Kate grew up in the U.S. and moved to New Zealand 14 years ago with her then-
husband and son who is now 18 and a kiwi. She is a volcanologist who left university teaching two years ago and now works for Auckland Council defending geological features from development. She has fought internal resistance to writing memoir and now embraces it as her way to sort out the past and connect with other memoir readers and writers in an honest way. She learns and grows from reading others’ work and hopes that others may benefit from reading hers.
I have kept a journal all my life, sometimes regularly, sometimes erratically. Of course, I regret the gaps, but that’s how it’s gone.
When I was a little girl, I hid a tiny diary up in the unused chimney in my bedroom.
When I lived in Hungary at eighteen, I used the same style of notebook for a year, due to a limited choice of office supplies behind the Iron Curtain, a series of pale purple books, maybe half A5 size, which I filled with tiny handwriting.
I’ve searched for the perfect notebooks for journaling and for work. For work I’ve had books for: meeting notes; diaries; sometimes books for each project; sometimes tried to merge all notes into the same book.
Big books, small books. Colorful books. Lined, dotted, blank pages.
Books from Trade Aid that I thought were obscenely expensive, paper handmade by Indians and Tibetans from pulverized weeds, with bright, cheerful woven cloth covers. Books from the stationery store in Devonport that ARE obscenely expensive, German and French. Books from art galleries and museums. I’ve sought beauty in the cover, the right texture and size of paper. I noted that the doctor and poet William Carlos Williams wrote short skinny poetry on prescription pads while at work; the shape of the paper can determine the shape and length of the sentences, long and rambling or short and concise.
There was much angst. Is this the right one in which to pour out my heart? How do I use a notebook most efficiently at work? How do I keep track of my scattered thinking? I rarely used the same style twice.
My journal writing picked up through the end of my marriage, a failed romance and loss of a dear friend, my mother dying, one of my best friends getting brain cancer, and another romantic disaster. I left my job, timing just a coincidence in between lockdowns, in what felt like the most catastrophic failure of my life. This happened simultaneously with yet another relationship breakup, one that left me paralyzed with grief. I wrote and wrote and wrote, smudged ink with my tears. Fell asleep with the fountain pen in my hand and woke to find ink blots that had permeated a dozen pages or left sloppy trails across my bed sheets.
The grief of those years accumulated; each new loss opens the wounds for all that has gone before. It brings me to my knees again and again. A wise friend who works with dying people and their families gave me an analogy of a hole, a deep hole in the earth that is our grief. We can cover the hole with plywood, create a surface to walk on, go along with our lives as if the hole isn’t there. Sometimes something will happen that forces us to remember, but if we want to badly enough, we can cover it up. It will take a toll, alcoholism, anxiety, abuse, insomnia, but those are easier to bear than grief that rips us apart like lions’ sharp teeth shredding its prey.
If we can bear it, if we can be brave, we can fill the hole with dirt, shovelful by shovelful. It is painful, it cannot be fast-tracked, cannot be rushed. If we can do it, we can fill in the hole and have solid ground, be somewhere safe.
I have tried to fill in the hole by shoveling dirt. I have tried to look loss and despair in the eye, to figure out who Kate is and what she wants and needs. Not Mom, not the ex-husband, not lovers or partners or bosses or friends. It is hard and painful and imperfect.
And now a new place to live. A new job that I hope makes sense for me. In any case I have chosen it, not gone with what I thought would be all I could do, trying to make things work when they were the wrong fit and hoping things would work out.
I found a therapist who helped me so much that I wanted to sit afterwards and write down my thoughts and his words to process it more. For this I needed a therapy notebook that was portable, also with nice paper for the fountain pen. It needed to be small enough to fit in my bag with my ink pot in case I ran out of ink at a café.
I have found notebooks that make me happy, the one for this class, which was a gift from my aunt and uncle in the U.S., which is grey and not one which I would have chosen, but which I treasure because it was one of the last gifts from my aunt who died last year.
For work I’ve settled on the ugly and practical, working through Peter’s leftovers from his school years, so they say “Peter K. French” and “Peter Kenedi, Science.” I’ve added “Kate Lewis, Science.” In that one I left the pages he used, so his notes of the scientific method and the solar system introduce my notes on geothermal geophysics.
Finally I have settled just a bit. For my journal I found a large, blank, hard-backed notebook and for therapy and travel a smaller, soft-covered notebook in a brand whose richly colored covers made me ache with joy. I have spent lavishly for them even when I have been most worried about money over the last years. I peel the plastic wrapping off them and caress them, open them and stroke the pages. I write.
