Fifty years ago this June, my mother arrived in New Zealand. For my father it was a homecoming; for my mother and sister it was an arrival. They sailed on the Oriana from Southampton via Gibraltar, Naples, Port Said, Suez Canal, Aden, Colombo, Fremantle, and Melbourne, then caught a plane from its final stop, Sydney. The journey took between two and three weeks. When they crossed the Equator, my sister – like all the children on board – was doused with melted ice cream and dunked, by Neptune, in the swimming pool.
When they arrived in Auckland they went to live with my grandparents and Auntie Dawn in the big house on Ponsonby, opposite Ivan’s and next door to Ray Binden’s, the butcher. This is a picture of my mother and Auntie Dawn in the front room of my grandparents' house, not long after she arrived in New Zealand.
My mother didn’t return to England for a visit until 1978, fourteen years after she arrived. While she was away, her beloved stepfather had died, and her mother, and her sister. She couldn’t go to any of the funerals: it was too far, and too expensive.
As many of you know, my mother died this week, after fifty years of living in Auckland. Moving here wasn’t her first great adventure. As a young woman she’d left South Shields, the town where she was born, and moved to London; in the year of the Queen’s coronation, she had a secretarial job in the Foreign Office on Whitehall. She went on to live in Paris and Luxembourg before returning to London, where she met my father. After that first, long-awaited trip home in 1978, she travelled much more often – with my father, one of us, by herself – to North America, Australia, Europe, the UK, Ireland, Egypt, Israel, Singapore, various Pacific islands. My mother loved to travel, especially to cities. Her favourite thing about Egypt was haggling in markets, possibly because it combined two of her great passions, arguing and shopping.
This week I made the trip from England to New Zealand: just one stop, in LAX, and only a day and a bit of travelling rather than two weeks. It’s a journey I’ve anticipated and dreaded. As my dear, late friend Sarah Doerries would say, it is what it is.
Many of you, even people who never met my mother, have sent very kind and thoughtful messages to me or other members of my family, and it’s hard to express how much these have meant to us. My sister said to me on the phone this week: we don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t know how to do this at all, even though it happens to families everywhere, every minute of every day. In some ways we’re like children again. On Tuesday, some time after the four AM call from my father, Tom and I sat outside a café and I asked him: Where has my mother gone?
On that trip to England in 1978, my father and brother went back to New Zealand after a month, and my mother and I stayed on. (She was always taking me out of school to go on trips with her, though usually the trips were just to Rotorua, when my father had business in Whakatane.) This is a picture of us in 1978, with ridiculous matching haircuts.
In London we went to St Paul’s Cathedral, and for some reason we got separated while wandering around. I sat in a pew to wait for her. I’d just turned 13, but because I was tall, people sometimes assumed I was older and more mature. They were wrong.
I must have looked distressed, because finally a deacon came over to ask me if everything was all right. I started crying, and told him I couldn’t find my mother. He looked alarmed, as I recall, rather than sympathetic. (My mother turned up almost immediately, without any need of a clerical search party, and hustled me out of the church.) This is how I’ve felt since Tuesday, child-like and forlorn. We’ve lost her, and this time she can’t be found.
For the past six weeks I’ve sent my parents an email every day. For much of the time we were in Denmark; my mother was very excited and proud about my residency there. Every evening after dinner I wrote up the news of the day, such as it was, so my father had something to read to her in the morning. On some days, when all I had to report was working in the study all day, taking an early-evening bike ride to the farm stand, and having to abandon our ongoing badminton ‘tournament’ because it was too windy in the garden, Tom would race up the hill to take photos of the wheat fields at sunset, so we had new pictures to send. I’m so used to sending these emails now that I keep gathering material – banal things, the small details of a day, anything to entertain my mother once she was confined to her own home.
In St Pancras, en route to Heathrow, someone was playing the Pink Panther theme on a piano. Lynn-Elisabeth asked the undertaker to paint your nails. I spent the last of the birthday money you sent me in Zara, buying clothes to wear to your funeral. I posted a note to your friend Jean in Devon, because she doesn't have an email address. We put a notice about you in the Shields Gazette. Don't worry: we haven't told anyone how old you are.
Here are a few more pictures. The first is from 1981, and my mother looks happy because both my sister and I are looking respectable. In the second it's 1987, I think, and my mother (flanked by my brother and sister) has just graduated from the University of Auckland.
My mother's funeral is on Monday: my sister and I have just been discussing the musical programme. The New Zealand Herald notice is here, for any of you who'd like the details of where and when.