I’m unsure of my age. I’m old enough to sit up, but not old enough to speak more then a little. I have no memory of the event, but it is his favourite story of caring for me. It has been told on so many occasions, to so many people, over so many years, that I have a permanent third-person memory of the event etched in my mind, one in which I can see the two of us in the kitchen at their house in Te Aroha.
My only genuine memory of the house is of sunlight entering a living room. I’m lying on the floor playing with plastic toy soldiers, and landing craft. There is a couch or divan nearby, and one of my uncles is seated on it. He is perhaps 8 or 10. The wallpaper is striped in a 60′s style. It’s this memory that infects the next.
He always tells it as though it is the most incredible event he’s witnessed. My grandmother has left the house for some reason, and he is in charge of feeding me. “One weetbix”, while he has breakfast of his own to cook. I can clearly see myself sitting up in a high-chair, watching him. “Nom nom nom,” he says I say, “Nomnom.” Apparently this piques his interest, and he decides to feed me another weetbix. And another. And a peice of toast. And another. And some of his cup of tea. And another piece of toast.
“Never bloody seen anything like it,” he’ll say, “you just kept eating, and eating, and eating, all the while saying nomnomnomnomnom.”
I’ve heard this story since I was 5 years old. Every time it is near identical, which speaks to its truthfulness, and I have always seen it as little more than an example of his gentle teasing of me for being bigger than the average. A fun story to tell incredulous girlfriends he meets; a warning, if you will, for he is a true-blue family man.
But I’ve come to see it as something more. This is a tale of caring, and probably one at a time when my mother herself was unable to care for me. I can see now a pattern in which she fell into and out of ability to manage care of my brothers and I for herself, and so lended heavily on her parents to take us.
While this isn’t a controversial act, many young women rely on this type of help, it is deeply ingrained in the history of us, a necessity we came to take for granted, his steadfast and unconditional reliability in the face of difficulties she imposed on herself. And all this despite a deep undercurrent of the shame she was causing him, and worse, my grandmother.