The simplest words

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For Christmas, I bought myself a copy of Alex Miller’s memoir ‘The Simplest Words’, a series of sometimes quite short personal essays. I’m only part way into reading them but was struck to the core by his essay about the death of his elderly mother. He begins with a low-key description of a week they spent together when she was 86 years old. Indeed, he points out, that she pointed out, that this was the first time the two of them had ever spent a week alone together. He lives in Australia and left home aged sixteen to follow his Antipodean dream, and then became a writer. This essay-vignette, one week, ends with Alex and his mother walking home arm in arm from a pub after polishing off a bottle of Spanish wine, ‘Bulls Blood’.

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I was reading this sitting at a café overlooking our beautiful local bay. The water unusually calm, one person swimming, a grandmother towelling down her granddaughter, and a motor boat noiselessly edging towards the beach. A woman beside me was talking loudly on her mobile. I frowned first and then decided I would eavesdrop (I’m a writer), but she stopped before anything useful was uttered. I returned to Alex Miller.

Tragically, after spending this memorable week with his mother, a few weeks later when she was dying, he had to choose between returning to the United Kingdom to see her or his commitment to a new job at La Trobe University, Melbourne, teaching creative writing. He explains that he chose to stay with his students who had given him the gift of their unpolished first drafts – and to abandon them would be to betray that trust. He then goes on to say that it took six weeks for his elderly mother to die and when he returned some time later and caught up with his sister, she told him that his mother had been waiting for him to come. It’s quite brutal to read as her death was horrible, her spirit fighting to hang in beyond her physical pain. The sister tells him “It’s all right, you know, Mum understood that writing meant everything to you.”

It revived my own memories of my mother’s death. I was living in Sydney at the time and my aunt phoned to tell me my mother had suffered a heart attack and was in hospital. I’d just moved to a new flat on the North Shore and gone through an emotional romantic break-up. I stayed put. My Aunt phoned again three days later telling me I should come quickly. Reluctantly, I packed up my flat and job in one day and flew home. It took my mother a couple of weeks to die. She wasn’t in a lot of pain as far as I know, but she was very tired. A few years earlier my eldest brother had committed suicide. The last time I saw her, a nurse urged me to stay, but I had a bus to catch and a dinner date, so I said I had to go. I know now that the nurse knew my mother was dying, but she didn’t tell me. I made my dinner date and my mother passed away less than an hour after I said a cheerful goodbye to her. I often revisit this moment and wish the nurse had told me but too, I regret my own callow youth – I was impatient with her – she’d disrupted my adventures, I was anxious to be on my way.

So now there was just my Dad and me. One sibling was dead and the other was missing. As the hearse pulled up outside our modest Jerry-built post war weatherboard house – I was standing in the hallway with a view through the open front door – the phone rang and it was the missing child – not in a position to attend the funeral. I was used to life being askew, and this was just another permutation. We were a small team, my Dad and I and my Aunt and it took me motherhood, teenagers and becoming a grandmother to really know what happened that day. My grief came in unexpected moments over the years, tinged with regrets, and I was grateful, when my father died, that I was encouraged by the hospital to stay close, to sit still, to be there, and I was.

A cracker day

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Wellington turned on a cracker day for us. We migrated outside early with our glasses of bubbles and festive spirit. The birds were cheerful, the wind was in abeyance and our harbour sparkled. We had family home from Seoul. Our tree was lit with new LED pretty-coloured lights, the colours a nod to our granddaughter, the lights a nod to our daughter-in-law who is a climate change campaigner with Greenpeace, Korea. We all played our part nicely. The foot of the symmetrical, but authentic Christmas tree (we travelled 28 kilometres to purchase this ‘real Xmas tree’) was strewn with beautifully wrapped presents – too many for certain but chosen with love and affection. It seemed to me that the most fun our granddaughter had, was reading the labels on the gifts and handing out the presents. She was our centre. She was our Santa.
It set me to thinking about what Christmas meant to me as a child. I’ve dredged my heart for memories. Interestingly (and somewhat affirming), it is not the gifts I got that I recall, but the moments when Christmas went a little awry, or wasn’t quite as the script predicted.

My first memory is second-hand and cemented through retelling. It’s the moment one of my siblings woke on Christmas eve and disturbed Santa placing presents on the hearth. To authenticate the moment, our parents knocked the fire screen over and told us that Rudolph had raced away up the chimney in fright.
A second memory, I’ve written about before, but it is a cherished memory. A maiden aunt (such a quaint term but one applicable to the era), who worked at the St George Hotel in Wellington as a waitress and lived in (for almost 40 years I think), gave me my first proper swimsuit. It was covered in pink bon-bons and had a bow that sat neatly at the back where the swimsuit flared into a skirt.

