Mandy Robinson grew up in the northern leafy fringe of Melbourne, Australia. Writing has been a life long passion, capturing her life's journeys for friends, family and now also for her many grandchildren.
I do not remember the heat but for sure it must have been very hot, as the wind roared up the gully and dust stung my eyes. I licked nervously at my dry lips. As my father loaded the wooden tray of his solid Bedford truck, this wind continued to menace. Dirty eucalyptus leaves swirled against the chest of drawers, hauled from my pretty little bedroom. Flapping linens were savagely poked down into the many bundles and boxes.
Dad flung our household possessions aboard with an urgency which signified some impending and unstoppable evil. Mother huddled in the cab, grasping baby Peter in her arms. Middle brother Gerard, a cheeky toddler was at the truck's window, jiggling with excitement.
Me, I felt a fear creeping up my bare legs, making my bladder nervous. I stood obediently “out of the way” looking at our precious home, closed tight and despondent in the morning dull light.
I can recall no explanations and the journey to the haven of my grandparent's house has also melted away. The hefty, dependable truck left again for the bush before I realised it was gone.
Deposited in the living room with the comforting presence of my gentle, white haired Granddad, I watched television. Black and white images of sky high flames devouring the forest. I scanned the fire fighting figures, straining to glimpse my Daddy in his Country Fire Authority overalls. The fear crept back and took hold of my four year old being. Those fires were monsters, which could devour a little girl's world and might never return her father.
Nanci's story was written during a life writing course with Deborah at the Centre for Continuing Education.
“You’re a liar,” I screamed. “You’re mean and I hate you."
The look, that’s what stopped my ranting momentarily. My mother’s familiar face was crumbling. Pain and powerlessness seemed to be dragging the light out of her eyes. Her composure, always so steady and reliable was dissolving in front of me.
I remember my mouth opening of its own accord, an endless stream of “NO” somehow launching itself out of my guts almost with a life of its own.
Somehow my body found a way to move, as if it knew I needed to be hidden. I covered myself up deep in the bedclothes so as not to see my mother’s face, as if being invisible meant these hurtful words would disappear too.
“No, no, no,” I heard myself saying as if my words could stop what my ears were hearing.
My mother, stumbling over her words, tried to bring me out of my cocoon, to somehow bring back some equilibrium into my eleven year old soul.
I couldn’t listen. I covered my ears and yelled, “Go away I hate you,” the intensity of my voice frightening her out of my room. Left alone I struggled to comprehend.
“Lynn is dead.” This was impossible, we were both home with the stupid flu, and we had just talked on the phone. This was proof my Mom was a liar.
Best friends don’t die and they don’t leave you to be alone under the covers.
Somehow I knew that when I came out of my blanket cocoon, the world would be different. No more believing in happy ever after, no more princes on white stallions and no more giggling secrets with my best friend Lynn.
Sharyn Elliffe enjoys her family and friends, and her piano - still. She has enjoyed her second Life Writing class with Deborah so much that she has set up her writing desk in a quiet spot. Here's hoping she uses it.
“You’re obsessed, Mum, get yourself a life, and stay out of mine,” shrieks my fifteen-year-old woman-child. A life of my own, I wish …
‘Sharyn Elliffe, ATCL,’ wrote my piano teacher in my new notebook. These four letters have taunted me since my teenage years. I was told firmly I didn’t have the brains for university; a music degree was a worthless dream. Eventually, marriage and three children made me a mother, and that was it.
Graduation was almost dream-like and I was grateful the people I loved the most sat through it. I was one of the oldest graduates; the boy sitting next to me had pimples. Medication, hypnotherapy and prayer had got me through. My biggest hurdles were conquered; self-confidence and performance anxiety.
My husband was the most proud. He is currently working towards a doctorate in taxation. My music diploma was for me like putting a toe into the sea of the world where he swims with broad, confident strokes. He organized impromptu celebrations – friends called, bubbly opened, flowers came, and from him, a delicate diamond ladder on a chain. I am still touched by his love and enthusiasm for my personal growth.
There has been so much satisfaction in my journey; my piano teacher set seemingly impossible standards. Her friendship, expectations, and quiet steady confidence in me have been such an encouragement, and she shared my joy at the result. My newfound confidence is in my fingers now. I can trust them to do what my ears demand.
