WITH LIVES WELL LIVED, 11 KIWI WOMEN REFLECT ON LOSS, LOVE AND THE SECRET TO HAPPINESS
Reaching 85 is a milestone by anyone’s standards. Here our readers open up about how their lives have changed over the years
Oh, I’ve had a lot of pleasure in my life. I truly can’t believe I’m 85, but then again, I’m from a family of longevity – my dad lived until he was almost 104, my grandfather was about 98.
But I still can’t believe I’m here. I’m often blown away when I look back at my life.
We were from Timaru and I was one of six siblings. My dad was a loving, caring man who would give you all the time in the world, and my mother always sewed and made things for people. I guess that’s where I got it from.
I was 16 when I started my business making formal and wedding gowns. In those days, you left school at 14 and life started a lot earlier.
Ever since I can remember, I always wanted to work with beautiful fabric and be involved with the beautiful memories my clothes helped create.
Life has changed so much. I love how girls can stay at school and continue learning. Further education has become important and I agree that it should be.
I would have loved that, but we couldn’t because our parents weren’t well off. It’s right that girls educate themselves because they don’t know what sort of things they will face in the future.
Though, I feel that commitment to life in general isn’t what it used to be.
I still sew and do bits and bobs. I knit but I don’t do so much fancy work as I used to because my eyes aren’t what they were.
But apart from those things, I’m not complaining. I’m in good health for the most part!
When I was growing up, I went to dances all the time and that’s how my husband Hugh knew I existed.
Hugh must have seen me out at a dance somewhere, and he made it his business to go to my brothers’ workplace and ask when they were taking me out again.
Hugh and I were married for 67 years. We had four children, nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. I was very lucky. He was my best friend and he worked his butt off for our family. He died in June last year after being ill for some time. I miss him.
Something I learned throughout my marriage was you always have to be ready to listen to the other person’s ideas and views, and to always be considerate.
Not that we always agreed on everything – but, you know, you always had to be open to the other person’s feelings.
If we ever had any worries or concerns about what was happening in our lives, they were never discussed in front of the children. We always discussed it in bed at night.
You learn resilience through your life, that’s for sure!
I really can’t comprehend the massive changes over time. I mean, in my time, it was horses and wagons, and now it’s cars, so what’s next!”
I’m 85, but I feel I’m still learning about life. You should always try to be honest and tactful, if you can. I’m not always very tactful. Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself – and smile. That helps.
When you’re young, everything is black and white. As you get older, you realise that life’s not like that. In my day, people would keep very quiet about things like drinking too much or a divorce in the family. Now people are very open.
I certainly regret some mistakes I made when I was teaching – I don’t think I realised how young people coped with some things and there were times when I was cross with them.
It was Tui Flower who actually encouraged me to be a teacher. She taught me at Pukekohe High School. I went to Auckland Teachers’ Training College, where I did the inaugural home craft teachers’ course.
Back then, you had a choice of teaching, nursing or office work. Girls at that time did tend to marry earlier. I got married to my husband Bill in 1954, and we had two boys and a girl.
Most of my contemporaries look back and think we were really very fortunate. It was the 1960s, we weren’t governed by computers and cellphones, my husband was a very keen jazz musician and I sang in various choirs.
Still, our generation did have its problems. We worried about the atomic bomb – it was the time of the tests on Bikini Atoll – and I was fearful about whether my children would grow up or we’d all be blown to bits.
The children were fairly independent. They weren’t mollycoddled as much as today’s children are. They had more freedom. My youngest boy had meningitis when he was just seven months old, and it was touch and go.
It’s probably quite tough for young women today
– they seem to be pulled in all different ways if they have a family. But then, in my day, people got suburban neurosis.
We didn’t want as many material things, though. When we were married, we started out with a bed, a table and a few wooden apple boxes, which made quite good stools, but you didn’t feel like you had to have a lot of things, not like the young couples today. Still, family planning wasn’t so wonderful; there was no Pill until the 1960s.
When times get tough, you have two options, really. You’re either miserable and make everyone else worried about you or you just get on with things.
My father died when I was 12 – he had been to World War I and developed TB – and my mother died at age 60 of a brain aneurysm.
I was 22 and engaged to be married. When you have your own children, you realise how much your parents did for you. The fact that my mother died before I had family of my own meant I wasn’t able to express my appreciation to her.
Bill developed dementia. I cared for him at home for as long as I could. He was in the hospital wing and I was going to move into a unit of a retirement village nearby, but he didn’t wait. I moved in 10 days after his funeral.
