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.


Dona Bogart said...

I just spent a pleasant half hour reading about your time in Gore. What a beautiful place. I enjoyed the pictures as much as your wonderful descriptions. You have a great camera and an even better eye for just the right shot. Thank you for sharing.

dinzie said...

I'd like to see Southland and Orupuki again ...I remember the graveyard there...

susan t. landry said...

what wonderful images your descriptions conjured up for me; i am always hungry for the most minute details of other peoples' lives, and in this respect, this posting was very satisfying. i love the description of your mother as a snowy owl...the bedspreads, the snoring.... all so evocative.

Di Mackey said...

Thank you! I loved this glimpse of home ...

J.T. Webster said...

I enjoyed reading about your time in Gore. Thanks for sharing Kay.

Anne S said...

Very evocative Kay, just like being there.

I must admit I smiled when you mentioned going to the library to access the internet, as I recently had a similar experience when I went to the Port Fairy folk Festival.

As I was leaving, notebook slung acrosss my shoulder, B asked "Why are you taking that thing?"

Lucky I did, for as soon as I arrived at the accommodation all four of the women there at time (including me) opened up their netbooks and laptops, plugged in their dongles and accessed the net.

Can't live without it.

Unknown said...

Very enjoyable tea break spent reading and looking. Glad all is well with you, K. I don't think you're as addicted as you think you are to the internet. Besides, I wouldn't get to read about your world so much!

Kay Cooke said...

Dona - It really helped me to remain sane knowing I could write about it. Glad you enjoyed reading the result.

Dinzie - It's a special place.

Susan - There we were in two twin beds with worlds; so many shared worlds; and a conglomeration of time and times in the companionable space between.

Di - My pleasure.

Sue - I popped into the shop you recommended for books, but the ones I really wanted (historical) were far too dear ... sadly.

Anne - How funny! I can picture it all. I love the word 'dongles' !!!

Barbara - So good to touch base with you again. :)

Clocking Out

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