Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Memoir of my life so far
My New Zealand Dream chapter one
With plenty of life experience under her belt, Mum sought a pen pal. Before long, she wrote to my father, and they met. I have some of those letters. Mum, in announcing her engagement to Auntie Jay, described Dad as a wonderful man of God. I can hear how deeply she had fallen in love and the joy she felt. My mother was forty-two when they married in June. Dad belonged to the Salvation Army Church. He wore his uniform, and Mum had made her own wedding dress with a matching hat. Her dress was cream white with gold trim. Here started my mother and father’s New Zealand Dream. Dad moved into Mum’s small one-bedroom flat in Napier, New Zealand, close to Ocean Beach. Mum was close to her sister, Jay and her family and had regular contact, as they lived nearby. Before long Mum became pregnant with me. My parents were so excited and overjoyed! I can see this in my mother’s letter to her mother, who was still in South Africa. Due to my mother’s advanced age, there was concern for my development, and it was not a straightforward pregnancy. Mum was told to take it easy as she’d had miscarriages before me and did not want to lose her precious cargo. A cesarean was the way to give birth at Mum’s age. When I was born, I did not breath straight away, so I was incubated for three days. Much to Mum and Dad’s relief, I soon started to fight and began to breathe on my own. Mum and Dad named their little girl Sheila, and this is when my “New Zealand Dream” begins. Mum and Dad got a flat by the beach in Napier. I recall from one photograph what this looked like. The house was up a winding hill, tightly snuggled against neighboring houses. The house was white weathered board with a red trim on the eves. The front door was a ranch slider that opened into the lounge area. There was an open-plan kitchen at the back and a bedroom to the right next to a poky little shower-and-toilet cupboard. The flat was decorated in retro seventies style with large green-and-yellow flower-print curtains, dark green-blue carpets, and a brown-and-white floral couch. Because Mum and Dad’s flat was so tiny, my cot had to fit in the small space between their bed and the wall. Dad had to tippy-toe around my mother in order to hide the fact that he smoked. He managed this by taking long walks on the beach. Dad struggled to live with Mum. Amongst her many strengths, we suspect lay much deeper problems. Too often my mother would not admit when she needed help. This included her physical and mental health. Mum would experience strange mood swings, violent rages, and depression. For those who interacted with her on a daily basis, isolation and loneliness were the heavy consequences of this. Maybe it was this that caused the terrible event later in my childhood. My dad had no idea what a family looked like, who a father should be, or even how to love. Growing up in a state boys’ home had left him without a clue. I remember him this telling me later in life, on his death bed, as I held his hand, in-between fountains of blood. “I’m his family. I’m all he has left.” It took him till I was well into my thirties to see that he had a family. Mum told me a story about Auntie Jay. One wet morning at this flat, she slipped and fell with me in her arms! To avoid dropping me, she took the fall, skinning the entire length of her legs. Her little niece, Sheila, was very dear to her. Her own children were already much older, in their teens. Mum and Dad bought a large section of land in a little town called Clive, a farming town on the North Island in Hawkes Bay. It was a typical beautiful country setting of rolling meadows and green pastures. It was the setting of their New Zealand dream. Clive was a classic small town; everybody knew everyone’s business. They built a three-bedroom house and painted it dark blue. A giant walnut tree stood in the yard. Its strong branches cradled a beautiful tree house just for me. I even had a tire swing. My bedroom was all light pink and white. A pink homemade patchwork quilt that Mummy made lay on my bed, and pink wallpaper covered the walls. Pink was my favorite color. I even had a pink dress with white lace that I wore on special occasions such as church and family gatherings. Mum drove a turquoise Datsun sedan, her favorite color. Dad loved to ride his motorbikes. He had a shiny red one and a dark blue and black one. I thought they looked really cool—like they belonged to people in the movies. I was too small to ride on the back of Dad’s bikes, so he would give me pretend rides while I sat on his lap. Sometimes I pretended I was riding a motorbike; other times I pretended I was on a horse. There was another member of our family—a white-and-ginger, short-haired cat called Topsi. One day Topsi ran away and never came back. Mum said she got tired of me pulling her tail! In our house, a ranch slider opened onto the patio. Beyond the patio steps was Mum’s precious rose garden. Before I could walk, I used to make quick “getaways” in my walker. One particular getaway sent me crashing, smashing through the glass doors of the ranch slider straight into Mum’s beautiful roses! I gave Mum such a fright that day, but I didn’t get one single cut or graze on me. Mum has since told me that I have a guardian angel watching over me. The house was in the middle of a row of other family houses down a long driveway. Our neighbors included Ruth (also known as Ruthie), Melanie, Robert, and George with his wife, Quin. Ruth was a large girl—fat as my father would. She was about four years older than I. George was a quiet man, and