Voice Lesson by Maire Vieth
Maire Vieth is the mother of three grown boys. She arrived in Auckland from Bavaria via New Jersey. After chasing local news as a reporter for years, she now writes daily memories.
I returned to university in my mid-twenties. I had tried out chemistry and German literature right after school but left after a semester of each. Then, after three years of earning money as a sound technician at Munich’s public radio station, I had assembled the self-confidence to give uni another go.
But I arrived with my old ideas about the shape of knowledge. I thought it was a kind of ocean, or a lake, at least an Olympic size pool of facts. My father seemed to know them all. I thought I was ready to swallow them, sip by sip, and store them in the filing cabinet of my brain.
Each morning, I walked to my lectures past the buildings on Ludwigstrasse, imagining the day I knew all their architectural styles, the historical events that occurred in and around them, all the dates.
When a professor in American Studies visiting from Chicago asked us to interpret an historical event in an assignment, I honestly didn’t know what he was talking about.
Today, I would probably google it, but then I only remembered, from seven years of school Latin, that “inter” means “between.” I smiled, nodded, and prayed no one noticed that I was only pretending to understand.
I took the subway home with Christa, a fellow student, younger and smarter than me, happy, light and fun. Perhaps a little naïve, I had thought to myself earlier in the day.
As the train came out of the tunnel and headed into the suburbs, she and I stood in the middle of the aisle, both of us holding onto the same pole, slightly swaying, legs slightly splaying.
I asked her about the assignment and told her I was lost.
We talked. I don’t remember what she said but all of a sudden it hit me like lightning. This professor was asking me what I thought. About the American Revolution!
I remember exactly how the light shone. The late afternoon sun came from the West, through the scratched window behind Christa, touched me, and disappeared out the other side of the car.
And I knew. That knowledge was not absorbed or swallowed or stored or regurgitated, but made and created, added one spoonful of spice or pinch of salt at a time to a pot constantly on the boil. And I knew I was ready to stir.
Blue Ball Inn by Kate Lewis
Kate grew up in the U.S. and moved to New Zealand thirteen years ago with her then-husband and son who is now seventeen and a kiwi. She is a volcanologist who left university teaching a year ago and is figuring out what to do next. She feels drawn to write memoir, looking to the past to help work out a fulfilling, wholehearted future.
When I was fourteen I spent much of my family’s European summer vacation boiling under the surface. We visited friends and toured for almost two months. I loved seeing the world; I hated my parents.
On a cliff path in southern England we stumbled on a pub called the Blue Ball Inn, a tiny building with a thatched roof and a big blue ball hanging in front. Mom had read that it was a local gem; she gasped and grinned, overjoyed at our luck. Dad said no.
Mom rarely said what she wanted; she said she didn’t care, and we found out the truth when she sulked and made cutting remarks to punish us for not reading her mind. In this case she begged to go, anguished pleading followed by teeth-gritting rage. Dad went quiet, his face tight and stubborn. We kept walking, all the way into town.
We ate at a cheaper place, which Mom said wasn’t cheap enough to justify sacrificing something glorious for greasy tourist nothing. She ordered the cheapest thing on the menu and after several minutes of not eating started to cry and left. My brother and I choked down a few bites of fried fish. I glared at my father, realizing the meaning of that phrase I had read in novels, impotent rage.
Two days later I got my period for the first time and felt relieved, hormones not insanity, thank God. My mother quietly cheered me on, conscious not to embarrass me in front of the others, and we went shopping for fun, one of the only times I did that with her. She bought me leather slippers that I sank my feet into, lined with deep, warm fleece. I had never had anything so wonderful; loved her for this luxurious splurge.
Adult by Jane Ouseley
Jane is a lifelong champion of questionable Art, wine, and fluoro orange snacks that can be slipped onto fingers. She is humbled by chickpeas, thunder and the unwavering kindness of those who daily ascend her bedside hillock of never-to-be-read books, to gift a morning mug of tea.
