Gretel (46) writes to share parts of her life story with her family. She is in the process of returning to live in her childhood home, to be with her parents and wider family, to be closer to nature and to develop her new writing practice, in the months, hopefully years ahead.
Looking down on the hospital bed I saw my mother and father crying. I was emerging from a place I’d never been before, a big round and alluring sphere that had a warm, peaceful glow. I could feel the relief, freedom, lack of pain, the option to be carried away in this warm light. I knew I couldn’t let life go just yet. The timing felt out of sync with the order of things. And I felt drawn back to my family, whatever the consequences were going to be. I remember this feeling of floating above my parents, before choosing to drop back into my fifteen-year-old body, reclaiming all parts, including the numb.
As I was coming to, I overheard a conversation between my neurosurgeon Mr MacDonald and my parents. He was explaining to Mum and Dad it was unlikely that I would walk again. I had been so close to mortality’s front door, to the very edge and back again.
In the process of ongoing recovery many aspects of human resilience revealed themselves to me; within me, those around me, including my whanau and medical team. I’ve spent much of my time since, building these stores of resilience and endeavouring to help others build theirs also, on personal and community levels. It is this reservoir of collective human experience and ongoing strengthening practices that I find myself drawing on now, as the tumour cracks through my bones like an icebreaker. It helps me accept that thirty years on from this pivotal experience, I have what I need within and am now ready for my life to end several decades sooner than a ‘normal’ life expectancy, and probably before my parents. This enables me to move towards where I hope to be when I die; in my childhood home, with whanau and nature around me — trees, birds, bush, animals, the garden — life carrying on as I float away, this time for good, from the same bed my Grannie died in, with so much dignity, grace, strength and love, forty years ago.
Cathy lives in Auckland surrounded by whanau. She is a lifelong reader and loves to write, play with her mokopuna and hear the stories of other people.
I well remember the wide open space of my grandparents’ front hall and the smell of spiced apple wafting in from the kitchen. I can still feel the joy of a visit ‘all by myself’, where I had the luxury of time with my gentle grandfather. Grandpa and I would wander hand in hand to the little stream running near the house to play ‘pooh sticks’. We would then return via the large shed in the backyard where walnuts from their tree were stacked in hessian bags.
As time went by, I became more aware of my grandparents' shared history going all the way back to the little township of the farming community of Keith in South Australia. They both came from large families of people who settled and struggled on the land. Grandma was a very efficient, loving but at times hard woman with an acerbic energy, who didn’t always find it easy living with the slower paced kindly Fred. He was a second choice for Gladys after her first love was killed on ‘Flanders fields’. Somehow her discontent showed itself to us all and I know I thought of Grandpa with a warm protective kind of love.
He grew up the youngest of six children in Streaky Bay, the most south western corner of South Australia and it was a poor hard existence. His sadness at the death of his beloved, favourite sister Maud, at the tender age of eighteen from appendicitis, lived with him until his death at 98. They had been too far from medical help.
Later he went to Jerusalem as an ambulance bearer and the experience stayed with him, leading to an emotional breakdown in his early forties. Much later when my husband and I took him to see the movie Gallipoli, he sat with tears rolling down his cheeks. “It was just like that,” he said. “They took the best of us.”
My Great Mum by Anne Morris
I have come to the end of my long working life and have found myself facing boxes of letters and photos that have been hidden behind chairs and under beds for a long time, all passed down to me. It is now time to get them out for examination. If I can write a few stories that will highlight my past adventures and reflect on my discoveries of what I have learnt, that will be of some comfort to me.
My mother, Kathleen, Kay, Kitty, daughter, sister, wife and a mother to me, her last child, a
girl after birthing four boys. She was not a traditional beauty, her face was open and sweet, soft blond hair and blue eyes. When I think of her, I always see her dressed well — straight skirts, blouses with a little embroidery collar, warm pretty cardigans, stockings and heels. She was a great outdoors woman too, loved gardening and camping.
