I walk my granddaughter
up the hill to Daycare
over grates, cigarette butts
past plastic trash bags
she finds the asphalt
every glinting thing
with perfect purpose
We wave to the lady with
the dog wearing boots
on all four paws and she
stops and waves back
people respond to a one
year old who cares that much
about them and they break
into wide happy smiles
Later on, I board the bus and
become angry at the teenager
head down on his phone
in the seat for the elderly
I shame this young man
when someone even older
than I am, boards, but all
I do is shame myself
the old woman doesn’t
want this young man’s seat
she’d rather stand than
lose her dignity to rage
At the pedestrian crossing
I am the only one fuming
as a man in a white sedan
edges over the painted lines
I swear at him, actually
out loud but no one hears
or cares least of all him
as he roars to the next lights
As a visitor in this city
I am the elderly anomaly
carrying the luggage of
my own petty prejudice
I’m learning to contain my
expectations of others, to
tilt my parasol to the sun
ride the bus like a local
an eye out for the glinting
We are walking from their apartment. Up a steep street in the sweltering heat. She is due. Her stomach is wide, round, the baby’s head engaged. Food couriers whizz by with chicken dishes for locals. We find an allotment behind a school, in a valley, overlooked by the mountains and power lines. None of us knew it was here. There is clover to entice the bees, tomatoes staked and beans already sprouting. We talk about bringing the compost here to share.
We can bring baby here when she is born, I say. Her mother is both excited and a little frightened. I grew up she tells me in the countryside, but you know, we didn’t have bugs and things. I lived in an apartment. She waves away what might be a sand-fly or mosquito, but possibly her imagination. We speak of the labour to come. Our language inhibits us. Instead, we breathe together. Breathing we agree will help the baby to arrive. I’m not sure she is convinced.
I am a Halmoni, the Korean word for grandmother. This baby is not my first grandchild. The other granddaughter lives in New Zealand and she will turn 11, just a week or so after this baby is born. I am reminded of her birth, of my love for her and of my own journey as a young mother, without a mother.
Here in Korea, the mother is mothered. My daughter-in-law is well supported. We have travelled from New Zealand to be here for four months, to be helpful. I’ve taken leave from my paid job. Her own mother is also a working woman and spends the weekends making nutritious food for a feeding mother. Seaweed soup, chicken porridge, foods that comfort as well as contribute. I am out of my depth. My daughter-in-law craves the food of her childhood. I can make chicken soup with a fresh chicken from the market. But there are family recipes and rituals I can never replicate.
So, I bring my love in my suitcase. I haven’t changed a baby’s nappy, since the father of this child was a baby. Before this baby arrives, the parents have invested in cloth nappies. We nodded in approval. Now that baby is here, we are using disposables. I cry a little with the emotion of being trusted with this new day-old baby, although my son ensures I know how to hold her fragile head. He checks, initially, whenever he passes his daughter to me, that I understand the way to hold her. And then he is back at work, and I am trusted with her lovely head.
Memories of being a new mother emerge in vignettes. I try not to say too often to the baby’s grandfather who is here with me… remember how often you were away. I recall our farm holiday near the Coast. The clothesline strung from one wooden prop to another. Cows roamed beneath. When the line was full, it collapsed, and the nappies fell in the cow pads. We had crayfish though, undersized crayfish, that the farmer gave us to eat.
At night, I recall the mishaps. The window that fell on my eldest son when he was 18 months old. He still has the scar. His wife finds it attractive. I can still see the million pieces of glass, the blood on the floor, the blood on me, and my pregnant belly. I remember the rush to the hospital in a neighbour’s car (because you were at work darling). And the night our youngest lad’s foreskin became a tourniquet around his penis due to an infection and at midnight I phoned my neighbour for help (because you were away darling…). He reminds me, this besotted grandfather, that he was trying to pay the mortgage. And we both agree, it’s much of a blur. These vignettes come unbidden, to remind us, who we once were. Brief recollections, possibly inaccurate, all follies forgiven.
Back home, my other granddaughter sends me messages on Kakao, using filters on messenger and I can’t work out how to do the same. She is wearing a cat nose with whiskers and making funny noises. I think she likes her new cousin, so I keep sending her photographs. Her mother is strict about phone contact, so all my messages are filtered through her mother. And she is right to do this. Still… I dream of the day when we will chat back and forth freely, unfiltered, to see what sort of conversation we might have.
