Wednesday, 30 March 2011


Lately I've been having trouble dropping off to sleep. Anxious thoughts scrabble inside my brain, yet if I was asked to pinpoint what this anxiety is about, I'd be hard put to do so. It's as if my compass needle cannot decide where north is. I hope it rights itself soon.

At the kindergarten where I was working today, a boy searched the sky looking for the daytime moon. Thinking that the present phase of the moon must be rather small by now, I suggested that it might be too difficult to locate the moon today.  Undeterred, he kept looking. Then he smiled and pointed with some triumph, "There it is!"
And indeed there it was, north-east, as faint and wispy as a milk-moustache.
Each day this week one of the children at the kindy has noticed the daytime moon. A child pointed to it the other day saying, "The moon's going fast." I looked up to see the moon appearing to race across the sky, without really moving anywhere. It was strange, because as far as I could judge, there weren't any clouds rushing by to cause the effect.
Later that day at the car wash I had the same sensation of virtual movement as the revolving, giant brushes approached, making it appear that the car was also moving forward. I remember as a child at the beach, standing at the water's edge and looking down at rapidly retreating waves, feeling the sand being sucked out from under my feet, making it feel and look as if they were taking me out to sea with them.

The funniest thing I've heard this week so far is probably the four year old who while eating crisps was asked by his friend if he could have one too, to which the chip-chomper smartly replied, "Sorry, not today, buddy."
Sometimes I think four-year olds may very well represent the whole world, in miniature.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Makes You Think

Words for Christchurch
From Bookman Beattie's Blog:

Richard Liddicoat, Christchurch City Libraries

I’m writing to ask the literary community in New Zealand to help Christchurch and Canterbury.

As you know, scores of people have died. Landmarks and icons are dust. Our cherished city has been battered and broken. 

We will rebuild, but have a long road ahead. We know our situation could be worse, but we need you to help sustain us as we move on. 

Please, write some words for Christchurch. Inspire us, encourage us, humour us, delight us, surprise us. Help us keep our sanity, and our perspective. 

Send contributions to, and we’ll publish them on our blog at


An event that had started 2010 off for me, was reading at a poetry reading for Chinese New Year celebrations at the Chinese Gardens here in Dunedin. As it happened, it was also the day that my youngest granddaughter was born. Both her mother and her sister were also born in the Year of the Tiger; something that had been on my mind that dusty, windy day. One of the other readers there said, "The Year of the Tiger is meant to be a year peppered with sudden surprises." I wondered what was ahead.

As the year progressed, on a personal level, surprises did seem to be happening; one of them was a wonderful, quickly-arranged visit over from Japan by our son. He had with him his nine-month old baby boy for us to meet (and hold and hug). There was also my mother's 80th birthday in September to look forward to.

Then at 4.00 a.m. on September 4th, there was a not-so-good surprise. A massive earthquake hit Christchurch causing a great amount of damage, but miraculously, no loss of life. Luckily, all our family there were okay and their houses largely undamaged.

In the aftermath, we selfishly wondered if our mother's birthday party, planned to be held at our sister's place in Christchurch, would go ahead. Could we expect our 80-year-old mother to be alright there, with all those aftershocks and talk by geologists of the likelihood of another 'big one'? However, my sister and her two daughters were okay, her house was okay, and she said, "Of course it's still at my place." The party went ahead and the arrival of a sister secretly flown over from Perth to surprise our mother, was a success.

While in Christchurch we experienced the frightening after-shocks and saw where broken parts of the city lay, cracked and shattered. I drove with my sister to go and buy supplies for the party. The trip took us hours because of slow traffic on damaged and blocked roads. I thought about what Christchurch meant to me. My husband, Robert, spent three years at university there and after we got married, we lived there for a time. My sister has lived there for nearly forty years now. Early in the twentieth century, three of my father's older sisters (Agnes, Alice and Joy) in turn, moved from their home in Orepuki, Western Southland, to make their homes in Christchurch. They married there, raised families there and died there.

This photo was taken after the  September 4th earthquake; I wonder if the building survived the Feb. 22nd quake?
Later: My friend Catherine - who in her blog writes movingly about her city in the aftermath of the earthquake - has informed me that the Arts Centre (which this building is part of) was mostly destroyed. She has kindly given me this link for info. on this.

Richard Liddicoat, the Christchurch librarian who has invited writers to write in support of Christchurch, happens to be the grandson of one of those sisters; Alice. In September, 2010, my sister and I met him; our second cousin; for the first time. I remember us sitting at a favourite cafe of his. I remember the owner hailing him as we walked in the door. (I wonder if that cafe still exists after the second earthquake?) We sat at an outside table, and as we talked I could see on the banks of the Avon River opposite, cheerful daffodils bobbing normally in a spring breeze.

