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.
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.
Inge has been working on a record of where her ancestors came from, who they were and who they became in their travels through life. The family history and her stories are a gift of love for her grandchildren, who will continue the family in New Zealand. Inge has travelled extensively through Europe, Southern Africa, Australia and New Zealand and hopes her grandchildren too will love adventure and travel and speak many languages that open windows to other worlds.
The content of this wheelie box is different, I discover, when I lift the lid. Old shirts and t-shirts, the usable part of old linen sheets. And then, at the bottom of the box, I find the fabric I bought in the Todd Mall in Alice Springs on our return from travelling through the Simpson Desert in 2005. An Aboriginal print, a river of yellows, blues and reds. There are fish in the river, barramundi perhaps, stingrays and jellyfish. Maybe it was one of the great rivers of the Northern Territory that inspired the artist — the Ord, the Fitzroy or the Norman River at the Gulf of Carpentaria. Rivers that don’t dry up like the fickle inland rivers.
There was no water in the Todd River when Ron and I were in Alice. Australia was in the grip of a ten-year drought. There was no water in the Fink River either, the oldest river on earth, when we crossed it at the Glendover Crossing. Ron drove. I walked across the wide, sandy riverbed lined with trees, sentinels of the river, letting you know the river is still there, a tiny stream running deep underground, waiting for the rain that will come in a few years, in a decade maybe and turn it once again into a mighty river.
In our desert life possessions were stripped back to a minimum. At the end of every day when darkness descended and night sucked the warmth from the land, when the sky blazed with a thousand stars I stood at the edge of eternity.
Anna has written a memory of her childhood as it was and still is, an ever-present image for her. It represents the love and dedication her parents had for her and her siblings and the learned values they wished to demonstrate.
Growing up as second eldest in a busy family of six, summer mornings at our home assumed some kind of flow around the swimming routine. Both my parents were keen swimmers and they made sure we were going to be too. By the age of ten we were signed up at the local swimming club and were training 3x a week.
Dad would lead the ten-minute walk from our rambling house on the corner of Beauchamp Street, along Lewer St to the Karori baths. Out the gate at 6.45am, four children aged between eight and fifteen would follow, togs on, towels draped around our neck, ready to swim our lengths. Often, we would set up a race along Lewer St with a handicap for the younger two so they could keep up. Our cat Sooty would often accompany us and sit outside the pools waiting to make the return walk with us, still in our togs, no need for races now because with just one shower for the kids we were well motivated to get back.
Mother would more often than not stay at home to make the school lunches and prepare the breakfast. On November mornings once a week for a treat we would have whitebait fritters. We used to marvel how far she could make one pottle of whitebait go by beating the egg whites separately and conjuring enough fluffy fritters to feed six hungry humans.
We grew up with music of all types and a Father at the piano hammering out the same two old jazzy tunes all our lives. The upside was he managed an importing company, and we were often the first to get the latest albums from overseas. Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, the Doors, the Beatles, and Deep Purple to name a few. On these same summer mornings, the loud, music would pour out the open windows and locals walking past would look up, puzzled by the new pop songs floating out.
Looking back on our childhood in this place all four of us share fond memories of our parents and their influence on our lives. The right balance of discipline and fun, warmth, love, and a lot of laughter. How lucky we were.
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.
Please submit your story via the Contact page and it will receive a gentle edit from Deborah.