14 Apr An Unforgettable Summer – Paihia 1979
This piece was commissioned by Stuff and published 30 December 2019
It is the early days of 1979 and my mother and I are in Paihia. We are on the deck of a rented holiday house, a bucket of shucked oysters sitting between us, fetching them out with forks and squirting them with lemons. The oysters taste of sea and sunshine, and we are curious to know how many we can eat before we don’t want any more. Eventually, decorum makes us put the plastic tub – the size of a large paint tin – back in the fridge for a bit. Good manners always won out over greed with my mother – I would have hoovered the lot. It still occurs to me on a daily basis that I should be more like her.
As we sit slurping oysters in the hot, hot sun I am thinking, in that dramatic way 17-year-olds think, that I am between two lives. High school is done, and when this holiday is over I will leave the home I was born in and move to Wellington to study – a soft landing with my older brother already there, but still.
Now, of course, I realise that my mother was also between two lives – her nest is about to be emptied, and twenty years of dedicated mothering are reaching an end. Decades later, she would tell me that after she and my father dropped me off at my student hostel, she cried all the way home to Levin. But there’s not a whiff of that during these glorious days up north. Just us (my Dad has sailed off on a fishing trip) and our books, and wandering down to the sea where she sits or paddles a bit and watches me swim.
We’d bought the oysters down there on the beach from a local fisher. We’d also stopped by the bottle store for a cask of something that proclaimed itself “Dry White Wine” and didn’t bother with further details, which is how wine worked in 1970s New Zealand. Sitting in the sun with my mother, drinking wine, was evidence of the adult life I was heading towards. That I was sitting in the sun with my mother rather than on a road trip with a bunch of wild teenagers up to all kinds of nonsense was evidence of the childhood I hadn’t quite let go.
Paihia was new to us. Every summer, our little family would pile into the car and drive to a rented house somewhere, but this was the furthest north we’d ever been. These beaches were a revelation – I didn’t know you were allowed to have so many colours in one place, right by the water. At home, Waitārere was iron sand and tussock, shades of brown and grey. A grand spot for digging up toheroa, certainly, and for gliding on skimming boards and crashing head first into roiling dark waves – but this “up north” aesthetic of grassy lawns down to the shoreline and magnificent Pohutukawa trees leaning over the water – green, gold, red, blue – seemed to me … Exotic.
“It’s so exotic here,” I say to my mother between sips of cask wine and stabs at oysters and she doesn’t correct me because she knows that by “exotic” I mean “sophisticated” and “different and more glamorous than you get at home”. The wrong word entirely to describe native trees and coastline, but she decides – for both our sakes, I guess – that this holiday is not an English lesson. She smiles and agrees it is just lovely, darling.
A year ago she said, “They tell me I might have one last good summer”. We did our best to make it so. Picnics outdoors at the nursing home. One day, a friend from her book club brought oysters. My brother and I took her for ice creams on the beach we loved for its Pohutukawa and stretches of lawn. She left us in June, before the winter got too hard.
I don’t remember how many days we had in Paihia in 1979 (when each day is similarly perfect, they are hard to count) and I also don’t remember making any kind of effort to imprint an image in my memory of my mother that summer, but it is there. A yellow sun lounger, a classic bathing suit (when my mother wore them, they weren’t “togs”), her Lady Tea Planter’s Hat (a straw version of a pith helmet which would have looked ridiculous on anyone except her, though even so it was a close run thing), a book on her lap (always), and a long, thin cigar-coloured cigarette in an elegant hand (a brand which other people kept for special occasions but favoured by my mother then for everyday use). That same hand would reach out – not too often – for the white wine on the table between us, and she would sigh, and stretch, and settle back in. Long days with nothing to do, just be. This was my mother, between two lives, happy.