Without my brain tumour, I would probably still be reporting the news of my Auckland suburb. Instead, I am writing a memoir about my past, wandering the lands of fact and fiction.
I arrived here from Germany via the US where I studied post-graduate history, fell in love and had three sons. New Zealand has taught me about origin myths, and I have set off to write mine. I also read, swim and paint walls.
As an only child, siblings are something I don’t know. Not even a generation back. My father is an only child. My mother, once one of four, now only has a sister left who she avoids.
My three sons relate in boyish ways, with bikes and music.
For me, siblings mostly exist in my imagination, in the what if of fiction.
What if I was one of two or more and had grown up in a house echoing young voices like my own rather than my grandparents’ stoic silence or my parents frequent and loud arguments.
What if I had shared a room with a sister and we breathed the same air while sleeping. Would we be in each other’s dreams? Would seeing her after opening my eyes from a nightmare be reassuring enough to keep me in bed?
What if there was someone who looked like a different version of me, just a little bit younger or older, a me to look at from the outside? Would her eyes be the same colour, or shape same shape? Would her hair be like mine or would I have been the first to go grey?
Would we smell alike?
I am sure we would have fought as kids. But how? Physically? Verbally? Open fisted or with daggers? Would we have told each other, in the worst moments of our fights, that the other was just like our mother?
How would we have made up? With hug? Holding hands? A Nod? Not?
Would a sister have kept me from talking to myself? Or would I just talk to myself about her?
How would we love each other? Would we ride horses together, read the same books, wear each other’s clothes.
Would there have been less in my life? Fewer family vacations? Tents instead of hotel rooms? No money for horse riding lessons for either of us. Would my mother have stopped working for more than one daughter? Would she have been around more? Would that have been nice?
Today, would we agree that our parents’ divorce was the best thing that ever happened? Would we see the same signs of aging in my father’s body and mind? Would we both tell him to stop drinking? Would she visit me in New Zealand? Would she be alive?
As an only child, she will not be a chapter in my memoir. She is only a character resonating in the short story of my life.
Shaking encrusted fluoro digits (against ever increasing nutritional evidence), Jane is grateful — still — for: the opportunity to continue indulging in foil wrapped snacks throughout her twilight years and of course Books and the people who write them.
The viaduct on that warm Sunday some weeks ago, John and I cast on those strangely tortuous seating installations; squinting at boats, water, the toytown bridge that chirrups up and down allowing vessels to slink underneath, and relieved, away.
There were three boys, eleven or twelve years? Doing the same — but stripped to the waist in commandeered shorts, swinging from a rail that followed steps down into sea.
God — they were lovely Boys! Without guile or posture. Speaking loudly — excitedly and fond, exclaiming at things on and in the bob of water. The subtle acceleration and joyful menace of flicking water one to each other. Suddenly their gaze and speech snatched on: some Thing under the hide of water — a fish, a jelly fish? A…body?
Some Thing big, unexpected. The boys danced and howled. The largest sweet boy went close as he dared down to The Thing — and thrilled out of this own skin — leapt back up turning to scan the tide of us miserably seated bastards.
“Look! Look! Look at this!"
Yelling, pointing. His eyes — drawing back and over us. I looked at us too. Felt a scratch in my throat. Hooked.
“That’s amazing!” I whinnied — startling myself, John, those nearby.
“I’ve never seen that before!”
We knew I was the only one. The boy cut me immediately and turned back.
I wish not to forget his face almost more than I wish I knew what the Thing was.
This week, hurrying up the drive home from work — a large gorgeous rat met my stride and kept me company for a small stretch until I registered actually, stopped and screamed a single pitched note.
Alongside — behind a fence, the children in the crèche garden bustling. The rat turned left sharp, away. I skimmed the groups of busy smallness — looking for eyes. Someone to see. One did. Looked back at me with both cocked head and finger trailing left, a curly eyed stare. Contempt.
Later, John walked into the kitchen wearing a new shirt that he patted and said,
I hope this shirt will make you fall in love with me again.
Sylvia has a background in biomedicine, and specifically in climate and environmental health. Throughout her life and work, she has been committed to pursuing a path of learning about holistic, nature-based knowledge systems of different cultures. Sylvia has also been involved in diverse collaborations with artists and architects. This journey led her to collaboratively develop participatory models for partnerships that can help build climate resilience in marginalised communities. These projects use digital media for witnessing, reporting and documenting lives in a rapidly changing world by those most affected. Sylvia has acted as an advisor for the United Nations (UNITAR-UNOSAT) on community-based disaster reporting using digital media to map environmental destruction and support relief efforts in an acute crisis.
