Thursday, 28 June 2018

How To Write A Eulogy - Or Not

The last thing I wrote
with a beginning
a middle
and an end
was my Dad's eulogy

It’s not easy to put 84 years off life into a few minutes. But I can offer some personal snippets of Dad’s life.

When we were children I remember going to stay with Nana and Tapu, or Ethel and Stephen Waymouth, Dad’s parents, at the vicarage in Puketapu. It was a big white and grey wooden villa set in big trees with the small wooden Anglican church (much like this) nearby. Belinda and I slept on camp stretchers in Tapu’s study. I woke in the morning and through my bleary child’s eyes, I thought I saw something on Tapu’s desk, which could only be Jesus’s poo. Him being a man of god it seemed pretty obvious. I was convinced, but no one at school believed me when I told them. It was probably tobacco. Tapu smoked a pipe. And so did Dad, until the price of tobacco went up to $15 a packet and he quit on principle. 

Dad was in the Navy for 15 years. Towards the end of his naval career, he took up the position of Defense Liaison Attaché at the New Zealand High Commission in Singapore. We packed up our family home in Bayswater, Auckland, and set off. Belinda (sister) and I thought we’d died and turned into princesses aged 6 and 5 when we arrived at the huge high commission house. To us, it looked like a palace. It did come with staff. The lovely cook, Chin Foo whose peanut brownies you could eat raw and who only wore his false teeth if we had guests. The chauffeur Maui, who drove Dad to the High Commission each day. The amah who watched raucous Chinese soaps on TV while Belinda and I skated along the wooden corridors in socks. Often gathering painful splinters. Or turned our large tiled bathroom into a soap-slide when Mum and Dad were out at cocktail parties.

Dad was always keen to explore new places. We’d head off in his white Rover 3500 (imported duty-free from the UK), to Kuala Lumpur or Malacca, Malaysia. There was a customs officer at passport control on the causeway into Malaysia who always chatted to Dad. Because Dad shared the same birthdate as Prince Charles and the officer thought they looked alike. Thought he was his doppelgänger. Maybe - but I thought Dad was more handsome, with better ears.

Belinda and I returned home to New Zealand with our mother around about a year into the three-year posting. We got teased mercilessly at school because our blonde hair had turned green from the chlorine at The Tanglin Club pool and we’d picked up British accents from our school. Dad remarried and so did our mother. We soon had two sets of parents. We missed Dad terribly and it took a while to adjust to this new arrangement. We kept in touch via aerogrammes and cassette tapes. Mum would make us fill a 30minute side each. The flipside for Belinda and I was the adventure of travelling overseas as unaccompanied minors to visit Dad during the holidays.

Dad stayed on in Singapore when he retired from the navy and worked for Vosper Thorneycroft, a military-oriented shipbuilding company. This was the start of his career in sales. In his later years, we would have quite in-depth conversations about things we’d never talked about before. One night a few years ago, he told me how he’d been ‘replaced’ at Vosper Thorneycroft by a guy from the airforce. “An American! What would he know about ships?!” said Dad. Let’s just say there were a few expletives involved in the telling of this story.

Dad’s work with Finance company Finexco took him to Paris, where 38 years ago he met his partner Hilary. At one point they had a posting to Nairobi. I went to stay with Dad there and was treated to some amazing trips into the Kenyan wilderness. Dad’s sturdy Mercedes managed most of these outback adventures on the rough potholed dirt roads amazingly well. On one trip to Lake Baringo, world renown for its pink ponds of flamingoes and pelicans, Dad was negotiating a partially flooded road leading up to the lodge. Two cars were already stuck. An askari ahead of us was indicating we drive through the left-hand puddle. Dad took the right. We got stuck and had to wait red-faced to be towed out. When Dad was having a cool beer to recover, half an hour later on the lodge veranda, I had to laugh at his choice of t-shirt that day. It read “Right or Wrong, I’m the Captain.”

I can thank Dad for a lot of things. A love of exploring the world. A love of birds. A love of the sea. Good table manners. Social etiquette. An appreciation of fine wine. Dad loved nothing more than a nice meal, a good red and lively discussion around the dinner table with friends and family. Especially if he was winning the argument. He was a man of principle and routine. He was a gentleman. He loved a sense of occasion. And always looked the part. He loved a fine motorcar. This probably started as a young naval officer at university when he drove around looking very dashing in a white jaguar soft-top sports car XJ120. He once lent his car to his mate Somerford, who was courting his future wife at the time. 

Dad was also an immensely proud intelligent man, so it was heartbreaking to watch the confusion and frustration when his mind began to slowly succumb to dementia. Although I felt very close to him during this time. I only looked after him for a few short spells to give Hilary a break, but I always found him good company. Very mellow, and always charming and polite and unlike most of his life he was actually quite obedient. Or happy for someone else to be in charge. His sense of humour remained intact and we often had a good laugh and the old Mike would reappear. We’d sit on the veranda, staring out to sea towards Great Barrier and Dad would say, ‘I wonder what the poor people are doing today?’

When I visited Dad in his rest home we’d enjoy a game of scrabble. Dad sometimes made up new words or switched to French. Or he’d floor me with a difficult word, showing his intellect was still intact. Some of the carers at the rest home would add words in Te Reo Maori when they played with him to keep him on his toes. Dad would occasionally come out with random one-liners. Some are used verbatim in my Lily Max children’s novels by the sweet, dementia-afflicted character, Tilda Button. I’m glad I’ll never forget them.

