Judy Johannessen is a retired primary school teacher who is writing for her four sons and her eight grandchildren. She is attending Deborah Shepard’s life writing course at the Centre for Continuing Education.
To visit my paternal grandparents, our journey involved a tramcar ride to the Cenotaph in Wellington followed by a long train ride to Plimmerton.
Mother and Father, as we called them, lived at the top of the hill overlooking the sea. The snow-capped mountains of the South Island loomed in the distance. I felt royal sitting on my throne surveying that wondrous scene. In fact the throne was the one and only step leading from the dark sitting room to the long verandah that stretched across the front of the house. I cannot recall anything more of the house, but I remember the garden with its concrete path winding up to their cottage through trees, bushes and bordering flower beds.
It was my grandfather’s custom to look after my brother and me as soon as we woke. Father was the one who took us for walks in the morning stillness, while our parents enjoyed a luxurious lie in. ’Did you see that one?’ he would ask in a low voice so as not to disturb the fairies under the blue hyacinths. I looked at him in awe, amazed that he could actually see the garden spirits I so longed to greet. With his twinkling eyes and warm broad smile I was sure he connected with these creatures.
One crisp clear morning he said he had something wonderful to show us. We climbed up the hill to observe my very first sunrise and suddenly the silhouette of my cousin riding his horse appeared in front of the sun.
Those first memories at the age of three have never left me. They are the only memories I have of a dearly loved grandfather. He died shortly after, but I feel his presence in my garden every day.
Beth is a mother and grandmother, retired but busy. She is a New Zealand registered nurse and a trained floral and garden designer. Beth has a love of nature, colour, photography and the arts and has lived on islands and spent time in India, Europe and Africa. Writing for family is a more recent interest and Deborah's class has given her the motivation to extend her writing.
In the dim light before dawn there was an unusual quiet for India. My son Andrei, two friends and I swathed in colourful shawls were walking beside the wide still waters of the Ganges River in the sacred town of Varanassi. Our steps took us along the old Ghats stone steps, lining the rivers edge for many miles.
We passed the fruit and vege seller asleep on his low rope bed beneath his stall and other small stalls until we came to the long blue and white boat we had hired the previous evening. There to greet us was the chai seller, with small earthenware cups he and his family had moulded and sun dried. He presented us with steaming sweet chai. As we returned these tiny vessels he broke them and threw them away. Also to greet us were little girls persistently offering us, for a few coins, small bowls made of pressed leaves. Within these were homemade candles surrounded by the holy flower of India - Marigolds. They were for us, to float a blessing midstream on this old noble river.
The boatman steadied the boat and then rowed us for an hour or more up the Ganges - still sleeping, albeit briefly. Past earth coloured buildings intermingled with conical shaped temples and grimy but beautiful ancient buildings, some listing at an angle and partly submerged. When we turned to come back the river had woken. Women were slapping, wringing and twisting clothes on the wide steps. A wizened toothless old man was treading water, saying his prayers, totally oblivious of us all.
Women dressed in vibrantly coloured saris were dipping a body into the sacred water before cremation. Others, also clad in saris were dunking in the water like colourful birds. Further on men in loin cloths and lungis were cleaning their teeth and washing.
Cows grazed on cardboard on the steps. In the doorways glimpses of orange clad Sadhus, or holy men. So much more activity would go on beside this holy of rivers until well into the small hours of the next morning, when Varanassi would once again briefly sleep before the dawn. Then awaken to the misty golden glow of India.
Mary Weal is 91 years old and enjoys writing, gardening, travel and attending lectures at U3A. She was recently a participant in an oral history project and was inspired to attend Deborah’s life writing classes in order to write her own memoir.
I remember the troubled atmosphere of the town and countryside when World War 11 was raging in the Middle East and the Pacific. How would it affect our families in New Zealand? My fiancé and my eldest brother were of the age of conscription and were duly called up in 1942.
Rumours were flying that every able-bodied person was to be drafted into either the armed services or essential services. Not wishing to be drafted into an armament factory I volunteered to join the Air Force. In a short time an official letter from the Government requested me to appear before the selection committee. I passed.
My first posting was to Seagrove Fighter Station. It had seventeen Squadron flying the streamlined Kittyhawk planes. These were used by the RNZAF only in the Pacific Theatre.
On arrival I was shown to a wooden hut which was to be my home, with three other girls, for the next twelve months. My job was in the orderly room, centre of camp Administration, and there I added my skills at a typist.
Elisabeth Sutorius spent her childhood in Indonesia and The Netherlands and her family immigrated to New Zealand when she was 12. Now a retired teacher of English and German, she revels in reading English and European literature and is enjoying reconnecting with her past through Deborah’s Life Writing course.