In her youth she was popular and loved to dance and had many boyfriends. She met my father Selwyn through her brother John, they were both doing medicine in Otago, Mum always said she had made a good “catch”, he had “brains”!
After my Father died in 1956, she packed up the tent on to the top of the Worsley car and drove us down to the South Island to my eldest brother ‘s wedding in Christchurch before Christmas. On the way Mum picked up the twins from boarding school, at the end of carol service and we continued on to Hamilton for the night.
The next day, it was a long drive to Wellington to board the inter-island ferry to Lyttelton. The car with its fully loaded roof-rack was driven on to a platform and lifted by crane onto the ship’s deck for the overnight journey. After the wedding we drove down to Dunedin where we stayed a few days, then wound our way through central Otago, visiting the newly completed Roxburgh dam, from Alexandra to Queenstown, where we camped in the pouring rain.
The thrill of going through the Homer tunnel with water dripping from the unsealed roof, it was so primitive, drilled through rock, rough and raw and very wet. Mum had the windscreen wipers on. Would we get through to the other side? A trip on a boat on Milford Sound seeing the thundering falls up close and spraying our faces. I was seven years old, from Remuera in the tropical north and I’d never seen anything like it. It was magic.
The journey continued, on to Wanaka climbing over the Crown Range on a metal road, the car swinging side to side, zigzagging the Lindis Pass into the Mackenzie country. We visited the Hermitage and viewed Mt Cook in the distance, stopped at Lake Tekapo to look at the lake, through the window of the church. My mother handled the big car with its weighted roof-rack extremely confidently driving all the way to Arthurs Pass and the West coast — not through the Haast Pass, as that road wasn’t completed until 1960 — to Franz Joseph, Fox Glacier and back up to Greymouth and further north again, visiting the pancake rocks, at Punakaiki and the Buller gorge all the way to Murchison. There we turned back and drove to Christchurch to catch the ferry to Wellington to make our way Home, the boot heavy with rocks from the South Island rivers.
Although we had lost our dear father and were a family grieving, my mother turned her life around and became a renewed pioneering woman. She inspired us all with her strength.
The Lady's Maid by Helen Gillespie
Helen loves to travel which seems to be an inherited trait. She met her husband in Montreal, brought him and their children to NZ and now their family are scattered around the world. She would love to write traveller’s tales starting with her own family history.
When I expressed interest in our family genealogy my brother John took me to an ancient family chapel in the English countryside west of London. In the middle of the chapel was a large stone sarcophagus. Carved into the stone was the figure of a knight, Sir John Wayte (our paternal grandmother’s surname) and his wife Margaret. The date was 1397. How did his descendants end up in New Zealand?
Five hundred years later my great grandfather Alline Wayte (a second son) was sent by his family to New Zealand to buy land. After acquiring a block of land in the South Island he returned to England to marry his betrothed, Helen Nossiter. His diary of 1890 describes a long difficult sea voyage with his new bride and her lady’s maid. They landed in Dunedin and drove by horse and cart inland to his property at Otamita.
John’s young wife arrived at her new home with her trousseau containing gowns, linens, kitchen utensils, dinnerset and books. Imagine her shock, coming from the manor house in England to the house that he had built: a one room wooden shack with raupo roof and dirt floor.
But imagine what her lady’s maid was thinking.
“I have to look after m’lady in this?”
I asked my grandmother “What happened to the lady’s maid?”
Grandma replied “Coming to New Zealand was the best thing for her. She married a local farmer who bought three failed farms from the wealthy second sons who had been sent out from England to become land owners. This wild country was not like England. No place for gentlemen farmers, many gave up and returned home. The lady’s maid became a wealthy land owner.”
Grandma smiled, “This could never have happened back in the old country.”
A New Beginning by Mary Bogan
Mary is a wife, mother and grandmother. She has had enriching broad life experiences, loves adventures and travel and greatly enjoys being a student.
In that Birkenhead summer of 1952 my life changed forever.