At sixteen, I bought a bright yellow breadknife for 59 cents and a pair of flimsy tea-towels that I placed carefully under my bed.
What is a Glory Box when placed below where you lie?
And one night, with a daring - drunken?- vault into bed, my foot found the yellow handled blade, unsheathed, and carved it open.
It was Spring.
The slice on my foot bloomed septic, as I started three days work at the A and P show as an assistant to “The Cooking Demonstrator from The New Zealand Egg Board’. My first experience of cooking that wasn’t infused with the tense call and response of familial obligation. The demonstrator was calm and cool. Her confidence, not contagious; awed by her proficiency and inventiveness. The dishes served were delicious. Shy, clumsy, I cleared away. Created Pyramids of egg cartons, sliced onions, potatoes. Grated cheese. Stood. With increasing discomfort.
Late October heat pairs with a mean seasonal wind that flays hair into icecreams and candy floss, genial mood into squabble. It carries fairground screams, incessant roar of machinery, bray of animals and Farmers come to town, fanning the solid waft of shit smell and hotdogs. I sliced and sweated for three days. My foot screeched, wept and ballooned under an unwise nylon stocking. Sawing at a potato, I diced a tiny curl from my thumb tip. The smudge of pink potato visible - to me, only? - for a lifelong second before folded, briskly; into alchemy of heated eggs and butter. Those amongst the wind whipped citizens who enjoyed a frittata wedge that day, I hope, bear no ill will.
I hobbled home, poisoned, at the end of three days to concern, medication and convalescence. The throb. The triumph.
I have kept the payslip for those hours.
The scar too. The knife I certainly did.
It lies still, in a current kitchen drawer. My Familiar. A constant, cheering, witness. It cuts beautifully.
Shut the Gate by Maria Zivkovich
Maria lives in Auckland and spent her childhood growing up on a dairy farm in Northland. The farm, bordered by a river, provided a treasure trove of experiences. Maria’s adventures on the farm have shaped many of her memoir accounts.
I can’t remember why my sister and I were down at the cowshed in our school uniforms. Normally we’d be dressed in our rough clothes and of course gumboots. I was sixteen, I know that because I was wearing my Doc Martens. These shoes were my first ever really cool item of clothing. I was dating another student, a year older than me, who was one of the founding members of the Doc Marten group at school.
It was mid-winter and had been raining for days on end. Mum had asked us to close one of the gates on the race to stop the cows escaping onto the driveway and out to the highway. I baulked at this because it meant going through the holding pen which was a quagmire, a slushy, mushy mess that was now one ginormous puddle with cow poo added to the mix.
My sister was (and still is) the strongest of us despite the fact that I am the oldest. Knowing how I felt about my Doc Martens, my sister offered to piggy back me. I literally jumped at the chance. Until that moment we had been dawdling, mucking about. Now suddenly, we were in trouble because the cows were heading our way. I clutched at my sister’s shoulders as she rushed through the puddle, trying to avoid the cow poo. A challenge for sure!
It seemed to happen in slow motion yet was over so quickly. I felt her slip, lose her balance, and with me on her back there was only one way to go. We fell backwards in a spectacular fashion, my sister landing on top of me. There were shrieks of horror. Mud, cow poo and stagnant cold water enveloped us. The cows stood quietly, looking on in bemusement but thankfully had not come through the gate.
Having safely secured the gate, my sister turned around. Seeing me manoeuvring carefully from my spread-eagled position, she doubled over with laughter. She had got off lightly. I got to my knees, carefully, not wanting to skid over again. Tears blinded my eyes.
Mum, hearing the commotion, rushed out to investigate. Seeing me caked in slimy mess and with a look of utter disgust on my face, she cracked up too. Thankfully Mum has always been a quick thinker and a problem solver. Knowing she would have to restore my uniform, woollen winter jumper included she reached for the highwater pressure hose and began spraying me down. The force of water, while painful, worked a treat. I was now a drowned river rat.
