Kate Sheppard and a tinfoil mouse

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I recently read Penelope Lively’s ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish‘, a thoughtful memoir in which she explores the meaning of memory and links moments in her life to precious objects, not valuable artefacts necessarily, but meaningful and even sentimental. Ian Wedde, too in his recent memoir ‘The Grass Catcher’ evokes memory through objects and the odours of his youth. The main object being the grass catcher. (Some of the odours he mentions are best left to be read about.) Although, I guess there’s probably not a Kiwi kid from the 50’s and 60’s who doesn’t remember the smell of freshly cut grass, and a hand mower with a canvas catcher. Or indeed, who doesn’t recall the whiff of two-stroke petrol when the family upgraded from a hand to a motor mower… and in your over-enthusiasm pulling out the choke, the mower flooded.

On reading these memoirs, I realised that my garden whenever I wander in it, evokes important milestones both happy and sad. It was over Labour Weekend, home alone with a broken wrist, somewhat sorry for myself, that I sat reading on our sunny deck and recalled it was my Aunt’s birthday.   That’s my deceased Aunty who would have been 94 this year. What made me recall her, was not just the date, the 25th of October, her birthday but that she would often come to stay with us for Labour Weekend and we would share her birthday. And that the cherry blossom tree that we built the deck around would be in full flower. Since then, we’ve chopped down the cherry tree – as it was taking up so much room on the deck but the memory of the cherry blossoms and my Aunt are intermingled.

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This prompted me to explore my garden and I found another blossom tree that forms an almost canopy on the lower part of our hillside section. The first year we moved into this house, our youngest son was six (he’s now 33) and we have a photograph of him standing under the flowering canopy with a chipped front tooth – memorable, because that very next day he was going to be page boy at the wedding of friends, fully decked out in matching tail-coat with his father who was the Groomsman. I remember being annoyed he’d broken his tooth. The couple who married, now have a daughter off to university next year. Whenever I look out our bedroom window in Spring and see the blossoms, I see our son with his chipped tooth, and then I remember our friends’ wedding anniversary.

Immediately beneath the blossom canopy is a very important memorial to our deceased cat Red who just happened to be a almost twenty year old black and white cat. Our granddaughter who adored Red, has made a pile of stones and shells in the garden as a tribute, and this includes a once shiny tinfoil mouse. The cat’s ashes are inside our house in a box, or are they? That’s another story, told in a poem and here is the link.

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Then there are my roses. They bring me both joy and a stab of grief.   Roses enjoy being hacked it seems. The possums last year were feasting on my roses, and so I cut them back savagely to pervert the possums – it seems the roses enjoyed this and they are looking positively radiantly ready to burst into many buds. This includes Kate Sheppard, named after the feisty Kiwi feminist whom we thank for the vote. My Korean daughter-in-law helped me plant Kate – a treasured gardening memory, all the more poignant as this year, she moves on to a new life, away from our family. No-one warned me that as a mother-in-law I could also have my heart broken.

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The Kate Sheppard Rose

The Kate Sheppard Rose

More violent and perhaps funnier, is the silk tree at our gate. One day, some years back now, after a fiery argument with my beloved, in fury and frustration, I attacked the silk tree – it was growing out over the path and obstructing the entrance. I chopped and chopped and snapped and attacked and I’m not sure what my neighbours thought. I felt bad afterwards and imagined the silk tree doomed, but it, like the roses, has thrived – but always to remind me of my tantrum.

Then there are the daisies that were once very fashionable in cottage country gardens. I tried slavishly to cultivate a cottage garden look to no avail. And then when we converted to a more coastal (but let’s keep the roses), suddenly the packet of seed that I sowed decided to grow. And now those daisies are considered weeds, but I allow them their rampancy as it only seems fair that they have tried so hard. They interweave with a beautiful old-fashioned red-leafed creeper with tiny mauve pom-pom flowers. The two fight for supremacy and I keep them both in check.

Too, as you enter out front gate by the almost demolished silk tree, there is a softly delicious smelling jasmine plant that entwines with the wildly fragrant honey-suckle. Both plants are now considered ‘outlaws’ as we live next to a native reserve… but the scent is so delicious of an evening that I cannot bring myself to be rid of them entirely. Inside our front gate are two Daphne bushes bringing their ‘lawful’ luxurious bouquet to our doorstep. Dare I mention my rogue (practically heretical) ginger plants. They look so striking and I’ve tried to strike them out. Alas, they resurge.

The last important memory is about our first day in this house. We inherited a beautiful old-fashioned garden and one of the main attractions were the pink water-lily dahlias. The previous occupant an older couple who had tended the garden for years with love and affection, slyly dug up some of the ‘considered rare’ dahlia bulbs and took them to their new abode. Due to landscaping and renovation, I no longer have any dahlias, but I know where they should be and they remind me of the key to the house, left in a glass bottle under the front veranda by the same elderly couple. And too the note they left us, filled with daily, weekly, monthly chores to be attended to, including the trimming and clearing of the zig-zag down to the road below. There’s a blackbird that comes to sing. We’ve named him after the dear old chap who lived here before us – although we’ve been in the house now for over 25 years, and I’m not sure how long blackbirds live…

Recently I posted a poem inspired by the tuis in our Kohwai tree. This tree was but a wind-blown seedling on the side of a clay bank that I was about to tear out while weeding when we first moved in. Something stopped me. It seemed wrong to not want a Kowhai, even though it was in the wrong place. The Kowhai now is a superstar where in springtime eight or nine tuis can be found feasting. It shades my washing line, something I lament, but the song of the tuis and the sight of the overweight kereru, more than compensates.