My mother Lizzy was emerging from the scrubby undergrowth in a small stand of fir trees. Her normally very smart hair style was ruffled, autumnal yellow and red leaves had got caught in her chestnut curls. She was wearing a simple cotton dress with a flower pattern that would not mind getting caught by branches and thorns or stained by the juices of crushed berries.
Lizzy was holding her roomy wicker basket on one arm, triumphantly waving a large porcini mushroom with the other hand. She called out excitedly: “Look what I’ve found, a whole lot of these, my basket is almost full!” My mother was in her heaven. She was in the forest!
This forest in Bavaria, far from her homeland, was still the same European forest as the one she had lost. She was happiest among the trees, remembering her own parents, her sister and brothers, and the life close to nature they had enjoyed. The forest was her, it expressed her soul. It was healing her memories.
My mother knew her forest very well, and knew the places that most nurtured the soul. And she wanted to share the beauty and peace of these places with her daughter. So, when I was as young as three years old, my mother would sit me down on a plump, brilliantly green pillow of moss, and gave me interesting things picked up from the forest floor to play with, while she and my father Kurt went exploring together to find mushrooms, not too far from me. Her forest also became a place of safety and joy for me.
Porcini with their full, nutty flavour were the most highly prized mushrooms, but my parents collected a wide variety of different species, as they had grown up with the Central European passion for ‘going mushrooming’ in the deep, evergreen conifer forests covering extensive parts of the land, and among deciduous beeches, larches and oaks that grew where the dark forests met the open meadows. These trees were transformed into a celebration of life’s rhythms when their leaves turned red, orange and yellow in autumn.
There were many kinds of mushrooms living in symbiosis with the different tree communities, one just needed to know where to look. My parents had both learnt the age-old lore of which mushrooms were the most delicious to use in the kitchen, and which were poisonous, as young children from their mothers. They shared a deep love for the forest.
Lizzy also loved to prepare a picnic basket, covered by a red and white checkered cotton cloth.
She would pack a large garlic sausage and a sturdy knife to cut thick chunks for my dad, herself and me. For our present outing, she had gone to the butcher who made these sausages the day before. The butcher came from her birth town in the Ore Mountains in Central Europe and created authentic small goods, faithfully following traditional recipes for Silesians displaced by the Second World War. This sausage tasted like no other to my mother, like home. There was also potato salad with gherkin pickles, hard boiled eggs, whole tomatoes and cold sweetened lemon tea. A real Silesian picnic.
When Lizzy and Kurt had gathered as many mushrooms as they could carry, it was time for a celebration picnic. On the way home, Lizzy made a bouquet of branches with autumn leaves and berries. Back at the house, she put them into a Silesian stoneware vase in our living-room.
The vase was decorated with the famous blue and white peacock eye design which had evolved in a shared Polish, Czech and German ceramics tradition over several hundred years. Through my child’s eyes, and with an interest in the earth and the planets from an early age, I imagined the pattern as many Earth planets, protected by their atmosphere, floating in space.
Catherine now lives with a greater sense of self, both in awareness and acceptance. Hers is a life no longer defined by role or what she does. It is no less empathetic or caring in the living of it merely less effortful in its doing and more vibrant in each moment. It was a challenge at first and remains so for others however she is content.
A paint spatter of indiscriminate jobs dotted the canvas of my early post school years. Then on a summer holiday in Russell my thoughts landed on nursing, I applied and was accepted. Why? Who knows, not me! But now I imagine, even though I had decided on it, that rather it had chosen me. A carer, a fixer upper-er, with a make things ok nature. I mean what other vocation was there? Little did I know how much it would nip and tuck at that nature, at my self. Shapeshifting yet holding steady at my core and perhaps even growing more myself because of it.
In the early ‘80s nursing was already under resourced with a union that rolled over in pay negotiations, not listening to or even asking the opinion of its members. Quite a contrast to the current environment. But I knew nothing of that politic or the heavy oppressive male domination that skulked around corridors, that strode about ward rounds and made demands in written Drs orders.
There I am in my photo ID, fresh faced, standing in left profile. White tunic, button front, smooth from the swish of the bodies of nurses gone before; laundered in the basement, new ones collected for each shift. Epaulettes white with a red capital “I” for Introductory across both shoulders.
