October 2009


Having only approached my Father’s family in my early twenties, I have found myself lightly equipped with small amounts of information about his full tale. Not wanting to further disturb an uneasily resting memory, and finding myself having a considerable degree of difficultly assimilating the details I did have, the bandage has been slowly removed over the last (near-) twenty years.

In large part the long duration of this tale and it’s unfolding, layer by layer, has been a ploy to enable the exposure to air of each small part of the greater wound to heal, or at least dry, before the next small cut can be revealed. But such is the way with writing histories of many living persons. There are many tales I would recall but for my conscience of the ripples the telling would cause. As I say, such is the way.

As a consequence, the discovery of details pertaining to the last few months of my Father’s life have been difficult. My understanding is that he found himself in a slipping downward, and was seeking a way off the heights upon which he found himself, a problem to which anyone who has experienced the noose of addiction will relate.

It was a time when surveillance of youth, and drug users in particular, had become a concern to Auckland Police, and early efforts were being made to ‘combat’ what was understood as the seamier side of the counter-culture (although, truth be told, to comfortable middle-class New Zealand the entire culture was pretty seamy).  And with surveillance comes intervention, and to 70s New Zealand intervention meant institutionalisation.

My impression then is, that in an effort to escape Auckland and his life there, my Father followed his younger sister to the East Coast, a place these days far from everything, but then a complete world away. And so it was that when my Mother returned from Australia my paternal Grandfather was enlisted to drive her from the airport, to collect me, and we joined him in early 1972, Tokomaru Bay.

In a confession made many years ago my Grandfather admitted that he was dubious about the likelihood that I was his grandson, but being the man of his generation he is, he did the right thing and drove back to the Coast, itself something like a return journey for him – his family having farmed the country before the Depression. I imagine he must have driven from Auckland, to Te Aroha to collect me, and from there to Tokomaru Bay, a drive of perhaps 10 hours on some of the worst roads in New Zealand, with a complete stranger.

I’ve often wondered what they spoke about, my Mother and he, assuming they spoke at all. My own recollection of what it was to be a young adult leaves no doubt that the gulf between them would have been enormous, the generational difference likely insurmountable. And in turn, he would have arrived in Tokomaru Bay to find the same gulf between himself and two of his children, themselves living the idealised life of the flower-powered, turned on, and tuned in, long since dropped out.

F,FLP

Well, I seem to have cracked it on the third attempt. This is what I did with my long weekend.

This one is sticking together fairly well, was easy enough to cook in my new non-stick, oven-proof pan. The pan might have been a key, it’s a “flash as” one from the Warehouse (of all places), and I’ve been using it for almost everything for a week or more.

There still needs to be a little work on getting the caramel just right, this one wasn’t right and “split” into toffee and butterscotch.

But if you’re wanting a decent dessert? I can declare this the most delicious thing I’ve made in ages.

Back when I thought I might try to string this story together, an effort to understand a history and unravel my own subconscious both, I approached my mother and asked her permission. Whether she knew the depths of our joint past to which I would plumb is questionable, but she must have had an inkling, because she gave me a story of which I was completely unaware, and was a considerable surprise to me. A shot across the bow, as it were.

When we returned from Greece I remember living in another now long-demolished bach in what is today ‘downtown’ Mount Maunganui. It was a couple of street across from my grandparents, and it was one of those halcyon summers you remember as a child. Apparently this story started there.

For some reason we had moved from that place, which was ‘close to the action’ as it were, to Arataki – the suburb I would spend the remainder of my childhood. Arataki was the edge of the world in Mount Maunganui, with lots of state housing, and the general appearance of what they call these days ‘nappy valley’. The skies had circled to the near-perpetual grey of a New Zealand winter, and we were sharing a place with some other people. To this day I don’t remember who they are. But I do remember it being the place that my youngest brother took his first steps.

One of my most keen memories of that house is many adults turning up one day, and everybody disappearing into a back room. The lesson I took away being that children see far more than you might realise, and are more keenly aware of adult behaviour that you might expect. I knew then, as I knew as early as age five, the something specific involved in their secrecy.

From that place, we moved to what became our home until the late 1990s, a state house on the very edge of town, although these days it is buried in wealthy suburbia.

So why all this moving, I hear you ask. Well, it seems that my mother had become involved in some sort of Police investigation into the explicable adult behaviour I had mentioned. Her role has long been something to which she has admitted limited liability, but her tale to me (the one indicated at the start of this wee ramble), made something very clear to me. She was playing an extremely dangerous game.

Discovering the exact ins and outs of what happened is likely to never happen. This was an event of 30 years ago, and is likely buried deep in people’s memory. What I do know is what she told me, which was simple, and which I’ve come to regard as a moment of particularly lucid truthfulness in her retelling to me of the past.

Some local guys became convinced she was assisting the Police, and decided they would put a stop to it. They’d been making threats for a fair while, and must have decided to act.  They came to the house while my brother and I were at school (though where my youngest brother was, I do not know). They took her to a house in the country, and there, with her petrified at what they might do, they took out a kit, and began cooking up a dose. By now she’d figured out what they were doing. She had initially thought they were either going to scare her, rape her, or kill her, in ascending order of awfulness. But watching the guy with the spoon and the lighter, and wondering where the other guy was, she intervened. He must have been dithering with the spike, because she claims she looked him in the eye, pulled up her sleeve, dumping it on the kitchen table and just stated, “For Christs’ sake [Jimmy], just fucking do it. I can’t live like this anymore, and you can’t live like this anymore. Just fucking do it.”

He let her live.

F,FLP

I think if you had the impression that this story was mine and mine alone, you would be mistaken. While I have become the narrator, in truth this story is the tale of all my family. My thinking is, while we have become so very used to seeing ourselves as individuals, we cannot truly see ourselves in isolation. All the things that make up this fabric of individual lives are woven out of the threads of the lives of our forebears. Nothing is new or magical, though many may attempt to convince themselves otherwise.

My mother finds herself then, parent to a child she had not expected to have, a mirror of her own mother, except in the comfort of her situation. She tells a story of bringing me home from the hospital. She had received the customary baby-shower from her workmates (she worked until she was perhaps 8 months pregnant), but was too ashamed to admit that she would be adopting me out, and so secretly gave away my baby clothes and the things she had received. As a consequence I was brought home in clothes from the hospital, several sizes too small, a big 10-pound lad in a 6-pound bonnet.

We made do for another 18 years, she and I. Never bereft or missing the things we needed, but never completely fitting or comfortable.

I cannot say that it was an easy childhood, but it was far far from the hell some children are put through. I learned many things; such as thrift, the emotional value of objects as treasures, the value of a true friendship, not to want too much (for it only leads to dissatisfaction and anxiety, a lesson I had to re-learn many many times), to accept difference with calm, to see the world from the bottom looking up, and finally, to accept that everything is a veneer – true colours lie beneath the appearance.

It’s appropriate that my very first memory is from my return to New Zealand, in what must have been November of 1971. Strangely, it is a view of me being taken from a Sydney to Auckland plane. I am being brought out of the doorway of the plane, and carried down the gantry to my Grandparents, who will look after me until my mother can afford the airfare home. The perspective of the memory is external to me, meaning that I see myself swaddled in blankets being carried ‘towards myself’.

But this memory is so old that it has become genuine, a tale told to me when I was very very young, impressed for so long that I cannot shake it, and see it as how the event unfolded. In a way, I remember what someone else saw, imagined and etched into the mind of a pre-schooler. This means that my first memory is not my own, but is collectivised, a shared past and a reference point imparted to me by someone who had an entirely different picture in their own mind. And which is the more true?

F,FLP

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