Between Maungakiekie and the Manukau: An Onehunga Childhood 1939-1948 by Jeanette de Heer
One of my favourite Auckland walks takes me right around Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill. When I reach the slopes on the southern side I always stop and look down to Onehunga. From the edge of the parkland, houses spread down the hill to the industrial area where the land flattens out and meets the shores of the Manukau Harbour where there’s a wharf. It was near the wharf in a small nursing home known as Nurse Whitehead’s where I was born on the twentieth of September 1939 and it was between Maungakiekie and the Manukau that I lived for the first nine years of my life.
This is how author Jeanette de Heer opens her memoir of childhood, a collection of vividly recalled and precisely delineated memories of her early years in Onehunga up until 1948 when the family moved to a new home in the Auckand suburb of Oranga. Between Maungakiekie and the Manukau: An Onehunga Childhood 1939-1948 is a short book, just 63 pages in length, beautifully produced by Mary Egan Publishing, that reads as a series of pungent vignettes written by an author who has the gift of being able to re-enter her early memories and communicate directly the perspective of the small child.
This book had its beginnings in a short piece, 'My world as a child' written in 2002 in response to reading Margaret Atwood's famous book on writing Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002). Jeanette then 'put the piece aside and didn't think about it again' until she enrolled on a 2011 summer school of life writing at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of Auckland. On that course Jeanette began work on a series of short pieces about her birth and childhood, including an account of her first home and its environs that would later provide the framework and some of the content of her book. In these stories Jeanette was evoking a time, long past, where people lived in close knit communities and where the rhythms of daily life were simpler, gentler, warmer and highlights were; the arrival of letters and presents from a grandmother in England; dances at the local RSA where the children got to skate in their socks over the powdered floor; the novelty of the chewing gum, that came in strips wrapped in foil, gifts from the North American soldiers stationed in Auckland during the war years; or a day long family outing involving, tram, ferry and bus to visit favourite relatives in Birkenhead. Her account of starting school and the strangeness of the new routines and the different teaching styles are written with freshness and humour. And that is the charm of this book, the way it offers a candid and engaging historical account of how life was lived in New Zealand in the 1940s, as seen through the eyes of an inquisitive little girl.
For people interested in recording their life story primarily for family and friends, Jeanette’s book, the writing of it and the production process illustrates just how possible it is to write and publish a memoir. Jeanette chose to explore a short well-defined period in her life, a time she remembered fondly. With a small and realistic goal like this and a straightforward method — she used the short, rapid writing technique taught in my classes to discover her material — she remained on task and was able to bring her project to fruition. She then built her book, story by story until she had a satisfactory first draft ready for editing. Following the edit she then employed Mary Egan, New Zealand’s premium self-publisher, and her team, daughters Sophie and Anna, to manage the production, including the copy edit, the design of the cover and page layout and the commercial printing of the manuscript. The production process took four months.
Book extract ‘Exploring Onehunga’
Bob and I liked exploring beyond our own backyard. The ‘stinky fern paddock’ further down our street was a great place for a game of hide and seek though we hated the strong smell of the fennel that grew there. A more appetising smell came from Waldron’s confectionary factory. When they were making their butterscotch the smell was particularly enticing.
Mr Dean, our milkman, kept his horse Horace in a nearby field and Bob and I liked to help feed him. I was both fascinated and repelled by his large yellow teeth munching on the oats. Would Horace bite?
Onehunga Beach was only a short distance away and a good place for fossicking. At low tide we sometimes followed the shoreline round to Hillsborough. One summer I got my first bad case of bad sunburn while at the beach. Big blisters came up on my shoulders.
Often on our roamings Bob and I came upon groups of old Maori women sitting in doorways. They were usually dressed in black with headscarves tied over their white hair and their flax ketes beside them. Some of the women had the moko tattooed on their chin. We once stood on the footpath and watched a tangi taking place at a nearby house. On the verandah we could see an open coffin draped in greenery surrounded by weeping women. A photograph of the deceased was displayed at the head of the coffin. Streams of mourners were entering and leaving the house. Neither Bob nor I had ever seen anything like this before. Bob says we went inside but I don’t remember that.
Sometimes we would spy Old Jerry, a sad casualty of World War 1, limping around the streets muttering to himself. We’d whisper to each other, ‘He’s got a steel plate in his head.”
We were curious about another neighbour, Mrs Tyne, and her collection of Manx cats. She lived alone in a dark house and all her cats had their tails cut off. When one of the local boys hit a cricket ball through Mrs Tyne’s front window no one was brave enough to own up to the deed and retrieve the ball.
Sometimes we encountered a strongly built Maori boy, Todd Wade. He delighted in frightening us by saying, “I’ll put in a big pot and cook you!” That sent us scampering away and made Todd laugh...
Jeanette de Heer, Between Maungakiekie and the Manukau: An Onehunga Childhood 1939-1948, Auckland: Conehaven Books, 2016:45-46
About Jeanette de Heer
Jeanette de Heer was born in Onehunga in 1939. She trained as a primary school teacher and taught in Auckland and London. In 1985 Jeanette enrolled in studies at Auckland University and graduated with a BA and an MA (Hons) in Sociology. Attending Deborah Shepard’s five day Life Writing workshop in 2011 she says was 'a pleasure from beginning to end. The opportunity to work under Deborah's gentle and encouraging guidance in a well structured series of free writing exercises, reading my stories aloud to the group and hearing group members’ stories made me realise that I could write a memoir of my early childhood that I could self-publish." Jeanette still belongs to the life writing group that formed after Deborah’s course. Jeanette is a mother and a grandmother and when she is not writing enjoys reading, walking, films, the theatre, orchestral concerts and spending time with her family and friends.
Deborah thanks Rangimarie Kelly and Pikau Digtal for website design and artist Karen Jarvis for her image ‘Writers at the Devonport Library,’ (2023)