I lived in and out and in again in the Nurses Home, a filing cabinet of a building with mostly female cohabitants, comrades in arms. We linked arms every day and launched into whatever was before us. At that time we were employed by the Hospital Board and there was little supervision by tutors. We went about our clinical learning on the heels of a Staff Nurse, a one-on-one mentorship of sorts, depending on the ward and shift you were rostered to.
We were dedicated, a solid mass of energy, intensely idealistic , a unique cohort we had an edge and liked to live somewhat dangerously. Perhaps this came from the experiences we witnessed and were part of. Nursing is visceral inside and out; it is volatile and variable in every way. You experience the best, the worst and everything between. And thus, you cope as best you can together.
There was space in the old hospital building. Space to wheel a patient to the Day Room for a smoke, windows open to minimise the smell and likelihood of alarm, from a Charge Nurse or an actual alarm. Space in the Linen Room if still hungover from the night before to catch a wink or two on full bags of soft fresh laundry, before morning handover. Space to linger in a side room on a night shift, enjoying a quick inhalation of O2 by nasal prongs from a portable cylinder, to pep you up until 7 am shift change.
There was AIDS and discrimination and fear, a woman in an iron lung, as flat as Roadrunner when the boulder falls on him instead of the Wylie Coyote. There was singing in the intensive care specialists band on a Friday night at Grafton Oaks, paid in drinks, go figure. There was holding the hands of strangers. Bikers, too fast they hit the roundabout on New Years Eve; no helmets, no mercy,
no identity, dying alone with a student to witness their last word or breath. There was a first birth, a thespian who trod the boards with a theatre company I long admired. There was every age, stage and vulnerability.
There was the calm of a night shift until the old lady in Bedspace 1 Room 2, disoriented on her Halcion climbs over her cot sides. Both she and her glass Redivac drains crash to the floor and shatter blood while roommates stir and grumble. There were three bells when the team came running white coats flapping, old ECG machines rattling sometimes in time and too late at others. 2 bells for security when the gangs got stroppy, tired of waiting for pain relief for their bedridden mate in traction. Always respectful of nurses, strange code that. Then mostly always one bell, a call to a bedside to meet a patients’ needs. There was bullying by men and women doctors and nurses. We were everything and not much of anything at times.
But when the work was done, we would laugh and cry and dance along Grafton Bridge. Sneaking out after hours and sneaking boyfriends in knowing Shirley and Josie would tut tut but turn away with a secret smile.
When I think back to that only yesterday time I miss it in a way. But I do not want it anymore.
“16th June 2022
Tena Koe Catherine,
I would like to formally acknowledge your service and commitment and care to the public of New Zealand and thank you for your contribution to the profession of nursing.
Nga mihi nui
There it is, nearly 40 years. It is enough now and it was almost too much then. Time to get on with the work of life.
Rae is an older woman who continues to learn about herself and others.
I met my Dad, the man, during a Gestalt counselling session three years after he had died. Deciding I needed help to work through some issues, what emerged was long-held anger towards my dad.
Ranting and raving I shouted at him – the empty chair – my outpouring focussed on his apparent indifference to my life, the remembered absences in my childhood when he was at work, golf, committee meetings, unavailable at times when I needed him most.
As the session came to a close, my emotion exhausted, I slumped in the chair opposite his empty one and heard a quiet “I’m so sorry”. Initially incredulous at this impossibility then weeping in a togetherness I cannot explain, I felt the man, the person, as bewildered as his daughter. A man of integrity, generosity and wisdom. A man with talents and vulnerabilities, who valued honesty, hard work and meticulous, careful use of resources. His life purpose to provide security for his wife and children and extend love to his families, community and our Mum.
In that Gestalt session I recognised my anger towards Dad was grief, grief for the lost years and the relationship with him that I had yearned for.
Now the relationship I have with my father is richer, more generous and appreciative of the man he was and tried to be and the Dad he was and is. When I contemplate my Dad the scenes that come to mind today involve, not feelings of loss, but comforting cellular aromas; holidaying in Rotorua, his cigarette smoke entwined with the sulphuric mist rising to meet the damp morning air and the fragrance of fresh yeast bread. The intermingling of Old Spice, cigarettes, Persil, wool and maybe whiskey with wood smoke from the open fireplace. The pungent aroma of paper, leather and ink in his dark and brown city office. And then the every day smells of toothpaste and shaving cream, weekend smells of garden sweat and beer and the safety and comfort that was there but seldom appreciated. Thank you Dad.
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