To this day my sister and I still laugh about that moment. A ‘shitty situation' turned out to be one of the best childhood bonding moments shared with my super strong and generous sister.
Born in Summer by Erica Munro
Erica is a registered nurse and mother of three teenage/adult boys. She enrolled on Deborah's Introduction to Memoir course not with the intention of writing her own story, but to write the stories of some of the extraordinary people she has crossed paths with in life. Having now been given the opportunity to reflect, to remember and to document her own story she is inspired to continue this challenging yet hopeful journey.
I was born on top of the cliff in Castor Bay on 3rd December 1967. Eastern Bays Maternity Hospital was opened in 1950 and has long since closed. But Mum vividly recalls this idyllic place with the freshly cut lawn, the striking blue sky overhead and the white picnic tables punctured with vibrant sun umbrellas. Like many of the smaller maternity hospitals at that time, the environment was homely and welcoming and my father and almost-two-year-old sister visited daily for a picnic on the cliff.
According to my mother, I shot into the world at great speed, big blue eyes wide open, looking for action. Nine pounds and two ounces of chubby baby, arriving two weeks late and causing significant damage to my carrier. The empathy ensued when I gave birth to my son 35 years later and he was ten pounds and six ounces. Like my mother, some intricate embroidery was required.
The midwives ran a tight ship back then, getting all the babies into a regimented routine in time for their departure home, six days postpartum. There was no night time breastfeeding. The new mothers slept while the babies were either bottle fed by the midwives or left to resettle themselves using the controlled crying technique.
My first week on Earth sounded like a summer vacation for my mother. I’ve long imagined her laughing in her blue spotted big-pants bikini, a wide brimmed sun hat and 1960s sunglasses, perhaps even sipping a pina colada. From personal experience I now know my arrival left my mother with a significant injury. However the imagined scene has always been one of great joy and the delights of summer. I’ve known I was loved from the day I entered the world.
The Trestle by Jicca Smith
Jicca is a sixth-generation South Islander, now living in Auckland after twenty years in London. Her career has been at the interface of legal research, teaching, libraries and information literacy. She loves being home re-connecting with family and sharing memories.
I am lifted up, up into the sun and planted on a wooden trestle table, my younger sister and several other equally surprised toddlers set down beside me. There’s a huge crowd of strange faces pressing towards us on all four sides. I stand fixed to the spot, scared, there is nothing behind me, watchful but also aware that as the oldest at age four, I have to behave.
My three year-old sister stands in front of me, equally resolute, staying close, eyeing the crowd. But the little ones in nappies are already crying, bleating loud distress calls to mothers who shush them, saying “stay there, stay there”. We two are dry-eyed. We know we are to stand still and show off our new togs, ruched at the top and ballooning out, then in again with wide pleats lined in white. An unusually expensive buy in heavy cotton, hers in yellow (my favourite colour) and mine in dark red.
It’s the Highfield School Fair 1962 and this is the Cutest Kid competition. Mum is watching and somewhere in the crowd my grandfather moves, silently recording us for his Cine Club showing later, his movie camera his pride and joy. I am oblivious to that. There’s so much happening on this shaky podium of tears and fear. Cardboard squares with large numbers on them are being handed out. The distressed children are being further cajoled not soothed. “Turn it around” “up the other way”. People laugh at their confusion. I feel immune to this as well. I might not know many numbers, but I know which way round they go and help my sister too.
But I am not immune to everything. Close by, big school boys are pushing forward in the crowd, banging on the trestle with rolled up comics, unrestrained and boisterous. They are looking right at me, my short brown hair pinned up in a topknot, my bright togs, my chubby child body. I am, at age four, already under the spotlight of the male gaze, however innocent.
A flash as large as a saucer explodes and the local newspaper has their photo for tomorrow. Beside it a column describing how small girl children in bathing suits, were assessed, ranked and judged. My shy blonde sister the winner, myself the runner-up.