Making the decision, with the support of family, to put Bill into residential care was extremely difficult. In some ways, it was harder than when he died. You wonder if you did the right thing or not, but just have to accept what had happened.”
Imarried when I was 23, the year before I came out on the boat from the UK. I met my Gerard through his mother, actually!
She set us up because she wanted him to stay at home for a little longer. On our first date, he turned up three hours late because he was shanghaied by a pregnant lady who’d missed the bus in terrible snow, so he walked her home. By the time he got to me, he had about three inches of snow on his head. Luckily, he had a lot of charm!
I was engaged to him twice
– I broke up with him on my 21st birthday. It wasn’t for anyone else, but I’d met his friends’ pregnant wives and that wasn’t for me just then. But later, he came to me and told me he was emigrating to New Zealand, and would I go with him.
‘I thought you might like an adventure,’ he said. ‘Where’s the ring?’ I said. Turns out someone had stolen it. This is how we were, back and forth!
We were married for about 30 years and had four children, 10 grandchildren and two greatgrandchildren, and have another one on the way.
Gerard died at 56, so I was 53 when I was left by myself. He’d had complications with his heart and then discovered he had cancer of the oesophagus. He never really got over that.
I’ve been on my own ever since. I’ve never had a chance to have a bite at the apple again, I don’t know why. How some unattractive women manage to get married two or three times, I don’t know! I miss having someone here but I’m used to it now.
Sometimes I don’t always keep my mouth shut, but I say it as it is!
You’ve got to keep a sense of humour. And you’ve got to accept what comes. I’ve got arthritis and
I’ve had to give up tenpin bowling and darts, but there’s always a silver lining because I feel I’m not as bad as others. I’ve learned there are things you can’t change and I’ve learned to be a bit more patient.
Sometimes I thank God I feel as good as I do at 85. Other times – when I’m getting out of bed and I’ve got to sit up and loosen up – I look at my hair, and it’s everywhere, and I’ve got no teeth in and I think, ‘Oh God, why am I here?!’“
When I was a young girl, I liked nothing more than the pictures – and to this day, I’m still a big movie fan. I collected autographed photographs of film stars – you would write to the studios like MGM and they’d send them.
My autograph book had signatures from people such as Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Judy Garland, but I don’t have the book any more. I must have left it back in England.
My father was in the British
Air Force and it meant we moved around a lot to different airbases. I remember hearing the sirens go at night and you could hear them bombing Portsmouth, 20 minutes away.
After the war, I met this New Zealand pilot, so I said, ‘Well, you can take me up in the plane on Saturday then!’ He told me about New Zealand and then I saw an ad in the Daily Mirror – ‘Single women wanted in New Zealand! Guaranteed job and
accommodation for free if you stay two years.’
I moved here when I was 27. I wasn’t nervous, I’ve always been quite adventurous. I like doing different things and just doing whatever takes my fancy! That’s the biggest lesson – do your own thing. No-one would dare have an opinion on what I do!
I didn’t get married until
I was 45, so I was a late bloomer. The simple fact was I just didn’t meet anybody until then – it’s hard out there!
We met at a dinner party in Wellington, he was the friend of a friend. He was a very good cook. Sid was his name.
He was married at the time but we kept a friendship over the years. His wife had passed away, and one day he rang and said, ‘Why don’t you come up to Auckland?’
He had three children, all adopted, two boys and a girl. Becoming a stepmother was very daunting because I wasn’t used to children and I’d been an only child – and now I had to cook for a huge family!
Sid died about 10 years ago, he just slipped away. It was really sad and I miss him. But you move on, you do. Sid and I were married for 27 years.
Not like some of them but still a very good innings.
I don’t know if I like being old, on my own, though. You don’t know what the future will hold. When you come in and close the door, that’s it, so I just stay up watching movies. I don’t put the light out until about midnight.
The thing I do now that I enjoy more than anything is going on cruises.
I’ve actually got one in February. I’m going with a lady and we’re flying up to San Francisco, having two nights there and then we sail back to New Zealand, stopping through Hawaii – I can’t wait! We don’t have much in common, but that doesn’t matter.
I’m a big fan of celebrity news. I love Prince Harry, I think he’s just gorgeous. So she can read her book in bed and I can read my magazines!”
Looking back, World War II had a rather large effect on my life. I’d done quite well at primary school and my parents were keen for me to go to an all-girls school.
But because it was war time, all the places in the boarding schools were saved for the country girls.
I ended up going to the local school, but in the sixth form – I’d been very keen on maths and science, and I got a small scholarship – my maths teacher asked me what I wanted to do.
I said I wanted to go to ’varsity and study maths and science, and he replied, ‘I’m sorry, dear, but there’s no career for a woman in maths and science, so you’d better forget about it.’
