Treasuring a literary inheritance.
Earlier generations have passed on a way with words, if not their admirable gardening and preserving skills.
My nan turned 100 this year. She is the youngest of her siblings, as is my mother, as am I. When you are the youngest, you get to enjoy your older siblings looking out for and after you. If you live long enough, as I observed with my nan, you will one day return the favour by looking out for and after them. If you live long enough as a mother, as I have observed with my nan and mum, your daughter will one day take care of you, as you did her.
These are those big, unspoken rules of love, passed down through the doing and not the saying. My nan’s pantry was always full of her homemade jam. Jars that she had recycled and repurposed. She’d show us outside how her garden was growing, the little strawberry patches, the blackberries and raspberries, and she could name each of the flowers she was growing. Back inside we’d then gaze with delight at her pantry full of various sizes of jars of jam. She liked to seal them with red and white gingham patterned lids and would give us kids a miniature jar of rich raspberry jam as a parting gift after our visits.
Wherever we have lived, be it the hard-to-grow conditions of Rarotonga, my parents’ first home in Napier, or various rentals and homes in Auckland, my mum would always transform boring patches of dirt and lawn into gardens full of colour and life. Mounds of fresh produce came in from the backyard, beans and courgettes and peppers, enough rhubarb to make months of stewed desserts.
There is usually a bag full of vegetables my mum has set aside to take home with me after a visit. Just like Nan, she likes to point out and name every plant she is growing. It has always impressed me. During picking season in Napier, Mum would preserve the fruit we couldn’t get through, the large jars full of apples and pears reminding me of Nan’s pantry.
Their gardens were a labour of love shared cities apart, hours digging in the dirt, the type of hard work that probably doesn’t seem so hard when you grew up on a farm.
By the time my nan and mum were the age I am now, they were both raising young families. There are not many parallels I can draw between the life I live now and the lives they were living then. I have no children, and no gardening skills to speak of. Mum has given me the simplest of plants to keep alive, and I have struggled to do so.
But I could read and write before I went to school, because of my mother’s teaching, that love for reading and writing always encouraged across generations. My mum wrote her own family history and self-published it for her children. My nan’s cursive handwritten letters arrived in floral stationery every week, and we made trips to the library collecting piles of books to read while staying on school-holiday trips. So I have these words, passed down from, and written for, the women who taught me how to use them.
She’d show us how her garden was growing, the little strawberry patches, the blackberries and raspberries, and she could name each of the flowers she was growing.
ABOVE— On my grandparents’ farm in Pahiatua, 1958, coming home after getting vegetables. From left, Mum, Nan, Aunty, Pop.