Falling, Folding Leaves of Paper
They always talk about that, ay? That pitter-patter of little feet and what it means for the happiness of families. Each of them a little bundle of joy. A trouble that’s a little one. Every goddamn cliché you can imagine all packed into a 3 by 2 crib and stuck mewling and crying in a room to look at a over-priced mobile and a ceiling of ‘ivory’.
It’s at that age that you can’t imagine them doing all those things they’ll end up doing to embarrass you, to bankrupt you, to keep you up till 3am wondering. Well… what am I saying… of course you can imagine it, I’m imagining it right now, aren’t I? But it’s all the bullshit I got up to that I’m repeating. So at worse the best I can think is, don’t be the same kind of little bastard I was…
And it’s when you flip that one on it’s head that it starts to get more relevance. We’re each of us nothing but trouble to our parents, and they were nothing but trouble to theirs in return. It’s an endless cycle of pissed-off old people and semi- or irresponsible youth. But like I say, flip it on its head and take a look at it. What happens when we’re the ones who suffer at the hands of our parents? What happens when we’re the ones loaded down with responsibility, the ones who are worried to death about what they’re up to? What it is to be a 5-year-old kid standing in the doorway while some fucker slaps a patch of blood the size of your helpless fists out of your mother into a stain on the fridge you just came to get juice from? What then?
What am I asking?! I hear you ask. What am I trying to coax out of you while you sit slightly stunned thinking you were going to be reading a missive on parenthood? Hmmm? I’m asking what you do to cope with a history unfolding in front of you, falling in front of you, a history ordained by fate and written on the leaves of a book made of pointless, meaningless dollar bills.
And I ask this because I can still see it like it was yesterday.
I’m standing in a paddock, with the blue skies reaching from horizon to horizon. The grass underneath my feet and stretching out towards the rugby club in the distance is winters green, and the air crisp, prickly. My breath is coming in ragged, rough gasps because I’ve been running, and my best mate is yelling, screaming, “Tell him!! Just fuckin’ tell him!!”
The fences around us are there to keep in stock we’ve never seen, and they’re falling slowly into disrepair. They’re 50 feet from us and they’re a weathered grey of the kind you only seen in old farmland. The wire is slack on most.
There’s a seagull squawking, and flapping about above us somewhere.
And I’m 7 years old.
And I’m holding a knife to the throat of another child.
* * *
Fate is, after all, and extremely funny thing, isn’t it? Not funny ha hah ay, but funny like quirky, weirdness in your life. We can each map out our futures and stride towards them, but fate will always manoeuvre us towards something it wants us to experience. Not that I’m a fatalist mind you. We all have choices and those choices are effected by us. But if that fate has put you in a situation where you’re looking into the eyes of a terrified kid then… you’re probably not making the right choices in the first place. Right?
But hell… I was seven years old for christssakes.
Because like I say, you can be the responsible one, and be making good decisions (relative to your age), and still be screwed by the things happening around you.
Fate puts a drunk in your kitchen, and fate puts a knife in your hand. But the choice to use that knife is what separates us from fate. No where is it written that you have to plunge the blade. No where is it written that you have to stand back and let bad things happen.
What is written is what you bring to that decision. Each of us are a story in the telling, a bunch of words jumbled together in a great big ball, just waiting to be unravelled by the kitten of fate, swatted, tangled again, and left behind to work it out for ourselves. Those words are written into our bodies themselves, spoken by long-dead voices and sung by long-dead parties. We’re each just a song-sheet issued to two dead people in an aeon past, one passed down between successive canoodling couples. Our bodies are their bodies, their waters spilling into our meagre lives and flowing onwards in an inexorable stream of humanity, forever.
So, and I say without any meaning to arrogance or hubris, I am New Zealand.
That seven year-old boy in a paddock is this nation, because the entire history of this place from woe to go is written into his skin, his bones, his feeble muscles, his clenched fists and bulging eyes. Every event ever seen in this place is his story.
My body has walked this land since the day mankind first set foot here. I’ve seen every sunrise, felt every cold night, survived every winter. I’m made of all it’s foods, I’ve drank most all of it’s rivers, swam in its waters since day one. I’ve killed and died in its wars, and bought and sold its commerce. And I say again. I am New Zealand.
And every second of that history was pushed into a moment.
Another river held briefly at bay by the single slither of a knife’s edge.
* * *
So the chicken or the egg? The egg or the chicken? If you’re following my way of thinking the chicken is the egg and the egg is the chicken. You can’t separate the two because they’re both the same thing. They’re only considered different things because we have chosen to give them names that separate them. But fundamentally, the chicken and egg are one. You cannot have one without the other, so there never could have been a time when one existed in isolation.
And so it is with the knife. The knife was always there. It is still there. It will always be guiding itself into my hand, and will always be placed against that throat. Those whimpers of fear will always be there, just inside the channel of my ear, waiting till the rush and noise of this current water stills, to release themselves into the ether, and dissolve.
I first remember seeing the knife over a hundred years ago, on a shingle beach not so far from where I now sit. It was a bleak day and the southern winds were howling through the Cook Strait. The outcrop of rock to our right was as always some consolation, but the water was still cold, my fear mounting. To my front the work crew were hauling hard to get the Right Whale up onto the shingle shore, as high as possible. The tide would turn soon and we would have to work fast. The knife was thrust into my hand, and I was told to hold. If one came too close, to stab it.
It was the year 1836 and I was 23 years old, a full 12,000 miles from Kent, and I was a flenser sent to make his fortune on a stone beach 20 feet deep and 80 feet long perched beneath a towering jungle.
Flenser, you ask? Later my job was to stand back while the hatchet-men hacked through the great whale’s skin, then to myself carve the blubber from the beast, a slab of flesh as much as I could carry, and to take it up the beach to the pots. It was hard, stinking, greasy work, the stones slick with blood and oil, the air laden with the sailors foul language, the smoke of the wood fires, the salt air barely cutting through the haze of rotting flesh and bones.
When the whales were in we worked all day, every day, and slept clothed and rough in poorly thatched huts. I kept the blade with me at all times, my protection against accusations of laziness, of not carrying my share of the load, and of not being relegated to the station of ‘useless’, or ‘no-hoper’.
They were hard days on Kapiti. The worst being the fear. The fear that Te Rauparaha would come along the island, for the wily little bastard was less than a mile away, the fear that disease born of the filth we lived in would poison us, and the greatest fear, the worst fear, that my footing would fail me.
Because for now my job was the watch for the Great White sharks the like of which you have never seen that preyed in those blood-soaked waters. They would launch themselves onto the beach while we hauled ashore the whales and tear great hunks of flesh from the carcasses. The slippery-soled man would himself become their meal were he to fall into the breakers beyond the whale.
And there I was standing guard, a boy with a blade, frightened beyond his wits, if not only for fear of seeming a lesser man than I was.
* * *
Waitaminute… the reader says. Is this some kind if reincarnation thing? Are going to be subjected to an endless stream of hippy bullshit?
Well, no. I’ll get to the hippy’s all in good time sooner or later. For now we are talking about samsara, yes, but not in the way you think. Like all good and sticky ideas there is the popular version of what it means, and there’s the underlying truths. So I’m not exploring the idea that I’ve lived multiple lives. Going there becomes a little too fruity for my way of thinking. You know, we’ll start to wander into the realm of “belief”. I’m only interested in what I know. And I know I am the people who preceded me.
It’s not a belief structure because you don’t need to suspend credulity to understand how it works. You can see a child being born, and know that child wasn’t delivered by a stork or left under a cabbage leaf. We are each extensions of another life, and their lives wash through our bodies whether we know it or not.
So what of the field, the knife, the frightened boy? How is this evidence of samsara?
The field is where samsara is tested. The field is about choices, and how we make them within the patterns our bodies, our history, has laid out for us.
And the choices are everything. The define our legacy, and they set the course of our waters. Every person on that field made choices, as young as they were, to put them there. And, every person had choices made that effected why they were there. It’s the untangling them that is the mystery in life, and it is with the inevitable distance of time that we can see how these all interwove.
Take the friend for example, we couldn’t know where he would be 30 years from that day. But the seeds were sown. We were friends for years after the event, his defence of my actions an important part of the fallout. And his life has always been a yardstick for me in the transformation of a person in the passing of time, in the slow, lazy progress of the river.
When we were young he was known as the go-getter. He was all action; fit, healthy, knew where he wanted to be. He took life by the scruff of the neck and took what he needed from it. But somewhere this changed. Somewhere along the line he became less like the person his parents had made him, and less like the person the world around him understood him as.
You see, set upon the waters of his own life my friend was pushed to deny what he was. His attitude to life didn’t always sit right with the way people around us wanted him to be. He was called “too much” or “too big”. And so my friend chose to change over time, he suppressed his energy to better fit in, and to better be what was expected of him. He became more of what people wanted. I blame his decline on that.
A heart attack, 36, leaving a wife and three children.
I never thanked him for the way he defended me all those years ago, and I regret it deeply. He stuck by me the way a friend should, I regret not helping him make choices to avoid the fate he sailed towards. My not defending his right to be who he was helped nudge him away from his true course. And it is with his death I must finally tell this, my own, story.
* * *
All in all, history is really just a series of minute passing minutes that have incrementally defined the now. They slip past unnoticed and unremarked, but coalesce into the present and offer themselves into your hands. And because they do so, why go back? Why take a little trip back into the past? The present is past all bundled up and handed to you in newspaper, still steaming, hopefully fish and chips.
I went back to the very beginning because that past underlies the present and gives it meaning. When it comes time to heal the present you need to know where you’ve come from, because the from is a fundamental part of the now. Those things that make up our pasts become the language we each speak, they’re the syllables in the words we utter.
But, I’m starting to labour the point. The knife in the paddock and the knife on the shore are the same, and from delving into my own past looking for meaning I’ve discovered a number of such things, and how they’ve grown together to define me. They’re the suits and symbols that make up the cards dealt out to me, and they’re numbered by the individual actions of my predecessors.
You see there’s been numerous times when I couldn’t explain how and why I’ve reacted to or felt about things, only to have realisation fall upon me when a key piece of history is revealed, a pea exposed from under a shell to the light. Writing this story, this history, is a way of paying tribute to each of those pieces, and the way they’ve unlocked my life over so many years, slowly, with seemingly deliberate purpose. I’ve worked methodically to uncover each part, to bring them to the light of day, to examine them carefully, and to understand them. Because like old man Marley says, if you know your history, then you’ll know where you’re coming from. Pretty wise old guy that Marley (for a stoner mind you…)
All this is important because of where I grew up and what put me in that field. Events had conspired before I was born to completely isolate my atomic family. In fact, one could say that the advent of the Atomic age atomised us. But that would again be labouring the point (again). The truth of the matter is that a series of inevitable occurrences conspired to place me there, and is has only been with the fullness of time that I’ve been able to see each and every one of them for what they are. While a younger me would have blamed someone for the isolation, for instance for the flight of my uncles to foreign shores, and the sense of abandonment that ensued, the older me can see all the pieces that makes up the history, and can understand them.
The beauty of the history is that in revealing its fullness it has brought me closer to realising the interconnectedness of it all, and has left me to wonder how many other people are in similar circumstances. Who else has pondered their present or past and been unable to make sense of it because they lack those key pieces to peel away the mystery?
Perhaps, my story in the telling can inspire at least one other person to better comprehend their own full past, and the waters that have carried them into this present.
* * *
It was a warm Summer month in early ’39, the kind that turns a man’s thoughts to things other than work. The whales had been and gone, and Christmas for what it was worth produced little for us there on Kapiti. Of most interest was the word that more British will be there soon, from some company being set up to bring a lot of soft settlers out from England. We all thought that we’d see what Te Rauparaha would think of them, there was still fire in the man yet, as old as he was.
I remember the pathway well, and making the short walk from Te Kahu o Te Rangi and the stink along to the fresher water of Waiorua. The deep ocean currents wash over the northern peninsula of the island and brought the occasional deep sea fish into the Maori nets, and we traded some of their catch when we were too busy rendering the oil to fish for ourselves.
It’s a strange relationship. I’ve heard they used to refer to us as ‘their Pakeha’, as if they forgot that we’re free men of Great Britain and not at all here by their leave. Still, they liked to brag to other tribes that they had us, and perhaps it increased their self-importance in some way, so we all said good luck to them. As long as the fish came when we asked for it, and they kept trading the flax we needed for the boats, then so be it.