I am her cooking granny. She learned to crack eggs (all eight of them when she was three). Sitting on our kitchen bench, making scrambled eggs. She had no fear. Cracking the eggs in one go. And quickly she learned how to separate the yolks using the open palm of her hand. Watching the albumen slide from her fingers, the yoke intact. We moved from scrambled eggs to pikelets, to buttermilk pancakes. We made faces in the pan, flipped pancakes, wasted mixture, licked the spoons and drank the melted butter. I didn’t change her nappy, because I wasn’t needed. At the time it felt like rejection, but her mother had a mother. And I’ve learned as a mother-in-law, to adjust my expectations. It’s a wise woman who learns to adjust her expectations in life. Where once I saw loss, I know love.
I’m recalling how it was as a young mother, with no mother. At the time, I was so absorbed in mothering I didn’t miss her. Our babies survive our good intentions. It is only now that I grieve, as a grandmother, wishing I’d known my own mother more. Wishing I could ask about her mothering of me. She was often unwell and had four babies, one after the other – my two eldest siblings only 11 months apart, and then a baby that was ‘removed’ for health reasons (a polite euphemism of its time…) leaving room for me. I know my older two siblings spent time in foster homes and a local orphanage run by nuns, when my mother spent periods in hospital. I’ve no idea where I was? I wonder now. Was I picked up and held by strangers, or by my mother? There is no one to ask. I feel sympathy for my mother. That I never bothered to enquire. To ask her how it was for her.
Now, I am needed. The mother of my Korean daughter-in-law is a working woman. I have taken leave from my job to come and be a Halmoni. I worried at first that I would no longer know what to do. But rocking from one foot to another and patting a baby’s back and bum is instinctive. But too, I have learned, with all my love and patience, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, but a mother, that matters to a new baby. I watch with admiration, the bond, the commitment, the patient learning as this new baby teaches her new mama, that she, this tiny infant is really the one in charge, the schedule is hers, and the sweet surrender of mother to child is a revelation. This is what we do as mothers. We surrender.
I remember my closest friend when my babies were small. She had a daughter who was between the age of my two lads. We shared coffees, recipes, babysat, and supported one another. Our children shared bath times and bedtimes. She became my rock. She too was a motherless mother. We were motherless mothers, doing our best. My friend died aged 40 from a brain tumour, leaving her 11-year-old daughter motherless. I recall her last days, the determination not to die. The fluids she drank to keep hydrated, as her breath came, it seemed, minutes apart, each breath, a wish to live longer. A wish to never leave her daughter. It still breaks my heart, and I try not to ever imagine my granddaughters motherless.
My newest granddaughter is giving involuntary smiles that some people call wind. She is opening her eyes and responding to sounds. I lean in towards her, put my face up close, dare to kiss her on the cheek, just briefly, not wanting to impose, but impossible to resist. I watch her feet as they kick the swaddle cloth off, and her hands in cotton mittens find her mouth briefly, but perhaps I am exaggerating, it’s too early, she’s only three weeks old. Her father no longer worries quite so much about her head, because her neck is strong, and she can push herself away from my shoulder as I burp her. My daughter-in-law can write burp in English and we chuckle together, waiting for the sound.
I used to worry that I wouldn’t see my babies grow to men, when my friend died. And now I grieve for the women these granddaughters will be that I might never see. I am a Halmoni.
Shut One Eye
This is the advice given to us from a stranger. We were seated at an outdoor café in Alexandra. It was the first day of our cycling the Otago Rail Trail. Already, in our lodgings at Clyde, we had encountered the warmth of southern hospitality. Then, at the start of the trail, as we entered the first stretch of gravel and dirt, a couple about our age, coming the other way, (locals biking from Alexandra to Clyde), ambushed us with hellos and endless chit-chat about the trail. I was itching to be on my bike but fascinated too with the friendliness.
Shut One Eye. By this stage, we had cycled the short distance from Clyde to Alexandra and we were enjoying a coffee in the sunshine. First one, then another, local, stopped to chat about our e-bikes, our cycling and where did we come from. The man who told us to shut one eye before we entered the Poolburn Gorge tunnels on our bikes, was full of advice about recharging electric bikes and cars. He regaled us with his mileage on both his bike and in his car and where to plug in.
And this was how I ended up cycling with one eye shut for half a kilometre prior to the tunnels. Precarious, but persevering, as I am a stickler for following advice. Whereas John, less worried than me about night blindness, shut his eye about half a minute before. We both sailed through the tunnels yelling and laughing and it was around the middle of the longest tunnel that I suddenly found myself slightly panicked with no idea of left, right, backwards or forwards – and then a light emerged at the end and John’s voice beckoned.
It was afterwards, we read the sign advising us to walk and not cycle through the tunnels. Chatting with other cyclists that evening, we realised we’d been a bit foolhardy, as perhaps a cyclist coming the other way (who maybe hadn’t shut their one eye for a whole kilometre) would be cycling blind towards us.