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So, my garden is full of birdsong, flowers and my heart’s song, a testimony to loss and new growth.

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Saturday night fever and the supper waltz

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Saturday night fever and the supper waltz

Saturday night fever and the supper waltz

A friend’s blog has inspired me to write. She wrote about going to a dance recently at the local Cosmopolitan Club with her daughter. Her words conjured up tangible memories of the Saturday Night Dance at the Stoke Memorial Hall. It’s a long time ago. But reading Fiona’s blog, I was right there in my best frock seated on the wooden benches around the perimeter of the hall, waiting to be asked.

We’d spent all day thinking about going to the dance. We even went so far as to cycle to the river to swim with curlers in our hair. Sometimes (not often), we splashed out and bought a face mask from the local Chemist and sat in a hot bath to steam. We didn’t wear a lot of make-up but blue eye-shadow was big back then, I’m sure we wore blue eye-shadow. Pink lipsticks were pretty de rigueur also, or peach, or shades of pink and peach. I’m not sure we wore foundation, but I do recall pancake make-up that could be applied with a damp sponge – perhaps we did that.

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The Stoke Memorial Hall had a polished wooden floor and a raised stage where the band played. It was the days of more formal dancing and the highlight was always the Gay Gordons. My friend and I had learned to do the Valletta and the Foxtrot and the Methodist Church Hall in Richmond (even though I was Catholic). But the Gay Gordons was a wildly exhilarating way to meet almost all the boys in the hall. For some reason, the fat boys with sweaty palms were always the lightest on their feet. You might not want a ride home with them, but you loved the way they swung you around and too, their gentle soft bellies if you stumbled.

Most of the lads wore suits. It’s hard to imagine, but they did. Suits and ties to dance, or a sports jacket. We loved sports jackets. There was something quite dashing about a sports jacket, or even better, the reefer jacket with the extra silver buttons on the outside sleeve. Single versus double-breasted, a lot could be elucidated from such sartorial observations.

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We gave no thought to the terror the lads felt at having to cross the room and ask us to dance. All we knew was the terror of waiting to be asked. Naturally we reserved the right to say no, but it never occurred to us how awful that might be for the rejected suitor. Inevitably, there’d be one or two absolutely ‘must-have’ lads and inevitably, they were snapped up by the one or two ‘must-have’ lasses. This left the rest of us to make do with each other.

The Gay Gordons gave you a decent over-view of prospective rides home…

My friend and I would catch the bus to the Stoke Dance. The buses stopped running some time after ten o’clock and so we had a pact. One of us would find a boy with a car to drive both of us home. It was usually around supper time, after the supper waltz that such arrangements were confirmed. In the bright lights with asparagus rolls on side plates, or a chocolate lamington, we’d make eye contact perhaps for the first time that night with a potential ride home. In the full glare of the supper lights, potential rides home were able to be scrutinised and must have lads and lasses, sometimes faded to also-ran in the 100 watt reality. I guess that’s why the story ‘Supper Waltz Wilson’ the title story of Owen Marshall’s first short story collection, captured my heart immediately.

I don’t recall any of those rides home, but we were pretty safe, as we always went together – one ride was all we required. Whomever of the two of us was lucky enough to be liked for the night, scored a ride for their friend. I wonder what the boys thought about this? There’s no shining moment for me, just the excitement before the dance, the preparation, a kind of pageantry, and of course, the music.

Too, the Sunday post-mortem when we walked the switch-backs, sat in the long grass or swam in the river, comparing notes about the lad we wished had asked us to dance.

And how very strange that one of the most memorable songs from the Stoke Dance is an old Kiwi Folk song about the Māori Battalion – a song about war- but we never really thought about it in that light – well, I know I didn’t.

But don’t get me wrong, we did do the Hippy Hippy Shake, and Twist and Shout on those old polished floors – it wasn’t all waltzing.

P.S. I just found a link to this beautiful waltz

Working in the Sixties

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I recently had a poem published in ‘Typewriter’ an on-line journal for emerging poets edited by the delightful Elizabeth Welsh, a poet and passionate supporter of other poets.

The poem is about my first job really, as a shorthand typist with the Post Office in Nelson.    That’s quite some time ago now.   But it’s got me thinking about those times and how it was I ended up there and what it felt like.    You have to cast your mind back a bit to the 60’s when girls like me had to choose between being streamed ‘professional’ where you could study French and German and go on to become perhaps, well, ah… usually a nurse, or a teacher.   And then, if you wanted to learn to type, you had to choose ‘commercial’ and never the twain shall meet.