Gradually Dad became less aware of his surroundings but he remained mostly content. Often like the great host, he was he’d look about the dayroom and make a tally of how many were coming for lunch. Then worry he’d have enough wine for everyone. One day he said, out of the blue, “We’re happy here, we have a good group of friends …” I’ll finish here. Love you Dad.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Scoffing Jaffas By The River #NZPoetry

 ... Scoffing Jaffas

Like old kids at the flicks

Little silvereyes gobble biddy-beads of orange
On the cotoneaster bushes by the river
I approach softly
and stop to watch
But see no movement
I crouch down and wait
An amateur ornithologist
A bird-perve
Willing the dog returned to sniff and snuzzle
to get-a-way-back
Then as though a flick is switched
Action’ called
The bush becomes alive
All twittery, fluttery
with the occupation of breakfast
of simple winter sustenance
a semi camouflaged smorgasbord
an exotic buffet of berries
When natives don’t provide
In the dim frozen months
Peck an orange bauble
Hold in tip of beak
Tilt head
Open throat

... Scoffing Jaffas

Like old kids at the flicks


Friday, 15 June 2018

Dog Walking - a poem

Dog Walking

Driving through Cardrona
On a sunny Tuesday at eight

A red heeler weaves through the traffic
In the fifty kilometre zone

Big Red’s timed his passage perfectly
No car is forced to brake

But we do so anyway

No one wants to run over a dog

--> On a sunny Tuesday at eight

* this is not a photo of Cardrona btw. But Speargrass Flats Road, in Autumn

Thursday, 17 May 2018

My Nana Always Wore A Hat - a prose poem

My Nana wore a flapper-style wedding dress and carried an enormous bouquet when she got married. She loved parties and people, tennis and matching hats. Perfect for a vicars wife.

My Nana read interesting snippets out of the paper and took up dressmaking. She scrimped on material so there was always a patch over a seam in a poignant place like centre front.

My Nana was widowed young so she took up travelling. She collected crystal handbells and souvenir matchboxes from the cities she visited around the world. She’d appear like an over adorned Christmas tree at the end of each trip, beaming as she sauntered off the plane.

My Nana wore orangey-red lipstick and grew a bristly kiss. She bought a white Mini Clubman and rode the clutch like a fury to morning teas around the village. On the days the tar melted, she’d collect us for a swim in her towelling housecoat; you could hear her roar streets away.

My Nana loved a good suntan. Her lower legs came to look like her crocodile handbag. ‘Just doing the fronts today dear,’ she’d smile from her sun lounger, while wasps nibbled plums on the grass beside her in the Hawkes Bay heat.

My Nana had terrible bunions; it was surprising her feet could get into those rows of going-out shoes. Her bedroom was a treasure trove of handbags and water-colours and clip-on earrings. Her glass topped dresser held a black and white museum of memories.

My Nana kept her hair dye in the bathroom cupboard. She used, ‘Cha Cha Gray’ and mostly left it in too long so her hair turned a flattering mauve.  

My Nana tried to discourage my love of ponies. She said girls who rode horses ended up looking like them. She had a friend who looked like her pug dog. I could see her point. She also told me I was kind and could be a nurse when I grew up.

My Nana liked sherry. When I got my licence I’d drive up from Onga Onga to visit, she’d pour me a couple in her blood red crystal glasses, as we chatted in the drawing room. I’d be shickered by the time I left.

My Nana was never a great cook. But when she started making toad in the hole from sausages peeled off the bottom of her fridge, she went into a home. She complained Mr Witherton-Jones had terrible manners when he slurped his soup beside her, and she wasn’t staying long.

My Nana used to hold parties in her room and invite her favourite nurses. She always had a cask of Blenheimer under her sink. ‘It’s so refreshing,’ she’d say.
My Nana sometimes went missing. But she always wore a hat!

Friday, 11 May 2018

Diamond Dogs (this poem contains ashes)

 "Diamond Dogs" by Jane Bloomfield

Dad’s ashes linger in the lost property box
of memories and bone fragments
a small wooden one
under the bed

An average sized man weighs: 2.72 kilograms when cremated
I googled it
Six pounds Imperial (the weight of my firstborn daughter)

Dad sometimes joked about going out in an old-pine-box
But he ended up in faux walnut veneer
Under a giddy spray of red and white roses
Addam’s Family ivy crept over its silver plastic handles

Two pm sun filtered through stained glass saints
In that tiny wooden church in Leigh and winked upon
Michael, Son of the Archdeacon of Hawkes Bay lying there

I always wondered if you get bits of coffin
with your dearly departed’s ashes?

You don’t

The materials used in those vessels to-the-other-side
are designed to be totally zapped by the heat
Cremation ovens spike to
926.666 degrees Celcius –
It’s a fucking inferno in there

But you’re still left with sticks of burnished bones
I know, I saw the photo on an undertaker’s website
It offered so much helpful information
Things you never knew you wanted to know

Like: post cremation “The bone fragments are further crushed”
Once they’ve gone through a magnetic scanner to remove metal implants
gold fillings, screws
I’d discovered modern day grave robbing
Or do they give those cadaver-jewells back?

There was an ad for Life Gem Diamonds
How much do I need? The top FAQ
“Just 200 grams of cremated remains,
to extract enough carbon to make multiple diamonds …
typically all the diamonds that a family wants.”

Marilyn M would turn in her grave

I never read the comments section
But there were so many satisfied customers
Take Jacqueline, Linda and Sam
Who in brackets
Were not wife, or partner, or husband
of Jerry, Midnight and Champ

The most popular gems, it appeared
were dead-doggy-diamonds
Diamond dogs

Dad was a cat man
A naval man
A modest man

Most family members want to scatter his ashes at sea
His partner wants to out in the glass bottomed boat

I have visions of his pebbles floating underneath us
As we glide over the reef
And hungry snapper from the nearby marine reserve
nibbling him then spitting him out
dry calcium phosphates, sodium and potassium hardly a meal

But for now
he remains


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