It was stinking hot on this, the most scenic part of the trail. We left Omakau early, had coffee in Lauder which was 32 degrees in the shade and then found ourselves hurtling as fast as we could to create a breeze in the stifling, scorching, windless Central Otago. We passed young families, not on e-bikes, not all that well prepared, standing practically hugging an almost hedge, pretending it was shade. One of the kids was crying, the mother looked distressed and Dad with another toddler, was all decked out like a veteran cyclist.
We also noted a hierarchy and a bit of snobbery around e-bikes. You get the feeling from people who are not on e-bikes, that somehow you might be cheating. We had a wee chuckle when heard that the Otago Rail Trail committee had a meeting to decide if they would allow e-bikes on the trail! Er, yes, well, as imagine the baby boomer business they might have missed out on.
Apart from the cycling and the spectacular scenery, the revelation was the southern hospitality. From our first night’s accommodation in Clyde when a wine was foisted upon us, to the several locals in Alexandra who stopped to chat proffering advice and the wonderful fact, that everywhere we stayed, the homes remained unlocked. In Omakau we had a large lodge with several rooms all to ourselves – the note on the table when we arrived, said pick a room. When our host arrived to chat to us, I asked her for a key and she replied.
There is no key – this house has never had a key – when I bought it from the old couple who used to own it, there wasn’t a key.
Then in Oturehua, we stayed at ‘The Mill’. A beautiful, historic and utterly charming, quarried stone building. Our host was yet another Aucklander in retreat. We met so many people who’d left Auckland to come to live in Central Otago. Driving us down to the local pub, our host pointed out houses along the way. One house was owned by the woman who bought firewood to our host as a welcoming gift when she first moved there and another house belonged to the people who own a trailer that is out the back and able to be borrowed at any time.
At the Oturehua store, I bought a signed copy of Brian Turner’s Elemental and just love the earthy, wise and unpretentious poems. He lives somewhere nearby evidently.
And finally, we met Basil Fawlty. I guess it had to happen. It was after the most generous and welcoming stay at the Waipiata Country Pub. We were the only people staying there. This was so at all our accommodation. It seems we picked a week between seasons (end of Christmas summer holidays and just before the back to school crowd). The owner let us park our bikes in a spare bedroom to recharge. He let us use the washing machine for no extra cost and within half an hour on the old rotary clothesline, everything was bone dry.
So, it was, we rose early the next morning for the last part of the trail. 52 kilometres on a gentle downhill slope all the way to Middlemarch. We were told there were no cafes on this stretch and the pub owner made us a giant salad sandwich, bacon and egg pie and a muffin each. John was certain there must be a café en route. We reached Hyde. A small country pub with a pop-up café. The pop-up café had hot water, coffee bags and various refreshments with an honesty box. Alas, John’s bike hadn’t recharged the night before. It seemed it hadn’t been properly connected. John, ever pro-active, wheeled his cycle into the pop-up café, and plugged it in.
Well… within a few minutes, a man whom John has affectionately nicknamed Wal from Footrot Flats, appeared
You’re taking the piss.
I said, you’re taking the piss.
He was outraged that John had brought his bike into the small pop-up café to plug it in.
John politely explained he was recharging and the conversation went back and forth about why couldn’t John take the battery off the bike (which he couldn’t as his adaptor was in his suitcase en route to Middlemarch)… Wal, was livid. I was outside drinking my coffee and rushed in with my five dollars to pay for the coffee in case Wal thought not only were we stealing power, we were not going to pay for our coffee. I couldn’t locate the honesty box, so I asked him where it was.
I’m not going to tell you – find it!
In a fluster, as he watched, I rushed around the room hunting for the honesty box which turned out to be a Cadbury Roses chocolate tin.
Then Wal decided he wanted a photo of John recharging the bike and insisted John stand beside the bike while he took a photo. John, ever determined to keep the bike charging, agreed. Alas, Wal couldn’t work his phone camera and seem to be appealing to us for help…. needless to say, no photo ensued. It was evidently stuck on panorama.
We enquired if the pop-up café was temporary and was there to be a new café? And no, he wasn’t about to open another café, as in spite of all the glowing comments over the past several years about the wonderful food and coffee at the Hyde Café, he’d seen the books, and none of the owners made any profit whatsoever. And, then he added, for good measure…
Anyway, we’re not latte types.
John kept Wal chatting and said that eventually he’d have to accept that e-bikes were here for good and they’d need to be charged. And what about electric cars, wouldn’t he have to have charging stations for electric cars at his hotel?
Well, that was the last straw for Wal who said that out here in this part of the world no one was going to be driving an electric car. Basil Fawlty himself would have agreed we are certain.