Judgment has been passed. I have arrived.
Jeanette Baalbergen was born in England and immigrated to New Zealand with her parents and brother in 1951. She attended Deborah’s first Life Writing course in 2006 and since then has hosted a monthly life writing group of fifteen members in her Mount Eden home.
I can still hear the gravel crackling under wheels of children’s bikes at Lake Tekapo in 1951, as we bounced over the temporary earth dam on our way to school, or, to the ‘Wee Trees’ - a young pine forest, where we constructed huts of pine branches. The breadth and depth of the Lake spread its primeval secrets far and wide, its glacial waters, mirroring, startling blue forget-me-not summer skies and towering snow-capped mountains.
The much photographed ancient bridge that spanned the river mouth near our swimming hole disappeared when the electric hydro scheme raised the level of the lake. I remember the bridge as a picture post-card backdrop to: children’s laughter; shudders and squeals before immersing ourselves in the ice-cold water, then, sprawling on huge, flat, sun-baked glacial rocks we warmed our freezing bodies amid much chatter and joking.
Just below the Church of the Good Shepherd, there were wild gooseberry bushes tangled near the water’s edge. We delighted in popping the berry’s furry, egg-shaped sour skins releasing an explosion of delicious sun-sweet fruit onto our tongues.
In December, summer blue, pink, and yellow lupins, dispersed their heady scent, pervading our wanderings over the vast, sparse tussock-grass wilderness where rabbits abounded.
On winter mornings, window ledges dripped with icicles that we broke off and sucked on the way to the garden gate. Each night we filled various water containers before the water was turned off to prevent the village’s pipes from freezing and bursting. In the morning the containers were often covered in two inches of ice.
I remember the fairy frosted pines beneath Mount John and glissading across the skating rink I glimpse the early morning snow beyond the lake as if it is my future lying clean and white, waiting for the footsteps leading to my present place.
The McKenzie Basin was a baptismal font that re-birthed the emigrant New Zealander.
Rosalie Nicol lives among the remaining vineyards and orchards of the Waitakere foothills, on a property where pheasants still roam and rabbits play under the hedges. She attended Sacred Heart Girls' College in Hamilton where she discovered an interest in writing, prior to marriage and two daughters. Her interests are gardening, reading, compiling cryptic crosswords and she is now writing about her life, with some apprehension of her family's reaction.
Chickens scratched, ducks quacked and squabbled at the pond. The house I loved; old paint glowing in the sun. School holidays on the farm. My mother's sister had married a farmer’s son in 1918. Uncle Cecil’s wooden leg was a relic of the Somme. The appendage he managed with such dexterity, a rubber tip on the end softening the thud thud as he walked, fascinated me.
The house was refuge also to gentle Uncle Stanley; seventeen in the war to end all wars, wounds invisible. He retreated into dis-remembrance. Now he filled his days growing a cornucopia of lush produce for the table. He loved his flowers, too and let me pick violets under the rhododendrons. Sometimes he would present me with a delicate token, a bluebell or sweet pea then quietly smile and ruffle my curls.
A big Aga in the kitchen produced warmth, baking aromas. In the living room a coal range had an oven in which Uncle Cecil put his wooden leg to dry while he read yesterday's paper. He took me to see my first film, Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, when I was six, in the big old car mechanically adapted to accommodate his leg.
Beyond the riotously colourful cottage garden there was topiary fashioned from English Yew. A larger than life couple stood side by side, merged forever into one form by an artiste's clippers of long ago. Further on a lounge suite, chairs and animals were positioned strategically across a wide sloping lawn.
I sat on a stool at one of the yew tables serving an afternoon tea of berries, to my little black doll. She was a Christmas present from my parents. Naturally, I named her Snow White. The sun always shone. Bees bumbled amongst the lavender.
"Don't eat any more of those fuschia berries, Rosalie, your mouth is purple," scolded my mother with a hint of a smile…
John Goodman is an Auckland writer and author; as he seeks to write more, he is attending the 'More Life Writing' course taught by Deborah Shepard.
From the back of the house you could see across the gully, which was wide, deep and gorse filled. In summer, all right-minded boys made tunnels and dens there, hollowed-out caves with soft floors of choked, dried-out grass and spiky walls, which caught at you like a hedgehog unravelling, if you weren’t careful.
