Category Archives: Whanau

From the Nest

Families are nests where stories grow. What each tale will become is often unclear. But with the transformations of time the nest remains: familiar, fragile, strong.

I grew up in a family of stories. Everything and everyone had a story, from the chipped and glued figurine on the mantelpiece to every member of my family. All had a story.

In our immediate family of five (six when granddad was with us), Mum was the storyteller. The eldest girl of seven siblings, she, like her elder brother, told stories of the greatest length with the most detail and funny voices. They took interjections, allowed any and all anecdotes each auntie or uncle offered up with great mirth. Dad always sat there and laughed.

As a kid sitting at a table over-loaded with food and drinks I was taught not to return to the same plate twice, to be seen and not heard. There was always too much food to choose from and you couldn’t just pick at your favourites or you would miss out on the desserts: fruit salad, lamingtons, always a pav, with its sweet hard shell and soft chewy centre.

I don’t know how many times I heard about the day my uncle fell into the duck pond in the Gardens and how Mum, as the eldest, got the blame. Or the summer Granddad biked into the Square to get Ice-cream Charlie’s for everyone; balancing the nine ice-creams in a box on the handle-bars for the ride home.

When I was young it was the jokes and clowning of the younger uncles (two jokers and a clown) that opened my ears: they were never repeated, always new. Even today, I remember the best of those jokes. The fart that went Honda. The polar bear who had just eaten an ice-cream.

Family get-togethers were frequent in my childhood. They seemed an echo of the shared meals my mother grew up with where, every Sunday, everyone came to my grandparents’ house (married and moved on, or not). There were always room for friends, a meal provided for anyone who needed it. Such is the rhythm and noise of extended families.

The harmonic I experienced began after my grandmother died and everyone moved away seeking better jobs and lives. When someone came back to visit the old hometown of Christchurch we would flock in for meals shared across two tables as no one table was big enough for adults and children. As always, the old stories came out with interjections and anecdotes, the familiar funny voices.

Outside the shared meal we kids were told to get lost, which we did: packs of cousins, in country or town, heading somewhere to do something. Creek, domain, paddock, park: making huts, sitting together singing to a 45, imploring Billy not to be a hero, telling Laura that Tommy loved her.

The thing about family is you never want the stories to end. You may get bored of oft-repeated tales but as you get older they take on a glow you want to add to.

Today, I live alone. It’s not what I intended. I expected to be near whanau with a partner and children, a living reflection of how I grew up. But the demands of an economy that puts little value on being near the support of family has turned me, like many, into an internal migrant far from my shared stories.

I’m not entirely alone. I have a daughter who is five. I share her care with her mother every other week (far from family, she also lives alone). I love being a parent but struggle being so far from my nest. There are no siblings to squabble with; no cousins leading my daughter into mischief, no stories patiently ignored while waiting for the funny bits.

I do my best to replicate what I miss. There are many others like me in the Bay, far from family. We regularly get our kids together so they may roam free and create mischief while the adults talk.

I’m inching towards a whanau of sorts with aunties and uncles keeping an eye on things, gently teasing and cracking jokes.

Mum has been gone nearly two years. I have her box of photos of people I do not know, and the memory of her voice. There are many other bits and pieces around the place and I tell my daughter the story of each one. The chipped Hummel figurine of a boy eating a pudding sits by the dining table where I eat meals with my daughter. It was broken the night we kids were throwing a ball with Mum. It was a spontaneous moment, we weren’t to throw balls inside, and Mum cried when she saw what she had done. I glued it back together but it’s a rough fix.

I haven’t told my daughter this particular story but I will. We talk a lot, about everything. She’s a very chatty girl. She knows where nearly every object in this house came from, who gave her each toy and all of her clothes. In time, this closeness will change and we will have to part. Until then we tell jokes, and interject, weaving stories built for flight.

Letters Unsent: Letters to Lila

Friday 08 Nov 2013

My daughter, I have been wanting to write to you for a long time. How many letters have I written in my head as I go about my day? I seem forever rushing from one task to another. But it seems strange to sit down and write something wondering when you might read it.

You could have a crack now, you’ve been reading for six months but I need to write to my daughter who knows more than the words on the page. I say page but this letter will not be written or printed on paper or even sent. It will be lucky to be posted. But where will that be once you are old enough to read and recognize why I am compelled to write this letter to you.

This morning I walked you to school. It was still and humid. You were so excited you jumped in the air and said ‘yes’ when I answered your ‘walking or car?’ question at the door. At the bottom of the hill you let go my hand and ran ahead to by the overgrown creek (or ‘lake’ as you told your teacher when we got to class) to pick fennel.

On the way home I teared up more than once at the thought that this may be the last time I walked you to school. It is a Friday and you will go to your Mum’s tomorrow so I can tidy the place in readiness for my op next Wednesday. I will be 6 weeks in a cast, a useless dad, unable to walk or drive. I will have crutches, but I just won’t be able to walk you to school this year.

And next year is a big unknown. Your mother wants you to go to a school closer to where she lives. I understand her desire to commute less. But this is where you grew up, where your friends are. And you are just about to lose your greatest friend, the boy next door who came to see you the day you were born: if not a sibling certainly whanau.

How much loss can a child take?

You are both sad at the idea of the parting as he shifts away but at 5 and 6 you both only have a vague idea what it means.

Lila, last night I said something to you I shouldn’t have. I had just carried you from the shower, rolled up in my arms in the wee ritual we seem to have developed from the winter. You make yourself into a ball on the floor face down on the bath mat, having quickly dried your chest so you can cuddle Bucky to you, then I throw the big towel over you so you are covered, pat you dry just a bit then slowly drag you out into the hallway. Then by slipping my arms under your neck and feet I can roll you towards me and carry your 22 kilos to the fire without getting wet.

This was a warm-jammies-by the-fire routine from the dark of winter. The first time I picked you up like that was an experiment or a compromise: I can’t recall exactly how we devised it.

You like to be carried to the shower (or to bed) on my shoulders. You get up there by standing at the top of the 5 steps that split our house and falling to my arms. As I swing with you, avoiding an impact, you start to climb putting one foot in the hand-step I offer at hip level then hooking your other leg over my shoulder to pull up. You then sigh as you flatten yourself so you don’t bump your head on any doorways. When it was winter you would lean across to turn off the hallway light so we walked in darkness around the corner to the shower.

Lila, I am so dreading losing these special moments. I hate the thought of being useless on crutches: not being the dad you love.

I have told you what is happening and what will follow. You have drawn a picture of me on crutches while we stay with the boy next door during my recovery.

But last night, I became aware that our ritual was coming to an end. Yes, I will recover and be able to carry you in maybe 6 months (it is all so uncertain) but you be a big 6 year old and even now your head has started to hang over my elbow shifting your mass which is not so tight and easy to carry.

You were so sweet curled up on the floor by the unlit fire, with one eye peaking out of the towels; I felt I could say something I shouldn’t have.

I told you how much I was going to miss carrying you when I was on crutches.

The look in your eye was awful. The pain, anger: betrayal. You understood.

I felt like the worst kind of manipulator.

You cried with a sound that scared me, reminding me directly of the deep sobbing of my mother when we said goodbye for the last time.

You were there, two years ago, saying goodbye to Gran E. It was beautiful and awful. One day I will write about it.

You were a great strength to me then. You are such a grown-up 5 year old.

But I was wrong to make you experience that realization last night.

Yes, it only lasted a minute or two but I need to apologize to you.

So I wrote this letter.