My mother died exactly 60 years ago, in fear and pain. My father went a decade later. Neither of them belongs in a feature article.
They don’t belong because feature articles tend to focus – understandably – on the eminent or prominent, the successful or notorious, those who move in the public world. My parents fitted none of those criteria. Yet I believe, and not just because they were my mum and dad, that their lives held more significance, more symbolism than many of those who stride through the media.
Brief biographies. She came with her family from Scotland after World War 1, when my grandfather swore he’d never call anyone “sir” again. They settled on a farm at Puketapu, outside Napier. She worked as a servant (and I do mean that term) in big sheep station homesteads, married my father in 1935, worked again in a factory while they scraped and saved to buy A Place of Their Own.
He meanwhile grew up in Dannevirke, just possibly the illegitimate child of one of his much older sisters. He left school at 14, to be a labourer, than a brickmaker; taught himself wool-classing through books he brought home from the library; was content in that job for 40 years. He read poetry; the fact amazes me still. He could quote metres of Longfellow and other balladeers. It embarrassed me in front of my friends, but gave me a childhood packed with words and cadences.
When I was about 10, deep in an armchair at my grandmother’s place, I heard my aunts in the adjacent kitchen: “Molly must have married Bob for a quiet life….Huh, she got more of it than she bargained for, didn’t she?”
Indeed, he was the mildest of men, while she was prickly, combative. They’d both lived through war and the 1930s Depression. He handled it by keeping his head down and plodding along. She believed in fighting for your rights.
So there were evenings when she raged at him because he hadn’t complained about the neighbour’s chooks getting into our vege garden, or agreed to work overtime on a Saturday when they’d hoped to go out, or when “anyone else” – meaning her brothers – would have demanded a discount after an electrician left scratch marks around a new light switch.
I’d slip off to bed and read Biggles Flies North / South / East, etc. After half an hour, her voice would quieten down; the jug would be boiled; tea would be made; normal service resumed. It happened every few months. I never felt damaged by it.
And in spite of such dramas, I see their marriage as a rich one. They talked to each other all the time: anecdotes of his wool store workmates like seamed little Glaswegian Peter M, who floored the truckdriver mocking his size; sagas of her 50-yard walk to the local shop and how Mrs Moore’s teeth wouldn’t let her sleep at night. They found so much in the world to report and marvel at.
They were openly affectionate, remarkably so for their time. They kissed in the mornings when he left for work and again when he arrived home, walking the 2km up Napier Hill. They went for walks around neighbourhood streets on Sunday afternoons, her arm tucked through his, hips touching. She had to go to the doctor once with a broken toe, because she’d aimed a playful, slippered kick at my father, and he’d put his tin lunchbox in the way.
They were tactile with me, also. My father ruffled my hair, rested his hand on my shoulder. Mum touched me constantly: a palm against my cheek, a fingertip on my nose, embraces before bedtime.
There was even sex between them. Apart from my own existence, I can offer the cliched occasion I came home early from a friend’s place one weekend afternoon, found garden and kitchen empty, blundered through to their bedroom and discovered them there, startled faces peering above the covers. I didn’t feel damaged by that, either.
So it was a marriage with long stretches of contentment. And with achievements. When they finally got that coveted Place of Their Own, my mum walked from room to pokey little room, touching doors and windowsills, smiling. Outside, Dad kicked a clod in the overgrown section, murmured “Great soil, son”.
It all dwindled in the last couple of years, as emphysema ravaged my mother. She’d worked in the local tobacco factory, which gave staff free cartons of the stuff as Xmas bonuses. She smoked obsessively; the ceiling above her chair was stained brown with nicotine. Cigarette companies already knew the dangers of their product; knew how to lie as well.
She died aged 52, delirious and wasted inside a primitive 1960s oxygen tent. When my father and I walked into the hospital room where she lay, he rested a big, work-chipped hand on her forehead, murmured “Sleep well, old thing, last sleep of all”. Show me any luminary or celebrity who has ever spoken words so simple, so beautiful.
Through his decade of widowerhood, I watched my dad reshape his picture of my mum. His stories made her milder, less tormented by sickness than I remember. They made him happier.
He died perfectly in his sleep just after we’d been down to stay with him, and our two-year-old son had turned him to putty, as usual. When a neighbour rang to say how they’d found him, thankfulness swept through me.
The two of them lived the most unobtrusive – make that “obscure”, if you wish – of lives. They belonged to no boards or committees, never featured in any media till the days they died, would have been embarrassed if they had. They were the antithesis of entitled; knew no-one famous; were unknown in turn outside their families and friends.
Yet I see them as more significant than so many of the big names who pass across our screens and pages. They represent the quiet, unglamorous mass of human beings on whom the fabric of our society stands. Novelists from Jane Austen to Maurice Gee and Fiona Kidman have understood how emblematic they are, how their private lives can mean far more than public ones. I loathe the glib phrase “real people”, yet I believe my mother and father were such.
They’re still together, in the windy little cemetery above the Tutaekuri River at Puketapu. It’s a sentimental image, one my dad in particular would have liked. I’ll settle for it, too.
David Hill lives and writes in New Plymouth. His fiction for young adults and children has been published in several countries. In 2021, he received the Prime Minister’s Award For Fiction.