If you’re wondering, I made the walk along the island to perhaps catch a glimpse of a certain young lady I’d heard might be visiting Waiorua with her family. They’re Te Ati Awa, the sometimes friends, sometimes not, of Te Rauparaha’s Ngati Toa, and they’re well settled on the mainland. I had thought to myself, a man could do worse than being the pet Pakeha of a family like that…
Te Rauparaha seemed to have gained some kind of respect for me since I chased him off my cutter with a hatchet. He was demanding something I’d not had the mind to give him, and his confrontation got the better of my temper. I think the great Chief always did know the right time to surrender ground and over the side he went in a great retreat! Once we’d smoothed the old boy’s feathers he seems to have become a little fond of me, and it’s for that and his influence I was able to even think of courting the daughter of Rawiri Nukaiahu, a chief of the Puketapu. His wife Pakewa signed that Treaty you know, the one the missionary from up north brought to Port Nicholson, for what good it did them.
It’s grand when a little Dutch courage pays off like that, for on the walk along the island that day I snuck a look at her in the distance, and it was not long before I was able to marry her. Well, this is a fib. We married in 1849, but the marriage itself started in 1841, but such is the way in New Zealand. Her name was Pairoke, and she was my wife for 12 good years. A grand twelve years. And what a family we made.
* * *
It was yet another cold and grey day in Wellington the first time I’d ever heard of the Treaty. Actually, that’s an exaggeration. It was a cold and grey day the first time I ever realised the relevance of the Treaty. Until that day the Treaty was an abstract thing. A “something signed way back when”.
I was going through a stage in my life when I was soaking up information like a sponge. Which was strange in itself considering that my escalating to serious drug and alcohol habit was concurrently becoming all-consuming. Somehow I was managing though, and using the experiences to push my consciousness to new heights. I was taking all the lessons I’d learned at the feet of my older people, channelling them, and burning all the more brightly for it. But again, we’ll get to the hippies later in the piece.
My university experience mostly involved getting loaded, heading to campus, and moping about observing people’s behaviours, their interactions, their ways of being. I would attend lectures between bouts of snooping through the deepest recesses of the library looking for arcanery and mysteries. Old tomes written in the 1800s. Old discharged and ignored sciences. Alternative ways of looking at the world. Secrets hidden from the light; underground, musty and mostly meaningless.
Thing is, I knew that something had drawn me to where I was. At the time my entire knowledge of my family history, of me, extended only as far as my grandparents. But I was still drawn, inevitably, towards the South, the miserable weather and away from the Bay of Plenty.
The balancing act that was substance abuse was weighting heavily on me, but my natural inclination to curiosity kept up, so hand in hand my knowledge and my dependency grew to new heights. They were dark days, the weight of the world sitting heavily upon skinny shoulders, and it often seemed that it was only good fortune, my constant companion, held back the fate being doled out to so many others.
It was the Quad outside the library on campus, and some amateur political rally was underway. Student politicians practising strutting and grooming one another for the day they ascend to office in a city council, or worse. The same damn exercise in mutual masturbation acted out on campuses across the nation, the world. It was the same characters I’d seen overseas (again, we’ll get to that), but a little “smaller”, and more like New Zealanders.
The candidates at the front were doing a lot of arm waving, a lot of pretending to state their own relevance to issues far larger than their ability to act or their capacity to reason, and a lot of shouting. I was rapidly becoming bored, and my mind was beginning to wander back along the path down to the flat, my fire, and my stash.
She spoke up from a crowd of people over the other side of the quad. It was though I’d walked all the way up the hill just to hear her voice. A young woman, not far from my age, dressed warmly but not wealthy, and surrounded by people she obviously knew well and trusted. She was clear, concise, and could obviously see through the posers below us blocking the doors to the library.
“But what about our Rights under the Treaty?”
No reasonable answer was forthcoming. A response I rapidly became used to.
* * *
I’m standing in the bow of a low, long boat, and I’m hefting a harpoon. Harpoon. It’s a great word no? Roll it around in your mouth and it sounds ancient, haaaaa-poooon. I’m sounding it myself while I’m looking over the side of the boat at the choppy green water, the northernly breeze bringing warm air from over the Alps and off the lands. Father sounds out quietly, “Spear the calf, the mother will come after.”
Spear the calf. Spear the calf. I repeat it to myself over and over, all the time watching the water for the sign of the beast rising from the water.
The beast rising from the water. Rising from the water. The Beast. Mother would be proud, I’m even remembering my Revelations. And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and I saw a beast did rise up.
I glance backwards. My older brothers are in the longboat behind me resting on their oars. We’ve two days of water and biscuit, and we’re 12 hours into this day’s rowing. They’re still and there’s only the lapping of the oars in the water, and the chop of the waves against the side of the boat.
“Sign!! Starboard!” Someone whispers between gritted teeth, and the brothers lean in, the boat jerking as the oars bite, father pulling the rudder hard so we launch towards the rapidly smoothening patch of water. The whale’s head breaks the surface, its blowhole releasing a spray into the air, its slick sides rushing past the waves and slipping beneath the water.
“The calf!!” Father yells. I can see it rising with the cow, close to its mother’s side, it’s tiny eye appearing as the longboat bears down on them both. My brothers have their speed up, their backs straining to get us close enough to the pair, their silence broken as Father yells “Heave you useless buggers!! She’ll not escape us today!!”
A second is split while I draw back my arm and heave the harpoon. My brothers are grunting and roaring. The wind whistling and whipping the water past the bow. The long back of the cow sliding like a great tentacle through the water.
It grunts when the tip enters. A low shudder of shock. Its eye looks at me still. In wonder. In alarm. The sharpened metal of the harpoon sinking into its flanks. The rope unrolling out past my legs as the calf sinks beneath the waves, its life spilling into the water in a long red stream.
“Make for the shore lads!” Father yells, “the cow will be back for the calf and the Wrights will have her, by God!”
For two days we’ll tether ourselves to her dying carcass, here on the ocean, to be dragged till she tires, a waiting game of courage and endurance.
* * *
Well who would have thought it?
I know your parents tell you I was 19 when your Great-Grandfather and I had married, but I was in fact only 16. Your Great-Grandfather and I became betrothed and married in town called Cranbrook in Kent. It’s a lovely place and the parish church, St Dunstan, was built way back in the Fifteenth Century, would you believe it! The 19 comes in because that’s how old I was when we set sail in 1840 on the Martha Ridgeway for Port Nicholson (that’s in the north you know, and they call it Wellington these days my dear).
That was a hard journey that was. My first child, bless her soul, was just three years old, and I was not long pregnant as well, so you can imagine my discomfort. But we don’t complain, do we now?
Yes, a very hard journey. Although I was pregnant on the voyage I gave birth to twins with the help of the ship’s doctor, twins boys, both stillborn. That was a sad time… But how were we to know then that we would go on to have another 12 children! And a blessing that was too, for not long after we arrived at Petone my eldest daughter also died.
How I hated this place when we first arrived… My next child was stolen by the Maoris after her birth, for they’d never seen a white child before! The first white child in the district she was thought to be, and they took her with them up to the pa to show her off. My goodness how James was angry and frightened! There was talk of them eating her (for the Maoris ate a lot of people in those days don’t you know), but as it happens they were just curious.
There was a great show when James turned up to collect her, for he was never a small man, as you know! There was a time there at Akaroa where they laid James and your nine Great-Uncles out head to toe, head to toe, for a lark mind, and they were the full length of a chain!
Oh, that’s 66 feet my dear! A chain is 66 feet long.
They certainly were a big set of lads my boys. And they certainly took some feeding, let me tell you! They’d come in from the whaling and they’d empty the pantry the lot of them. My word we’d be cooking for days to prepare for them coming back.
Hmmm? Yes. Yes it wasn’t an easy life out there. We left Petone only two years after we arrived, James had been working for the Governor trying to intervene in the musket and liquor trade, which was terrible, and we travelled again, this time to Akaroa. There James got work for Paddy Wood, but this didn’t last long, thank goodness, for Paddy was a brawler, and a drunk. And there I was, the only woman in the whole world it seemed…
It was a relief when we moved and finally settled in Whakamoa Bay, let me tell you!
* * *
I was nine years old when I set out from England. Nine. I was born on Sheppey, which is in the Thames Estuary by the way, and put to sea like all the men of that small island. The war with Napoleon was over, Wellington having seem the little bastard off, and the sea seemed the natural place for an additional son.
But it served me well. I saw much of the world from the deck of many a sort of ship before leaving the whaler Catherine and finding my feet here in New Zealand. Like all good wanderers sometimes you just need a clear place to stand before you can stop the roaming, and this was as good as any.
After I took up with Pairoke we settled on her family’s land just south of their pa, that’s a kind of picket fort by the way, there were still the occasional war between the tribes in these parts, which goes to show, you can travel 12,000 miles and still be surrounded by people wanting to kill one another… and I took up farming.
Farming, can you believe it. Farming! These local Maori didn’t need a fisherman you see. We’d long since taken all the whales from these waters, and the locals could fish well enough for themselves. So farming it was. Me, as sailor for twenty years. Farming. At least I still had a cutter to run when the salt had cleared too much from my veins.
We cleared the land and placed on it sheep, cattle, and horses. And it was this trade that the locals wanted. It was strange in those days of New Zealand. There was a tension between the British setting up in Petone and in the South Island and the local tribes, that Arthur Wakefield was an arrogant petty aristocrat, and it occasionally split over into bloodshed. But I? I was welcomed.
And so here I am now in a paddock. Every man who comes here knows you could make a fortune in these waters, and here I am, moving into husbandry! If me old dad could see me now. Tell you what, he’d be amazed, his boy, landed gentry.
We’re even thinking of putting a tavern up on the roadside, to try and capture a little of the traffic heading to Port Nicholson. Now that would likely spin a pretty penny… A pretty penny indeed.
* * *
Now why are you laughing boy? It was a serious business, let me tell you. There I was, not much older than yourself, and I’d stowed away on a ship outbound from New South Wales.
What? Well, it seemed like a sensible idea at the time. The gold rush was starting to wane and being a lad it was looking like there wasn’t much of a fortune to be made. So, I packed up my swag, took what gold I had and snuck aboard.
We were barely a day into the trip when I was found by the crew. They’re small ships you see. So they dragged my up in front of the captain and he asked me all manner of questions, mostly trying to put the fear of God in me. You know, the usual stories, how they cut up stowaways and use them for bait, how they make you swab decks until your hands are worn down to the wrists, all that kind of stuff. But he shut up when I showed them my small bag of gold, and asked why I hadn’t just paid a passage in the first place!
Tell you what, there was some hilarity when they heard my name, how was I to know that “Tibby” means “ship’s cat”? The captain thought that was just the thing, and so it stuck, and the ship’s cat I was. Now there’s a job you’d avoid if you could. I was fetch and carry for every sailor aboard… But I kept my gold at the end, having worked out my passage.
What? The name? Well, I was found an orphan you see, wandering there in the gold fields. I never knew what happened to my parents, or where they might have come from. Who knows! I used to wonder if they hadn’t been murdered by other gold miners, or perhaps fled in the night from the attacks of the savages. But women weren’t common in that part of the world in those days, so now, in my older years, I think I was likely just the child of a midwife, and maybe I one mouth too many to feed.
But still. To cut loose a toddler like that. Thank the Lord for the kind-hearted people who took me in, and raised me.
Still! It’s not like they had to feed me for long! I was working for my supper in no time, and soon on that ship bound for Otago with my own money. And proud I was.
What? Oh, the name! I’m an old man you forget sometimes.
“Tibby” was the only word I could say when they found me you see. And so they named me that. The thing with the ship’s cat was just a coincidence like. But it was a name fair enough, and so now it’s yours as well. A humble beginning, but a beginning all the same.
* * *
As a child the only of these histories I was familiar with was the last, the bastard son who escaped the convict isle. It’s not exactly an ennobling story, especially to a boy well-able to read and discover the unspoken details of what such a life must have been like. There is no romance in that tale, no military history, no great battle against the odds. Just a boy run to escape and held to ransom.
I think, if anything, it demonstrates clearly to me now, as an adult, how even as children the narratives we build around ourselves can become all-encompassing. The stories your family tells of its own past, of from whence your waters run, and feeds into the daily speaking of where and who you are. They run under your consciousness, and manifest in your own talk of who you think you should be. Being given a past without dignity echoes within people, and profoundly influences who they are, and the world-view they enjoy.
So there I am you see, a criminal’s child. A bastard scion of an unknown house. A boy who sees himself with no future but that he can make for himself, and I’m acting it out unknown to my tiny seven-year-old mind. I have no dignity and only shame. I am a boy wishing he were a man, full and straining at the boundaries of lives unfulfilled.