You got to the gully down the face of a clay cliff. Decades of little kids had toggled their way along, swinging and balancing on a ledge here, a tree root there, so you could get down fast if you knew how and we kids did, only the adults didn’t and told us never to go that way.
Once down, you were amongst the gorse, thick browns and greens in the autumn and winter but dying out in the summer for the tunnel season. You got in by wriggling under on your belly, head hunched between your shoulders, nose smelling the ground and the back of your neck just clearing live prickles above. Then you picked up an old tunnel or made your own, or both, snapping back branches at the base and carving your way to a really private den, at least three feet from someone else’s, where you swore your neighbour to eternal silence so no one else could find you.
Eternity lasts ten minutes. After that gangs sprang up to dispute territory. Alliances formed and re-formed as land and favours were traded. Betrayal was frequent and forgotten in the heat or illusion of conquering the enemy, your best friend.
Girls weren’t allowed except for Paul’s small sister, Linda, a wiry, dark-skinned girl with green eyes and straight black hair, although she only tagged along. And the bigger kids came in only to catch you and give you Chinese burns.
We were always late home. You couldn’t get back via the cliff but had to use the gravel access road to the top, past the parked earth-movers and dozers. In the end, the dozers cleared all the gorse and surveyors put pegs in the shiny, yellow earth. So, then, there were no more dens and tunnels, and no more warfare in the gully.
Susan Radford is a nurse, who also has a deep love of the written word and the magic it can convey. With encouragement from her son she has begun to write her memoir. Further inspiration has come from the Life Writing courses she has attended.
I was nineteen when I began work at the Auckland Star. I should have been the mature age of twenty, but I lied; I needed the money. It did get a little tricky when I really did turn twenty one.
The job was in the Classified Advertising Department and we sat in little walled off cubicles, separated in the middle by a conveyor belt for our copy, which ran from the back to the front of the room.
My opposite number was Pat, a spry woman in her early forties; youthful in looks and attitude to life. Initially I never called her Pat as that would have seemed a little forward in the ‘60s. It was many years before I could slip with ease into calling her Pat.
How glad I was to have her opposite. Her knowledge, quick wit and erudition kept me entertained during any pauses between calls. What laughs we shared when confronted by strange sounding names, weird and wonderful ads and the occasional car salesman who couldn’t help indulging in innuendo and sometimes downright sleaze. I was a terrible giggler and it didn’t take much to set me off. Dear Pat often had to rescue me from myself, taking the headset from me as I exploded into laughter while trying to disguise it with paroxysm of coughing.
I have known Pat for 48 years and she has been there for me in the more momentous times in my life. My early twenties were difficult; a broken engagement, partial estrangement from family and precarious ill-health. Her friendship enabled me to start viewing different options. She was a staunch but relaxed Catholic who would regale me with wonderful tales about Priests and Nuns she knew or had known. It was part of the air she breathed. I knew something had to change for me and Catholicism was a faith I had long been interested in – Pat was the catalyst. After my conversion I began looking at the possibility of entering a religious congregation. Pat was again my confidante.
Years have passed and many changes have taken place in both our lives. Pat now lives in a rest home and unfortunately has a form of Alzheimer’s.
I was invited to her ninetieth birthday in December 2010. When she saw me her face lit up and she linked her arm with mine, “Oh Suzie, it’s so good to see you”. As I was leaving, she said, “You can always come and stay, there’s plenty of room.”
Sharyn Elliffe has a wonderful patient husband, three almost grown up children, loves her piano, and is just discovering writing. One day she hopes to do something useful with it.
My beloved Aunty Nance passed away on June 14, 1981. By an amazing coincidence, my first child was born exactly eight years later, June 14, 1989 and I could see the room she died in from the maternity ward window.
Throughout my childhood, I spent as many holidays at Aunty Nance’s spotless house as I could, my first visit at age six. Each Saturday, despite it’s immaculate condition, the Zephyr Zodiac was lovingly polished. The seats and doors still wore their plastic covers from the sales showroom. A guest bedroom contained gleaming mahogany and meticulously made beds – not to be sat on after making. I was glad to leave my own chaotic bedroom and bask in the peace of this perfect room.