So I did. That’s something, isn’t it? I feel very cross in a way, but I do love teaching and that’s the reason I met my husband John.
We were both teachers and got married at 23. We did our country service and moved to Ngamatea School, a funny little school stuck in the middle of a paddock. It took two years for us to get power! So we lived in a house and taught at a school with no power. Luckily, I’d been camping!
We had two daughters and nine grandchildren, and one great-grandchild on the way – our grandchildren definitely keep us young.
Plus we do a lot of exercising. I’ve been walking for 25 years and John , and I go to aerobics class twice a week. We’ve always eaten healthy food. We were brought up on home-grown veges and I enjoy a small glass of wine in the evenings!
That was a far cry from growing up during the war and the Depression, however. It was very tough. I was the middle child of five – three boys and two girls – and everyone had to put up with a bit of rationing.
My mother used to say ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’. And that’s exactly right, when you think about it. She was always positive and always treated things as an adventure – nothing was ever a calamity. And I think that approach to life has probably helped me get to 85.
Life is a gem. I always say to John, we are together, no matter what happens!”
Everybody in our age group looks at what’s happening now and what might happen in the future, and we all think we lived in the best of times. While we did grow up during the war, we went through that lovely period where there was no inflation, no drugs and everybody was H-A-P-P-Y.
The other thing people forget is how we fought to get a 40-hour working week – people worked from Monday to Friday, and everybody had Saturday and Sunday off. On a Saturday, you would mow your lawns or play sport, and do all sorts of lovely things, and Sunday was a real day of rest.
Now, it’s a real throw-away society. There is so much waste everywhere and that really bothers us oldies. During the war, it didn’t matter how much money you had because everyone was short of paper, sugar, string and butter, so we were taught to save everything.
Even now, my children are amused at how we still don’t throw anything away. Jolly good things like kettles are thrown away if they stop working, whereas we would be able to get another element. And the amount of time people spend on their phones! You go to a restaurant and all these young people are on their phones, not talking to their friends!
My husband Spencer and I had to deal with none of that. As far as we’re concerned, the secret to a happy marriage is we think of the other one first and never say anything that would upset the other person.
We met on a blind date when I was 19. I was nursing with a cousin of Spencer’s. She was supposed to be going to a ball with him but the ward sister changed her duty at the last minute. She met me in the corridor and said, ‘You’ll do, I suppose. My cousin Spencer is ringing me at four this afternoon so you can answer and say you’ll go.’ Well, I answered and told him his cousin couldn’t go, but I didn’t like to say anything else [about me going in her place]. Luckily for both of us, he rang back. I thought he was great. We got engaged a year later and married when I was 21.
I have no big regrets and thankfully there have been no big tragedies in my life. Oh, I regret the fact I didn’t finish my nursing training, but then I wouldn’t have swapped a day of my marriage for anything.
I’m very happy for women to be in the workforce, but my heart bleeds for those little children who are put in care at 7.30 in the morning while their mum and dad go to work, and then they’re picked up at night. I wouldn’t have wanted my children to be brought up by other people. But there’s no such thing as a perfect world.
A big thrill for me was winning a sewing machine as second prize in a [skeleton] crossword competition in the Woman’s Weekly in the early ’60s. It was a really big prize in those days. I made all sorts of clothes for my children.”
I’ll never forget the moment someone came running into my high school classroom in Te Puke, jubilantly yelling the war had ended. Of course, we all jumped out of our seats with joy, before our teacher snapped, ‘Sit down and behave!’ Not even the end of a world war could interrupt the decorum of the classroom!
My mother had moved us to Taihape – she didn’t want to be around the main centres during the war, so we went to school in a tiny schoolhouse in the hills.
I really wanted to be a school teacher myself, but they wouldn’t let me because I’d had rheumatic fever as a child. I didn’t have it badly and it had no effect on my heart. It seems crazy now! So I had a range of jobs as a florist and even as a typist at a lawyer’s office, and I’d never learned to type! They must have been pretty desperate. It was very interesting, though. I remember we had a case come through for a Miss New Zealand who wanted to get permission to get married.
I got married to my best friend Ian, whom I met at a Manchester Union Meeting. It was absolutely love at first sight.
I can still see him walking across the room and I knew. I think that was about November and we got married at the end of March 1957.
Ian has been dead five years. He had a stroke and a heart attack, and passed suddenly.
It’s been very lonely, even in my retirement village, at times, and you have to go and find someone to talk to. We were best friends. We always said the best years of our lives were the years after we retired. We could do whatever we liked!