But beneath what I knew there was this other layer, a set of lives I could not have known of, because they were unknown to the adults around me. And it’s that layer waiting to be revealed that has characterised my life. Just when I thought there was no more of interest to learn, another veil has been lifted, and my view has changed again, with divine provenance gifting me yet another knowing.
It is a strange thing this life. At times it is as thought I have lived many lives, with the twists and turns of fate’s flow lifting and carrying me gently between the spectres of the past, unfolding and lighting them with the magician’s sleight of hand, letting them fall onto my path for me to understand. This, a life never meant to be. A gift forged from a choice made by a teenage girl on the shores of a foreign, alien, harsh environment (for that is what I imagine her to have been, the woman who set this slow-rising locomotive in train).
At the centre of all this is that. The knowing this life was a gift. Whether a gift given in jest or love is a question yet to be settled, but the gift itself has been well-received (if at times a little petulantly). It’s that, I think, that has always aided the decision. The choices to stave off the knife. To keep the hand steady. To see out the flow, and know all the mysteries, and to know where the poison was introduced, and why it placed me in that field on that cold winter’s day.
* * *
These days the boffins think that we’re just passengers in this life. They’ve looked at the way our brains organise responses to our environments, and they think that all our actions are predetermined. It is either the environment itself that chooses how and why we make decisions, or our choices are made by our subconscious before we even know that a decision has been made.
It’s a confusing line of argument, because feeling like we make our on choices is fundamental to who we are and how we find comfort in our existence. It says that, surely if life is already predetermined then the roll of the dice is enough to guide me? I’ve learned to be sceptical about all that. Even if fate is merely providing succour by appearing to grant me choice, then the appearance of choice is in itself an instrument helping unfold the future as it decends upon us.
This is because we are each of us the stone in a river of time. Our lives flow towards us, and over us, and we each experience the sensation of being alive, of recording the past as it becomes real.
So let’s say the boffins are correct. It is fated at the genetic level how each moment will fall upon me. If that is the case, then none of my decisions are my own. And knowing the past is therefore all the more important. We are then a backward-looking species, one confined to a knowledge of what has gone, and awaiting what will become.
But I’m not convinced. There is truth in the idea that we are backward-looking. The know-ability of the past does define our actions, but the assumption that we can each make choices to influence our futures, or to alter the course of the flow of time, is fundamental to our self-awareness, and our conceptualisation of the present. Knowing the past is a way to better understand how the future is approaching, because it provides the clear indications where the high-water marks are, and the rise and fall of the events that can end, or alter, our existence.
Our mere existence in time is enough to alter the course of the flow, as I shall deomonstrate. Though we might not have influence over every small choice we are offered, and we might not have all the free will some philosophers might have assumed we do, we are each actors in the great unfolding of the universe’s knowledge. Each of us a small, chaotic actor in a collossal drama.
* * *
Well it’s not a proud history boy. There I was out on the West Coast looking to join the goldfields and I wandered into the assayers office. I had nothing but my reckoning to find gold, I’d been panning for it since I could walk you see, and I was nothing more than the son of a Henry. They’d called me boy for most of my life, and that’s how I saw myself, but you can’t put that on the paper for a name, now can you?
So when his assayer asked for my name I told him ‘Tibby’, because that was what I’d become! That’s right, the ships cat. Now he just assumed this was my last name you see, so when he asked for my Christian name I thought, ‘Well, what could that be?”, and Henry, who raised me, was a good man, so I took his name, and licketysplit, Henry Tibby it was.
Well then I went into the goldfields, didn’t I? But it’s a wet and awful place those fields after the years in New South Wales. I made what money I could and pretty quickly looked for a trade indoors. There were plenty of opportunities in those days as everyone came to settle the central country, and properly full this great empty land.
Noooo… I never saw a single native. They were all up in the north country and busy fighting against the governors. Down here in the south it was mostly just cold, always with the cold. So I settled in a small place, and got to being a blacksmith. It’s a proper man’s trade you see, and useful. You can always expect a blacksmith to be honest with you, and to never mix his words. Why? Well they don’t need to sell nothing you see, just to provide the know-how to the farmers and others thereabouts.
Well, so I set up my own business and grew it the best I could. Soon I was becoming well-to-do you know. And that held this family in good stead for many years.
* * *
“are you doing this?”
“I’m holding the
* * *
It is a strange thing that I can only write these pages after midnight. Perhaps it’s the silence. Or perhaps it’s that the night itself carries all clichés of our secrets, sequestered in shadows, seeping out to remind us of the past, its interwoven layers, each thread binding us to a forgotten moment, a yesterday, a chosen past we’ve fabricated.
Fabrication is after all the manner of histories. We each make our past lives out to be something that conforms to our present. We find comfort that the line from then to now suits the present we imagine ourselves to deserve, a present that can be explained with ease.
But unease is what midnight is made of. I’m certain I’m far from alone in finding the midnight to be the space in which those comfortable illusions slip away, in which realities creep back into their own, and in which the comfortable clothes of my now are sloughed off, my true self exposed to the chill air.
People call these things concern. Worry. Anxiety. It is more likely that these things are actually cold truths, unsullied by the middle layers we pad out our hopefully comfortable lives. Exposed, they bring us back to what we are, or were, and remind us both gently and persistently that there are always deeper truths.
And so it is with this history. I find myself in a coddled life. One in which I have cossetted myself away from the harsher, more brutal layers of of who I’ve been, and in which I can protect myself, and those about me, from the worst of which the past has to offer. Because as I’ve stated, in tear-filled nights where the past has welled up to be confronted, recognised, welcomed, and laid back to rest; we are each a river in which time flows, and in which there can be no hiding from what it is that makes us who we are. Fate awaits us as inevitably as the sea, and as assuredly as death itself.
And the night welcomes me again, and it opens a corridor to the past, one lined with a golden, moody, stained tapestry of days, endless.
* * *
It was not long after the war, and girls like her shouldn’t have even been looking at blokes like me. But there she is, up there in her father’s buggy, and glancing at me just out the corner of her eyes. I’m lifting bags of flour, sugar, boxes of tea, and moving them from a wagon, across the planks of the veranda and into the shop. It helps that she’s independent, a thinker in her own right, but I knows her father hates half-castes, and he glares at me while I work, unable to finish his conversation quickly enough to take his daughter away.
It’s probably a good thing we were spared the worst of the wars by getting in on the deals supplying the troops. We supplied everyone and anyone who needed feeding while they ranged up and over this part of the country, and while the money was good, there was always the chance some Colonel would walk in and requistion everything you had for some part to impress the daughters of the local gentry, or that Doctor’s daughter sitting in that buggy, right there.
They still called us half-castes behind our backs though. “Niggers”. Us. Hard-working locals who’d come back up here from down Otaki-Levin way. My grandfather had been a whaler, and he’d married a girl out of the Puketapu Hapu, Te Atiawa, and so when we came back up here to Taranaki we just slotted back into a half-way house between the tribes and the settlers, an awkward, uncomfortable spot between two increasingly different worlds. Shop-keepers. The middle class between slave and land-owner.
All this fuss about race… It’s because the British are getting uppity, you know? They’ve come out here to a land that’s increasingly filled with all the things they want, and they think they built it all. Sure they cleared acres of bush land and put those damn sheep on them, but that forest used to be productive land. You could always find decent food up in there, but nowadays it’s all grass that’s useless for anything but horses and hay unless you have money.
But the Maori don’t complain, do they? Not after the redcoats were brought out here with their stinking, foul ways. The old people say the sailors were bad enough, and then the soldiers started demanding things. So they sit in their poverty, and think about how it was in this rich country before you needed white blood to so much as ask for a by your leave.
So I smiled at that rich Doctor’s Daughter, and she giggled.
* * *
Well, for your Grandad it began in the Great Depression. He was born in the 1920s, and when the Depression rolled around he was about the age you start getting messages about leaving school. Thing was though, he was also too young to leave home. So, he ended up living under the sway of your great-Grandad for a bit longer.
Sway? Well, your great-Grandad was a bit on the authoritarian side.
I’m not sure why. Most would say because he was only a little man. Had that chip on his shoulder some little men get, you know.
Actually, here’s a story. We were at the table visiting them one day. They had these long bench seats they’d gotten during the Depression when they’d taken in a lot of boarders to made ends meet, tough times and all. So your great-Grandad arcs up about something and he’s getting pretty loud. He’s standing and yelling and slapping the table and carrying on, and your great-Grandma, a saint of a woman, just ups from her seat, walks around the table, seizes a HUGE pair of dress-making scissors, grabs his braces in one hand and cuts them through with the other. Should have seen the look on the old boy’s face as his trousers fell to the ground. That story got told for years.
Anyhow, your Grandad and your great-Grandad didn’t get on so well. Who knows why, right? But we think part of the reason might have been the harsh treatment the little man doled out. When your Grandad was just what we’d think of as a child these days they took in all these boarders, and needed space in the house. So they moved your Grandad out to sleep on the porch of the house. I think they might have put up canvas or something, but there the little guy is, 8 or 10 or something, and he’s sleeping in a tent, during the Depression!
This is Te Aroha, a small town, and a there’s a lot of transients around. The boy must have been scared out of his wits!
He says he took to the streets not long after. Started going to pool halls, pubs. Light places, you know. And as soon as he could then he left his old man and New Zealand by forging his parent’s authority and going to the Second World War at the age of 17.
Pretty crazy stuff. All that time out in the night means he ends up being a pretty reliable boxer, and can play pool like no-one you’ve ever seen, right? Can even make a few bob off the games. Fit too. Plays football, and might have been a champion cyclist and represented New Zealand had things been different.
Different how? Well, Hiroshima boy. Hiroshima, he cleaned it up. Changed his life.
* * *
No your Grandmother kept it a secret for my whole life, which was, frustrating to say the least. Strange isn’t it? Here we are with a whole section of our history blocked off because of some mythic shame supposed to have been levelled against us.
Yes, your Great-Great Grandfather was part Maori. Apparently, when the first ancestor came out to New Zealand he married a Maori woman and they had a boatload of children, and one of those children, or maybe their son, married a white girl in the Taranaki, and you know what they’re like down there…
Well, I was astounded when she confessed it to us, it just explained so much! And I was angry that a section of my own past had been hidden from me because of such petty racism.
Yes, racism. I grew up on the North Shore, and one of the things you don’t do is admit you’re part Maori. Up until maybe the 80s pretty much everything Maori was a shame and to be looked down upon, which is just outrageous. Even now some of the family chooses to turn their backs on this.
But like I say, it explains a whole part of the family history I never really ‘got’, especially the “dark blood” stuff.
Yes, “dark blood”. When I was young members of the family might refer to another member as having “the dark blood” if they were particularly mischievous. So for example their was one cousin of mine, and she was always referred to this way. She was… high bloodied you know? Highly energetic, fun, and definitely did not fit easily into a conservative Catholic family out of the Taranaki… So what you get is all these purse-lipped old Aunties referring to her as ‘the one with the dark blood’ in hushed tones, like she had AIDS or something!!
So right there you have this track of racism running through the family, all directed at this poor girl who wasn’t actually doing anything wrong, and so like me, didn’t really feel she fit in to the family!
AND! It turned out she was secretly adopted!! Italian!! Unbelievable…
* * *
It was a small town, with small-town ways and mores. The everybody-known-ness of small places, and a gentility that emerges even today when you stroll its broad Colonial streets. There remain people there who’ve been there for four or more generations, and their ability to recall events and people from their distance past continues to astound someone like me who moves on and forgets; a shelterbelt of peripatetic lifestyle.
The wanderlust that runs deep in the family struck him early, but his youth kept him relatively close to home, and his exploration took him out and across the Waikato in search of adventure. A love of sport and a natural ability with all things physical took him away from the oppressive atmosphere his father created, whose ineffable envy of his sons drove him to greater success in business of the small-town, British kind. The shop. But not for our young man. His was the success of the horizon, the unknown and the riches of adventure.
As youths they would see the promise of treasure there on the horizon, and they, the children of the Colonials living near and among the squalor heaped on the people who had lived there for generations before them, would seize their contraptions and up and off in search. The Rainbow.
They’d take their bicycles, what we today would consider ancient, heavy, steel contraptions across rutted country roads and up into the ranges above Te Aroha. They’d head out across dry paddocks in the summer, and along the highways in the Winter, each exertion building them stronger, allowing them further from home and closer to the promise of freedom and glory.
I heard the story of that treasure, that belief in a myth, time and time again as a child and youth myself. It was just a story for many years, until the wrapping of that parcel began to fall away, passed from hand to hand within the family, each member removing or adding a layer of truth in turn, my young eyes beginning to see patterns in their own handling of the somethingness hidden within. And one day it was apparent.
