Evita has gained new insights and fresh inspiration from this inaugural course on memoir and biography.
I know little about my ancestors, only what my grandparents and parents have told me. Our name ‘Fromter’ has always intrigued me and made me want to know more. It is a relatively uncommon German name, a derivation of ‘Fremder’ meaning foreigner or stranger. This is how I’ve often felt in my life, this sense of being an outsider on the move from place to place and country to country, it seems to have been a theme in our family.
My paternal grandparents moved and were re-moved by historical political events, from the eastern part of Germany, now Poland, further and further west to what is now East Germany and then even further west after my father at twenty escaped the German Democratic Republic into West Berlin where American soldiers registered him as a refugee. This prompted a further family exodus from East Berlin including his parents, who were my grandparents, my uncle and other members of the family, before the wall was built in 1960. If my father hadn’t taken that courageous first step he wouldn’t have met my mother and I wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t have emigrated to New Zealand. My children wouldn’t be here either and my parents would have missed out on their two lovely grand-daughters.
My father never returned to his hometown of Goerlitz after it was divided by the Allies in 1945 at a meeting in Potsdam. The Neisse and Oder rivers running through the city became the border between Poland and the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany. The loss of my father’s homeland to Poland and the communists may have been the reason he decided to immigrate from Niederreifenberg near Frankfurt to New Zealand when I was twelve.
About a year before he died in 2017, my father told me that his ancestor, a great great great great…grandfather fought in Hennersdorf in Silesia in 1745, in a battle led by the Kaiser Frederick the Great, whose Prussian army defeated a Saxon army led by General Buchner. This ancestor was awarded 11,000 Goldmarks by the Kaiser with which he bought the farm near Gorlitz that became the family home, my father visited when he was a child.
For a large part of my life I have carried this sense, in my psyche, of our family as eternal migrants, although writing this account I realise I feel more settled in New Zealand, where I have lived on and off for forty-five years. I have never visited Gorlitz. Now I’d like to go there to discover the home my father remembered so fondly and to learn more about the distant ancestor.
Don completed the first stage of the life writing course in January 2017 and has written quite a lot of memoir since. This year’s new course on memoir and biography is helping him sharpen his focus, increase his awareness, and expand more competently the memoir-writing he has begun. Don feels encouraged by Deborah’s insights and that of other participants.
I had travelled 1,000 kilometres by train from Melbourne to Newcastle to visit my mother who had been admitted there to the Mater Hospital in Waratah.
She was very ill, more ill than I had ever seen her. It was late in the day, the doctors had gone home and there was no-one around able to explain to me the name or nature of her illness. But other patients in the ten-bed ward told me that she would often call out loudly, ‘Oh God, let me go!’
I had never heard her pray, and knew nothing about her religious beliefs, but I believe that her cry was from the heart, a prayer if ever there was one. Intermittently, it rattled the other patients and prevented or interrupted their sleep.
We greeted one another, both of us tired, she from her pain and sleeplessness, I from my long journey. My mother and I had never had anything much to talk about at the best of times, so this was difficult for both of us. We would speak, but not say anything that mattered.
Out of the blue, she said. ‘I love you, Donald.’ I couldn’t believe she’d said it; she had never done so before. I mumbled back something like, ‘I love you too, Mum.’ As I left I promised to return next morning. It was night.
As I drove out of the hospital carpark I muttered, ‘too late, Mum.’
The phone rang at about 6.30 next morning. Edna, my mother, had died.
Nowadays, I think that perhaps it was not ‘too late’ after all. She had just squeezed it in. So had I.
Maryanne is happily married with two daughters and an old bunny rabbit. Ex-intensive care nurse she has a love of cooking and sewing, together with the creative arts.
I first heard about the new course on memoir and biography at Auckland University from my friend Anne, who had already signed up for it. It was perfect timing, I had been talking to my mother back in England about videoing some conversations with her, so that I could record details of her and my late father’s lives and that of their parents and ancestors. I had been trying to work out the best way to approach this task and the course seemed the perfect starting point.
My mother Patty is 89 years old and is blessed with a clear mind and great recall of family stories and events from long ago. I want to make the most of her memories, before they fade. Sadly, my father Allan died 32 years ago aged only 58, from a brain tumour. Along with the loss of my beloved father, I lost all the stories he had to tell, the treasure trove of his memories.
I am privileged to be the fourth of five siblings from the union of two loving parents, in England, both of whom can trace their families all the way back to the Doomsday book, 1066 and all that. There are some truly amazing stories of the brave and the bold, the good and the not so good, the naughty but nice and the downright scandalous! The ancestors include those of Scottish, English, French, (the notorious Marquis de Sade), Irish, and even ‘Red Indian’ (of the Powhatan tribe, the fascinating Pocahontas,) descent. As the saying goes, ‘true life is often more interesting than fiction’ — fortunes, lands and titles lost on the turn of a card, a secret royal marriage, even an execution for leading a rebellion, are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg of this family tree.