Elly, it was called, the small house set in a pretty tropical garden with the bamboo forest behind. At night those trees swished and sighed in the wind.
My father had been transferred from Surabaya on Java, where we lived for a year soon after the war, to Medan, a large city on the island of Sumatra. Dad’s work was in the city, but he could find no accommodation for us: Mum, my two brothers and me. So we ended up in Elly in the mountains, some distance from the city. It should have been an idyllic solution. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. My father could only visit us about once a month, and then only accompanied by an army convoy. Indonesia wanted its independence from The Netherlands and there were a lot of freedom fighters, ‘pelopors,’ about, hiding in the hills ready to ambush any white people foolish enough to be driving the roads without army protection.
We were caught up in this fear of an attack, too, and our little house seemed quite vulnerable.
“What were those noises? Were any of the pelopors hiding in the bamboo forest?”
My mother couldn’t sleep and those sleepless nights also affected me. I still remember coming into the living room in the middle of the night and finding her sitting at the table playing patience.
Myrtle Easton is a mother of three and a grandmother of four. She is attending Deborah Shepard’s life writing course at the Centre for Continuing Education. Her story was written during an exercise using a photograph to trigger a memory.
I was married during the war years and moved from my family hometown to a new town where I did not know anyone. My husband was in the army waiting to be called to the Islands, when for some reason he was chosen to go to an alternative destination that was totally secret.
He finally sailed from Wellington in 1943, just before Christmas and only three months after our wedding, so I returned to my family in Gisborne, where I had to do essential work. Initially I was to be sent down to Nelson to work in a tobacco factory but I managed to get a job in a private hospital as a probation nurse. This proved rather providential, as not long after starting, I found I was pregnant and so didn’t last long in the job.
The worst part of my life, at that time, was that my husband and I had no communication for the first six months he was away. Henceforth, he was not aware there was a baby on the way. Our daughter was born in September 1944 and he did not see her until she was thirteen months. This was towards the end of the war.
Elizabeth Goldsworthy started writing to her husband, who was serving with the Special Air Service Squadron in Malaya (Malaysia), when she was fifteen years old. After he returned to New Zealand they got married and over the next thirty years Elizabeth wrote many more letters while George was on tours of duty overseas. She is now writing her memoir, with encouragement from her daughter, who thinks her story should be recorded.
It was a sunny Saturday morning and I was weeding the garden when my husband wandered out, clutching the “Employment” section of The New Zealand Herald. I had taken a year’s leave without pay to complete my degree at the University of Auckland, so all was well in my world. George, a major, and near retirement after 34 years in the army was looking for new challenges, “There’s a job I’d like to apply for.”
"Okay. What is it?"
"Deputy Director of Public Works, Niue Island."
"Well, apply for it then."
"What will you do?"
"I’ll just keep writing more letters and join you at the end of the year."
I paid a visit during the August vacation which proved an interesting experience. George had spent months cleaning a house needing attention. He had also cleared the large section of umu pits and piles of beer cans. Two weeks before I arrived George had rescued a tiny ginger kitten during a tropical storm and it was clearly very much their home, not for me to make any changes. Kayu proved to be great company when I returned to New Zealand. George was however, very happy for me to move in and make his home our home at year’s end.
Susan Radford still nurses on a casual basis and has for many years wanted to give expression to the stories within. She has recently submitted two children’s stories for publication. At the encouragement of her son she is undertaking her memoir.
There are a few times in my life, when my world, as I knew it, was turned in another direction. The first was my entry into boarding school when I was eleven years old.
My parents ran the City Club Hotel in Shortland St, Auckland. Its quaint Victorian style architecture was not a major attraction for me, but Anne’s Pantry, just opposite, which had the most delicious pastries and chocolate éclairs definitely was. The hotel however was not deemed an ideal place to bring up children and I had been enrolled at Waikato Diocesan. But until I turned thirteen, I was to attend a boarding school in Albany run by two Quaker sisters.I have no recollection of any preparation for this rather major venture, apart from clothes being organized with the ubiquitous nametapes. Only tee shirts and shorts were considered appropriate for this ‘new age’ school. We also had to embrace a vegetarian diet, far removed from hotel menus and Anne’s pantry fare.
I entered school, along with my four-year-old brother David, whose emotional trauma, at being taken from his family and put in an alien establishment, of necessity, diminished my own. He clung to me constantly, crying in an inconsolable manner in the first few weeks. I was forced to be a comforter, which meant, a rapid adaptation to the culture of my new world and the need to take on a more adult role.