He remained always that child. That seeker of the treasure hidden just beyond the horizon, Heaven’s bridge itself pointing to where he him find it if luck and perseverance proven on his side. He grew himself around that sharp speck of potential, and the beauty I always saw in him was the veneer life grew around it, layer upon layer, year upon year, tucked deeply within the shell life’s vicissitudes necessitated.
And it proved a revelation when I saw it for what it was. The inherent truthiness of it. That the treasure was luck itself, a counterpoint to a hope bestowed by the pot never found. It is an endowment only sometimes understood within my family. One that has lead to many successes, and many failures. Because although he himself fell short of his punt, it was the effort that shone most brightly through a life of disappointment, and it is that prism, the light of luck and dark of hope, that shone unequally into his children’s lives.
* * *
There is a strange symmetry between my maternal and paternal grandparents that is, in all likelihood, something I should have noticed early in life. Both were young during the Great Depression, which swept across New Zealand and changed attitudes for some, reinforced them for others, and was purposefully interrupted by the Second World War. Further, both were romantic liaisons halted while the boys went into the Forces, and resumed upon their return.
For my father’s parents, theirs was the idyll of the apparent innocent of that Age. The enforced modesty of the post-Depression era, and the opprobrium of a post-Edwardian society still enthralled to cold love of the Mother Country meant that if theres was a fiery romance, it was not known to their children.
They recount the tale of a long bicycle ride out to the beach, to sit on grassed cliff-tops, eat watermelon, sunbathe. Did they canoodle in that place? Who knows. Did they hold hands and walk as young lovers? Kiss passionately as young people did, in that crazy, clumsy, Hollywood-esque face-planting so popular in the films of the times?
It was a time before rebellion became the norm. When courting was very much to be done properly. They were in an Auckland of appropriate behaviours and discrete, proper communities, just before the full popularisation of the motorcar, that great leveller, broke down barriers across the city, and created the metropolitan identity New Zealanders south of the Bombay hills dislike so intently.
My mother’s parents? As I say, there is a symmetry, but theirs was the small-town life. Bawdy, earthen, closer to Life itself. Theirs is a tale of a smile across a dancefloor, and a wild night of laughter. He tells of another boy interested in her, but he won her over. They spun on the dancefloor, and He, the competitor swung to close to them. My grandfather, in what became the talk of the district, flicked his hand past the competitor as he and my grandmother moved. The competitor found all this buttons had come undone, and his trousers fell to his ankles.
I can imagine the laughter now. The rolling crowd, drunk on local beer and cigarettes. The Sunday-Best dress. The slicked haircuts and cocked eyebrows. Farmer’s sons and daughters mixing it up with local shopkeepers kids. Youth spilling out of the hall to clutch at one another in their parent’s cars.
The same and yet so different to our own. Each a union of a small Catholic woman of Taranaki ancestry and a tall non-Catholic man. And from these two unions came two families. Each of five children. Each of whom contributed their middle child to what would eventually become my creation. And these families, living on the edge of what was to become a revolution in social thinking and action, were unawares of what was to befall them.
* * *
It was from there the divergence began. Though symmetry existed (a bizarre symmetry that continues to this day, for the mother of my own son is also born to two families of 5 children, her mother the only daughter among sons, her father the only son among daughters), a divergence occured. And so one half of my history waxes, the other wanes.
My Grandfather tells me a tale, once, in a moment of confidence. It is a tale of small-town prejudice, and the malice of the small man. It goes like this. When my Great-Uncle, marries my Great-Grandfather is very proud, and as a wedding gift to the pair buys them a house in Te Aroha. When my second Great-Uncle marries, my Great-Grandfather is again very proud, and also buys them a house, but this time in Hamilton where the young couple is to live. Unfortunately, this house is less expensive that the elder sons’, so he also buys the couple an automobile. But my Grandfather chooses to marry, and my Great-Grandfather gives him 50 pound, and tells him to take care of it.
One waxes, the other wanes.
And so it was that a family is born into moonlight. The fuzzy light, shadowless, secretive. A light to hide shame, where fumbles and trickery are the norm. The soft theatrical spotlight, revealing partial shadow and emphasis, the shepherds’ crook waiting just off-stage to yank the unwanted comedian out and away from the expectant audience. The bawdy laughter rolling out from a bored provincial crowd.
But it was a choice, yes? After making so much of choice in these pages, it’s hard not to see all choice as natural and good, is it not? This is all the more important where the choice is made of honour, of the want to be decent. And most important? A man’s choice is followed by rugged determination to stand by that decision regardless of consequence.
And that was what I learned from that confidence. Fate dictates what will be, and we must wear it stoically, across squared shoulders, for to struggle against fate is to bring suffering, unhappiness. It is only in the understanding of the light in which we are raised that the delicate knitting of fate becomes apparent, and the interwoven threads of our families are laid open to the hazy light of night, and the remedy of the darning needle is stayed, lest it unravel all our lives.
But sunlight did not fall again on his face, ever.
* * *
There’s always talk of the glory of war, the forging of nations and consciousness, the conversion of boys to men. But to me war is an 18-year old digging through the bowels of a battleship, dragging decomposing bodies up to the light. It’s that boy that I think of when I consider war, a boy seeing the scrawl marks on the bulkheads, each line marking a passing day as live men suffocated slowly, trapped within the carcass of a dead vessel, doomed.
When he was 17 or 18 my Grandfather took a step to ensure he wouldn’t miss out on The War and he forged his parent’s signature on a waiver. I’m certain to this day it was a way of getting out of Te Aroha once and for all, and off to Japan he was sent. The glory of war was fading quickly, all the great battles having been fought. There was no El Alamein for him. No Crete. No Cassino (though, to tell the truth, the latter was a farce, an ignominy levelled on us by poor leadership). Instead, once again we were the labourers for the Empire, and lackeys to the British, to whom we dutifully doffed our caps.
But it was there that he found freedom I think. For once in his life he answered to no-one but the authority of the military. In the photos he is young and smiling, genuinely happy. The trouble is… that he despite a natural leadership he, to this day, dismays of authority and is endlessly running afoul of it. It was for that reason he was promoted to sergeant and busted to private three times. What larks, indeed.
The War. A friend today talks of the crucible of war as a place for young men to enjoy a particular freedom the veil of society masks. When men return from active service they see the regularity and norms of civilian life as an active constraint on their true natures, a limit to their abilities, and a restraint on their potential. Theirs is both opportunity and horror in war, one never realised by the cloistered and ordered suburbs, and one mimicked poorly by soft, pretentious counter-cultures, the latter itself proving a great irony.
And so it was there, serving in J-Force his eyes were opened to what the world really was. A country boy from small-town New Zealand seeing the shadows on the steps. Taking the admiral’s flag and sword from the bridge of a salvaged battleship. Seeing a proud nation in abject humiliation. Seeing the bodies of boys his age decomposing, wasting, lives squandered in the utter blackness of a vast steel mausoleum.
* * *
Before the cultural assault of the 1980s the word Japanese was almost universally associated with three things: cheap transistor radios, “tinny” automobiles, and, The War. In the 1970s phrases containing derogatory words like ‘Nips’ were common, and the Japanese almost universally despised, especially in small towns where xenophobia ran freely and easily between the minds and mouths of locals unused to difference greater than that between beef or chicken fried rice.
As Merv, my grandfather has grown older I’ve continued to observe that his use of these phrases was always guarded, and it is only now, in his dotage, that I’ve heard him really put weight behind words like “the Yanks”, or worse and most cringe inducing, that “Yank nigger”. But for the Japanese he always seemed to reserve some respect, even to this day.
It was with the turn of the 1990s and the death of my Grandmother, that sergeant-major of a woman, who continued to speak ill of the Japanese until her heart finally gave out on her, that Merv was able to return to Japan as part of his second trip outside the Antipodes. And I’ve often wondered what he felt when he landed in the new, slick, modern Japan built on the profits of sales to the West. Did his thoughts echo back to that time of misery? Of poverty? Of ritualistic and sadistic humiliation of a nation? Of blustering, arrogant American soldiers demanding recompense for a war they they themselves forced?
A tale Merv tells of Japan is being a tractor driver in the ruins of Hiroshima. He tells of winter snows, and the absolute desolation of the landscape. Of still-proud but shamed Japanese begging in the streets. Of the few remaining buildings perched precariously in the kind of post-apocalyptic landscape we discussed and feared so widely during the days of the Cold War, when a fiery holocaust was a possibility we all considered.
And he tells of being on that tractor, and of working with others to lift a ruined concrete wall. And of a wave of heat hitting he and the other workers, despite the chill air, and frozen ground. But this was common, yes?
New Zealanders, lackeys to the Empire just one last time.
It was when he returned that the price of that life-changing trip occurred. A simple illness at first, a swelling in the neck. The disbelief of doctors that he was sick at all. The gradual loss of hair from his entire body, bar his armpits, and an associated loss of a third of his body weight. A third.
I walked today among the records of your passing. I tip-toed among the stacks of paper, themselves a relic of a bygone era, and turned the pages of a nation’s history looking for you. It was a irony that you should lay there, dyed into the fabric of a tree, yourself forever bound to that final resting place. And so I remembered the dappled light of where it ended, and wished you that peace forever.
She told me a story once of your coming to her, climbing the trellis like some latter day Romeo, ascending when he himself had stayed firmly earth-bound. It is that I keep in my memory as the stacks rise above and around me, each of them holding some small portion of the lives of so many, each one as distant from their own family, their own descendants, as you and I. Vitality is nothing it seems, when each of us can so easily be transferred to an old medium, a glaring white crypt, in memorandum.
But vitality and the exuberance of a pop-culture youth it was that brought you together. A new era of young people’s music, art, literature. A revolution in thinking and doing that reverberated out of the victory against brutality, a flower revolution wanting to drive narrowness and hatred out of our social fabric forever.
I was born from naivety it seems.
You were an avatar of the most popular of that popular culture. A mime. And the culture it swept you up and carried you to that resting place beneath the soft light of the trees, placing you there to be found all those many years later, in sadness, in expectation. Nothing more than a glimmer of what was, a word shared among those you left behind. A word which I cannot speak.
* * *
It seems to be the perpetual Summer of my old town, and we’re at their sunny flat. It’s an unstairs place with windows on three sides, warm, and comfortable. I remember spending extended periods of my early childhood there when they took us to give respite to our poor mother; growing three boys on your own seems to be far from easy.
She is there, although, we are not to call her She, which means “the cat’s mother” for an unknown, Grandmothers-only-reason, and leaning out one of the windows. She has her hand extended and is offering a small crumb of bread to the hardiest of urban birds, a Sparrow.
I learnt much about Sparrows that summer. I’m the only child of my age to know that the males have variable plumage, while the females are plain. I learn that they nest just off the coast on Goat Island (and am confused when I discover than near every bay or beach in New Zealand has the same set of rocks off the coast. Do the Sparrows live on them all?) I watch the Sparrows in the evening, flocking together in the sky, just above the town’s houses, and spiralling across the rooftops, South-East to North-West, heading to the island to roost, and graceful, swarming ballet.
For now she is still, itself something of an oddity, and calmly offering the crumb to the bird’ male, and curious. It sits in the window frame on a sill at its base, and hops forward and back, its head tilted, eyeing her and the bread in turn. I move slightly to get a closer look, and it takes fright. “Almost ett from my hand that time!” she says.
The bird is a project you see, one she has been working on in increments for weeks. A labour of an idle housewife who rightfully gave up working to raise five children, but retired to a life of women’s magazines and daytime TV upon their departure from home.
She has never learned to drive, because it is unlady-like. She smokes, but only Cameos, which she one day leaves upon the counter because the Doctor has informed her it is bad for her heart. Those cigarettes sit in that spot for two years, untouched, evidence of a battle of wills won in an instant. She is meanwhile fond of a glass of wine, but only in moderation. And she is, it seems, the self-regarding Daughter of rural gentry of a sort. A Taranaki sort. Bitterly and Imperially racist, and passionately dedicated to a Monarchy that appears to regard us as on outpost worthy of little but distain, despite our fawning, unrequited love.
And is herself a small bird of a woman. I can see her now, flapping her elbows in the way elderly ladies of a generation ago do to dance, chirping along happily to Perry Como, or the most full object of her adoration, Bing Crosby. She is big-breasted like a Robin, colourful, perky, happy. And she loves me deeply I can tell, though my brothers she appears to despise.
* * *
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.
* * *
The ’68 Revolution came late to sleepy little New Zealand apparently, only really catching up with us in our Summer of ’70, or ’71, depending on who is telling the tale, why they switched on, and when. The madness had been building since the early ’60s, with music, fashion, and values all moving radically away from what the War Generation knew.
