I am a Halmoni

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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.

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Book Street, Seoul

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  Gyeongui Line Book Street

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An old railway line and a homage to literature.  Today, in autumnal sunlight, we strolled along Book Street.  It’s a haven of sorts, established to encourage the love of literature. It also remembers a time when the railway ran further, through both South and North Korea joining up with the South Manchuria Railway.

 

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There are up to 14 train-shaped book booths but today, alas, because of Chuseok (Autumn Eve), none of these were open. There are remnants of the original railway tracks with it’s wide gauge, along a grassy, tree-lined walkway, which is built over the metro that runs below. .

 

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And look at these talking books!

The bold, brightly coloured metal books are facing each other in conversation, framing these two men also in conversation with music.  A metal girl is climbing the ladder to re-stock the library shelves, or perhaps to take a book out!

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The old track runs for some kilometres and is lined with trees, part Book Street and continuing on as Gyeongui Line Forest Park. A surprising dollop of soft green amid the brick and concrete. Beautifully planned, but not too perfect, so that some of the grasses are less kempt, rather than manicured.

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Above, the unkempt lovely look beneath the metal ‘Forest of Text’ created to reflect the literary ambience of Book Street. The steel rods are holding aloft text through which the sun shines.   The street remembers too, a time when Hongdae was less gentrified and trendy and the home for upcoming Indie bands and musicians.

 

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An Ode to the Women of Yeonsinnae

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An Ode to the women of Yeonsinnae

Lady in beige and peach with your motorised cart with meals to eat.

The tall dark woman, on the mat by the metro, trimming chives
same spot, every day, produce on the pavement by your feet.

My barista with her many caps, who can say Cafe Latte before I speak.

The three women at the pork restaurant, the younger one who wears shorts, smiling more at John than at me and sensing my disapproval the next time, flirting instead with a table full of businessmen leaving, the others, who we think might be her sisters, to look after us.

The young plump girl who did my nails whose husband is Turkish and who hates her mother-in-law’s cooking and can’t believe that I like kimchi, searching in her own bag for clear polish just for me and asking if she could find work painting nails in New Zealand.

The woman in the linen dress shop who shakes her head certain that whatever frock I’m holding will never fit me and the women in the permanently 70% off sale shop, who are determined I will fit everything and I must come back wearing the top tomorrow.

All the women in the Lotte Mall who push and shove to get to the checkout before me, changing lanes quicker than I can find my debit card and the woman on the checkout who beams when I tell her to keep working her arse off, because literally, in translation this is a nice thing for me to say and I’ve perfected it now along with learning how to tell my barista that I like her hat.

And too, I mustn’t forget the woman eating corn in the café on the corner by the alley to the metro, who got up from her corn to stir our squid dish over the flame at our table, smiling because yes, we do like spicy and of course how lucky we were to get a table, because every night this restaurant has a queue outside the door and it was only because it was Sunday (and raining cats and dogs) that we got a table.

And goodness, me I nearly forgot the lovely woman who we think might have once been a famous singer, who makes the best pancakes (different flavours on different nights)

And then there’s the woman who might be a teacher whom I meet when I leave our apartment and she always says hello in English as if she wants to stop and chat but is too shy and is gone before I can reply.

 

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Who am I?

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Who am I?

 

I’m the daughter

of melting butter

coal fire burning

hoar frost morning

ash-deep air

 

Khrushchev and

Kennedy, Marilyn,

The Beatles, Sputniks,

Nureyev, yellow peril

reds under the bed

 

weatherboard and

jerry built, lino

and Formica, the

new acrylic

mustard lounge suite

 

of roasts and gravy

coffee buns and cocoa

home-made fish and

chips on lace covered

tables, with cutlery

 

crushed magnolias

hawthorn hedges

lethal rural switchbacks

where cars collided

neighbours died

 

chilblain, chicken pox

measles, mumps and

chalk dust, school milk

you didn’t drink the

unused inkwells

 

car coats from Tokyo

Bermuda shorts, hula

hoops, Kodak instamatic

waterlogged togs

school pools

 

I’m the granddaughter

of an Irish orphan

whose link was verified

long after he died

from family saliva

 

the daughter of

a country pub Cook

who recited doggerel

on stage with the

passion of a poet

 

my Dad was a POW

who drowned his

shell shock in the

legally sanctioned

six o’clock swill

 

I’m a mother, lover,

wife, once Catholic

now atheist, once pro

life now pro choice

an unfinished canvas

 

 

sister to two siblings

one turning seventy

the other autopsied

for traces of cyanide

a thin blue line

 

I’ve two sons with

wives which makes

me a mother-in-law

and now I understand

the fact of hyphens

 

I’m a grandmother

on standby like the

life guards at Piha

trained all my life

to survive the rips

 

Should anyone wish

to peel away the layers

I’m a work in progress

base coat verifiable

post war fifties

 

I’ve worn stiff petticoats

cinnamon tinted nylons

home-made shift frocks

twisted the night away

danced the limbo

 

I’ve typed for the Post

Office, sold books, made

beds and love in Edinburgh,

waitressed in Norway

served drinks in Sydney

 

went to Haight Ashbury

rode on a Greyhound

saw the Big Apple

lived in London

even been to Cuba

 

as the rafters soften

the walls seem closer

the floor keeps shifting

the light’s playing tricks

memories unblunted

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shut One Eye – Cycling the Otago Rail Trail

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

Pardon.

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 colander, a Christmas cloth and cupcakes

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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.

 

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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.

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Uncle’s Gripstand mixing bowl (that might well have been my grandmothers)

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.

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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.

 

 

Loving in the New Year

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Loving in the New Year

 

Father to son deep in lake

water barely brown torsos

tattoos, matted chest hair

a plastic red cricket ball

to and fro, one-hand, both

hands, catching, missing

 

mother in blue with you

the new daughter-in-law

breast-stroking, baby

in utero floating, laughter

only after do we recall

the algae bloom scare

 

later in the camping ground

fuse gone no hot water

the woman from the store

empties her colostomy bag

into the outside drain

says sorry, I didn’t think

anyone was about.

 

father-in-law jokes – have

you got wine there – and we

all recollect the ice-cream

cone we ate that the old woman

served, the extra scoops, the

green peppers indelibly inked

 

midnight nears with fireworks

close to dry pine trees and

our retro 50’s cabins with

possibly Pinex walls, and

bathroom taps that require

several turns to dribble water

 

we watch the Bee Gees briefly

but differing generations mean

music is not a generic pleasure

any longer and the cheap

Italian sparkly falls flat and

then, finally, so do we

 

to be woken at midnight

by neighbouring campers

a woman who wishes to

express her undying love

for her whanau and us too

Wake up, I fucken love you

 

The expletives continue

beyond midnight – with

lulls as family appease this

foul-mouthed loving woman

who bullies her family

into loving her back

 

for the sake of peace

we lie silent praying

for silence afraid

to enter the fray, hoping

the expletives are lost

in translation

 

hoping that this woman

who loves so much will

soon tire of voicing

such confrontational

family affection and fall

asleep, so we can too

 

From tussock grass to

Tongariro, Hobbiton

(Some of us reluctantly)

To whanau in Auckland

our last stop south of Taupo

New Year’s eve

 

the surest thing in hearing

others seem to fail is humility

for your own family imperfections

and a brief and grudging admiration

for a drunken stranger’s love.