We moved around wherever he was offered a job as an electrician, but we began to discover our three children were fairly bright, so we came to Auckland for the schools.
I will say, though, Ian wasn’t too pleased when I wanted to go for a job. I’d gone out to buy a ball of wool at Masco Wools and one of the ladies told me they were looking for a manager.
He said, ‘Stay there for a month and see how you like it.’
But after a month, there was no way I could stop and Ian finally accepted I was right! I ended up working there for 13 years.”
When I get out of bed these days, I feel like I can do anything, but as the day goes on, I get slower and slower.
Honestly, there’s nothing great about getting older.
It’s okay when you’re 20,
30 or 40, but there’s been a noticeable difference since I turned 60.
When I turned 60, I realised I’d slowed down a bit, then when I got to 70, I was okay. I was still swimming – my favourite exercise – but when I turned 80, I was full of arthritis, but you know the doctors are pretty clever – they can keep you going on medication. The only thing I know about ageing is that I’ve become slower.
I’ve got my own unit (at Ryman’s Charles Fleming Retirement Village). I didn’t think I’d like it when I moved from the big house near the beach, but it’s a lovely, safe community and I’ve made quite a few friends. I look in the mirror and see all these wrinkles, but inside I’m still that 18-year-old girl from Te Anau.
My childhood was gorgeous – I was the third eldest of eight children and we all knew we were loved. After tea at night, we would listen to the radio, and we played cards and board games. Dad would make up games for us.
There was a lot of laughter. No-one was allowed to cheat, except Dad.
I think today’s mums and dads need to sit down and talk more with their kids, to perhaps say no sometimes, but then it must be hard these days when both parents are working. I remember never being allowed to call people by their Christian names. We had boundaries, we knew what they were and we stuck to them. How times have changed.
I left school to train as a
nurse in Invercargill, but I got so homesick. I went back to Te Anau and met my husband Roy at the Government Tourist Hotel where I worked – he was the Postmaster.
We got engaged when I was 19 and married when I was 21. We moved to Wellington soon after, and had four sons and one daughter. I stayed at home with them, of course.
One of my biggest regrets was not finishing my nursing training. I was going to at one stage, but Roy said, ‘Think about it. You’ve got all these children to look after and I don’t think
I’ll be able to support the family.’ So I didn’t.
Roy – he was my one true love. He was 76 when he died. He had cancer of the liver. The doctor gave him six weeks and that was all he had. I wanted him for longer. He was the love of my life – we were married for 56 years. I’ve never thought about marrying again – it doesn’t interest me at all.
Roy died six months after the husband of one of my bowling friends. I found her one day in her car crying her heart out.
I had always wanted to travel, but Roy didn’t – he thought it was a waste of money – so I asked her if she wanted to come overseas with me. We spent almost three weeks in the UK, then did a three-week bus tour of the Continent.
It was wonderful seeing places you’d heard about and seen on television.
Nowadays, kids head off overseas as soon as they leave school. My husband and I did go to Australia when our first grandson was born – Roy never stopped smiling, but I couldn’t get him to visit them again.
I think it’s terrific to see women leading the way now – the fact we’ve had two female prime ministers, all those women in Parliament. They are judges, lawyers and farmers.
As for my advice to young women? Look after yourself, you don’t have to do certain things or be a certain way for anyone. You are a very special person in your own right.”
Iactually turn 85 myself this month – and for my big day, I’m going to a winery with five or six friends.
Oh yes, I enjoy a glass of wine, especially at happy hour in my retirement home every Friday night! Three other ladies and I share a bottle between us – and I particularly like sauvignon blanc.
I’m just very happy with my life. I find you’ve got to have friends outside of the retirement village. Nine of us used to go out for our birthdays, but we’re down to five now and I’m the oldest of the group. But that’s okay – we’ve got two newbies in the group.
I was born in Christchurch, then my parents moved to Akaroa. I was going to be a general nurse, but I only stayed in training for three months because I couldn’t bear it. We had a very crabby sister who would always comment on everything I did wrong!
But when I told her I was leaving, she said I had the makings of a good nurse. Oh, well!
I helped my mum open a cake shop, which had always been her dream.
But on the first day, she realised it was too much baking, so we had to hire someone to lend us a hand.
As it turns out, it’s where I met my husband Jim.
I sold him a pie – an ordinary mince pie, so I guess it must have been in the homemade pastry! The store was called the Sweetie Pie Cake Shop too. I don’t really bake so much any
more, I got sick of cooking!
When I was growing up, it was very different to today. You kept yourself pure, you know, and nobody ever lived with their partner. Although I might have led a very quiet life compared to others!