One tale is of my uncle. He’s dating the local dental nurse in Te Aroha and he convinces her to give him the teeth her boss collects in his practice. He strings them into a necklace and wears it to parties, which he enters by giving a colossal pigs’ snort, the sort that would flush a boar down out of the bush to fight. “Tibby’s here!” people would shout, as he wades into the crowd dripping with pot and their relatives’ dentine.
Another tale his younger brother, who’s gone and got himself a job in the lab at the local milk factory. It’s a square job, testing the milk, running checks, all the usual stuff. My Grandparents are proud he’s doing the right thing and holding down honest employment. Apparently he uses the opportunity to manufacture something that puts diamonds in the sky, and is making a modest profit when he’s straight enough to get it out to market.
My mother is given the opportunity to help paint a mural at the local dance hall. Her and a few others, swept up in Beatlemania, paint it how they imagine the inside of the yellow submarine.
Change has arrived in small town, rural New Zealand, and in a big way.
Meanwhile in Auckland the Harbour Bridge has gone through, and my father uses it to check out. There the scene is Downtown, Grafton, Parnell. He disappears into the city, a middle child swept up in the spirit of the revolution. He’s confused by his place in the world, doesn’t fit into the rugby, beer and racing ethos of the North Shore. He drops out.
His father tells me years later that he would go to the city occasionally to look for him. He’d track him down, tidy him up, and bring him home to his Mum for a meal. There’s a single picture from this time. He’s seated on a step of the house, out in the yard, wearing an ill-fitting cardigan, collared shirt, Lennon glasses. He’s skinny and it emphasises the great bush of hippy hair he sports.
It was the last photo of him ever taken.
The thing about a Revolution is, you have to expect casualties. Today my liberal friends all seek ways to continuously expand on rights and freedoms. But they’re 40 years too late I think. The real battles have all been fought. The change did come, and though it has taken years in some places to finally trickle down to all layers of society, it has happened. Meanwhile, today’s attempts to further liberalise society are mere echoes of what happened then, because it is so safe. Soap-box liberalism of endless diatribes against ghost injustices, writ large.
The generation who stood up after ’68 and walked out of the post-War consensus did so for many reasons, most of them selfish, but stand up they did, and the price most of the real Revolutionaries paid still echoes down to us today. But they were times made of choices, in the context of a river of time still running.
The dark blood they whispered about my father. The dark blood. He’s obviously taken to that side.
But in truth? It was the dark side that took him, and he numbed himself from the pain of separation, of permanent and irreconcilable difference, in a Revolution of freaks, weirdos, and their groupies.
* * *
He says he’s standing on the front porch of his house, and they’re dragging things out of it. Who knows where the kids are, they’ve probably bolted. The dream is evaporating around him, one heirloom at a time, as blokes trudge back and forth carrying away everything the family has. Sneering, self-righteous bailiffs under orders from Them are demanding to know where my Grandmother’s engagement ring is, but she’s hidden it. The last vestige of what was once a wealthy household.
How he came to inherit the family business I’m uncertain, but it must have been in the immediate aftermath of the War. The story runs contrary to others about the intense dislike my Great-Grandfather is supposed to have felt for him, because of the stigma of my Grandmother’s Catholicism. My guess has always been that Poppa died, and Mervyn was, in effect, the last man standing in Te Aroha.
He explains the reasons for the catastrophe in an angry voice one day, but it’s after some brief investigation I see the real reasons. After the War the big companies came into small New Zealand. International operators in the most recent wave of globalisation to hit a sleepy little country. My Grandfather has the family tire business, we’d moved up from blacksmithing once the horses were moved back to the farms, and he now considers himself a local businesnessman and ex-soldier. The fact that veterans of J-Force are barred from the RSA and pensions is another sad tale in our national history.
As he tells it, a big tire company came through town offering deals to help small businesses get ahead. They offered a large volume of stock ‘on consignment’, with the bill to be paid as the stock sells. Volumes up, more sales, more money to go round, right? But on consignment actually means on credit, and the company rolls into town a few months later and demands every cent for the stock it has provided, immediately, under threat of court action. The details escaped me, filtered as they were through 40 years of anger, but the outcome was obvious. He couldn’t pay what they wanted, and he, like other small business owners he knew, were pushed out of the market and a franchise of the large company set up in his store.
And bankrupted, the stigma of which came down as a new burden to weight upon his shoulders. He’d lost everything. The lot gone. Family house. Family business, and them with three (maybe four?) kids to feed. And all because They wanted the profits from small-town, rural-service communities.
Welcome to the new world New Zealand.
* * *
While I’ve come to associate two words with my grandfather, perseverance and loyalty, with my grandmother it has always been bitterness, and disappointment. How these polar opposites lived together for so many years as they did in apparent happiness, if not guarded complacency, has long been a mystery to me, the answers to which have been sought in garbled accounts and conversations scattered across a generation and a half of intermittent intersection in the lives of myself and my immediate predecessors.
With an attitude I’ve come to recognise as peculiar to our own New Zealand petite bourgeoisie, my grandmother descended to expect privilege. Her adoration of her father, the picture of the Colonial son made good among the opportunities of the new land, is likely what attracted her to my grandfather. So with an increasingly rapid lurch into poverty following the public humiliation of his bankruptcy, the depth of her self-denial and attempts to mask any acceptance of what her picture of life may have become are now well established as my personal measure for cognitive dissonance.
A mother of five,born to a generation of women trapped in the suburban hell of the hyper-medicated atomic-age sterilisation of the 1950s, her expectation of financial comfort to provide a buffer to the boredom and crushing social expectation looking like a Disprin in a glass of gin, she foreshadowed the counter-culture by embracing sedatives with a passion akin to obsessive compulsion. Yet that her children should chose to mirror her behaviour once they themselves became autonomous? A mystery to her, however obvious it seems to us in this more sophisticated day. Indeed, she would have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for those pesky kids.
Her behaviour became… “erratic” as the decade developed and transformed into ‘the ’60s’. My uncle tell a story of her manifesting in the doorway to his room, her greying hair in rollers and net, housecoat on, horn rim spectacles, torch grasped in hand and extended like a talisman. He’s groggy with sleep and it is barely dawn but she sweeps into the room, throws back the covers to his bed and rolls him over, whipping down his pyjamas in the smooth movement of the experienced mother, and ignoring his howls of protest, with the torch she inspects his anus, “for worms”.
I think it was not long thereafter that he stood on a stool, hidden by the doorframe between the kitchen and the living room, and smacked her on the head with a frying-pan as she entered the room. He later checked out on the Scooby Bus, big-time.
* * *
I’m perhaps five and one half years old, and I’ve been taken with my mother and my step-father to visit someone. They’re talking to them about “selling him the remainder of their stuff” before we all head overseas on the greatest journey of our lives. I’m lying on the carpet in a smallish room, and they’ve allowed me to look in a cabinet that contains something very special. I’m not sure where my brother is, but memory tells me he’s been sent outside to jump out of trees. I however, am privileged.
The cabinet has a number of miniature historical figurines, toy soldier, and I have some out on the carpet and are playing with them, very carefully. I remember the sun. And I remember feeling trusted, a proud oldest child. To this day the site of such toys evokes the memory.
It is a halycon day among many. We are living in a rental on the beach in Mount Maunganui, one where I can come home from school in the afternoon, stop to read comics off the rack in the bookstore next to our place, the beginning of a life-long love of reading, walk through the house and straight onto the sand-dunes.
During that summer I remember my brother and I waking early one morning, quietly climbing out the window and sneaking down to the water. We swim in the waves, yelling rude words at some old man who tells us to get out of the water, before drying in the sun and sneaking back up to the grey, weather-beaten bach, and back into our beds in the room we share. We’re smiling at one another mischievously when mum comes into the room and asks, with wonder in her voice, ‘now how did you two get all that salt in your hair?!”
‘Dunno!’ we say, ‘must have happened while were were dreaming!”
A halcyon day, cooch grass and lupin. Sand falling into sea-grass matting in the living-room after being dragged up across the deck by our feet. A Hills Hoist in the front yard and a glass buoy in a nylon-rope cage suspended from the rafters in the car-port. My mother was perhaps happier than she has ever been, pregnant with my youngest brother, and about to marry my step-Father. Helen of Troy, herself to be rescued by him, and to live on his home island in the Aegean.
Later, when we returned from Greece in shame, I brought with me several small plastic figurines. They are Greek hoplites in armour, and I keep them in a locked metal box, hidden in the wardrobe. A chest containing my few treasures. I would take them out on occasion as I grew and I would look at them, rekindling those days of happiness and warmth, and it is now, in retrospect, that I see it as a clinging to a past long lost and gone. A day of salt drying on my skin and the easiness of the comfort of being able to be little more than a child emptying the meaningless content of comics into my growing mind.
And no small comfort it was, for like my Grandfather before me, by eleven I had my first job, and helping to feed my family,working till two in the morning, in a kitchen, the weight of the world on a skinny child’s shoulders.
* * *
He is a young man, recently returned from an adventure that was the defining moment of his life. He is in a loveless marriage, but is a devoted parent. Keen and bright, he is uneducated and has been bankrupted, losing his family business. Once a sporting champion, he has “developed alopecia”, and is unrecognisable to members of his own family. Far from the glory of being national heroes, members of J-Force are barred from the RSA and government pensions, exiles despite their sacrifices overseas. Second-rate soldiers. And he tells me he is standing on bridge in Hamilton, overlooking the River, a precipice.
I’ve never known why it is that lives so often come down to these moments. The times when we are each face to face with the river, the sirens’ call of the peace it offers. And if you have never been there, wondering what it is to make the choice to cross to the other side? Then there is the chance you have never lived at all; because it is a choice that everyone who has ever loved and lost, or climbed and fallen, must face. A rite of passage as it were.
He says he stood there on the bridge, and we watched the swirling waters, and he found himself clinging ever more tightly to the edge. The lure. A man walking past sees him, and my grandfather croaks out to him, “help me brother… I don’t think I can make it.” And a stranger saves him, talking him down and walking him off.
When I heard this story I wondered again what it was that separates us so delicately along these lines of fate. My grandfather was the bulwark to my childhood. Without his presence life my life would not have been what it is. Though at times he was harsh with me, I see these as the rare exception, and it was his quiet strength and enormous perseverence, oft-mentioned in these pages, that I still try to use as a role-model. But again we see someone at the knife’s edge.
All those potential separations and losses, they make me wonder about the possibilities and the junctures my own life, and the lives of my siblings and predecessors, may well have taken had not other lives been spared by fate. I know I’m asking the same question asked by countless generations before me, a clichéd and rote step on the path to wisdom.
Perhaps this is just the nature of the river. It propels each of us through our meagre time, pushing us onwards, sometimes taking us from the fold, sometimes drawing us back in. And fate merely is what it is, a time to live, and a time to die.
These long pages of meditation, they reinforce to me that choice is paramount. For while each of us must come face-to-face with the river at least once to graduate to a higher plane of peace, it is the bifurcation of fate at those crucial junctures that sets us apart from those whom fate takes. I continue to know that those taken from us did make choices, but I see more and more that the choices made were often wrapped in a past needing to be unpackaged, slowly, layer by layer, the themes emerging, becoming, and folding up into our consciousness.
And so I sit here, night after night, dreaming a collective past into permanence, wrapping it in the present. Carefully folding each tale and placing them as a mosaic among the tiles of my daily life. And all of it to better understand how and why the river has spared me, as it spared those who have guided me by their example.
* * *
I’ve long known my Grandmother to be responsible for the fracturing of my mother’s nuclear family, but exactly how and why remains a mystery to me. Considering herself a matriarch, but one without money, means, or power, her rapidly diverging expectations of life and its reality seem to have pushed her into a bitterness that long ago taught me never to emphasise want.
I know that my youngest uncle was encouraged at a very young age to leave Te Aroha for Auckland and a private school, and it was his explanation of this encouragement that initially made me think that he may well have been gifted the chance to escape her. In fact, this impression was strong enough to make me think that education was the means by which I myself could make good an escape from my own, culturally restricted and oppressive, home town.
This view of her negative role in my uncles’ lives is reinforced by the manner in which they each, including my mother, left the nest as soon as possible. In some part this departure was a product of the age, hippy kids didn’t live at home with old squares, but her increasingly erratic and drug-addled behaviour must have been an impetus. And so keen to get away were they that even today they live overseas. I spent near-all of my adolescence in Mount Maunganui watching them each in turn attempt to return to New Zealand and live, only to have the reality of the limitations of small-town New Zealand sink in and push them again off-shore.