But don’t be put off – the Hyde Country Pub looks a darling place to stay and I do think this chap is probably a genuinely lovely southern man who just hasn’t quite got the hang of pushy city folks who wish to charge their e-bikes.
We rounded off our holiday with two days at Little River to be with old friends, and home along the amazing new Kaikoura road. Such pride and joy to see the extraordinary work done on the road and yet to be done. Passing young men and women in hard hats, waving to us, proudly controlling the flow of traffic. Gobsmacking to see the uplifted seabed, the tons of earth that tumbled across the rail lines, the incredible engineering that has seen the Irongate bridge installed, the stunning depth of colour that is the Kaikoura coastline.
A Facebook friend has recently posted a beautiful update about a breadboard. He’s writing with great candour about a recent cancer diagnosis and heading towards chemotherapy. Because he is a writer, he is expressing his present pain, both physical and spiritual, most eloquently. His post has inspired me to write about, not a breadboard, but a colander, a mixing bowl, two tablecloths and a wedding ring.
The colander, a beaten aluminum, was my mother’s. When I wash fruit, or rinse salad leaves, I am reminded of her. It’s just another household object, tossed into a very disorganised drawer of mismatched pots. But this colander, carries the memory of a coal range, a small green fridge and a time when salads were chopped, like ribbons of crepe paper. When salads were an art form in a leaf shaped piece of Carlton Ware. Hard boiled eggs were halved and placed on the outer edge, carrot was grated atop, radishes, and tomatoes for a splash of colour. I think I can smell a whiff of mint that grew by the grace of the dripping outside tap. And the pièces de résistance would be the Highlander mayonnaise dressing – in a separate equally beautiful, possibly Carlton Ware jug. There would be the hot summer sun from the open back door, competing with the fire of the Shacklock. A delicate balance of opening and closing doors while the new potatoes boiled, regulating the temperature. A crochet cloth would be thrown over the beautifully set table to keep the flies at bay.
Then, there is my uncle’s mixing bowl. I’ve spoken of this before. I use it once a year to make my Christmas cake, my mother’s recipe. It brings back memories of my favourite bachelor uncle, who taught me to swim. His bowl sits on the top shelf above the pantry and whenever I see it in passing, I am reminded of him. It has a small chip now which I ignore. I was swimming in the Golden Bay in the late afternoon when word came that he had died. I had decided to go swimming on a whim, just prior to having guests for dinner.
Two days before Christmas, our youngest son got married in our garden. We’ve lived in our house for thirty years. The old house groaned with the pleasure. Every door was open to the outdoors and the garden chose to sparkle. Listening to the wedding video, as the couple make their vows, unnoticed at the time, we can hear the birds chirping agreement. The house whispered loving secrets too, reminding us of wild teenage parties, old loves, new loves, friendships too. We all loved anew.
I found an old white tablecloth that I had purchased when I first left home and moved to Wellington. I was in a post office hostel and the Irish Linen man called. Back then I was in love with a faithless sailor. But the tablecloth survived. My mother’s old white tablecloth, now a little worse for wear, but good quality linen was retrieved from obscurity – the one that came out every Christmas during my childhood. A wedding loves a white tablecloth, but even more the mother of the groom loved the history of the two white tablecloths. When regaling my sons briefly with their history, the guffaws at the thought of a glory box sometimes known as a hope chest, overshadowed my romantic notions.
I’m posting a photo of the wedding cake, because it too is filled with precious ingredients. My granddaughter, my new daughter-in-law and I, made the cupcakes together. We had a batch failure which threw us into disarray. An over-beating of the mixture. We started again – three batches in all, and as happens when love is in the air, a friend of the groom, with a flair for decorating, iced the cakes for us.
And then we have the bride’s wedding ring. From family rings, a new and modern ring was fashioned at short notice, by a local jeweller. It is beautiful, contemporary and a melding of family history. The groom too wears a family ring. Thehappy couple have left New Zealand leaving us with memories and carrying these physical objects that represent both their love and ours. Together they are growing their love and our next grandchild.
My No.1 Book Group chose ‘The Wonder’ by Emma Donoghue for our November read. I hadn’t read ‘Room’ and I was wary of all the hype. But, very quickly, I was immersed in 1860’s Ireland, and astonishingly, recognising so much of my own childhood as a 1960’s Catholic girl. It was confronting. I was wearing my new-age, non-Catholic, 21st century sensibility, but I was also recognising and understanding so much of what was happening. I knew that when book group convened, I would need the one other Catholic in our group to offload to. Because truly, so much of the crazy cult-like thinking of the times, can only be understood, if you have lived it. What was so shocking for me, was that I understood so clearly what was driving the characters in the story. I wasn’t surprised by the prayers, by the fatalism, by the unravelling narrative and denouement. It made perfect sense, in all it’s weird and shocking ramifications and revelations. Most shocking was, that my memories were of 1950’s 1960’s New Zealand and this novel was set in 19th century Ireland.