I would like to begin my project with the oral history from my mother, who will be able to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge about her,s and my father’s lives. They both led amazingly interesting lives, full of hard work, talent and sheer genius. I want to discover more details of Mummy and Daddy’s early years and refresh the stories I heard long ago, which are already clouding slightly in my own memory and those of my brothers and sisters. When I have completed that project, I will be ready to write a book for the existing family and the generations to come. Eventually if I have the time and energy, I would like to work backwards through the afore- mentioned truly remarkable family tree, to 1066.
My Great Uncle Sir James Hammerton was a highly regarded author and editor in England, knighted by George V for his services to literature. On the front cover of his memoir, Books and Myself, is a passage from a letter from his friend H.G. Wells who wrote “Many thanks for your most informing book... It covers a very interesting phase of the development of a really popular mentality in England, and I think you get your facts and proportions into admirable perspective.You might so easily have crumbled down into anecdote.” I will never be able to emulate Uncle John’s astounding style and breadth of subject matter, but I can at least try to write with clarity to ensure that he is not left turning in his grave!
Jessie has found a new interest in Oral History after sitting with her almost 90yr old Nana and interviewing her for over six hours. There is always more to learn about a person and their life story and it surprises me that the people we love dearly we often know little about. I feel grateful to have had this chance to see my Nana in a new light.
Some might describe my Nana as a tough old bird.
Some might say cold fish.
I say independent, sometimes fierce but with a warmth in her humour.
When Nana was five she left school on her first day walking the one-mile home alone. She had been caned for pulling a chair out from underneath a boy that she fancied. She thought, ‘I’ve had enough of school thank you’ and told her Mother that she had been allowed to come home early. There was more punishment from both her Mother and Father, when the truth was discovered.
In her teens my Nana told her Father she wouldn’t go to bible class anymore and when he hit her with his razor strop she called him an ‘old Bastard’. She got her way though and negotiated to go to the main church service instead, saying ‘When my friend Ray and I left for church, we never quite made it.’
When my Granddad first asked my Nana for her hand in marriage she told him, ‘No’. She wasn’t getting married ‘until she was at least 25 and he could come back then if he wanted to’.
When my grandparents moved into a farm house in Marua they had no power or running water. The groceries were delivered to the end of the one-mile long driveway and put into the little shed to be picked up. One week, when Nana’s brother-in-law (who had been organised to help her) failed to turned up, she decided she would do it herself from then on. This meant leaving the two toddlers at home with their twin baby brothers in their cots while she set off up the drive on her own.
During the oral history interviews a boy racer kept driving up and down the road noisily. Nana stuck up her two fingers and yelled, ‘bugger off you bloody idiot’ and then remarked, ‘I always say that but he never hears me.’
For the past ten years Mattie has been “a hired gun”, working for the University of Auckland and elsewhere, utilising her skills and experience wherever they can be useful. She enjoys her life to the full and hopes to remain curious and interested in people and the world, to never lose her capacity for wonder and to always be open to the miracles and mystery of serendipity.
My mother Phyll, (christened “Phyllis” which she loathed), was the “white sheep” of a mining family in south Wales. Unlike her siblings, she was petite with fine features, a long neck, slim legs and elegant hands — always with bright red, manicured nails.
My mother had unerring good taste, but where her eye for beauty came from, I can’t imagine. None of her siblings whom I met shared her aesthetic sense. As a young post-War bride, arriving from London to the dreary little wooden houses with tin roofs clinging to the steep slopes of Lyttelton, she created a home just over the Port Hills, in Sumner, of warmth, grace and style — mostly by combing the dusty second-hand shops of Sydenham.
Always immaculately dressed, usually in clever bargains found in sales, she wore hats with a jaunty air that belied her lack of confidence. She was also a very good money manager, as my father grudgingly said, in one of his rare acknowledgements of my mother’s positive qualities.
An introductory passage for a biography of my father, Robert Risk Harvey (1914-1983) by Ruth Bonita Harvey
Ruth comes from a large and complex Australian family and is writing a memoire reflecting on her origins and a life well lived.
“Have you ever been in a disaster or a war?”, my eleven year old grandson asked me.
He sounded genuinely interested, but I know it’s part of a school project and he has a deadline looming. Clearly he wants the minimum information so that he can move onto the next question. But I hope to catch his attention.
“No”, I replied. “Not directly involved in a disaster, but my father, your great grandfather, was.”
“What happened? What did he do?”
“His job was to rescue people trapped underground when there was a disaster, like a fire. His job was to coordinate rescue efforts”.