New Zealand is, as they say in the vernacular, a bit shit.
But also, that bitterness. While I don’t entirely blame my grandmother for their departure, I’ve long thought that her diminished social adaptability made strong contribution to their need to get away again. Throughout our joint lives together I never knew her to have a friend. Certainly she interacted with people, and was friendly, but whereas my grandfather was wholly gregarious, she was one part sullen and one part sanctimonious, an air of self-righteous Catholicism sweeping along in her wake like so much cold air. It did little to endear her to her own peers. Peers who saw her failings, and her fakings, for what they really were.
And this atmosphere she brought to her interactions with her one remaining child, the one stuck with her, cornered as it were by we three grandchildren. It was a Mexican stand-off as it happens, my mother needed my grandfather, but was forced to endure my grandmother, and my grandmother needed her grandchildren, and was forced to endure the endless shame my mother represented. In the immortal words of the consummate 80s Ocker, “dysfunctional? Now THIS is dysfunctional.”
So it was that she came to sit in the corner of my childhood, a prim, blue-haired biddy who loved us desperately, but who was forced by no rational means to emotionally torment my mother at every opportunity.And so torment she did.
Strap yourselves in people, from here on in this story becomes something of a rollercoaster.
* * *
The nature of the mother-daughter relationship is a complex one, and something I am decidedly under-qualified to broach here in these few pages while also excluding the possibility of blunder. I can however state that the relation of my mother and grandmother was without doubt, fraught, and complex in ways that strike me as deeply personal, while also essential to understanding the history of my family. Naturally this leaves me in something of a bind, because while my grandmother has been taken to her rest, my mother lives on in a place where the exposure of her personal life to the entire world via this medium is not something to be taken lightly.
So perhaps we could begin by stating that it is no secret that my mother thought my grandmother to… dislike her. Precisely why she felt that has not always been apparent to me. In fact, my opinion is that my grandmother wanted to love her, but was constrained by events beyond both their control. Or, put another way, because of the lack of control that became all too apparent in my grandmother’s life, she herself – though we need to be reminded yet again that “she is the cat’s mother” – she herself found my mother becoming things that she both disliked, and desired.
“Conflicted” is the pop-psychological term you hear bandied about concerning people like Ngaire. While my mother was no great beauty, the pageant-winner’s title fell to a cousin from Taranaki (who followed a life’s river a polar opposite to my mother’s), she was without doubt fair enough to instil jealously in my grandmother. Moreover, while my grandmother found herself in an age where increasing social and cultural freedom for women contrasted starkly with the chains of domesticity and the atomisation of community behind suburban fencing, my mother dropped out of the gender compact, and began with so many thousands of young women like her to find her own way.
It was a strange age, and one from which my grandmother never really recovered, and never really adapted to. The differences it threw up between them became in many ways irreconcilable. This meant that while they were and are remarkably similar in the way in which mothers and daughter inevitably are, the moral and cultural differences that resulted in simple but cherished things like my two brothers and I also produced remarkably different world-views that would, had they been in other lives strangers, precluded any possibility of friendship.
And it is perhaps that which my mother has never been able to see. As they say, you can’t choose your family. While family ties people to us, because we are them, and they us, our very language learned from their lips and our nourishment taken from their fingertips, friendships are nurtured out of choice, and the immediacy of family removes the right to make that choice.
So it was with great sadness that over many years I saw my grandmother punish, in her indominably Catholic manner, my mother for that lack of friendship, of similarity. And as each remarkable incident in their shared life pushed the crevasse of difference a little deeper, the ability to become friends, and to to embrace one another, became a little more difficult; forgiving and forgetting prevented by culture, and simple conversation undermined by an age, a revolution, and its price.
* * *
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.
* * *
She must be all of 16 or 17, and she’s standing up at the road-side, thumb out. It is the very late 60s, and is what is sometimes described as the naive era of New Zealand history. The British Empire is all but collapsing, the post-War boom is about to grind to a sudden halt, and the social consensus has yet to be seriously challenged by minorities like Feminists and Maori. It is, in it’s way, a halcyon day.
A car stops, the driver doubtless male and wondering how he can help an young lady such as herself. She wanders over to the door, asks for a lift out to Waihi Beach. When the driver agrees, out of the bushes charge my uncles and their friends, all of them piling into the car for the trip. What is today the oldest trick in the book was then a brand new one.
I imagine the scene like something out of the Monkees. It’s always been sold to me in floral colours and great larks, kids on adventures getting the heck out of dodge. It evokes New Zealand summers, all sunburn and Tip-Tip icecream. Holden EH and longboards. Safer days gone by.
Another tale is she and her brothers building a raft. They use it to punt from Te Aroha, down the Thames all and the way to the Gulf of Hauraki, playing Hucklebury Finn on what could only be a summer holiday. My grandparents were doubtless glad to have the time to themselves, and they’re collected safe and sound in due course.
There is something of the perpetual innocence of youth in these stories. They are young, bright, capable. A unit.
But something changes in the tone of the tales, and there is a gap I’ve never been able to fill. From here, in these sunlit moments, the family splits. Whether it is because of unhappiness I can’t tell. The most simple explanation is that the older boys just came to the age when they knew they should leave home, and did so. If this is the case then the tales they tell of a joyous childhood are, like my grandfather’s story, a glimpse of what we all experience as children, before realisation of a uglier world of adult responsibility precipitates.
My suspicion though is that the new world of the social changes the 1960s and 70s levelled on New Zealand were also in play. As much as ‘the War’ permanently changed the expectations of that generation, the Baby Boomers experienced a particular upheaval. But without romanticising what occurred I cannot be sure.
What I am certain of is the permanent departure of the two older brothers from Te Aroha, in scattered stories. I know the oldest left, and found his way out of New Zealand entirely. By the 197os his adventures have taken him out into the desert mining towns of Western Australia, an eon distant from the lush temperate rainforests of the Eastern Waikato. There he stays, his ambition too little to take him further. The next brother’s tale is a, fortunately for this history, little more exotic.
At first he lives in Te Aroha, but he is infected with the same strand of wanderlust that effects all Tibbys. From there he tells the tale of seeking something deeper in life. And it begins a long journey the likes of which should, with due respect, be the subject of another night.
My mother? She follows in her brothers’ wake, leaving behind the small town and ending up in Auckland.
In recalling these tales, what always strikes me is the manner in which they resemble the patterns of my own life, and those of my own brothers. The blazing light of small-town summers. The bumpy, corruption of youth during the metamorphosis to full adulthood. The fracturing of the family unit. The scattering. And, finally, the profile and trails we each left as we parted.
It is a strange, strange world that three generations should follow such similar paths.
* * *
My exposure to the eldest son, Grant, is limited. I know where he ended his escape from small-town New Zealand, but the details of that escape elude me. The story of Allan, the second son, is however a little more full.
As mentioned before, Allan seems to have maintained the pretence of holding down a full-time, square job in the local milk factory while using the laboratory to mix up a bag of tricks. Smart chap that Allan. These days you might be able to find the recipe for some of this stuff on the web, but in 1969? In Te Aroha? Regardless of how he got to it, he used his altered viewpoint on the world to get the heck out of dodge, and he decamped to Auckland in what must have been 1970 at the latest.
My understanding of cultural revolution Auckland is all tales of hippies in Albert Park; kids that no-one understood, and challenges to the status quo. New Zealand was still as yet to be shocked by the Whina Cooper’s Great Hikoi of 1975, but Maori activist groups were starting to find voice. It is a time much-romanticised by elements of the Baby Boomers.
It wouldn’t be too much of a stereotype to state that my uncle could have been effected by his hobby at work, and his consequent interest in finding a deeper, more spiritual understanding of life. After all, rediscovering spirituality after generations of sterile Christianity is a reoccurring theme of this era, and Allan, finding himself in this new cultural milieu could hardly be different. Strangely though, he chose a path a little different to many Boomers, and chose to find some sort of respite from rural idyll of Waikato by becoming a Marist monk.
While spirituality-of-a-confused-and-newly-reinvented-sort runs deeply in my mother’s generation, in their case it cannot be entirely attributed to the recreational habits of her and my uncles’ encounters with recreational chemicals. Certainly you’d think there would be a link between the two, that much is obvious, but it is most likely that these things tapped into a predisposition. A Catholic predisposition. Hence the Monks.
The initial attraction seems to be a life of peace, working in the gardens, growing something to help him think, letting the days unwind. Strangely enough, he departed, dissatisfied. Doubtless there was too great a cultural difference between the expectations of a Catholic order and those of an earnest, niave hippie. And so he began a journey in quest of enlightenment that ended long after my birth, in 1971.
It was in Auckland that he must have made the acquaintance of my father, and through my uncle my mother made in turn the acquaintance that lead to me. And so it was that there, during New Zealand’s own summer of love, a bit later than the American one, but we’re always a little slower on the uptake down here, that I was conceived.
Allan must have remained restless though, and so leaving sister and friends behind he departed again. This time, apparently, by stowing aboard a ship bound for Australia.
And so it is that part of the tale if my family turns in on itself. A young man, both escaping and seeking, climbs a rope to smuggle himself to an island he has heard tales of, driven by urges he does not yet fully understand, to find enlightenment, and to perhaps make his fortune.
* * *
My uncles were for most part conspicuous by their absence across the better part of my childhood. It was as though they waxed and waned in our lives, joining us in the Mount and departing in good order once the illusion of Nirvana was either bestowed, or departed.
Allan I remember larger than life. He is sitting on the floor of the living room of the state house in which I had been living, and is like a younger, more vital version of my grandfather. He has the same breezy nature and easy good humour. He speaks of places far beyond the limited imaginations of the people I’m surrounded by at school and in our neighbourhood, but in a way intended to always carry hidden meaning. Some of his stories take me years to understand. He is a big man, over six feet and thick about the belly and shoulders. His laugh is a booming bray, his accident weirdly American, and his glance is a contemplative, cautious optimism. He is irreverent towards all this convention that passes as wisdom in my home town, as though he sees it all as an shallow veil behind which the small people smother themselves for security.
And so there he is. Sitting on one hip, his arm propped beneath him, his legs drawn into two V, barefoot, and smiling at my brothers an I. We’re eating pizzas, then an expensive and slightly exotic dish, and the boxes are arrayed in front of us like offerings. He tells us stories of his home, Manilla, and the war to remove the dictator Marcos.
My brothers and I adore him, his family, and the sanity their being with us brings.
He has come back to New Zealand, and is in one of his many attempts to help my mother break her dependence on welfare. Spending his own money, he teaches he to make screen-printed t-shirts, and we throw ourselves into turning our state house into a production line. We are ordering blank t-shirts, phot0-emulsion chemicals, and inks. We build a workspace in the carport and are prepared to work all hours to make ourselves rich. Screen-printing was, you know, HUGE, and we’re ready to ride the wave all the way to rich-town.
But in time he has to leave, because, as always, he remains a wanderer. It is more than simply a habit, it is a way of life. He has travelled the world since he climbed that rope to escape up and out of New Zealand those many years before, and so he disappears again, an opportunity calling him away, and a glimmer of optimism about our future granting him some confidence.
My mother tries to make the business work, but in time the chemicals and dyes are stacked in the shed, and the trestle-tables we built are turned to another use. In time my mother explains it as the problem with Allan, he who can’t stick at anything long enough to make it work, and she returns to the place I remember her most from my early years; sitting behind a sewing machine and a pile of ash, her years of potential spent in undercharging rich people to serve them, to tuck and tidy clothes we can’t afford.
* * *
There is a flower called, I believe, the Black-Eyed Susan. It is a vine, and the flowers themselves are orange with an ultraviolet black circle in the centre. It has perhaps five or six large petals surrounding this centre, which falls away into the trumpet of the flower, as opposed to the stamen being extruded like a dome into the sun like Sunflower or Daisy. It is this flower, along with Jasmine, that I now most associate with my childhood.
I first remember it from a trip to Katikati, a small town in the Western Bay of Plenty. My grandmother, as obsessed with birds and gardening as she was (despite spending a suspiciously small amout of time doing the latter), had decided to take my brothers and I to “the Bird Gardens”, a tourist attraction just off the main highway and out among the kiwifruit orchards. Trips like these, for example to Rotorua to see The Trout, were a way for my grandparents to spend time with us and were something my brothers and I loved. It broadened our horizons a little, and was akin to an actual holiday, with actual treats.
The Black-Eyed Susan I’ve always associated in my mind with brown trellis for some reason. I’ve always pictured it winding its way between the diamonds of heavily-painted wood, beneath bright, crystal blue skies, the orange of the petals radiant and punctuating the red hues of the frame. I remember it in contrast to the dappled light of Willows along a walkway by a stream, and exotic finches flitting to and fro, and peacocks strutting about.