We talked of the earthquake of course, but also of family, dating back to the nineteenth century; of great-grandparents and grandparents, and of family members (a lot of them in Christchurch) who have succeeded from the marriage of Livinia, whose parents emigrated from Derry, Northern Ireland, and William, whose parents were born in Scotland; and going on into the twenty-first century. We talked of the family's Southland-Christchurch link; those who stayed, those who moved on. It gave me a feeling of solidity, even of stability. A sense of things going on from a solid base of family lines. Earthquake or no earthquake.

We discussed how it was going to take a very long time for Christchurch to recover. Christchurch; attractive, sorted, proud, established, the willow-lined Avon lazily and prettily meandering through its heart.

I remember how proud I was to show this city (in many ways modelled by European pioneers on towns and cities ‘back home’) to English friends when they visited a few years ago. We wandered through the Square, popping into the Cathedral where we heard part of a lunch-time service, the Vicar's lingo amusing our English friends. "I love how laid-back kiwis are," our friend said. He loved the 'No worries' saying he had been hearing over and over. We sat drinking coffee in the sun, savouring the busy hum and peaceful atmosphere. As you do, we thought that this was how it was and would always be.

In the Chinese Calendar, 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit (or Hare), and for those who believe, promises a genuine, no-worries, placid year. I read somewhere that the Year of the Rabbit can be so laid back, that people become apathetic and lazy. I could put up with that, I thought.

However, on Tuesday, February 22nd at 12.50 mid-day, again the earth shifted under Christchurch; this time with catastrophic effect. This time many lives were lost. This time much of the city was flattened; the face of Christchurch forever changed. Those of us outside of Christchurch watched it unfold on tv, remarking how it was like we were watching something that was happening overseas. It was grim, horrific, shocking. A pall fell over the country, and has yet to lift.

It is hard to try and describe the impact of such an event on those of us safe and sound. We feel a sad helplessness and oddly guilty about being safe and sound. Yet we also feel vitally connected to those in shock and those who mourn. We are all New Zealanders. The National Anthem became pertinent.

We were also reminded that not only are we connected to each other in our own country, but to the planet itself. After the Christchurch earthquake, a Japanese Group here in Dunedin decided they would hold a fair in Dunedin to raise funds for Christchurch. Our son who lives in Kyoto, was amazed and warmed at how many people over in Japan showed their concern for him and his family back in Aotearoa / New Zealand after the February earthquake struck. He wrote about it in his blog. The Japanese know the devastation earthquakes can wreak. Plus, of course, there were the tragic deaths of Japanese students in the CTV building to give brutal emphasis. Footage of the Christchurch quake played continuously on their televisions. 

Little did anyone in Japan know at the time that at about 3.00 p.m. Japan time (about 6.00 p.m. NZ time) on March 11th, a devastating earthquake would hit Japan, followed by a deathly tsunami killing tens of thousands.

Again, in his blog our son describes what it was like for him, safely removed south in Kyoto and experiencing the same shocked helplessness those of us outside Christchurch felt.  He talks too about a sadness that has fallen over all of Japan. 

Never imagining that they would be raising money for their own country, the Japanese Earthquake Fundraising Group in Dunedin, added Japan as a recipient for money raised. We went along to their fair on Sunday. We had the grandchildren with us; hoisted on my hip was my one-year old granddaughter, born in the Year of the Tiger. Among other things, we bought a simple water-colour of Japanese kanji for the word, 'Family'.

“One thing earthquakes do is make you think,” I heard someone say. 
Just today a work colleague said to me, "Somehow this whole earthquake business puts things into perspective."
My sister said, "I think the planet is trying to tell us something."
My sister-in-law who experienced the earthquake first-hand, said that it has made her re-think her whole way of life. She wants to simplify.

I think back to my great-great-great-grandparents and the upheaval in their lives when they made the long trip over on ships to these shaky isles. And before them, my ancestors on waka from Hawaiki. I wonder what they would say? Something like, “Life goes on,” I’m guessing. Let’s hope it does; in the sun, in the Square, in Christchurch. Again. ‘No worries.’

 This piece was submitted to Words For Christchurch

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Mist, Middlemarch, Mushrooms and Two Sisters Wine

Last weekend my sister flew down from Wellington to catch up on her southern family, and to do some family tree research. Before we headed off into the wider environs of Dunedin City, we visited a local sightseeing spot, Larnach's Castle, built high above Dunedin's harbour and often surrounded by a persistent mist.

Which only seems fitting for a castle. The castle was built by a William Larnach who we learnt, had an extremely interesting history. And there is meant to be a ghost. But we didn't see it - although one room we went into gave me the creeps.

After that we headed into the interior, stopping at Middlemarch, a small town still reached by rail. 