I went down the long unpaved track, through the scrub and native bush to the small square house with a pointed roof. It looked for all the world like a witch’s house. Built in 1886, the four unlined rooms were made of wide plank kauri. There was no running water or electricity. On that first night and for many nights afterwards dinner was prepared on a coal range in the living room and eaten to the light provided by the Tilley lantern. This hung suspended by a hook above the dining table and flared alarmingly at times, attracting the swooping flutter of large puriri moths, so big and green like birds. It was really scary. A candle lit my way down the passageway to my new bedroom.
The following morning I reflected on things. This move was surely a mistake, this was not a suitable home for me. That day I packed my little kindergarten bag and set off up the rough path. But I stopped at the dark corner where the trees hung entwined over me. I realised I had nowhere else to go.
My mother caught up with me there and led me back to my new home. Dad was there for me. He was fifty two years old when he had his first ever date, this with my widowed mother, sixteen years his junior. He adored her. He was uncertain and apprehensive about his new role but kind and anxious to please. I snuggled against him. His shirt was coarse and rough and like him it smelt of the bush and leaf mould. He had Susan, a cat. Susan, it was said, killed the last weka in Birkenhead. Also he had his dog Toby, Socks the cow and a draught horse Champy. In addition there was an outside toilet, terrifying to visit, populated as it was by huge black spiders which proliferated in the ivy which gripped the walls.
Dad also gave me a new family name.
Janine is an observer of relationships. By conscious choice, she is significantly defined by her family and friends therefore by those relationships. The recent deaths of her mother and mother-in-law, and her father some years ago, have opened a window on their lives and uncovering her whakapapa is now a powerful motivation for her writing.
I am new to this forum.
How the hell did I get myself into this? What on earth was I thinking? I usually have an in-built, self-protection mechanism to avoid situations where I have to draw attention to myself in public. Clearly, I was not in my right mind when I signed up.
At a time when I have been feeling raw, untethered, exposed I am dismayed by having stepped even further out of my comfort zone. Each time I speak to share what I have written, I feel I am laying bare my vulnerabilities for all to see, to hear. The invisibility cloak I carefully don before heading out into the world, is not working its magic. Instead, here I am, wearing my heart on my sleeve.
The purpose of my writing over the past three years, has been to synthesise and communicate details of the medical appointments I have attended, with both my mother and my mother-in-law, so that their families were aware of what was unfolding. In this, I was relying on a veil of dispassionate, albeit sensitive, relaying of salient medical facts to keep the intensity of their situation, at arm’s length.
Now I feel both an onus and a desire, to continue the nurturing of my family by exploring our genealogical jigsaw puzzle and to flesh out if possible, what we have only been able to deduce from photos and documents. I seek resolution for those who have passed and for the younger generation, for those still to come, and myself. I want to shine a light on the many separate strands of our family histories, especially the secret shadowy stories hidden within, in order to appreciate the complexity behind the dynamics of not only who we are, but also how we are. I just hadn’t expected the process to be so personally visceral.
I have so much to learn.
Sandy has been an auditor (briefly!), a lawyer, and a lecturer, but always thought she would like to be a writer. Now she is picking up a part-time role as custodian of her own and her parents’ memories and the Plummer, Lewis and Gillan family histories. She is hoping this undertaking will also be a good excuse to explore more of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland and to visit Samoa all in the guise of research.
My grandfather, John Claude Lewis, was brought up in Liverpool but his Welsh heritage was in no doubt as his father‘s name was Lewis Job Lewis. John Claude’s ancestors came from Ffestiniog and in honour of this heritage we spent several summer holidays at ‘The Cottage’ in nearby Penrhyndeudraeth.
John Claude expected all his three children, Joan, Ted and my mother Beti, to have a university education, to do well and to be financially independent, which fitted with his oft-quoted (according to Beti) ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’. His other favourite, ‘To thine own self be true’ did not fit quite so well with his insistence that his eldest daughter Joan, the artistic one, who was desperate to be a dancer, train to be a teacher and marry Arthur, a steady young man from his tax office.