We were very happy,
Jim and I. He was a big,
1.88m tall man and I’m only 1.58m. He also wasn’t bad looking! We had three daughters, two ended up becoming nurses and my other daughter Nicola has Down syndrome, but she is doing very well and she still comes to stay with me every month.
Jim died back in 2005, he was on dialysis and had a massive heart attack. I heard a crash in the morning. I went out to see and he’d gone. It was really hard. But as time passes, you learn to keep yourself busy.
To be honest, I didn’t even think I’d get to 80, let alone 85!”
My husband Fred and I were on a trip to the Bay of Islands, the first year after we arrived from South Africa when, halfway there, I suddenly remembered I hadn’t locked the house. I was worried sick, but everyone said, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’ll be okay’ – and it was.
It was 1962, my husband and I were both 30, and we’d arrived with two daughters, two suitcases and £95. Arriving here was a bit like going back in time. It was pretty laid-back compared to what we were used to. People didn’t seem to worry about things – everyone thought they would get a job and then get a home. It really was the land of milk and honey.
There were a lot of things you couldn’t get here. We’d always had a glass of wine with our meal back in South Africa, but you couldn’t really buy wine here. I would go to the local dairy for a certain spice and they’d look at me funny – they knew cinnamon, but not much else. The food was fresh and good, but there was not much choice. I used to buy the Weekly for Tui Flower’s recipes. But you could get a side of lamb for 10 shillings!
I have had a great life in New Zealand – the only thing that’s happened was Fred’s heart failure last year. He had a leaky heart valve that needed replacing and the surgeon told us he wasn’t prepared to operate because he would probably die on the table.
That was a real kick in the guts – and should he survive, it was more than likely he’d have a stroke. We had a very rough year last year but thankfully, he survived.
There were times
I wished we could have gone back to what we had before it happened, but my first priority was to make sure he was all right.
I just shut off. If I sat down and really thought about what was happening, and the responsibilities I was having to take on, I don’t know where I’d be.
Like most couples, we’ve had our ups and downs, and we struggled a bit at the beginning. You deal with that by looking at what you actually have and being thankful for it. When you have things that are getting you down, sit back, take a deep breath and try not to let things get on top of you. And, of course, Fred and I have always sat down and talked about things. That helps.
I think it’s important to look after yourself, to accept things and deal with them as they come along. When my girls got married, I told them you will always sort out the big things. It’s the little things – like your husband squeezing the toothpaste in the wrong place – you shouldn’t let it get you down. Either ignore them or put up with them!”
What’s the biggest lesson I’ve learnt over my 85 years? Well, it’s simply to just keep going. Don’t smoke. Drink sparingly. Don’t die!
My biggest turning point came when
I was 23. My husband Roy and I decided to emigrate from Southport in Lancashire, England, to New Zealand. He joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force and he left before me to get things all arranged. It was a whole year after he sailed off before myself and our two daughters, aged three and 18 months, boarded the Captain Hobson for the six-week voyage.
Oh, it was tedious – although there were a lot of lovely people who helped me to look after the children. The ship broke down 600 miles off the coast of New Zealand and was towed to Auckland. We were supposed to dock at Wellington, so my husband caught the train up to meet us.
We settled in Paraparaumu Beach and saved every penny – Roy in the Air Force and I took in sewing. I have always been very good at crafts and practical skills, and by then we had another daughter and a son.
Eventually we bought a section in the new Leinster Estate in Raumati South and built a house – I think it cost £3500. In those days, you could get a 30-year mortgage at 3 percent interest! To think!
I loved that house. I built all the rock walls and steps in the garden, and started the Shrub Club. All the ladies would contribute a small amount each week and, at the end of the month, would take turns buying new plants for our gardens. I had the first gerbera plants in the district – they were quite exotic at the time.
My husband wasn’t a ‘handy’ person, I have to admit. He did build a hen house, but it blew over in the first strong wind! My Roy died when he was 41, of a brain aneurysm. It was the worst time of my life – and 10 years ago, my eldest daughter suffered the same thing, but thankfully, modern medicine saved her. Last year, my middle daughter died suddenly and that is something I am still dealing with.
These days, the biggest changes are around technology. In my time, we were all on party lines, which could cause some problems if you had nosy people sharing the line. Now, it really irritates me when I am constantly told to look up a website, go online, do internet banking or fill forms online when I don’t have a computer!
I have never felt like there were things I could not do and have always been prepared to work hard. I am a child of the war, so am very economical and don’t like waste. You never know what’s around the corner, so my advice is no matter how bad things get, just keep on.”