There’s the memory of sunlight, minted peas, roast chicken, or pork, the coal range belching plumes of smoke into the still summer air. My mother barely raised a sweat as she toiled with the back door open, manoeuvering pots from boiling to simmering, checking the crispy roast potatoes, moving her cigarette from lip to stove and back again. The roll your own would rest on the enamel perimeter of the Shacklock. She deftly opened one window and shut one door depending on the oven’s temperature and the meat’s progress.

There was always Mass of course early morning and although I’m not religious now, I can see that going to church brought something bigger into the picture with the gathering of our like-minded community in our finest summer frocks to celebrate the birth of Jesus – the manger always centre-stage. We didn’t have a car, so we would follow our mother in her high heels through the Anglican churchyard, past our primary school to the one true church, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
Even then, before we ate our festive midday dinner, there would be neighbours and friends dropping in to say hello and I often wonder how my mother coped, cutting her Christmas cake, dusting the mince pies (flaky, not short pastry) with icing sugar, while my Dad probably sipped from his flagon, sharing a glass or two with whomever appeared.

The thing is, I don’t remember presents. I know I always got a book. The School Friend Annual was my favourite. And one year I bought my father a bicycle bell from Woolworth’s. I even hold the memory of the moment of purchase. Woolworth’s and McKenzie’s were the two big department stores in Nelson where you took your pea-picking pocket money to purchase presents.

And lastly, I remember Pixie town. It came around at Christmas time and I’ve just googled it to be certain and it seems the first ever Pixie town was created by a Nelson man, Fred Jones in the 1930’s. So, it must have been a long held tradition and one that has obviously faded with the advent of holograms and more sophisticated entertainment. Pixie town was a mechanical animation that intrigued us and all the more because it was only once a year.
This year, my favourite gift is a journal from my husband, with the first page inscribed with love, urging me to write another novel. (If you know how much he suffers when I write – the ups, the downs, the angst, the rejection and the fear… you will know how generous this journal is).

The Virgin birth and a faux Chinese chest

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The Virgin birth and a faux Chinese Chest

Christmas. It used to have a religious significance for me. But that was a long time ago, the fifties and sixties when I believed almost everything, anyone told me. And I was a dutiful sort of person, obedient, willing and looking for a story that would explain the strangeness of ‘being’, human.

Then I had a family and Christmas was nostalgia and the creation of my own new story, a family story. It was sewing Christmas stockings that we still use, in spite of my limited skills as a sewer. Each year, I bring out the stockings for a brief cameo and then I stow them away in a faux Chinese wooden chest where we keep newspaper clippings and the Christmas lights.

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A virgin birth. It never occurred to me as a child how odd this was. How could a child be cynical about the Angel Gabriel arriving on a beautiful cloud? Mary so pious (in various versions, possibly a little startled), but attractively compliant. You have to remember, I was a Catholic girl who read her Catechism and could recite the Apostles Creed in English and possibly parts of it in Latin. The Angel Gabriel arriving at the annunciation was a powerful fairy-tale.

I had no sympathy for Mary who was to carry this unplanned pregnancy. I was filled with the light of El Greco paintings on Colomban calendars, sermons from a small church in Richmond – Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. And then after abandoning my faith, and travelling for a few years, eventually I married the man I’d been ‘living in sin’ with for almost five years.. and became that very Lady of Perpetual Succour… a wife and mother.

I’m older now, and there are decades between my love of filling stockings at midnight, baking the cake weeks before, writing cards, attending Midnight Mass (merely for nostalgia and now not at all), buying a real Christmas tree, decorating it, making food that will please everyone, and then, finally, realising, that it’s not up to me, and you cannot ever please everyone.

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I no longer weep when Christmas music (Snoopy’s Christmas) comes on the radio. I still dance to the Pogues ‘Fairytale of New York’ because my granddaughter has been dancing to it with me for seven and a half years…

In my life-time, I have celebrated Christmas in Richmond, Nelson, Wellington, Washington DC, Norway (Santa arrived on Christmas eve in the snow), Edinburgh (practically alone), Istanbul (snow again) and Laos.

I’ve experienced joy and disappointment and one of my most memorable gifts was a swimsuit from an Aunt when I was about eight years old – it was covered in Christmas pink bon-bons and had a pink bow placed strategically at the base of the bodice where it flared into a cute skirt – prior to that I’d worn my Mother’s seersucker, over-sized swimsuit (with bra cups that possibly kept me afloat).