To me he seemed a stern but kind man. He introduced me to stamp and coin collecting, giving all the grandchildren an old penny (1d.) bearing our birth year, in a teeny coin-sized brown envelope. More coins and stamps followed. When I proudly showed him my 1968 set of British Ships he was shocked that I had not heard of the sinking of the cruise liner ‘Lusitania’, built in Liverpool and torpedoed by the Germans.
When grandpa was sick, I remember sitting by his bed, asking him about the investment pages of the pink newspaper (The Financial Times) he was reading. When he tried to explain the share market to me, I said, ‘Oh, like gambling’, which amused him.
I was very upset by the loss of Grandpa when I was just eleven and about not being allowed to attend his funeral and farewell him. It seems strange to me now that parents could consider a child old enough to go to boarding school but not old enough to attend their grandpa’s funeral.
Maria is a consecutive career chameleon — currently a family lawyer, formerly a history teacher and author of text books. She is a bi-lingual New Zealander of Polish ancestry. The Polish refugee and immigrant past of both her parents motivates her writing memoir.
As we do each anniversary, we gather at your graveside. This year, it is 29 years since you passed. What an unbelievable number of years. I remember every detail of your cancer and death as if it were yesterday, it stays so fresh. We meet — me, daughter Kasia, and the family you never knew, grandson James, and son-in-law Mark. It is a Kazmierow theme - family loss and never knowing those who have departed.
But for those who did not know you Dad, you are alive. By regaling you at our regular birth, death, All Soul’s, and Christmas Day grave side family catchups, updating you on the latest family gossip, we are keeping you close to us. You are the centre of our lives on those days.
But Dad, this year, the spotlight is on you. How did you manage that from the grave after nearly three decades? The boys want to ask, have you and mum, close to you in the ground and beyond, had a chat? You’ve had some secrets (which to be fair, there’s one you may not have known about) but we reckon, you and Mum have to have a talk. A “one-to-one” about my two new older brothers discovered in the last year. You can’t put that off.
My “oldest new brother” Pita is very lovely. He looks just like you, a complete doppelganger. Being part-Polish is really special to him. He’s even in the process of taking on the “Tomasz Kazmierow” name. You both would have loved swimming in the sea and fishing together. Pita is so pleased to have found you. My “younger-older new brother” Dean is a treasure too. Just like you, he loves his politics and history, and is a witty and intelligent conversationalist. Both brothers enjoy gardening also, sharing the family green thumb. It would have been wonderful if you had known them Dad.
You’ll have to tell mum. You can’t keep this quiet any longer! Love you!
Dad, we had a graveside giggle, imagining this heavenly conversation. We lit the candles in the lanterns on your graves, for our family remembering, and left you your flowers.
Just to get you hungry, as you always had a great appetite, we shared with you the menu for the dinner in honour of you tonight – your Death Day dinner, your favourite meal – roast lamb and roast potatoes, peas and gravy, with Edmonds cookbook banana cake to follow. Dad you could be a surprisingly kiwi boy, for a Pahiatua Pole. Followed with a Polish Vodka toast - Zubrowka Bison Vodka of course.
We continue to tease you Dad for your naughty past, previously only hinted at in a very hip photo of you in your twenties. Living up to your “James Dean” period. Channelling leather jacket and jeans, riding your Royal Enfield motorbike, hair brushed back in a “Dean quiff”, with the essential sultry attitude. Too cool, a touch rebel. And now with secrets travelling beyond the grave.
Granny by Jackie Halliday
Jackie belongs to a writing group formed after Deborah’s life writing course in 2015. She has also attended master classes at the Michael King Writers’ Centre taught by Deborah and was attracted to this latest course by the biographical element. Her memoir is a work in progress as there is still so much to write about and the story of her life is more complex than first imagined. The more she writes the more she discovers to write about.
She was born Minnie Blanch German on January 31, 1881 at Birch near Beer Ferrers, a parish on the western bank of the river Tavy above the confluence with the Tamar, in Devon, the youngest of nine children by her father’s first wife and the fifth girl. Her father had three more sons by his second wife. It was a crowded house.