The Edge by Rae Abraham
Rae, the eldest of five, lives in Tamaki Makaurau with Rangitoto a familiar and reassuring presence. Her three children have discovered their own paths and six mokopuna are finding their way with the villages they need around them.
Transition, was it gradual, or sudden? The transition to adulthood seemed to take a lifetime. Some may say that phase of growing up is called “Life”, the continuity of change as we move through our decades.
There were two events during my transition time between teenager and adult, which colluded to impact beyond their context and into much of my adult life.
On the second to last day of August 1970 I was in my first year of nursing training. My sister, two years younger and adventurous, had met with me for my eighteenth birthday in the city the night before. When, that next morning, the hospital Matron called me from my work in the ward, to her office, I dreaded to think what might have happened to my sister on her way home.
I was completely unprepared for the news that our five-year-old sister had died in her sleep. I was incredulous. Mary was only slightly unwell when I had been home two days before, how could this have happened?
Feelings of disbelief, grief, guilt, impotence and loss combined to implode our family, resulting in a fracturing of children from parents and a thick impenetrable silence around our individual bereavements.
Perhaps it was my incomprehension of God’s lack of intervention in Mary’s death, or my feeling of helplessness, or the early 1970s music; the Hollies’ “Too young to be married” and “I have loved me a man” by Allison Durban were playing on the radio. Whatever the reason, I envisioned my destiny there in the music, not with my heart broken family. When, a few months later, I was dumped by my first lover for an ex-girlfriend I felt betrayed, sullied and unworthy.
I recklessly embarked on a life of parties and partners, perhaps in an attempt to numb my soul. Eventually, by the end of my second year of nursing training this all caught up with me. Failing an examination, I was expecting to fly through and then discovering that the long Easter weekend of abandonment, when I had been gloriously off duty, had resulted in pregnancy. The now familiar feelings of guilt, love, loss and loathing became amplified and a new layer of change and grief was added.
Catherine has left the nursing profession after many years of dedicated care for others, including more recently, close family members. Writing memoir offers her a way of exploring this caring journey, its origin, progress and the inevitable detour at the fork in the road.
Career counselling in Form 7 identified law and journalism as paths out of high school. Instead, France called and I answered putting all thoughts of the future on hold for a classic Kiwi OE. On returning home a series of admin-type jobs filled the next two years. Insurance claims processing, data entry of health statistics, law clerking and, lord knows why, the first year of a Certificate in Commerce at Auckland Technical Institute.
Then a pause, restless, my family fracturing, I embarked on solo travel around New Zealand. Just prior to this I had applied to the Auckland Hospital Board School of Nursing for placement in their training programme. While I was away the acceptance for interview came through. Without any idea of why I had decided on this as a way forward, I flew through the process. It was only when I buttoned up my white tunic with its “introductory” epaulettes and stepped onto the ward that I realised I had found the perfect match. I had entered a world purpose built to fit my nature and nurture. Already a fixer, an empath, a smoother, a soother, a listener, a problem solver, an intuitive carer, I had followed neither career guidance nor conscious decision making to get here. Perhaps the road chose me.
Thirty-five years on, a fork in the road appeared in the form of my father’s failing health. As his daughter I found being confronted with his frailty surprisingly difficult. Similarly, reflecting on my own profession and its systemic failure to care for him at that time was a shock. The dual role of nurse-daughter became the double-edged sword with which I would fight for his rights. I cared more for him than I ever had and the system cared less for him than I ever could have imagined.
I lasted one more year in nursing, leaving to care full time for my mother as she withdrew little by little into her contented dementia. My nursing experience enabled me to honour what had been her request, articulated some time before diagnosis, that she wanted to remain living at home, in her community until she died.
The road travelled today is paved with all that has gone before and stretches out waiting to be chosen each day with each step toward a time of greater caring for myself. I choose it.
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