Aunty Nance wore sedate dresses, stockings, and demure slippers indoors. I was fascinated by the way she twisted her long black hair around a knitting needle in front of her bathroom mirror each morning. Her “do” remained pristine until bedtime.
We held Uncle George, a gruff bulldog of a man, in a kind of sacred terror. He’d bark at us children “Don’t touch the wallpaper!” Yet he could be kind and funny, even gentle sometimes. I loved him, but was grateful for Auntie’s intervention, “Oh George, you silly old man, do be quiet!” when he teased me until I cried.
Once Uncle went to work, Aunty and I enjoyed each other. Time passed quickly, with outings, sweets, baking, books, board games, cuddles with her morbidly obese temperamental cat, Christie. I spent hours copying out my favourite Famous Five books on her ancient typewriter at the ironing table.
They called me “Shanny” a name no one else would dare to use. Aunty laughed a lot at my earnest childishness. I had asked, “Has Christie got a radio in him?” when I first heard him purr and Aunty repeated my question as though it was clever to anyone who would listen. She loved my siblings, but I knew I was her favorite.
When Aunty Nance died, a door slammed on my childhood.
Diane Taylor is a primary school teacher, wife, mother and grandmother. She has spent a number of years living in Asia, enjoys writing and is currently attending Deborah’s life writing class. This has encouraged her to continue writing memoirs for the family.
The phone interrupted Lassie, my favourite television programme. I was lying on the floor engrossed in the story, when I heard Mum say, “Oh no, when?” A few minutes later, “When’s the funeral?” I jumped up quickly to eavesdrop. Someone had died. Who? I wanted to know, but didn’t ask.
It was the next morning when we were told. Uncle had died. I was devastated. My favourite Uncle was gone. Memories came flooding in.
I was six when I first stayed with my Auntie and Uncle. While I loved Auntie, it was Uncle I adored. I stayed there many times over the next six years, and every night we had the same little ritual. As I hugged him good night, he would whisper to me, “Look under your pillow.” Hidden there were four pieces of PK chewing gum, and a bag of chewy lollies; my own midnight feast. What a treat. My mother never discovered that Uncle spoilt me like this.
Every morning, I would rush outside to find Uncle. He would be in his place of pride and joy – the vegetable garden. There were rows and rows of carrots, beans, peas, tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins. I loved to help him dig up the potatoes, and carry the filled bucket to Auntie, with freshly cut mint from the herb patch, for her to cook later in the day. Then he and I would sit together on the porch steps podding peas and letting them drop with a clink into the stainless pot. “One for the pot and one for you,” said Uncle as he shot a pea into my open mouth.
How I loved him, and I knew he loved me. With him I felt special and accepted. Now, he was gone. ‘What would I do without him?’An emptiness and sadness stayed with me for months, as I struggled to come to terms with his empty armchair and the neglected vegetable garden, slowly filling with weeds. In an instant, life had changed for me.
Jim O'Donovan spent 50 years in the Law. Now retired, he hopes to spend the next 50 learning how to write good prose.
In 1957 my mother was diagnosed as having TB. She spent the next year or so in hospital.
When I came home from university for the summer vacation I got a job on the night shift at the local canning factory; twelve hours a day, seven days a week. So I was unable to see Mum during hospital visiting hours, which were strictly enforced. To get in I had to break the rules. I would enter the hospital by a back door, go up a stairway marked "Staff Only," and then furtively sneak into the ward where Mum had a room that she shared with two others.
I had been warned to watch out for a certain staff nurse, known to the patients as ‘The Kommandant,’ who, I was told, saw it as her life's work to apprehend and expel out of hours visitors. On some occasions when I was in my mother's room I would receive a warning that ‘The Kommandant’ was coming, whereupon I would conceal myself in an adjoining bathroom until the coast was clear. Eventually the vacation ended and I returned to my studies and I forgot about "The Kommandant". That is until a year or so later when one day I was in the Law Library and the door opened to reveal "The Kommandant". For one moment the crazy thought crossed my mind that she had tracked me down and was about to confront me with my crime.
I saw her from time to time about the Law School but our paths did not cross. Then one Sunday morning I saw her at our local church. After Mass she introduced herself, telling me that she was studying Law, having previously qualified as a nurse. That was about fifty years ago. We have been together ever since.
Please submit your story via the Contact page and it will receive a gentle edit from Deborah.