Jean Rockel has emerged from her long academic career in early childhood education at the University of Auckland with a desire to learn about writing memoir and the short-story genre. She feels she is now on her way as a result of inspiration from the Master Classes in Memoir at the Michael King Writers’ Centre.
My mother, Jean, was the youngest in a family of eleven children and I was named Jean Valentine after her and a distant Scottish relative who had been isolated in her croft for several days after her husband had been killed. Something in the pathos of this extraordinary situation had touched my mother and she had the name Valentine added to her own name.
My mother’s father, John Barr, was a stonemason and a strong socialist who brought his family to Christchurch from Scotland at the beginning of the 20th century for health reasons, but also I imagine he perceived this country as offering more opportunities for him politically to make a difference. My mother, the youngest, was born after they arrived in New Zealand. My grandfather chose Redcliffs, a small fishing village with a population of about seventy people, at that time. The house was by the sea and apparently my grandmother was afraid of being flooded by high seas so my grandfather built protective stonewalls around the perimeter and part of the house was reinforced with large red volcanic stones.
From the beginning my grandfather exercised leadership in his neighbourhood; he helped establish Redcliffs school, a camp for survivors of the World War I flu epidemic and was mayor of Sumner, while at the same time continuing his stone-masonry. I also learned from my mother how her father asked her to take food to people in need, but with strict instructions not to be seen delivering the food. Always an advocate for working people, my grandfather founded the Christchurch Trades and Labour Council, and was the workers’ representative in the parliamentary upper house and chairman for legislative council committees until his death.
My grandfather had come a long way from his childhood origins in Stirling, Scotland. His father died when he was an infant and he lost his mother as a very young child when one terrible day she ‘popped out’ without a hat or coat, only a small purse, to get some milk from around the corner leaving him and his brother at home. She was never seen again despite the canals being dragged in a desperate search for her. There were rumours she had been snatched by white slave traders and maybe taken to the Middle East. The family also conjectured her disappearance may have been in connection with a significant family inheritance she was destined to receive and that other scurrilous members of the family may have disposed of her. My poor grandfather and his brother were put into foster care while they say the youngest brother died pining for his mother.
I grew up hearing these tales of my family and though I never met my grandfather I admire him for his advocacy and generosity of spirit. The women too were strong and my own mother compassionate and courageous. She died fighting a terminal illness at the mid-point in her life when I was fourteen. She was a literary person who lived through two world wars and died before feminism truly asserted itself. She taught me how to love and be loved, a product of her own family history.
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