Quin was the troublemaker. Quin was an elderly woman with white short hair, tightly permed. She wore glasses that balanced on the tip of her nose. I only ever saw glimpses of her through the fence or behind her curtains. Mum and Quin hated each other. They were always yelling abuse of some kind from either side of the fence. I caught Quin pouring her old porridge over my dog’s grave one day. I made sure to hide when she was about. We had neighbors who lived across the drive from us, Cecily and George. They were a kind, friendly, elderly couple. George and my dad had a close relationship, and they talked often. Dad and I would have cups of tea with them using real china cups and saucers like ladies do. This was a novelty for me. Cecily had long white hair that she tied in pigtails, then plated. The two of them had a smelly chicken farm. Cecily would take me to feed the chooks and collect their eggs. I got to hold a baby chicken. It was so soft and fluffy, but it really needed a bath. Mum did not approve of this friendship. One night, George visited our house. He carried colored cards with him and promptly asked Mum if she wanted to buy them. Mum screamed at him, “Get out of our house!” Apparently, these cards were used for gambling, which was a no-go in our Christian household. The visits never happened again. Mum worked all day at the hospital as a midwife delivering babies. She was hardly ever home. While this career required a lot of concentration and time on Mum’s part, she always made time for me. She sewed lovely dresses for me to wear, and she made beads, which she baked in the oven and then turned into necklaces or earrings. A hobby of ours was to pick and bottle fruit together. Clive was full of magnificent fruit trees. Visits to pick-your-own fruit orchards were common outings for us. We went for peaches, nectarines, plums, strawberries, boysenberries, grapes, and of course apples of all varieties. Mum would make delicious jams and preserves with the pickings, or she would bottle the fruits for winter eating. While Mum was at the hospital, Dad stayed at home looking after me till he got a job as a cleaner at Wattie’s (Heinz Wattie’s Limited). This lifestyle often put up rifts that caused arguments between Mum and Dad. Mum did not think Dad was doing a good job looking after the house and me while she was working. Things always had to be done my mother’s way, or she would do the job again, claiming it was not done well enough. They would argue till the cows came home. Physical abuse was rare; there was only one minor incident when Mum pushed Dad down the hall. I felt sorry for Dad; he would look so sad at times. He tried to hide it behind the twinkle in his eye, but at only four years old, I could still tell. Mum would scare me a lot when she got angry with Dad. Her yelling was pretty loud. I would run outside into my tree house. The neighbors would hear them and would peep over the fence. I felt embarrassed. I loved my mother so much, and I could not understand how to stop her from becoming upset. Neither could Dad. Even at that young tender age, I wished I could fix things and we could be happy. The arguments were so petty. I recall one disagreement over beans. Yup, Dad thought he’d surprise Mum and prove to her that he helped out round the place. He planted some beans in our bountiful vegie patch. The rows were laid out in perfectly straight lines with stakes ready to support their growth. It took him most of the day. We were excited to show Mum the result of his hard work when she got home. Well, when Mum came home, she wasn’t happy. Dad’s plan backfired. She was furious because she believed the project was something they should have done together. Dad used to spend hours escaping in a room attached to our downstairs garage. He’d record tapes there—tapes of updates to overseas family and friends. He also recorded music for the church. I have one of these tapes. He recorded me with him and Mum. I was two or three years old. This specific tape includes Mum speaking of hoping for a peaceful Christmas, me singing “Three Blind Mice” and talking about of some of my favorite books and TV shows—The Basil Brush Show, Mister Ed, Noddy, and the stories of Pooh Bear. I talked about meeting Father Christmas for the first time, and then I thanked Grandma Pris for Polly Anna, a dolly companion of mine. I talked about finding a purple soft-toy bunny (a new member of my soon vast soft toy collection) with its head off. Listening to this tape as an adult now gives me a bittersweet feeling. I feel the innocence in my voice. I can still hear the love in my Dad’s voice as he spoke to Mum. Mum’s voice sounds bubbly and hopeful, with a hint of disappointment. The tape reminds me that, at these early beginnings, there was a lot of happiness. That is the sweet part. Knowing what follows is the bitter part. Mum speaks of play center Christmas celebrations with Auntie Jay, Auntie Jay riding her bike to come and see us, and Lyn, my cousin, having a bike crash. The recordings indicated the cousins and Auntie were still close to us at that stage and keeping regular contact. When Dad and I weren’t recording tapes, he would play his guitar and sing to me about a dog called Blue. He’d sing “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” And there was another song about a lady called Aunt Roddie. I would cry a lot when he sang about Blue because he dies at the end of the song. I was Daddy’s little girl, the apple of his eye. Auntie Jay lived on a large estate in sought-after Havelock North. They had pet lambs on their vast section. I felt the closest to Aunty Jay; I hardly ever saw my