Emma Donoghue got right under my skin. She lifted off my skin, and she burrowed right there into my once Catholic soul, the guilt, fear, the superstition. And of course, I thought I’d tossed it all into the bin of yesteryear. But listening to my friends at book group and trying to explain why certain things happened and hearing that they had no understanding, not in the way that these things rang so true for me – I realised that you never truly lose this thinking, this darkly embedded (skewed) world view. We’ve often said at book group, that you can tell the way an ex Catholic will respond to a narrative. Indeed, as our book group has been together now for twenty years, we can often guess how all of us will respond to different narratives, our likes and dislikes. But, ‘The Wonder’ took the lid off my carefully construed and civilised self. I knew how to beat my breast and recite ‘though my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault’, recognising how faulty this really is. I knew the prayer to my guardian angel. How lovely… I once had one. What a treat. I believed. She kept me safe. I’d forgotten all about her. I’ve learned to live on my own without her now, but when fatalism is your creed, back then a guardian angel was a lovely prop.
And then, my non-Catholic friends wanted to know what the holy picture cards were all about. I promised next time, to bring some along. I have cards printed for my mother’s death, my brother’s death, three aunts, and a few extras, such as St Theresa the Little Flower, whose name I took at my confirmation, along with Our Lady of Perpetual Succour… the name of the church we attended. Virginal women reigned supreme.
I understood unequivocally, the need to suffer, so Anna’s brother could be released from purgatory. Of course, I knew how crazy it was, but I understood too. Suffering the road to redemption. I remember my confessions and the need to say penance. Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s four weeks (maybe three weeks), since my last confession. Since then I have: disobeyed my mother and father, sworn and had impure thoughts… I think this was the extent of my sinning, the impure thoughts consistently pervading my growing pains. Guilt was ever present and of course, you had to have sins to confess. Possibly I admitted envy now and then, for surely that’s the beast of sins, but usually one we outgrow, or age diminishes the sting of. As for the impure thoughts, I grew to like them.
I was from an ordinary working-class family. I didn’t attend a Catholic school because my parents couldn’t afford the uniform and bus fare into the city. The story goes, we got a Papal dispensation. As part of that dispensation, I was shipped on a bus, in the August school holidays to the convent to be indoctrinated in Catholicism. The nuns at the convent we attended, told us terrifying stories.
The story that has lingered the longest and never left me, goes like this and bears some resemblance to a tale in ‘The Wonder’… I’m guessing there are many more stories of a similar ilk out there.
A young girl dies. As per the custom of the Church, she is buried in a white coffin, the sign of purity for a child. During her funeral service, there is a knocking sound heard coming from the coffin at the front of the church. The knocking continues. There is nothing else for it, but the priest must open the coffin to see who is knocking. Inside the coffin is the young girl and her tongue is sticking out. Her tongue is black and upon this black tongue lies the host. As the story goes, this young girl, while still living, had dared to receive Holy Communion while in a state of sin. The Priest removes the host, the child’s tongue returns to it’s normal colour and the coffin lid is shut again.
Can you imagine how terrifying this story must have been? Add to this, the dilemma of distinguishing between a venial and mortal sin. Dying with the stain of a mortal sin on your soul, meant going direct to hell. I can’t recall, but I’m guessing that receiving Holy Communion while not in a ‘state of grace’ as the saying went, would be borderline mortal… anyway, we never found out if the poor child went to heaven, but the story as you can tell, has never left me.
I read a short bio on Emma Donoghue and almost relieved to know she attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin… for where else would she have gained this incredible insight and understanding of the motivation of her characters, her empathy for them in all their blind faith.
This is not a book review. If anyone is confused about the lack of detail and reference to the plot, the parts that the characters play, I apologise. I am simply moved, to respond to the impact this novel had upon me.
But also, this novel is more than just the things I have responded to. To quote Justine Jordan of The Guardian “Her new book is based on the many cases of “fasting girls” reported across the world from the 16th to the 20th centuries: women and girls, often prepubescent, who claimed to live without food for months or even years.”
And too the desire by the Church for worldly proof that there is another world leading to fabrication and blind faith in the search for such perceived blessings.
