Today, day nine of the lockdown, as I’ve gone about my daily household tasks in this small refuge on the lower slopes of Takarunga, I’ve been aware of the female ancestors hovering near. When I brewed my tea this morning, swilling the leaves in the boiling water, moving my arm, automatically, in a circular motion, I thought of my nana.
. I see her in her kitchen, standing with her arm extended, teapot in her hand, swirling the mix. And although she is long gone from this earth I feel her close to me. I see the light in her beautiful mineral blue eyes, the gentle goodness in her expression and feel again the warmth of her deep love. There was a special connection between us. We’d both lived through tragedies in early childhood. In the first two years of her life, my grandmother lost her sister Frieda (20 months) and her mother, Margaret (only in her twenties). By the third year of my life my small brother Paul (five hours old) and my father Barrie (28) had died. Losses on this scale leave a person vulnerable forever. But we survived. My nana lived until she was 88 and she modelled for us, her grandchildren, the virtues of loving kindness and courtesy and respect for all. I’m not sure how she did this, for there were a lot of grandchildren, but she made each one of us feel loved and important. I think, for me, that early experience of a grandmother’s love, the all-enveloping totality of it, has helped me through life.
I’ve been noticing how in the quiet space created by these extraordinary lockdown conditions, there is more time to think and with that the memories come swimming up. I’m hand washing my clothes and sheets and tea towels at the moment. There is a washing machine upstairs but I’d rather play it safe and follow the self-isolation instructions closely. My hosts, both of them public health academics, are special people and I don’t want to compromise their health. And anyway I don’t mind washing by hand. I like the feeling of wet fabric on my fingers, I like kneading the garment in the watery mix and breathing in the combined scent of Sard soap and ecostore Eucalyptus washing detergent. I like the repetitive squeezing and wringing but most of all I lIke standing at the clothesline with the sun warm on my back, the light shining so brightly I have to squint my eyes while high above the sky is a ceiling of radiant blue.
This morning at the clothesline a memory surfaced of my mother. I remember her on the farm at Killinchy on the Canterbury Plains and how she had two places for drying clothes. There was a rotary clothesline in the back garden with a centre pole that formed a support for a vigorous, glossy ivy creeper that grew so thick it looked almost alive, as though something lived inside it. Sometimes the tendrils stretched out and caught at me as I handed my mother the pegs. This line was surrounded by a high macrocarpa hedge and lost the sun early in the day. Though it was handy to the house my mother preferred the other location, a place where the sun, when it shone, poured light and warmth onto her washing all day long. It was beyond the garden gate, over a lumpy field and inside a neglected garden protected by a shelter belt of poplars. You had to climb over a wire fence to get inside.
I can see my mother striding across the field, pulling a trolley with a plastic basket which sat inside a metal frame. Always the trolley was groaning with clothes and nappies for when I was eight my mother had remarried and we‘d moved to the farm in Ellesmere where before very long there was a new baby and then another. The trolley jumped as she yanked it across the rutted surface. Sometimes there was frost on the ground and the grass, as the trolley wheels passed over, snapped and crunched. Always, in every season the magpies accompanied us. Their song was jubilant, like trumpets sounding in the pure, sharp air. Our hearts swelled and soared along with them. My mother is in her gum boots and her hand sewn gold tartan skirt with its marled bands of aqua and grey. She has a soft, paisley viyella scarf pulled over her hair and tied under her chin. Her cheeks are flushed and her green eyes are glowing and she is my young mother and she is beautiful.