Wavy red hair, just like mine, turned white as she aged and came into my life.
A tall winnowy figure she endured a sea voyage to New Zealand in 1897 as a sixteen-year-old with her older sister Florrie. “To escape their father’s wandering hands” so I am told. Her face was stern and she had a sharp, pointy nose which has carried on down the generations, but her eyes were kind and she could produce a wry smile.
A strong body was essential as she toiled on the Whakahongi Road farm, now Highway 27, at Tatuanui in the Waikato breaking in the land to become prime dairy country, finishing what her two brothers had started before her. I understand they all changed their name to their mother’s maiden name, Matthews around the time of WWI because of ill feeling.
Grandpa was a bit of a bully with a mean streak, and a hard taskmaster so I don’t think she had an easy life bringing up four children as well as attending to tasks on the farm. She was always beautifully dressed, however with expensive pearls befitting a wealthy farmer’s wife. I suspect she had no money of her own as all expenses were charged to the local general store and then paid each month as the Dairy Company cheque arrived.
When Grandpa died, she splashed out and bought herself a Japanese Noritake tea set decorated with silver and dainty pink roses. The ‘Japanese’ was always emphasised in whispery, reverent tones.
Vonne is the family historian, a researcher by nature taking the time to search and follow up the family stories that enable us to understand where we have come from.
I met her once when I was eight years old. It was at one of the wonderful family parties at my grandparent’s house in Takapuna. It must have been just before she moved to Ngaruawahia where she died in 1960 and is buried. It would have been at Christmas time because she gave me a present, a copy of the fairy tale Bluebeard. I have often wondered why she chose a fairytale that depicted violence against young women. In the two photographs I have of her, she is sitting on the back steps of the house in Pupuke Road shelling peas, an old lady with white hair and arthritic fingers.
The photographs are so damaged and scratched her image is barely discernible. Uncared for and unloved. Living in a converted garage, not allowed in the house. Treated disdainfully for ‘crimes’ that were never articulated. Her whole life was shrouded in secrecy, hidden away, not discussed by the family. Her life erased.
Her name was Sarah Frances Lawrence. She immigrated to Wellington with her parents and two siblings on the Vogel scheme in 1876. She was six months old. The family were looking for a better life that never materialised. They lived in inner Wellington, just getting by on a labourer’s wage. In 1891when Sarah was 21, she married a young man who had emigrated from London twelve months before. Their daughter was born on 8 July 1891 and died less than a year later of gastroenteritis on 13 Feb 1892. Within twelve months her husband had deserted her and returned to London. Sarah then entered into a relationship with William Alfred Gardner, a retired accountant, my great-grandfather. He was a widower 34 years her senior. Within four years she had three sons, Albert, my grandfather Noel, and Alfred. She was pregnant with their fourth child when William died of peritonitis on 8 July 1898, leaving her to fend for herself, pregnant and with three boys under five.
My grandfather swore that he saw white doves flying around his father’s bed the night he died. Sarah was so poverty stricken that she had to accept charity to bury my great grandfather in an unmarked grave in Karori cemetery. Their daughter Muriel Ethel, the child she was carrying died 14 November 1898 and is buried with him.
Sarah then moved, with her three boys, to the Waikato where she found work at the health spa in Te Aroha. Fifteen years later, in 1913, she married a much younger man, Arthur Newson, not much older than my grandfather Noel. That marriage lasted thirty years ending with Arthur’s suicide in 1943. Sarah lived another seventeen years and in that time her youngest son Alfred died at Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli in 1915. Her middle son, my grandfather was wounded eight weeks later.
As the family genealogist with an interest in uncovering the truth it has been a difficult, but important, task discovering the actual facts about my great grandmother’s life. Her first marriage was hidden, four of her children were registered as illegitimate. Because of the scandal and the Victorian attitudes of the time Sarah’s life story has been obscured, the ‘stories’ told about her unreliable but secrets need to be brought into the light, the facts documented accurately so that our family histories can be accepted.
Please submit your story via the Contact page and it will receive a gentle edit from Deborah.