What is a Memoir? This question came up at my book group a few years back after we had read A History of Silence by Lloyd Jones. I was complaining that after reading Lloyd’s story, I knew more about his family, but not as much as I had hoped about Lloyd. My fellow book group members disagreed with me. They vehemently defended Lloyd’s right to write whatever he wished in his memoir. Was I really wanting to read an autobiography? It sounds like a quaint term now doesn’t it? It used to be quite mainstream, but mostly now when we look for work about a writer, we find their memoir. The on-line Merriam-Webster, gives this definition of memoir a narrative composed from personal experience. This sure sounds like quite a bit of leeway.
More recently, at another book group, after reading Ashleigh Young’s Can you Tolerate this?, the question was raised ‘What’s the difference between an essay and a short story?’ As a writer of both essay and short fiction, I was taken aback to have this asked. It seemed to me to be self-obvious but then we began to discuss and I was left floundering a little, to substantiate clearly the actual difference. Of course, I expostulated, a short story may well be true in essence, but it is fiction. So, my fellow book-clubbers insisted, isn’t that what Ashleigh Young has done? And indeed, I quote Bill Manhire on the blurb, who says of the essays ‘Some of Ashleigh Young’s personal essays feel to me like beautifully told short stories – they just happen to be true, or true-ish.’
I read A History of Silence as a writer wanting to know more about another writer – Lloyd Jones’s life, his development as a writer, what drove his creative impetus and what important milestones developed his unique character as a person. I felt the author always at a slight distance from me throughout the memoir. And then, I came to the conclusion, after a lively discussion with my book group, that this slight distance, was in fact a truth about the character of the author.
Around the same time, I read The Lie that Settles by Peter Farrell. His memoir could just as easily be titled A History of Silence. It explores similar themes of family secrets, again, and in particular, the secrets of a mother and grandmother. Farrell is an immigrant to New Zealand, and the sense of dislocation is both geographic and genealogy. But the same themes recur to reinforce the stoicism of that era, the complicity of communities in upholding these secrets and the often devastating impact of those secrets on future generations.
Then, I was given a memoir What Lies Beneath by Elspeth Sandys to review for Landfall. It struck me how similar the themes were in these three memoirs. The search for identity, the secrets that inhibit this and the social fabric of the time as dense material evidence of how these secrets were able to be sustained for so long with such devastating consequences. For the one thing that truly strikes to the heart of these three memoirs is the incredible pain caused through being denied access to identity, acknowledged links to biological family.
In contrast Ian Wedde in his memoir, The Grass Catcher, knows exactly who his biological family is, but somewhat unusually, his parents, in the sixties, abandon conservative Blenheim for a life in Pakistan with their twin boys who were still young. It is this uprooting from the familiar and the consequent and perhaps slightly unusual freedoms that this new environment offers, the author looks back on. He compares his own character with that of his twin brother, and tries to find meaning in why he views the world one way and his brother the other. Although there are no dark secrets to uncover, there is the exploration of the relationship between the two boys and their parents. Again it struck me, that this relationship is at the core of many memoirs and is a driving force in any identity quest. Who are we? Who were our parents? And then, what we do or have done with this information.
Although not a memoir, I’ve written about my own father in an essay published in Landfall about how he was raised by his grandmother, the bastard child of her eldest daughter. He was told by his grandmother, (who was resentful at having to now raise another child, having already raised seven of her own), that he’d been found under the cabbage patch. He had a loving relationship with his grandfather that sustained him through his youth, but no contact with his actual father. This was in small town New Zealand where surely everyone knew everyone’s business. But yet, in the last few years, we have uncovered through DNA testing, the family of my now deceased father – five siblings who never knew about him, and yet they grew up in the same small town. How could this happen?
The back story to this is a family legend, second-hand, a hand me down story. It is a story our mother told us (note the absence of my father telling the story – he was typical of his generation, a POW, who didn’t talk a lot about the war or his childhood.) According to the story, our Dad was about to go off to war, so he rocked up to the local pub, had a drink for Dutch Courage, stood next to his father, and said ‘Shout for me, I’m your son and I’m off to war.’ His father ignored him. Now that we’ve met the ‘new’ family and they, in trying to make sense of this new information about a man they adored, tell us he was profoundly deaf in one ear. And even if we don’t quite believe it, and still nurse a grudge, we allow this story air… we nod in acceptance of a new idea, that perhaps their father didn’t hear our father. We willingly embrace a new dimension, because it alleviates us, leaves room for possibility, smooths the narrative between us.
I begin to like this man they call Pappy, my father’s father. Evidently a dapper individual with a high profile in his community. A good man, a family man, at odds with our childhood story of his abandonment of our Dad. With this story in my own background unravelling, I reconsider my review of Elspeth Sandy’s memoir about her own illegitimacy and adoption. She chose the device of recreating ‘actual’ (but actually imagined) conversations and even thoughts. I found this very disconcerting, as it assumed quite a lot, even if backed up by family lore or legend. It seems to me that we can never inhabit the internal dialogue of anyone, to discern their motives or their hearts desire. But yet we long to. In retrospect, having been somewhat harsh about Elspeth Sandys re-creating dialogue to cast her own father in a poor light, I have more empathy for this tactic. Why not I think, because after all, a father who abandons can be judged, arguments for and against, but the truth forever buried.