So why the Black-Eyed Susan? An uncle and his family were caring for us while my mother was away, and I had recently developed a paralysing stutter. Merely attempting to utter a word beginning with “T”, or worse, “Th” was agony, my throat locked in spasm or mouth a gaping rictus, the embarrassment of being unable to do something as simple as speak flushing my cheeks. I still stammer on occasion to this day when stressed in a particular way, and I still flush unexpectedly if thought to be caught in a lie (it is always the perception of being thought a liar that does it, even when telling God’s Own Truth).
I remember the trip out to the Bird Gardens, and my grandmother encouraging me through the stutter, chirping away to me that singing was the best way to free up my words. If I could sing something out, then the words would come, and I, all sweetness and light, would get over it. This, along with constant admonition to hold my shoulders back, was some of the more useless advice of my childhood.
Truth be told, the centre black of the Susan is the true significance of the sorry tale of my paralysis. The central trumpet of the flower captured me, representing as it did something all consuming within an otherwise happy, starkly-contrasting thing. This is because, like the Black-Eyed Susan I too had an dark centre, a cancer spreading from the inside.
So to conquer the embarrassment, to share it a little, I too pushed out darkness, and, in my indomitable, lilting, pre-pubescent way, began to swear like a sailor.
It worked a treat, though endeared me to no one, especially not the old ladies serving Devonshire Teas.
* * *
I’m sitting at a table in Papamoa, which was then some way distant from the Mount and a hamlet all its own, and looking at a poster on the wall of a cheap flat. We’re visiting my uncle David and his partner, and the poster I strongly characterise with the 70s. It is a scene of a great ice field, with a white pegasus partially collapsing under the strength of tendrils breaking through the ice and dragging it down. They are few, but wrap themselves around its legs, and up onto its rider, who is a winged man reaching one arm to the sky, hopelessly, his head thrown back from his bare chest so that you cannot see his face, his curling locks falling onto his back and shoulder. He longs to escape, but cannot.
It is the most gay poster I remember, and has always made me think of Led Zeppelin.
Strangely, in one of those oddities of inheritance, my uncles older than my mother most physically resemble my grandfather, while those younger resemble my grandmother. David is a couple of years younger than my mother, and is of an age that places him at the boundary of the Baby Boomers and the Tweeners, a generation between the Boomers and GenX. Too young to have participated in the New Zealand summer of love, he nonetheless embraced the ethos of the age whole-heartedly, it deeply influencing his perspective on life to this day.
When reading Baby Boomers, I always find myself pegging them (firstly) against the split I’ve always seen between my mother (and her older brothers), who was old enough to escape into the dangers of the world, and those Tweeners who where too young and have always existed on the cusp of the social revolution. On its coat-tails if you will. The second split is between those who pretended to understand the revolution (or who outright did not, ‘the squares’), and those who helped maintain it.
David left home and somehow found himself in Tauranga training and working in Nursing, a clear exhibition of a deep caring streak in all my mothers siblings. I often wonder whether, had things been different for her, my mother herself would have taken up a similar vocation. And it was there that she joined him after escaping the East Coast in 1973.
He tells a tale of being appalled when an ancient car trundles down his street, lurches through his driveway, and promptly dies on his front lawn. Out of the car piles my mother, a close friend (male), and two children, come to stay. In yet another coincidence this same scene is repeated 25 years later when my younger brother hauls himself out of the Queensland Desert and to David’s home in Brisbane, sans children.
But there she was, in need of help, and what was he to do? My mother, famously reliant on help and the kindness of strangers, has lived in and around Tauranga ever since, while David eventually wrapped up his growing family and departed for Australia “to escape Muldoon” in the early 80s. Although, it is also true that my grandparents moved to Tauranga to be near the grandchildren not long after my mother arrived.
And so it was that I grew up in Mount Maunganui, in a nuclear family peripatetic within the boundaries of this one region.
* * *
In the photo I can’t be more than a few weeks old. I have the pinched, compressed face of a newborn and I’m loosely swaddled. Holding me is my uncle Allan, and he’s perhaps 21 years old, holding me up close to have a look. The photo is a washy, bright hueds of 70s paper and I can clearly see the daubed paint between his eyes, the soft tones of his robes. His head is shaved, which in itself stands in stark contrast to the wild hair characteristic of the age, and he has the slightly goofy grin I have always associated with him.
After leaving New Zealand permanently Allan has somehow found first to Sydney and a job as a postman, a tale for another day, before making his way to India. I think that like so many young people of the generation he went seeking the alternative to the conventional, tinned, artificial, medicated and sterile lifestyle of the post-War consensus. And, like so many young people of his generation, and to a degree mine, he finds himself in what was then the faded glory of the British Raj, seeking ashram and enlightenment. And there, it seems, he discovers Krishna consciousness.
While today the Hare Krishna movement has a particular association in the popular mind, in 1971 it had barely started, and Allan found the in founder of the movement, Sri Prabhupada, the guru he has been looking for. Tying himself closely to his variety of Hinduism, Allan took the name Achurya Das and became a disciple of the movement, as he continues to be today. Although, naturally, today he is the guru.
This strong tendency towards non-Christan religion among my uncles was a profound influence on me, and though I can critically say that it was in all likelihood a product of their rebellion against my grandmother’s selfish Catholicism, and the treatment they were meted at the hands of the Catholic school to which they were sent, it was also a constituent part of their own counter-culture rebellion. In point of fact, “alternative” religion blossomed in this generation, and permanently reinforced what had previously been the token agnosticism of Western political culture. No more the lip-service paid to separation of Church and State. With there now being no one true religion in the West, how was one to dominate?
Of course, in 1970s the zeitgeist was consuming the cultures of other lands as fast as it could embrace them, and Allan, again like so many young people, brought his religion back to the West, finding his way to again to Sydney in the mission to bring Krishna consciousness to the lives of other members of the British diaspora. And inadvertently, to care for my mother and I.
* * *
For reasons unknown to me for many years I had always considered my grandmother, and my mother in turn, a witch. I should immediately qualify that by stating that I in no way mean the modern, inherently negative meaning of the word, in fact, it is quite the contrary. By witch I mean the woman who is made other by her weirdness, again in the pre-modern sense of the word, by her isolation from immediate social surrounds, and by her hard-won wisdom.
I’m sure I’ve stated before that the concept I most associate with Ngaire is ‘alone’, because while surrounded by her family it was on rare occasions that I saw her immersed in the simple act of being with other people. Always a little haughty and distant, she was always the square peg. And yet, looking back, she possessed, in my experience at least, the ability to make statements that could cut to the quick – but not out of spite, instead because they saw through the layering and social buffers with which small-town people (and perhaps New Zealanders in general) protect themselves.
And though, like her mother, she has never really known best how to wield the power, I see my own mother inheriting the mantle. Much of my childhood I remember my mother being alone in one way or another, and I remember that we were in many ways very odd within the social environ we found ourselves. While for the better part of my youth I wrote this difference off to her baby-boomer hippy past, yet in retrospect the hippy ethos was for many little more than a self-adhered veneer to allow one to slake off the negative aspects of sterile, ‘modern’ mid-C20th life.
It is that weirdness, the difference from the mainstream that I’ve come to regard as the true marker of the hippy of the baby-boomer generation. Those unpossessing of that otherness are, in my humble opinion, those most likely to have been on the hippie bandwagon, not genuinely interested in the revolution, but only in riding out its benefits.
I also emphasise the weirdness because it is that which defined the outcome for so many boomers. When the dust had started to settle, and the revolution had degraded into disco and velcro, the good-timers exited for the ‘next big thing’, while the true hippies retreated to the metaphorical hills.
That is, those who survived. Because no revolution is without a cost, and those who rebelled against the straight-jacket of conformity and authority New Zealand and the West represented paid many a price in poverty, in addiction, in mental illness, in family break-ups and in dependency, a wealth of costs they may or may not have seen coming. And so it was that my mother came through the revolution in isolation, the one inheritance from her mother she may not have desired or anticipated coming to the fore, and defining the remainder of her life.
* * *
My paternal grandfather was, contrary to his current self, an authoritarian in his younger days. Like many conservative men of his generation his word was final within family boundaries, and it was his guidance that steered the family through the shoals of early 60s life. They were comfortable but not affluent. They were working to pay off their home. They had five healthy children. A typical post-War scene mirrored throughout the nation.
My father though, my father was not cut from the same cloth. Where his older brother was very much typical of Baby Boomer men, concerned with beer, rugby and work, Howard seems to have been ‘odd’ from a young age. Unsurprisingly he was gawky and awkward (as am I), and I’m told his intellect separated him from his peers. Fitness was not a concern to Howard, and in sport-obsessed New Zealand, where one was measured by their ability with the ball, he was at odds with the common man.
I’ve never been able to glean the nature of the relationship between these two. And while I’m of the impression that the years since Howard’s death have softened my grandfather, I can see that he still wonders how things might have worked differently, had he been able to save his son from the fate overtaking him. But this is the mystery of life, isn’t it? If I have settled on one thing in these many pages, it is that while we each make choices from within the resources we are given, there are unknowable weights bearing us forward, history an unseen burden upon our shoulders.
This was the way with the two of them. Different from those around him, my father sought out like minds and drifted into the counter-culture while my grandfather sought to fetch him back to what he himself knew best, the normality of the nuclear family. These two forces, one seeking the end of conformity, the other seeking certainty and reliability, sheered, the resultant friction burning both men, killing one, almost destroying the life of the other.
But what is a revolution without fatalities, no?
I can sit now and see the photos, my father a boy, a teen, a young man, and see with the years of hindsight since I was that same boy what it must have been for my grandfather. For a man to see his child so distant, so at odds with everyday life must have been heart-rending. But, this generation of men were not permitted to express angst or anguish, so the loss must have merely sat, an actual darkness, one I was to find he and his family still sharing quietly between themselves, some 20 years after my fathers’ death.
* * *
The Grafton I first encountered in the early 90s was hardly the most savoury place in Central Auckland, but was by all accounts a substantially different from the neighbourhood that had seen punks throwing themselves off the iconic bridge, and Baxter entering the commune in Boyle Street. It still smelled of history though.
Today the past of the neighbourhood is erased under the weight of SUVs, apartments and expensive ‘restored’ houses, but then I could still feel the impress of my parent’s footprints in the grass of the Auckland Domain. I could still make the walk to Albert Park, the centre of New Zealand’s modest student revolution, and laze beneath the trees and palms. I was a long, long way from the 1970s, but I was 21 and living in my father’s skin, just for a time, to see what and how he might have felt.
Lonely was my impression. Auckland has never been a forgiving place, and the winters, while not as bitter as my experiences of heavily concreted Wellington, were damp and brooding. But still I saw the ongoing hardship of the street peoples there, and knew all too well what it was to be hungry and addled. And that is what I thought life then must have been. From reading of Baxter I know that he lived there a relatively short time before my father did, and the experiences of the young addicts in the Boyle Street commune must have also been his. The increasing police surveillance. The final ostracisation from a bewildered mainstream Auckland. The political foment as ideas were thrown up every day to challenge the status quo.
It was into all this my mother followed my uncle to the big smoke, and it on Carlton-Gore Street she must have met my father, she the liberated woman, he the liberated son. Pretentions about their affair I have not. Having been the young man I know all too well how confusing the flatting and student scene can be, how transient the friendships and living arrangements. I do wonder of the romance of it all though, from time to time. My examination of their pasts does lead to wonder – had things been different? Only to dismiss the idea as a child’s idealisation.
The fact is that my father was becoming increasingly sick, his dislocation from society almost irreconcilable, his entry to that subculture usually attracting the attention of the Law, permanent.
But, from this melange of history, this dare I say it, crucible of the changes that made New Zealand what it was in the 80s and 90s, I emerged – doubtless wailing (as appropriate). Although, there was something of an interlude that in itself became deeply formative to me. Because while my father descended more deeply into what became an all-encompassing lifestyle, my mother once again followed my uncle, this time away to Balmain, Sydney, another centre of the revolution, and it was there, in 1971, that I was born.
* * *
It was in Balmain that my uncle and mother met again. He must must have been preparing to go to India and was a disciple in Sydney, now bearing the name Achurya Das. I have a photo of him holding me, his head shaved, the paint on his forehead, in the characteristic Krishna robes.
My mother tells the story of him returning from the temple. He carries in his hand dust, gathered carefully from the shoes of Prabhupada himself. She bent in for a closer look, and sneezed into it.