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It’s New Year now in our bay. The Pohutakawa next door is flowering. We’re re-united with our son who has been living overseas for ten years. We had a happy Christmas family breakfast and thoughtful inexpensive gifts under the tree. We were almost sitcom material on New Year’s Day with everyone on their best behaviour. Our granddaughter is besotted with her Uncle and we’re all besotted with her.

This year, I want to embrace being human, and to recognise the glorious potential of difference, rather than indifference, the beauty of the individual rather than the duty of togetherness, the magic of family in all its inordinate incarnations.

Eastbourne – an Anthology

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Eastbourne – an Anthology

It’s time I blogged. I’ve been teaching English in Cambodia for the past three months. It has been a real adventure and I’ve loved it. There have been so many things to absorb, equal amounts of joy to challenges. My Cambodian students fill me with admiration. They work six days a week and sometimes two jobs and still they turn up to learn English.

I will leave a part of my heart here. I will blog about Cambodia, when I return to New Zealand.

And so, my thoughts are now turning towards home. While I was over here teaching English, the Eastbourne Anthology, was launched. I am proudly one of the co-editors of this publication, along with Mary McCallum and Anne Manchester. We worked together on it for two years (not imagining when we started, that it would take that long). I left to take up this volunteer teaching role in Siem Reap for three months, just before the final stages of the editing. And so I must say a big thank you to Mary and Anne for carrying on in the difficult final few weeks, with deadlines and proof reading to be done.

Too, I wish to acknowledge that the inspiration for this anthology was Mary’s. She invited us to join her on this project, knowing that all three of us share a passion for literature and our community. We knew too, that many famous New Zealand authors had featured Eastbourne in their work. But we didn’t know quite how many until we began our research. And nor did we realise how many talented local unpublished authors would submit their work. Constantly, we were surprised and delighted by the variety and the quality and this made our job has editors so much more difficult – and in the end rewarding.

The easy bit, was of course, the ‘Classics’. I’m a devotee of both Katherine Mansfield and Robin Hyde, so I was more than happy to re-read their work and rediscover the references to my own home bay, Days Bay. And then great joy, I was introduced to the work of Molly Falla and had the good fortune to meet her daughter, one of Days Bay’s oldest residents – well, she has lived in the bay perhaps the longest. My next most exciting discovery, with the assistance of Ali Carew of the Eastbourne Historical Society, was the writing of Mary Findlay and her astonishing memoir ‘Tooth and Nail’. I blogged about this a few months ago.

When our family first moved to Eastbourne, over 24 years ago now, we noticed how many second generation families there were in the community. I will confess, at first I had reservations about this. I scoffed a little. We were ‘newcomers’ in the bay and we lived in ‘The Barnett’s House’. Houses were named after the people who had lived there the longest, and not the new kids on the block. I was a working mother (and this wasn’t altogether approved of). It’s taken a while, but I think we’re now part of that same tradition – maybe if we sell our house one day, they’ll say to the new buyer ‘Oh, you’re in the Rainey-Smiths’ house’.

I now have a granddaughter living close by to me here in Eastbourne and I understand community in a different way. The dedication in the anthology from me, is for my granddaughter Sienna. I think it’s good to leave your community to gain a perspective and I’ve been away now for three months. I miss my family and friends. I miss the tuis and the wood pigeons and I miss the sound of the sea.

The Eastbourne anthology is a celebration of all the things that I miss and I’m very proud to be both a co-editor and to have two of my poems in the anthology. A special thank you to Makaro Press, the new publishing house of Mary McCallum. I hear that the anthology is about to go into reprint. It was Mary’s inspired choice to have the anthology ‘bay-themed’ and Anne’s to invite local artists to submit sketch impressions of their bays.

I wasn’t able to be at the launch but courtesy of Viber, I heard the launch speech by Mary and my husband John took these photographs for me. Fittingly, the anthology was launched at the Rona Gallery, home to all literary and artistic soirées in the village of Eastbourne. Joanna and Richard Ponder and their family are staunch supporters of the arts in our community.

Mary McCallum launching the anthology at the Rona Gallery

Mary McCallum launching the anthology at the Rona Gallery

John Horrocks, poet and neighbour, reading

John Horrocks, poet and neighbour, reading

Lloyd Jones (one of the famous faces) reading from his work.

Lloyd Jones (one of the famous faces) reading from his work.

Anne Manchester, co-editor (whose work also appears in the anthology).

Anne Manchester, co-editor (whose work also appears in the anthology).

The ghosts of Christmas past

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It was the little bit of bitumen stuck to my shoe that started this post. A sultry windless day this week and the temperature had risen to the mid twenties. In Wellington, this is a heat-wave. I lifted the irksome piece of road from my shoe and saw the tar. Lovely black tar, the warm ooze from the road that summer sometimes brings. I grew up in Nelson where in summer the tar oozed all season long. This piece of road stuck to my shoe reminded me of streets shimmering with watery mirages, the impulse to lie down, lay your cheek against the bitumen. Of course we could back then. There weren’t so many cars.