We could hear country and western music pouring out of this little shop, making my sister's partner's description of the country we were in as 'banjo country', rather prophetic.

The mist was not going to let us go, and continued to tangle itself about the landscape. As well there was a dogged, autumn drizzle hindering our efforts to explore.
My sister saw a paddock full of mushrooms and made whimpering noises when I didn't stop the car so she could clamber over the barbed wire fence and gather them up. I was too afraid of a gruff farmer shouting, "Oy! What do you think you're doing?"

An example of the many rocks to be found around, being put to good use as a fence post.

We decided we wouldn't press on westward, but turn back and approach my brother's place at Beaumont, where we were staying the night, from the east. Having been out of range for phones and internet during our travels, it wasn't until we stopped to have dinner at the town of Lawrence (a town which offers free internet) that we heard about the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I was very concerned about our son living over there, but Facebook messages assured me he was fine. However, from then on until I returned home again and could Skype him, it was constantly at the back of my mind.

The old Gore library where I spent many happy hours as a teenager .... now the Gore Art Gallery.

My sister and I headed for Gore on Saturday morning, where we spent two days with my aunty, and our mother who was staying with her. This time it was my sister doing all the digging and delving among family history photos and scrapbooks, while I took a bit of a back seat. However, I did pay attention and ask questions in order to add details and colour to what I am writing at the moment. 
While in Gore we were delighted one night to find a wine called 'Two Sisters', very apt with us and our mother and aunty making up a double lot of 'two sisters'. Very nice wine it was too - we ended up buying another bottle the next night.

The Creamoata Mill at Gore is now a stock-food factory, the market for creamoata ( a fine rolled oats) having dropped considerably in recent years. However, Sergeant Dan the Creamoata man who encouraged many a young Southlander to eat up all his breakfast porridge, is still there. My sister reminded me how you could smell the oats (roasting?) the minute you biked over the railway lines to got to the swimming pool. One of our other sisters worked there for a time.

The offices for the local newspaper Mataura Ensign. The building is of Art Deco design, and as you can see by the rather large date pressed above the main door, was built in 1930. 

On Monday, I drove my mother and sister from Gore back up to Momona Airport where they caught planes to Palmerston North and Wellington. 

Next time, my sister tells me, she is going to bring a big basket with her and is going to make sure the car stops at every paddock she sees with  mushrooms, every wild apple or plum tree, every hawthorn or rosehip bush ... As a dedicated wild food hunter - a Free Food forager - it broke her heart to see so much produce for the grabbing, left to go to waste, as we sailed past. She does have a point. 

Thursday, 10 March 2011

A Week Of It

I spent last week with my nearly-80 year old aunty in her small house in a small, Southland town. My 80-year old mother flew in from the North Island to be there as well and help with my aunty's recovery from major surgery on her heart.
During the week there I kept a bit of a diary. I thought it might help stop me from going completely mad in the micro-managed world I suddenly found myself in - the kind of world where to the inhabitants, things like the state of plastic containers, and how you place a towel, become extremely important.

My mother has just told me to get into my pjs! When I react to this, she says, “Well at least turn down your bed”.
Excuse me, Mum, I am no longer twelve years old.
There she was, all wrapped up like a snowy-headed owl in the feathery duvet of a twin-single bed with burnt-orange candlewick bedspread, right next to the bed I'm sleeping in, with matching burnt-orange candlewick bedspread.
We both snore. She said to my aunty that when she hears my 'gentle' snores (a kind adjective) at least she knows I'm still alive. I don't say that when I hear her rather weird 'night sounds' I wonder if when I'm a sleeping 80-year old, I too will make sounds like a milking-machine.

While staying at my aunty's, I agreed to clean up the headstones of my grandparents grave and also that of an uncle. The headstones were messy with the stubble of lichen and the gouged letters of their names had filled up with moss, rendering them unreadable.
As I sprayed and scraped away the creep of algae and moss, the cleaned, grey granite with the names and dates slowly emerged into the light once again. I remembered the little things, like the black, velvet slippers that Nana always wore, even to the dairy, and the derby hat Granddad always wore perched on the back of his head, his forehead beaming under it like a friendly lamp. How my uncle never married, and the talk that his heart had been broken; how I'd search for any hint of deep sadness in his eyes, to find only the slow, content smile of a pleasant-featured man.

A circus was in town, just round the corner from my aunty's house.

The days here begin with me getting up first, my mother and aunty still asleep. I make myself a cup of tea and watch a bit of breakfast TV for updates on the Christchurch earthquake. It's a little like receiving war reports; the number of those killed and missing growing each day. It's chilling and upsetting.
After seeing the effects of the recent major quake in Christchurch, I appreciate the earth under my feet here in Gore remaining solid and still. It remains the sturdy, Southland town I remember from when I lived here many years ago.