On another occasion he was waded out into a deep pond to gather a lily flower or lotus which he somehow does not touch with his hands, he returns to show it to her, a perfect flower, unaffected by man. She had a good poke around with her finger.
I would imagine that while Achurya Das had finally found the guru for whom he had been seeking, my mother was still without substitute for the Catholicism of her youth. Worse, her scepticism for religions other than Christianity appears to have been normal for a woman of her generation – deep despite the pretension to open-mindedness the Hippies represented. But for this I can hardly blame her, the her then hardly differs from many attitudes towards mysticism prevalent in my own contemporary society. In that regard, she was merely ahead of the game, yet again.
The most interesting upshot of her being in Sydney in 1970, apart from the obvious want to be near her older brother, was of course, me. Australia was then as it is now, more socially advanced than New Zealand. In particular, it accommodated young women in ‘the family way’ with a tolerance New Zealand did not. And so it was that my mother, like generations of young women before her, found herself there on the edge of that great desert, making the choice. Because while unwed pregnancy, and residence with our nearest neighbour until the shameful act is less evident, is a fine old tradition – safe and clinical termination of unwanted children was very new.
It often confuses liberal friends when I profess to being anti-abortion, but pro-choice, because the two are often characterised as mutually exclusive. But, trying to imagine the feelings of a young woman, largely alone in an unforgiving and partially alien city, finding herself with the choice to terminate my life, or not, the larger political argument is trivial. How would I consider her to have made any choice but the correct one? And so I often think of the potential lives destroyed by termination when reflecting upon my own, and reflect upon the manner in which my birth permanently and irrevocably altered the trajectory of my mother’s life, and I see there an act of great love, selflessness.
For not only did she decide not to end me, she further chose to keep me from a pre-arranged adoption favoured by the authorities of the day. And so while my uncle may have immersed himself in the mysticism of the exotic East, my mother surrendered herself to a fate much more complex, a path more difficult, that a great many women decline.
* * *
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?
* * *
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.
* * *
Having only approached by Father’s family in my early twenties, I have long 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.
* * *
Well my boy, I’ve been writing this history, your history, since before I knew you. Actually, since just slightly before I knew of you, and I’ve kept in mind that there will come a day when you will read these many dreamed pages yourself, and wonder.
For me you’ve become something of a lodestone within this tale, it’s unravelling, and my understanding of the many whys it has helped me understand. And pivotal to that understanding is the question, why did he leave?
I know for certain now that discovering the fact of my Father’s demise in the years I first thought I needed to return to his family would have been a mistake, and too much information for my young mind to assimilate. While the plasticity of youth is a boon, it also offers opportunity for partial knowing to deeply gouge rows into which future misunderstanding is sown, the crop of adulthood become a weed.
Sitting here experiencing the gentle frustration of the adult with a child who will not sleep, I have wondered many times how I would cope had I a monkey on my back, and it is that single thought that has many times explained to me the why.
To find yourself sick, but tied to a family you did not expect, with a woman you would barely have known, would be impossible. Knowing that fact makes it easy to not blame him for leaving, and more importantly, to not blame myself. But the teenager? It is a very different knowing.
But my aunt with whom he lived, and my mother herself, were teenagers, the effect of his departure into the unknown and what became the very last time either of them saw him, was profound. My aunt laid the finger of blame on my mother I know, but in the confusion who can be certain.
My mother’s last memory of my father is his making his way along the road away from the house, abandoning them all. My aunt stands on the street, yelling, telling him to never return if he makes the choice to leave. My mother moved away from her too shortly thereafter, herself making a fateful decision.
I see this time now as the harrowing of paradise. The last glimmer in the illusion of peace my Boomers held onto, and it is an important part of our history. Their falling away from each other after the discovery that nothing was easy, and that they themselves were the greatest enemies of peace, must have been profound.
Thinking all this does not make the burden of knowledge any less my boy, but the gift you have given me, unwittingly, is the experience to see with clarity, and is something you should know I will long be grateful for.
* * *
It has occurred to me that my step-father is now little more then a thirty-year old memory, and that those things I can recall are vague. I remember that he dropped me off at my first day of school, though that memory competes with the discovery that I was able to order fish and chips for lunch (at the time a miraculous finding). I also remember he and my mother standing in a kitchen of the flat in which we lived, holding one another, and kissing very gently.
Other than this, Johnny is a ghost in my past, his presence continual for a time but now faded, long erased from the corners of the self-centred viewpoint of a child. I can see the places we lived while he and my mother were together, and I can remember some of my own actions, but he himself is little more than an object transferred to pictures that reference those places, as though he were added independently of me.
This takes me again to the strangeness of my own past, where a figure so fundamental to my childhood should be transient within it. Johnny passed through our lives in as little as 6 years, but his effect on my mother and her own future was profound. She loved him very, very deeply, and her attempt to secure him a return to New Zealand after our failed emigration to Greece was to to underlay all her actions for a number of years.
And to this day I wonder who the man really was. I will admit that my younger self never trusted him. He was Greek, and had been working on the ships, and somehow met my mother in Tauranga. How has never really been clarified, but must have begun living together in 1975 or very early 76, and married shortly before my youngest brother was born in 1978. Other than this lack of trust I have no real feeling for him, which is, as I say, an admission, and I am shocked to hear myself confess it to you. But with this length of time having passed, and myself having outlived him, I think I am entitled.
I will also admit that there is only really one association I strongly bear with Johnny. Drugs. Johnny’s main income after settling in New Zealand was their import and sale . Exactly what type I do not know, having only a series of second-hand stories, but have a fair idea. What I do know is that, once again, the idealism of the late 60s had settled into the naive consumption and good times of the 70s, and Johnny was well-involved with what my mother must have seen as the glamorous world of conspiracy and danger the drug trade represented.
My childhood memory from this time is full of anecdotes about types of drugs, drug use, and drug abuse. And in a further confession, it angers me. But, as the older me is bound to do, I excuse this with the thought that alcoholism could well have been worse. Johnny did not mistreat us. I do not ever remember being beaten (wooden spoon administered by mum being the exception), nor do I remember my mother being ‘mishandled’, two types of memory common to peoples whose parents were drunks. The anger is reserved for the sequence of events, and the knowledge that all too many people are drawn into the same world of shame and tragedy we were.
* * *
How my father fell completely out of society remains much of a mystery to this day. After his departure from Tokomaru Bay in what must have been very early ’72 he appears to have returned to Auckland and continued to seek help with his illness, but in a society completely unprepared for the type of rehabilitation he required.
New Zealand in the early ’70s was, like many of its contemporaries, still uncertain whether drug addiction was a health or criminal issue, and from what records I’ve been able to secure it was to the attention of both these types of authority that my father was brought. You can imagine then the shame of his parents, your stereotypical hard-working suburban family, who found itself in possession of a son unable to pull himself together.
My earliest inquiry into the period between the East Coast and his death resulted in an interesting titbit of information that has taken a number of years to slot into meaning. Some time in mid-to-late ’72 the mother of a friend of Howard’s came home to find him sitting on the couch in her lounge. Surprised to find him there, she did not give him a particularly warm welcome (as you would expect), and he left, in what I myself see as another incident of running away.
I always interpreted this encounter as a plea for help, and more recent discoveries in official documents have confirmed this for me. Howard apparently got on well with his friend’s mum, and it was probably to her that he was attempting to turn, in an effort to find some sort of comfort the rebellion against my grandparents precluded.
It is a pattern I have seen several times among personal contacts with heavy drug dependence, a spiral downwards into increasingly anti-social behaviour while also clinging desperately to the normality and safety of society itself. For many this hypocrisy strikes very deeply, and is key to their inability to ‘pull themself together’; a counter-veiling force acting to distance them from the ones they love, while simultaneously increasing the yearning for succour. And so their psyche sheers, often irreparably.
For this reason I now know what he must have been experiencing when taken off a train in Putaruru in May 1972. He is wandering the North Island, seeking who knows what, perhaps Jerusalem and Baxter who has helped others, perhaps nothing more than comfort in the distance from home. He is drunk and in a ritalin stupour, so the guards remove him and hand him to the police. The police in turn hand him to Tokanui Mental Hospital, and it is there than another chapter of his rehabilitation begins, in a place many now speak of with hushed tones. He is sick, covered in tracks, emaciated, alone, lost. A specimen under a benevolent gaze.
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We can each of us look backward to a snapshot of who we were at a moment of our own personal history. We can see what it was that made us who we were by looking at the tangled skein that wove us into the tapestry of which I’ve spoken. But at the time, while we each pull together the strands of daily life it is impossible to know the patterns we weave.
So naturally this was the way of it for my mother. My father having abandoned her after 3 days of trying to make happy family, his own daemons continuing to harry him, she moved out of the house she had been sharing with my aunt, and began to seek her own way. I was the cute appendage to her new life.
It was then that she took up with my middle brother’s father, Eddie, and following closely in her own mother’s footsteps was quickly pregnant to a man who could care for her.
She speaks of him being a delivery driver, which implies he took her on the road, and suggests his mischievousness was a key part of her attraction to him.
How their relationship formed I’ve never known. Eddie was also absent from my life from about age 4, Liz having escaped the East Coast and travelled to the Bay of Plenty to stay with my uncle. But like all the men in her life prior to our settling in Mount Maunganui he left a strong impression and child before their paths parted permanently.
It is again strange in retrospect how quickly all this took place. In what I now consider the blink of an eye my mother has left home, borne two children, experienced untold difficulties, and travelled across the breadth of the North Island. A whirlwind is all you could call it, with Eddie being just one more vortex into which she fell.
I’ve only met the man twice in my memory. Once at my brother’s wedding in 2004, and once after he came back to New Zealand briefly. Consequently there is no strong association between us. Had we stayed with him for longer in my childhood he may have made an impression, but the flight to the Bay of Plenty ended the possibility of that.
And why? Alcohol and alcoholism runs strongly in his family. What I’m uncertain of is whether he took to the drink before or after the death of his own mother, tragically taken in a car accident around the time of my brother’s birth, and with the drink came a violence, and an apparent meanness.
I learned that he beat her long after I had become an adult. She tells of holding my brother, an infant, while he laid into her, she thinking that the presence of the child would prevent what befell her.
How badly she was beaten I don’t know, and likely never will. What I do know is that she took a step not many women in the 1970s, or the 1980s for that matter, did and left him. And for that I can only commend her. Growing up with an alcoholic is one of those contributing factors you hear people speak of when making excuses for their present, and it is one I and my brother was best well away from.
And so it was that it was her and I, alone again, my little brother a joy to us both.
* * *
Setting out on this journey I was not intending to uncover half of the information I have. The intent was always instead to provide an exploration of how and why people arrive where they are, an examination of the depth of history that lie within the events people judge one another for. And to a degree I think I have succeeded.
But that is not to say that this tale is ended! Not yet. There is still our small boy in a field, lost, holding the horseshoe nail of history, a small thing upon which great events turn.
It is the end of the line for my father though. I’ve stated many times that he was sick, his body wracked and ruined. He has withdrawn from society, and rants at his carers about ‘the system’, ‘parental authority’, and other symbols of control. He is within the counter-culture, but not of it, for the cynic in me sees the counter-culture as yet another aspect of the status-quo, a mere playground for the leaders of my own adulthood, an exercise in rhetoric for a nascent baby boomer political front. And so he becomes a foot soldier, expendable.
I wonder if he turned back to his Catholicism in those last few days? For his mother his death was a object upon which she hung a renewed faith, and a reason to seek solace in the church. Though being much like his mother, what Howard felt in those last few days is a mystery.
We know that he took to travelling by rail, and that he spent several stints either at the attention of the police and in Oakley Hospital, but that is all. Records from this time are extremely limited, and the only letter I have read is Howard making a request to come and stay with my aunt on the East Coast, which I have mentioned.
And so it is that he is discovered in September of 1972, long deceased, beneath a tree in the Auckland domain. A passer by finds the body, and reports it to those same authorities, who collect it and begin an investigation. It seems that he had spent his last night in a doss house somewhere downtown, and it was there that he passed. He must have had companions, because they removed his body from the city, alive or dead, and in some ritual, laid him to rest at the base of a tree.
Again, I often wonder about his Catholicism in those last moments. I wonder if He at last called for you Old Boy? Did he at last lift you from the arms of Magdalene, to embrace you, to comfort you? To wash away the sins of a petty rebellion, the wounds you made to smother pain? Did he lift you from the speckled shadows, and raise you at last into the light? Did he lay you upon his lap as Mary laid the Christ upon hers, prostrate? Did he call for you at last, Allehlujah, my child come home?
I hope you too saw beyond the veil Old Boy, and found that world of peace.
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