David of course had a very different experience. Once he conquered his grief and homesickness he became a little bush baby, opting out of school in order to pursue ‘free play.’ He had a life untrammelled by the constraints of school routine, instead ran wild with his new friends, adding lots of interesting new words to his vocabulary. I fast became the boring big sister.
Val Cotty is a retired Family Planning Nurse Practitioner. Her story was written in a Life Writing session using a photograph to inspire a memory. The photo was taken in Maputo, Mozambique where she lived from 1995 – 2006, with her husband who managed the P & O Ports Container Terminal.
In the early 1990s, Mozambique was listed as the poorest country in the world. On our initial journey from the airport to our hotel, we drove through ‘cane city’ where the impoverished Africans lived. Cane City was built of materials such as cane, iron roofing, bits of timber and even cardboard boxes.
The Africans cooked outside on makeshift barbeques or even just a heap of sticks or charcoal. Children were running around half naked. What little clothing they wore was scruffy and in tatters. Men were sitting under trees playing Bao, a board game like backgammon and putting the world to rights.
I was absolutely shaken to the core by the sights I saw. Abject poverty in the barrios, or suburbs. Some buildings were very run down, crumbling multi-storied flats, roads with huge pot-holes into which a car could be lost. In complete contrast, there were homes in the ‘concrete city,’ occupied by government officials, embassy staff, aid workers, affluent Africans and expatriates that were resplendent with beautiful, blue and white tiles adorning the patios and outside walls.
It was December, huge red blossoms on the flame trees lining the streets, hid the shabby dwellings. Dotted between the flame trees, were numerous large cycads. One day we decided to drive around a city barrio to see what was being sold on the stalls. There was everything you can imagine for sale.
Clothing donated from overseas regularly arrived in container loads and found its way onto stalls. There were colourful hats hanging on trees, some richly embroidered in metallic threads, others with sequins. These were worn by Muslim men and boys. My favourite was the ‘Bra Shop’ with dozens of bras for sale, every colour and style you could imagine. Missing only was the fitting room, so the girls tried them over the top of their capulanas! Shopping in Smith & Caugheys will never be as memorable at that.
Barbara Myers wrote this story as a member of Deborah Shepard’s Life Writing course at Auckland University. Barbara is an academic and has three adult children living in various parts of New Zealand.
I leaned against the doorway and stared across the room. There he was, far away in the corner. I waited and watched. The nurse looked up from her station, smiled and beckoned me. I moved slowly towards the little glass box taking in, with each step, the long, lean baby body lying under the sterile lights, silent, naked and alone.
I wanted to cover him, scoop him up in my arms and hold him close. Hurriedly I squeezed past the locker and around the medical paraphernalia, taking in all of him for the first time. I gasped, and gazed down at this ‘biggles’ baby, as covering his eyes were the smallest pair of sun goggles in the world.
He stirred. I stifled my sniffles and blinked through the tears. And knowing him as I do now, I swear he looked at me and whispered…
“Wasup….chill mumsy….it’s all gud.”
Susan was an audiologist for many years but retired ten years ago. She arrived in New Zealand in 1970 and her parents came here three years later. She was always close to her parents, particularly her mother. Susan has two children, both living in North America.
I knew my mother wanted the cushion. It caught her eye as we walked past the shop window. “Ooh look, isn’t that lovely dear,” and of course I agreed even though it wasn’t at all the sort of thing I liked myself.
“It would look beautiful on your sofa,” I said, “Let’s go buy it.”
“Oh no, you can see it’s expensive. I’m not wasting money like that.”
“Well, it will do no harm to ask. Come on,” and taking her by the arm, I got her into the shop. “You go and have a look and see if there’s anything else you like and I’ll ask how much it is.” To my relief she started down the aisle and I quickly approached the assistant.
The cushion was $49. “Would you do something for me,” I asked. “Would you tell my mother it’s on special today at $15 and please take this $34 to make up the difference.” The assistant must have known someone like my mother, who was always spending money on others without a second thought, but a different story when it came to spending money on herself.
She smiled and gave me a conspiratorial wink, “Of course I will.”
My mother’s mouth fell open. “Fifteen dollars – are you sure?” Her face looked a little doubting, but the assistant played the part brilliantly. “Yes, indeed madam, it’s a special just for today.” The cushion was popped in a bag and away we went, my mother thrilled to bits to have had such luck.
The cushion looked glorious on her sofa, with its pale green tufted satin and long silk fringe. The pleasure my mother got from it lasted until she died a few years later. She especially delighted in telling people what a fantastic bargain it was.
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