And too, I recall being startled one day recently when I realised that poetry was in the non-fiction section of the library. Why this had never caught my attention before, I don’t know. But I was so startled that I tackled our local librarian as if she had made a mistake. She carefully explained the Dewey system to me. I began to interrogate my idea of poetry. Was it truth disguised, or was it fiction made fact? What is poetry? Is it memoir crossed with essay and fiction in the form of stanza, verse, rhyme, so I googled it, and found poetry could be divided into four sub categories: epic, lyric, narrative, satirical, or prose. All my own poems seem to ferment from out of the personal, a way of expressing a truthful recollection, but in the moment of transformation, elements of fiction enter the alchemy along with play, hubris (to sound poetic), editing for cadence and meter, truth abandoned for impact or impression. But it is the distillation of all these elements that provide us with a truth that we choose. Each reader brings their own version of events to the reading, thus rendering the truth more, or less according to their view. I recall being taken aback when poets who had not been affected by the Canterbury earthquake, wrote poems about it. It felt inauthentic, and yet they were good poems. Part of me felt that actual survivors had more right to the writing of such poems. But am I right. Probably not. It is possible to evoke a visceral and emotional response from the reader with a poem that has no bearing in fact or experience, but one that speaks either a universal, or an intimately personal truth (and not necessarily that of the poet).
The 4th Floor Journal called for submissions this year under the currently popular euphemism ‘alternative facts’. I knew immediately what to do. I had a story I needed to tell, about me and my sister. It’s a fight we had when we were both still at school and walking home late one night from the movies. My sister older than me, was my chaperone along a dark path from the cinema to our house. We both wanted to rush home and tell our parents about something in the movie (what that something was, neither of us can now recall). But we do recall, that my sister abandoned me on the dark path so she could run home first to convey the important story. I called the piece of writing ‘alternating facts’, because whenever my sister and I tell this story, we have our own version of it. We’ve agreed to accept each other’s version and yet we are both drawing on imperfect memory, and recreating the memory in each retelling. It is a narrative from personal experience, our very own memory. My original version of the story was entirely about my own grievance and with age, I have managed to inhabit my sister’s memory, place myself in her place, and consider how it was from her perspective. This works on two levels. I feel magnanimous and my sister momentarily feels validated, but truthfully, even in my magnanimity, there is at my core, an attachment to my own story.
I have to some extent a photographic memory (although not of the exceptional kind) but yes, I can recreate memories through images, snapshots I consider frozen in time, evoking what I have come to believe as exact emotions felt at the time. This led me to believe and to convince my family, that my memory is better than theirs, but as I grow older I become less certain of this. These images and emotions are my alibi. I’ve honed them to reflect my version of events, myself as a person of integrity, my version, my fiction, my personal memoir easily dipped into.
A biographer interprets other people’s memories, and chooses what to include or leave out, and thus, these choices are influenced by their impedimenta, and will be different from the subject’s choices if they were to write a memoir. On reading the biography of the extraordinary Jane Digby A Scandalous Life by Mary S. Lovell, I was frustrated on many occasions by the author’s digressions, seemingly to establish factual asides that drew my attention away from an engrossing story. I wanted to stay on track, in the moment, moving with this fascinating woman on her amazing journey from husbands to lovers, to Palmyra on camel-back and nurturing her garden in Damascus. But I was hampered, by what to me was extraneous detail, the author straining to convince me with facts that simply annoyed me, seemed out of context and intrusive – not allowing me to draw enough of my own conclusions. At the heart of this, is me, the reader, wanting a story.
It seems, that the conclusions we draw as a reader, come from our own flawed memories and experiences, casting approval, doubt, or affirmation, finding truth in fiction and fiction in the truth. Ashleigh Young has most likely embellished her memories to make a better story. She hasn’t lied to us. She’s given us her personal story. In doing so, she risks what the fiction writer avoids, the embarrassment of family or friends who are part of her story, but they lend weight in the way that a fictional character might not, and too, as writers we all know, people see themselves in our fiction, even when they are not there.
