I think it may well be that my grandmother was merely born a generation or two too late. She seems to have thought it unlady-like to drive, for example, and never learned. My mother has a story of sitting in the backseat of the car with her brothers and giggling as Ngaire clutched the dashboard and waved her fist at a car who had overtaken another a good mile or so ahead of them, all the time yelling, “BLOODY FOOLS!!” So maybe her being hopped up on bennies wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

Moreover, Ngaire had peculiar attitudes about the right and wrong way to live one’s life. Though she was in no way genteel, I remember her New Zealand accent being pronounced, though not broad, gentility was something to which she aspired. Her fascination with Elizabeth the Second for example, a young Queen with whom she obviously identified, as evidenced by her near-identical dress over the years, sans expensive hats. And I saw this, despite her slipping on occasion and demonstrating that see saw through the minefield of pretence old money and gentility all-too frequently garbs itself with here in Godzone.

Ironically, the first lesson she taught me? We were on a day-trip to the Waikato to visit old friends of theirs. It was a palatial place and as we drove up to the house I remarked that, they must be rich! She simply stated to me, “Having money doesn’t mean you’ll be happy. Some of the richest people are the most miserable.” If there was something further I was to have noticed on that trip it escaped me, with those words being almost all that remains.

I’m uncertain to this day who instilled this quiet reverence of her social betters in her, but have a suspicion it may have been her father, who she apparently adored, and to whom my grandfather seems to have never measured up. Ngaire was uniquely one-eyed about him in a manner befitting a loyal daughter, for example condemning my grandfather for the vice of gambling on the horses, something he adored (in fact, when they were doing well in the late 1970s Mervyn almost purchased a race-horse), and something a gentleman like her father would not indulge in. But, I’m informed that my grandfather’s habit was stoked by Ngaire’s father slipping him money to place a quiet bet, a trust-bond kept secret from the ladies…

These bundles of hypocrisy pervade my memories of Ngaire. She was devoutly Christian, but condemned my mother for following my lead and becoming a Baptist (with consequent “tidying up of act” and dropping numerous… bad habits…). She respected my mother’s wishes in our house, but would routinely abuse those wishes in her own – I clearly remember my mother fuming while my grandmother played “Stairway to Heaven”, or “Hotel California” (whichever was considered the more “Satanic”, I forget which) on the stereo, much to my brothers’ and my delight.

But finally, I remember her finally losing her cool a little too much one Christmas. We were seated at the table and conversation turned to the past, with Ngaire loudly accusing my mother of “being seen walking down the main street of Te Aroha… holding HANDS WITH A MAORI.” You’d imagine this to have taken place some 25 years previous. My mother dropped everything and left, taking my youngest brother with her. To this day I regret not leaving as well.

You know? I think that may have been the last time they ever really spoke? It’s can’t have been long after that Ngaire died, Mervyn finding her on the floor of the kitchen of the small RSA retirement flat in which he still lives, a beatific smile on her face, glory come to save her from this life; the sorrow, the shame, the disappointment, her heart finally having failed, and given up a ghost.

And so her second and only other true lesson to me. That there is no fear of death. That there is something beautiful there beyond the veil, even if it is only lasting peace.

F,FLP

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