10 Feb

I’m at a table in Taupo looking over the lake. The doors are open, there is a lawn, a hedge, a band of blue water. The sky is white and the mountains a blue scribble. My friend is painting and my daughter and her friend are reading. (Books). Waves lick the pumice beach beyond the hedge and you can hear cicadas, but the sounds are small, private – the rustle of a page, my fingers on the computer, and – of course – that ping when one of the girls gets a text or an instagram. No one has spoken for about twenty minutes but everyone’s aware of the water; we look up to see what it’s doing, and what about the mountains? Can we see them yet?

And how blue shifts.

I’ve heard that some of the older Tuwharetoa people will only go to the mountains when the clouds come down and cover the summits, and this morning I read of the anger of a Tuwharetoa chief when John Bidwill, told him in about 1859 that he’d climbed Tongariro:

He had worked himself into a most terrible pitch of fury at which I only laughed. The cause of complaint was my having ascended Tongariro. I said that a Pakiha could do no harm in going up, as no place was taboo to a Pakiha; that the taboo applied only to Mowries; and finally that if the mountain was an atua, then I must be a greater atua, or I could not have got to the top of it, but that if he could see to it that the people made haste with the canoe, I would give him some tobacco. I then took out one fig for each of his companions, who sat still all the time without saying a word, and gave him three figs. It proved a most astonishing sedative. He quite changed his tone in a minute and sat down. He could not help saying, however, that if he had thought that I had gone up the mountain, he would have prevented me from ever trying to do it, and requested me not to tell any other Pakihas of it on any account.[i] 

This morning there seems to be no one on the lake or in it, although one day in 1859 Reverend T. C. Grace reckoned he saw as many as four hundred canoes – the lake was essential for transport although its capricious mood swings meant that it has a long sad history of drownings.

I’ve been here in winter when it’s freezing and waves hurl onto the shore and the house shakes and whines. On those days the mountains are absolutely hidden – it’s the sound and fury of the water that pulls you to the window to stare in a kind of hypnosis at the fury of the waves.  Today those images are just memories.

Tomorrow we’ll drive to Hawkes Bay where my brothers and sister and I shall pack up our parents’  house which they built more than fifty years ago and where they’ve lived with hardly a night apart except when my father went back to Holland in 1965 for the first time since he’d left in 1950.

It has been a time of great upheaval. Real estate agents, no matter how kind and thoughtful, are not people they’ve had anything to do with; preparing the house for open homes has made them very anxious. They’re not used to not being at home, or of not being allowed to be at home even if it’s only for an hour while parties inspect. Quite a few interested parties through; a lot of interest; very unusual house, cheep the agents. When you’re in your eighties there is only home – they know nothing of cafes or lattes in between appointments because they rarely have them. But at last the house has sold; in two weeks they’ll be in a small flat near the library, the church, and the supermarket. We won’t be able to stay with them, or, only one by one – this is why my daughter is coming with me.   I went away to school when I was twelve and after that my visits home became progressively shorter.  While they lived in one house, I’ve lived in about twenty, and in the last ten years I’ve moved from one to another every few years.  But my childhood memories of growing up in that brand new house made of blocks on a hill are clear.

My room had high curtainless windows and at night I’d watch the moon and sometimes a glitter of stars; I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and staring up at the black glass. My mother had told us to pray for her hero President Kennedy beset by those terrible men Khrushchev and Castro. Even then I doubted that my prayers would make much difference. What I remember was fear and that the house of blocks was not impregnable.

These high windows also meant that each morning I was woken by the first slice of light. There were also the magpies. I didn’t learn about them until I held Dick Frizzell’s book in one hand and a child in the other, but the quardle oodle ardle among the macrocarpas behind our house is an ur-sound. So too the thump of a washing machine garlanded by hymns. There was always washing and there was always singing. By seven o’clock our mother was dressed and feeding clothes into hot foaming water with a wooden stick. And singing. She was brought up by nuns; she sang in the choir throughout her war-spoiled schoolhood; she knew only hymns, and before I went to school, so did I apart from a lullaby my father sometimes sang apart from Slaap kindje slaap, a lullaby my father sometimes sang.

This year my parents had their sixtieth wedding anniversary and the grandchildren wrote about staying with them:


I have always loved visiting Oma and Opa.  Their house has strange, exciting features, like the breakfast hutch and the high bedroom windows and Opa’s rolls cooling on the rack, and a comforting biscuity smell. Out the back, the playing fields seemed to stretch forever under the bleaching sun – although in recent years they haven’t seemed quite as massive and daunting. I even stayed in the back room, which for a long time, I had thought was only for special occasions, or playing with fuzzy felts and Lego.


One of my favourite activities at Oma and Opa’s was drinking tea in bed. I think this was my first experience of tea.  I can’t remember how old I was – young enough for tea to be an exciting adult drink, and small enough to fit easily into bed with O and O and Juliet. Oma or Opa would come back from the kitchen with a tray covered in engraved silver and matching crockery. They would undertake a complicated ritual involving a lot of elegant instruments that we did not use at home: teapot, strainer, milk from its own jug and sugar from a silver bowl with a matching spoon. We drank our tea snug between grandparents while the Concert Programme burbled in the background. It was, as Charlie likes to say, heaven. Back at home in Auckland, and for the next twenty-five years, I made tea with a bag and a mug, which is no fun. When I moved to Sydney, I had nowhere to put mugs because I had almost no furniture, and I rediscovered the value of saucers. Mum gave me a blue teapot, a milk jug and a sugar bowl  – she has also reverted to the saucer over the last few years. Funny to think that it took us such a long time to relearn the rituals of tea making. Oma and Opa, of course, knew all the time.


It could be partly because I’m always on holiday when I visit, but staying in their house feels peaceful and calm. Oma and Opa don’t hurry or shout. Everything has its place, and the only clutter, if you can call it that, are pictures of cousins and uncles looking ridiculously young and lively. We sit by the view out over Havelock North, or at the table by the magic hutch and eat Opa’s rolls and tease him about golf croquet and talk books with Oma. And we feel so cared for we revert to silly kids’ games until Mum says, ‘Stop that at once!’ while Oma and Opa pretend not to notice.


I have a clear picture of both of you standing outside the front door ready to greet us when we come to stay. You’d have been getting ready for us all day, wondering when we’d arrive; there would be brass vases of flowers on the rug on the table, and sometimes I’d smell nasi goreng when I walked in the door. If I’d come with Mum, she’d burst into the sitting room and fling back those soft curtains which stop the sun blasting in. I loved having tea and almond cake with you and looking round the room at all those photos of my cousins and uncles and aunts, as well as that photo of you standing on a glacier. And all the stories about when Mum and the others were young – I loved those, just as I loved sleeping in ‘the girls’ room’ and hearing about our relations in Holland.

Climbing Group 57

I can’t get used to the fact that I won’t go there again.

[i] Tongariro – a Sacred Gift, Potton, Craig, Lansdown Press and Craig Potton, Auckland, 1987, p164


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Steph Matuku

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