uncle. Auntie Jay was always the one to visit and take an interest in me. As for my four cousins, they were much older than I—by ten years or so—and lived their own lives. Mum’s friend, Pris, lived in South Africa. She was like a mother to my Mum, giving her advice. They wrote to each other about their problems. Mum felt that it was important to keep in touch with her. I did not know her; I only ever saw photos. She was an elderly lady, round with short white hair and glasses. Mum and Dad would regularly send packages to Mum’s mother, Gran, in South Africa with tape recordings so she did not feel left out. We were excitedly waiting for her to come to New Zealand. Gran would send goodies wrapped up in brown paper tied with string. Inside were knitted items and yummy South African sweets. I remember being so excited when we picked up the parcels from the post shop. We had a visit from Aunty Prim one day all the way from South Africa. Prim was not really my aunt; Mum just told me to use that term. I did not know her, and that was the only time I met her. Prim looked like a man. She had short black hair and skin darker than mine. Actually, her skin was much darker than anyone else’s. I was used to seeing skin that was a soft caramel color. Prim was also tall and lean. She would call me strange names such as skulam and stink bug. Mum thought this was funny, but the names made me feel uncomfortable. I do not even know what a skulam is! Dad and I had a special place that we called “our little world.” This place was so special. When my mother started to get upset and yell loudly, Dad and I often felt very down and sad. At these moments we would go for long walks in the beautiful country setting. The place we ended up in we called “our little world.” It was a grassy hilltop. We would sit under “our” shady tree and look out over a still lake. We would sit there after our long walk, inhaling the peace, gazing at the water, skimming stones. I remember asking Dad why Mum was so often so upset. He could never answer that. Often on our way to our little world, depending on the season, we’d pick up feijoas that had fallen onto the path. These are soft, sweet, green fruits that are sometimes called pineapple guavas. Well, one particular time a snobby neighbouring lady took offense. She growled at us and said they were hers. Dad, with his gentle sense of humour, turned to her and said, “Ompa, ompa, stick them up your jumper!” We made a little song of this as we pranced away. You should have seen her face! Priceless. Clive had a small fish-and-chip takeaway joint that was within walking distance from where we lived. Every Friday night, Dad and I would walk to this shop and buy tea. Outside the chip shop were two large cartoon fellows holding the chip sign. They always made me smile. The creature I looked forward to seeing the most on our walks was Macey. Macey was a gorgeous tan-and-white horse with a long white main. I enjoyed stroking Macey and feeding her grass from the side of the road. One sad day, Macey mistook my long blonde hair for hay. She bit down hard on my ear! Dad raced me home. There was blood everywhere, as ears bleed a lot, I’m told. Mum took one look and banned us from visiting Macey ever again. I cried my eyes out. I spent countless hours in the walnut tree in our backyard, climbing and hanging out in my tree house. I hosted tea parties or played school with my dolls and teddies. All the dolls got to eat walnuts with me. I had an enormous doll collection; they were my most special friends. Shelly had black hair, Penny had blonde hair, and Prissie was bald because she was still a baby. I was mad about the Mr Men books and Little Miss books by Roger Hargreaves. I had the entire series. I also had a Mr Men poster that reached across a whole wall. I loved to read about Mr Skinny and how he could eat only one baked bean before he was too full and Mr Noisy who was always yelling and had to learn to speak softly. The next place anyone could have spotted me was in the water. We had a large Para Rubber pool that Mum and Dad built from scratch. The water was well over my head, so I had to wear flutter wings on my arms and hold onto my close pal, Ducky, to keep safe. Ducky was a big bright purple-and-white inflatable duck. She saved me from going under many a time. One time, though, Ducky was nowhere in sight. Dad was supposed to be holding my hands, but I’d slipped out of his grasp and was quickly sinking. Dad grabbed my arms from under the water and swept me up to the surface in a huge hurry. With his shining eyes and a grin from ear to ear, he said, “Good girl! You did it!” “Did what?” “You went under the water!” This was my first experience learning to swim. I wasn’t much scared that day (the weed eater scared me more), as I knew Daddy would get me up. One thing that did scare the crap out of me were weird noises coming from Mum and Dad’s bedroom at night! These sounds were loud—they woke me up. I’d best compare the dreadful sound to that of an angry bull. My father—boy, he could snore the roof off. In our lounge was a large glass china cabinet in which Mum kept all the things she had collected while overseas traveling. There was a Spanish dancer, an African lady with her baby, beaded glass bottles, a well-dressed English gentleman and his lady, a Loch Ness monster, camels, and wooden elephants. I loved to sing and dance. One day when I was dancing around the room, I accidentally put my leg through Mum’s cabinet door, smashing the glass and a lovely white vase decorated with pink flowers. Boy, was I sorry! My leg was cut, and it stung like crazy. Mummy fixed it all up, as she was a nurse. I would