I wanted to be a reporter, as I recall, and I knew that I would need shorthand.   I didn’t know anything else and to boot, I had a very glamorous single (maiden or unclaimed treasure as she called herself) aunt, who worked at the Post Office.   It was my aunt who came to our house and tested my shorthand prowess which did reach 120 wpm at one stage.   It was she too, who gave me my first portable Olivetti typewriter to practice on.

Years later, when I was running my own recruitment company in the late 1980’s and the share-market plummeted, I recall meeting young women from private schools whose ambitious parents and teachers had refused them anything so ordinary as learning to type.   Oddly though, at this very point in history, the computer keyboard was becoming integral to most people’s working lives.  Being a touch typist, as I am, is a big advantage to anyone, male or female.

Yes, I learned to type at Waimea College, one of the first co-ed schools in New Zealand.   I sat in the commercial class with a bib over the typewriter keys so that now I can rattle off a book review or a blog without having to look at the keys, or to do the one-finger peck-peck that so many people are reduced to.   At one stage in my illustrious typing career (admittedly on an electric typewriter), I could do 100 wpm typing.   Indeed – I cannot vouch for absolute accuracy at this speed.     On an old manual typewriter, I think the top speed was 60 wpm to pass my Public Service examination.

Back then, in my first job, we sometimes had to type with up to six carbon copies, and that meant if you made a mistake, you had to erase all the copies one by one (Twink I think – I can’t remember) and I often ended up covered in carbon – no long-sleeved white-blouses for me as I stretched across the carbon copies.    I was always glad that I wasn’t a legal typist as they had to type perfect copy without erasures or amendments.

I wasn’t a super-star shorthand-typist because I had a tendency to day-dream.   Back then it was considered a lack of focus and I struggled with this, but now realise that probably I was bored with the content of much of the stuff I had to type and didn’t pay sufficient attention to it.   Yes, back then, I felt somewhat of a failure when I had to do”retypes” and watch my rubbish bin fill to overflowing.   I think I might have even smuggled out some discarded copy under my cardigan to avoid the embarrassment of yet more wasted paper – goodness knows what I did with it, but we did have a coal range at home that Mum cooked dinner on, so perhaps it went in there.

We used to clean our typewriters every Friday in the afternoon before we knocked off.   I had the uncanny knack of dismantling bits and pieces of my typewriter (unintentionally) as I cleaned it.   As I recall, I ended up with several pieces of my typewriter sitting in a basket beside my typewriter – and fortunately back then these old machines were so sturdy, that it continued to function, minus these missing parts.

I also operated the switchboard when it was my shift to do so.

That meant headphones on while typing and stopping mid-flight during a memorandum and transferring calls from outside to inside extensions – the criss-cross of cords as described in my poem – here’s the link.  You could eavesdrop to if you were that sort of girl, but of course I wasn’t!

From memory there was talk back then, that typists pushed the equivalent of ‘tons – tonnes’ per day, with the sheer pressure required to push the old manual keys.  I know our hands were held higher than they are for a modern electronic keyboard and you couldn’t just peck-peck.    Unless you were doing a stencil and you had to be very careful when pushing the letter ‘o’ as if you pushed too hard you cut the ‘o’ completely out and ended up with a black dot on the page instead of the lovely circular letter.

Recently, a librarian responsible for choosing books for the Catholic library service throughout Germany made contact with me.   He’d read a book review I had written for a book he had also reviewed and liked.   He had also read my blog about teaching English to German High School students.  And too, I think because of the Frankfurt book fair and the current interest in New Zealand writing.   I asked him about Catholic libraries and he gave me a very brief history which evidently go back to the second half of the 19th century.   “In those times Catholics were a (huge) minority in the Prussian dominated “Kaiserreich”.  Most of them lived in rural areas, worked as craftsmen and farmers and only a few have had an academic education, most of them were priests. Some of those academics saw the need of education for as many Catholics as possible.”  He said that after World War II, the libraries broadened their scope and now run more or less like any local library with a wide range of contemporary literary fiction, children’s literature, as well as gardening and cook books.

This reminded me of how it was back in the 50’s and 60’s in New Zealand.  I’m only quoting hearsay and legend, but it is said that many private companies wouldn’t hire Catholics and so by default many were in the public service.  My Aunt and two of her brothers worked in the Post Office and it seemed only natural that I would follow in my Aunt’s (to me glamorous) footsteps.   You see she drove an apple green, hand-painted Morris Minor, while we didn’t own a car.  She also earned more than my Dad (he was a carpenter) and she had an amazing wardrobe which included many pairs of stiletto shoes.    What else was there to aspire to?

I never regret the Commercial path that I took.    In the early seventies, I worked in London, Newcastle, Manchester, and Edinburgh as a Temp Secretary – and late in life, I’ve found my feet as a writer – typing has proved a most fortunate and useful skill.   I never did get to be a reporter, but I am now doing book reviews and blogging as well as working on my fourth novel – so yes, typing turned out to be the right thing after all.