Life proceeds here steadily, the soft tones of the town's clock Big Ben chimes wafting over the town. The kea still screams from its cage in the Gore Gardens and on the walls of the old Flemings Creamota Mill, Sergeant Dan the Creamota man still stands to attention, rifle slung over his shoulder.
After I eat my plate of porridge for breakfast, I make cups of tea for my mother and aunty, taking in the newspaper to my aunty. She likes the curtains pulled across so she can check the weather. Part of her recovery from major heart surgery has meant a loss of appetite, so it's a matter of finding out just what she feels like to eat for breakfast - toast or porridge, or something else?

My brother's horse is running tonight at the Harness Race Meeting in Winton. We all want to place a bet. Mum and I go to the TAB; a new experience for me. I place a $5 bet both ways and a Quinella, which for some reason gives me a mild sense of achievement.
I make sure I get some time to go to the library and catch some internet time. My aunty thinks I'm addicted to the internet. (She maybe right). And to walking. (I can only wish this were so).

Today my two brothers and I travelled to Tuatapere for the funeral of our aunty, the widow of our father's brother. From Gore, Riversdale, Balfour, we go up over the Caroline Hills, dropping down into Southland's heartland. It is looking very green after a summer of rain.
“Could do with a bit more sunlight”, my brothers announce as they look and gague the land.
They look at the land with different eyes to me. They see the mechanics; the way it has been farmed, managed, kept, changed, cleared, fenced, fertilised. How it is used. I could see lots of fat, contented sheep munching the rich-green grass. “$175 each,” one of my brothers tells me. From then on, I don't see sheep, but dollar signs – paddocks full of them.
The funeral's at the Tuatapere Catholic Church – St Theresa's. It seems there is no room in the small church for anyone else but direct family. My aunty had thirteen children, and by the time of her death, was a great-great-grandmother. My brother wonders why they built such a small church knowing the Catholic tendency to have large families.
Music from the Roy Mempes Band; a local band popular in the district from the 50's through to the 70's; is playing loudly over the speakers as we arrive. All the family are dark-haired, some of them olive-skinned and with the same shaped nose. One has the nickname, 'Black Jack'. Even though we are related, we feel like the odd ones out with our fair hair and skin.
A young priest with a shaved head and a good singing voice, takes the funeral. He talks of our aunty's hospitality and serenity, her ample generosity, her kind heart. Her family also read poems and tell stories of the warm welcome she always gave when you called. Even if your visit was un-announced, you just knew you'd still be welcomed, unconditionally.
The Order of Service shows two photos of her, one as a pretty, lithe, young woman, and the other as a pleasant-faced, middle-aged woman with her body a little more smudged after all those babies. She looks out at life with her customary unruffled, practical smile. I remember her quick, talkative voice and nature, and how genuinely pleased she always was to see you.
After the service, standing outside the wooden church in the early autumn sunshine, a cricket creaking in the rhododendrons, we catch up with cousins and relatives we haven't seen for decades. I recognise a cousin close to me in age. We were great buddies when we were kids. We reminisce about tree huts and swings.
I ask her if she's ever lived anywhere else. She said she did, for about two years, and hated it so much she came back. She's worked at the local timber factory now for thirty years making, of all things, wooden broom handles.

Stories of people long gone are shared. We hear stories about our father when he was a young lad.
“So you're Don McKenzie's kids”, someone said, “I remember him when he was young; he was a real reprobate.” Which leaves us wondering just what a reprobate is exactly.
The cars on their way to the Orepuki cemetery form a cortege that stretches in a long line along the road. In the slumps and dips where parts of the cliff-face have fallen into the sea, we look out for the sight of foaming, green Foveaux Strait breakers thundering into the cliffs like some lumbering beast bent on thrashing up through the flax and grass.
Orepuki cemetery must be in one of the most picturesque spots in the world. The priest sings at the grave-site as we drop roses on to the coffin. It is a fond farewell. Our aunty lived well into her eighties and there is relief that her long wait through years of confused memory-loss is now over. 

We move on to Orepuki Hall where the locals' trademark spread of generous proportions, has been laid out on trestles. They are well-known for these spreads full of traditional kiwi fare – lamingtons, cinnamon oysters, club sandwiches, scones, pikelets. As well there is a crayfish and some whitebait patties.
After more catching up and linking names with faces, sharing tales of the past and the present, it's time to once more leave the old place where so many couples met, married and raised families. It is only a shadow now of its former self. The bustling little town full of the shops, hotels, halls and businesses that lined the two main streets, has long gone.

Clocking Out

 I have been neglecting this blog for some months. I think perhaps I should face facts and accept that it is indeed time to retire this blog...