A week earlier I made my Christmas cake. I know, it’s late, and I should have made it weeks ago. It’s a ritual that I love. I use my mother’s recipe which is something now of a mini legend. I’ve lent it to friends over the years and the title is ‘Maggie’s Mum’s Christmas Cake’. She put a teaspoon of curry powder into her cake and so do I. This lends my cake something of the exotic, although of course you cannot taste the curry in it. Once a year, I honour my Mum when I make this cake. And I mix the cake in my late Uncle’s Gripstand Mixing Bowl which I suspect may well have once been my grandmothers.

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When I stand in my kitchen running my fingers through the dried fruit to make sure the flour and spices and fully incorporated, I have time to indulge the ghosts of Christmas past. It’s aided of course by the whiff of brandy in which the fruit has been soaking. I recall my mother decorating our Christmas tree with a concoction of egg whites that she flicked at the tree randomly using I think the back of a spoon to create our very own fake snow. I remember too vividly, the night my brother had woken and disturbed Santa. He’d seen Rudolph disappearing up the chimney, and the only evidence was the fallen fire-screen.

And then too, there is the boiling day when we were going to Grandma’s for Christmas lunch. My mother’s youngest bachelor brother was in town. My maiden aunt who lived with Grandma had loaned her Morris Minor to her brother. He’d gone to the pub and hadn’t come back. We didn’t have a car and we were relying on my aunt and her Morris Minor to transport us and all the food that my mother had prepared up to Grandma’s house. And so as memories are made, we traipsed instead on foot, with plates of trifle and pavlova in the hot sun. Mum’s trifles were legendary (sponges made without the aid of Fielders cornflour, whipped with a hand beater, baked in the coal range). Her pavlova was the crunchiest, deepest, softest in town. She smothered it with cream, and cherries, and pineapple and ginger and walnuts. It wasn’t all that far to walk really, perhaps a couple of miles but much of it was up-hill. I’m not sure how the whipped cream fared, or what trouble my uncle got into, but it’s a Christmas memory.

We always got a book for Christmas – maybe the latest School Friend or Andy Pandy annual for me, and one year Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy of “Little Women”came into my life.

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I recall buying a bicycle bell for my Dad from McKenzie’s Department Store one year for Christmas. We always shopped at Woolworths or McKenzies and I guess they are the equivalent of the two dollar shop nowadays. One of my favourite Christmas present as a child was a brand new swimsuit from a maiden aunt who came from Wellington. She was a waitress at the St George Hotel and worked there for 40 years during its hey-day. Up until then, I’d worn a hand-me down (from my mother or some other adult) pair of togs that filled with water and gave me a bosom, and at five years of age, that was too embarrassing. The swimsuit is a Christmas legend – it was covered in pink and green Christmas bon-bons, had a wee flared skirt and a pink bow at the back. I’ve never forgotten it.

My Christmas past is filled with maiden aunts and uncles who arrived and left, trips to the beach or the river in my aunt’s Morris Minor, car sickness, ice-creams, the long slide, midnight mass, Mum’s mince pies made with flakey pastry instead of the short pastry, minted peas, new potatoes, and the back door open with the afternoon sun shining on the new green lino. It’s pea-picking with my friends as a teenager, weeding strawberries, picking boysenberries, saving up for Christmas …it’s the Mardis Gras the beachcomber ball sunshine and sunburn, swimming holes and bike rides, fishing off Rocks Road, the endless hot summers of Nelson.

And too, it’s the whiff of brandy, the butter, sugar and egg yolks, the egg whites beaten to soft peaks and folded into the cake mixture, the dusting of baking powder at the bottom of the thickly paper-lined cake tin. It’s the wrapping of layers of newspaper around the cake tin and tied with string, so the cake won’t burn at the edges. It’s spreading the mixture and packing it firmly into the four corners with a small hollow in the middle to ensure when it cooks, the cake will rise to a perfectly flat shape for icing. It’s rolling out the almond icing and nibbling the left-over’s, and nowadays, it’s waiting for my granddaughter to arrive, to decorate the Xmas tree.

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We have our own new rituals that we are creating together.   She buys me a Christmas decoration every year and I buy her one.   We decorate the tree together and we bring out the papier-mâché reindeer that I bought for my boys (one of them her Papa), and she adds pretty coloured ribbons to the reindeer’s antlers each year, to update his imageThe ghosts of Christmas past, the deceased; my Mum, my Dad, my brother and all my maiden aunts and uncles are with us.