. She’d told a story about the five children fording the Ashburton river and the river rising when they were on the other side. She and Roy struggled back across while Charlie in turn carried the two younger sisters on his back. They never told their mother for they’d been forbidden to cross it.
I looked at a map and there were two possible sites. I drove to the first. There was a side road with a rise. Mum had talked about climbing a hill. “That’ll be it” I said. “That’s not a hill”, the scorn in her voice would’ve stopped a charging buffalo. “It would be to a little girl” I replied. So I drove to the top.
“That’s not our house”.
“It looks like it was built after the last war. You were here in the ‘20s”
“No, that’s not the place.”
“Well let’s go to Lyndhurst and find the school.”
I consulted the map and set off along roads to the township. Mum kept saying this isn’t the road and let’s turn round and go home. I said “the sign said 12 kilometres and we’re only done 9.” She grew silent.
Suddenly she said “that’s the horse paddock.” It’s now a pine plantation. I turned a corner and there was the school, closed by the Canterbury Education Board shortly before the Picot reforms. Mum wandered around entranced. “We used to play marbles under that oak. They’ve built a swimming pool. And a dental clinic.” There’s something depressing about a recently-closed school. A heart has gone out of a community. Those empty buildings and playground once rang with the laughter and shouts of children. I didn’t share my thought with her as ecstatic she wandered around. Instead I savoured her pleasure.
Charlie drove the cart from home to school a different way from the way we’d come. Mum gave me directions how to go back. “There used to be a cattle-trap here.” “They’ve closed in the drain.” It turned out to be the house I’d approached from the other side. “That hill was gigantic then,” she said. Time plays spatial tricks in our minds. When we got back home she telephoned all and sundry to tell them about the trip.
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