dress up often, pretending to be my mother or a fairy. Mum sewed for me a white nurse’s dress with a red cape and cross on the front and a matching white hat—the kind of uniform nurses wore in the sixties and seventies. I looked just like my mummy when I wore that outfit. When Mum said I was old enough, I started to go to kindergarten — kindy as I called it. The kindy I went to was in Havelock North. I remember dressing up there too, as a butterfly with shiny blue wings attached to my arms or a princess with full, puffy pink lace skirts. We did other things there too—painting, story time, and playing on the castle-shaped fort outside. I used to pretend to be the queen. “I’m the queen of the castle!” Everyone else was a dirty rascal. Right from the start of my educational years, I felt I did not fit in or belong. I kept to myself in my own fantasy world. When I turned four, Mum and Dad brought me a playmate. Her name was Mitzy. She was a little pug-cross puppy, and I loved her with all my heart. I played with Mitzy every day, taking her for walks and throwing a ball for her to catch. She was my first best friend. As I mentioned earlier, our house was on a long driveway that we had to share with our neighbors. The driveway went right down the end, past Ruth’s house, past Robert’s house. And round a corner lived Melanie. We did not see them much as their house was a little hidden. Well, one day I was sitting on the loo doing my thing, and the door barged open. There stood Melanie’s mum. She was crying, and blood was dripping from her hands. She started reeling strand after strand of loo paper off the roll and wrapping her hand. I could hear Mum yelling at her, but I could not make out what she was saying. I jumped off the loo and headed off to play with my “bestest” friend. As soon as I entered the dining room, I knew something was terribly wrong. Everyone looked so sad sitting there staring at me gapping. Melanie’s mum started telling Mum how she tried to pick Mitzy up and got bitten. The penny sank. That witch had run over my friend! I screamed and ran off to my room. I must have cried all night as my eyes were all red and sore the next day! We had a funeral for Mitzy that day and sang a song I had learned in Sunday school. “I’ll see you in heaven, my best friend.” We buried her by some pink flowers next to Quin’s fence. A few weeks later, the witch came over again with a present for me! With a giant pink bow around her neck, Mitzy number two looked the same as my first friend, but I knew she wasn’t! We didn’t get on as well. She was a grumpy dog who snapped at me if she did not want to play. Life was full of ups and downs. I quickly learnt this. For example, bees sting and it hurts a lot, including black-coloured bees. Tipis can blow down in strong winds, and mums forget things sometimes. With Mum having so much to do—she had a lot on her plate— sometimes life simply went wrong. By now I had turned five and started school at Clive Primary. I bounced off to school one morning with my leather satchel strung over my shoulder. All bright and chirpy, I’d greet everyone who crossed my path politely. The lawn mower man—as I called him— on his giant noisy tractor, pulled up alongside me. “There is no school today, young lady,” he said. “Best you run all the way back home now, you hear me?” He frightened me so much, especially with the noise of the tractor. I did run all the way back home; I did not stop once. School soon became far from the happy experience it had first been. I lashed out a lot, and my favorite time of day was nap time. I struggled to make friends, and naturally my school experience led to me bulling others and making their lives hell! I hated sports, especially cross-country day. I sat on the field refusing to run because I was tired. All the cheering still did not make me move. I had begun to put on a lot of weight, and I was self-conscious and jealous of prettier girls. I did anything to get back at them—I stole their hair clips and made them cry. By now, Dad’s smoking habit was fully out in the open. This caused more fights between Mum and Dad. Dad left his cigie on the edge of the table, still burning one afternoon. I was sitting on his knee, and I leaned over, grabbed the cigie off the table, and took a puff! “Ah yuk!” I yelled, racing to the kitchen for a drink of juice to get the taste out of my mouth. Back in those days, we had dial telephones. There were no cell phones or even cordless phones. To make a call, you had to wind the numbers round the circle to dial. I kept asking Mum to call someone so I could dial the phone. It would drive her nuts, and I loved it! Sometimes when Mum was not looking, I’d make prank calls, asking the person if her fridge was running and pretending it was running down our street. I’d laugh my head off. Dad disappeared. He often wasn’t home. I do not recall being told, but my daddy, it seemed, had moved out and lived at another place, leaving just the two of us. Mum would still have to work at the hospital, so babysitters started to come over to look after me. I despised them all. The worst one was Garry, a cleaner from the hospital. Simply put, he was slimy. I could not trust him to stop the trolls at the end of my bed from biting my feet at night. They were mean. If my feet touched the bottom of the bed, the trolls would bite them hard. Garry insisted I gave him a kiss good night. This made me cringe, but I did so. He’d kiss me back with big sloppy wet lips—so gross! I hated him. I always wiped his kiss off my wet cheek as hastily as I could, so I would not offend him. It was no use as he told my mum.
Elise Brooke (pen name Sheila)©