“Really? Like the boys trapped in the cave in Thailand?” He was referring to the fact that eight of the twelve boys had, after fourteen days deep in an underground cave with no food, no covering, and no light, been retrieved intact as of this morning’s latest news item.
“No”, I reply. “This was in a deep deep mine shaft, 300 feet underground. In those days they had very poor equipment – just green and blue canaries in small cages to warn of the presence of dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide which could easily turn into a fire.
“Why did they use canaries?” he persisted, now caught up in the story.
“Well, when the canaries fell off their perches, the miners knew there was danger and they were supposed to take action”.
“What caused the fire?”
“Not sure. Possibly a cigarette? Thirty pit ponies who pulled the coal skips were trapped and died horrible deaths. Your great grandfather ordered them to be cut into pieces and moved to the surface to make room to help the men trapped ”. I never knew how many men died or whether my best friend’s father was one of them.
“When was this?”
“Sometime in the 1950s, when we were living in Lithgow”.
“How do you spell that?”
“L, i, t, h g, o, w. It’s a small coal mining town in Australia, west of Sydney.”
There was a pause. "Hey Nana! I just looked it up on Google. It was 1953 and it says only 21 ponies died.”
“Really? Does it say how the fire started? I asked.
“It says it was most likely a cigarette, so you were right! And it says here that when the fire was discovered, only mine deputies were under-ground. Was your dad one of them?”
He scarcely could draw breath. Nor could I.
“And further on, Nana, it says the miners worked three shifts a day to clear the mine of explosive and poisonous gases. They sealed off the fire with a heavy brick wall and installed electric fans to help clear the gases to protect the men who stayed underground for three days”.
Ah! That action would have come from my father.
I have waited more than 65 years to have this trauma clarified. I was stunned that it was my grandson who provided the necessary information. The magic of modern technolgy. But there was another question from my thoughtful grandson:
“What else did your father do”, he asked, “besides saving people in underground mines?”
A good question I thought. What did he do between disasters?
Bronwyn is retired after many years teaching European Languages in secondary schools. She spends her time being a grandmother both in New Zealand and Australia, planning travel to places on her bucket list and loving being able to read all day long.
“Well, that’s the end of school for you!’
Surfacing out of the haze of anaesthetic my father struggled to comprehend what my grandfather had just said. That his father had come down to Wanganui Collegiate from Auckland was surprising enough, given that journeys home were less than infrequent, but to have his academic school life cut short was a shock.
As an all-rounder my father loved all aspects of school, but a game of rugby in which he severely injured his knee ended this part of his life. He never complained about the decision his father made, nor questioned him. In those days one didn’t challenge one’s father.
As a result his focus on education for me, his only child, was strong. When he realised I enjoyed study he encouraged and provided me with numerous opportunities to qualify, something he’d been denied at the age of 16.
In fact his education did continue but in a different direction. His passion was farming and animals and although city born and bred his goal was to own a farm. He completed his agricultural diploma at Ruakura and had a very successful career as a sheep farmer in the Waikato.
But he used to say he would have done a commerce degree as well, to have another string to his bow. He was a natural mathematician and to make me adept in mental arithmetic he made me race him to add up the weekly grocery bill as Mr Gardner, the grocer always got it wrong by at least a halfpenny. I never won but am grateful for the game because it gave me a skill which still comes in handy. I recall my father once, in his seventies, coming home and despairing of modern youth after purchasing ten items at 10c each. The shop assistant had to write down ’10 ’ cents, ten times and then add them up to make a dollar!
Ruth is enjoying the pleasure of writing a Journal every day. There is a sense of excitement, never knowing what jewels might appear under the pen. It brings the extraordinary tapestry of life into focus and the present moment.
What a gift it is to claim a writing space, a writing life. To be able to say, yes, I can write the words that need to be written. And it’s okay to just keep writing – for the moment, for the pleasure, for the insights. I’ve learned that there will be times when words don’t gell - and that’s okay too. Times when the day seems to have been empty and my energies depleted. Times when life is so full of wonder and excitement that it would require superhuman writing abilities to even begin to capture the moment. Times where I have nothing to say, or feel that what I have to say is just too personal, too raw. I’ve learned above all, the lesson that writing from a place of love is all that’s needed to transform the words into magic. Love is transformative; love can bring transformation to past hurts, past memories, that, in their time and place were powerful, meaningful and essential, but now no longer serve me well.
I shall nurture my brain, encourage rewiring of the neurones, and continue to exercise the discipline, the focus, the intention in my writing. I shall refrain from asking what is it all for, and what shall I do with it…? It’s enough to write, to ponder the words, to think more deeply and let the thoughts flow as they will.
Please submit your story via the Contact page and it will receive a gentle edit from Deborah.