In the middle of writing this essay, I attended the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival and purchased the memoir My Father’s Island, by Adam Dudding, writing about his father Robin Dudding, editor at one time of Landfall and somewhat scandalously sacked from that position and creating the now legendary (a story that relies heavily on a variety of memories) Islands. Indeed, in the latest issue of Landfall celebrating 50 years, there are three interesting essays from writers who were around during the period that Robin Dudding was ‘sacked’… and their version of events are not entirely similar or unalike. The piece in Dudding’s memoir of his father that most interested me (apart from all the wonderful juicy tit-bits about people I have heard of, or know) is near the end, when he admits that a story he quoted in Chapter 2 of the memoir, and his memories of this story, after research and fact checking, are misaligned, and factually incorrect. But beautifully, he decides not to restore the Chapter to a more factual account, but leave it there as evidence, a clue perhaps, to the unreliability of memory (his or memory in general) and perhaps also to allow himself leeway – look this is my account of my dad, but don’t believe it all, it’s just my version.
So, does memoir gives access to the truth in the same way that fiction does? We know that autobiography tends to claim a certain accuracy and sometimes even requires a chronology, date specific, verifiable facts, as we perceive them to be. At the Auckland Writers Festival where George Saunders spoke about the ‘limits of our own perceptions’. So perhaps we can say that a memoir is the limited perception or perspective of the author of any memoir. And we should bear in mind, that the reader brings their own impedimenta to the reading.
At the funeral of a much-admired woman from the literary world, several people gave eulogies that recalled different aspects of her life. Indeed, the deceased had made a recording and spoke to us herself, mentioning most poignantly, some of her regrets. She was dying when she made this recording and we talked about it after the funeral, cup of tea in hand, sausage roll, some holding wine glasses. Did those regrets she mentioned only become apparent because she was dying and was making the recording. If she hadn’t been facing death in such stark terms, would those regrets have ever surfaced, or were they there all along, and she hadn’t spoken them? We can’t know the answer to this, we can only speculate. It was her life ending, and this was the final story she chose to tell us.
There’s a beautiful alchemy to memory, I now see. It is a chemical distillation. The particles assemble and disassemble. They choose to be this or that, depending on the day, the date, the year, the collection of years, the age of the person whose remembering, the relationship to the people remembered. Often the pieces missing, even more important than the pieces recalled. And the missing pieces when they are found, can be construed in a myriad of creativity to convey one point of view or another, the story, our story, the one we wish to tell, today.
We were away for the mid-term holidays. Just a short break, across the hill. Part of the plan was to hire a couple of electric bikes to try them out. The weather permitted, and we had a fun afternoon enjoying the newly found benefits of a bike set on eco, normal, or high, whereby, although you pedal, there’s a little engine kicking in to assist. I climbed my first hill on eco and was still puffing, so from then on, it was high uphill all the way, almost coasting. We smelled the cow pats, breathed in the pollen, and faced the headwinds with ease.
On our return to base, at a pretty modern cottage, in a reasonably high-end resort (special deal for mid-weekers), we collapsed, each with a glass of wine, to read and relax. I was inside, as the wind had come up and John sat outside to catch the late afternoon rays of light.
Later that evening, he told me what he overheard, while sitting sipping wine in the sun. Across from us, almost obscured by a beautifully manicured hedge, were other pretty wooden cottages. John heard a man knocking loudly on a neighbouring cottage door. The door was answered by another man who was regaled with loud apologies. It seemed the man knocking on the door wanted to apologise for having abused his neighbour in their adjoining courtyards just a moment ago. He was speaking loudly and apologetically and trying to explain that he’d just had the ‘worst day of his life’. John said, he could hear the pleading in the man’s voice and sensed him wanting the other chap to at least ask, what the matter was. But it seemed the man who had been abused, although grateful for the apology, didn’t wish to dally and enquire as to why. (Understandably probably).
John and I talked about this encounter and whether we should go and ask after this stranger, so distraught that he was abusing other people and then apologetic, saying he’d just had the worst day of his life. We speculated that perhaps his wife or partner had left him, that perhaps someone had died…. We even briefly permitted the idea of murder in the benign cottage across the manicured hedge.
But still, it wasn’t our business, really was it? And we both agreed, if we’d been closer to the encounter, it would have been okay to at least ask this distraught man if he was okay – but by the time we talked about it, it was too late really and we couldn’t be sure exactly which cottage he had come from.
And then, I looked at the date which was 12 October and that almost 50 years ago, in 1969, my eldest brother took his own life on this exact day – back then, indeed, it was the worst day of my life. I wrote a poem about this which is due out later this year in a new literary magazine Geometry. The idea that people put their heads down when others are in trouble, or when the trouble is too awful to acknowledge. Back in the 60’s suicide held a certain social stigma, and people preferred to pretend it hadn’t happened. We’re both hoping the distraught man who abused his neighbour in the resort over the hill, is okay.