Archive for the ‘Family Stories’ Category

Community Energy Action did a full energy check of our home. This was very thorough and included checking shower pressure, hot water temperature, ventilation, and lighting. As a priority they identified the need to top up our 30-year-old ceiling insulation, and yesterday two young men arrived with a load of pink Batts which they installed.

Because we are older and on a limited income this service was free under the Government’s Warmer Kiwi Homes programme.

All this reminded me of an event in the 1970s when we were living in Auckland. We went to the Easter Show and one exhibit had a competition to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar. The prize was a houseful of pink Batts. Later a woman phoned to say that the prize had been won by our younger daughter, eight years old at the time. I expressed our gratitude and remarked that the daughter would probably have preferred to get the jar of jelly beans.

The Batts were duly delivered, accompanied by jelly beans, and we were delighted to have this free insulation for our old villa. Today it kind of feels like we’ve won the competition again.

It’s great to have the extra Batts
to help our power usage stat’s

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The subject of today’s talk was “DNA testing for Family History” and the speaker was Fiona Brooker, founder and director of Memories in Time.

There are four main companies offering DNA testing for genealogy, and Ancestry DNA has the largest database of 20 million. I had my DNA tested by them a couple of years ago, mainly because I was interested to find my ethnicity. This changes slightly as the database is updated, and Ancestry sends me an update at least once a year.

My DNA test kit

I learned to day that it’s possible to transfer your Ancestry DNA results to other databases, e.g. My Heritage DNA or Family Tree DNA, and upload results from other people’s tests. These databases each have different reference panels which may give different results. Interestingly siblings may have different ethnicities because they have inherited different genes.

Once your DNA is registered you will be advised of matches, and the closeness of these depends on how many centimorgans (cM) are shared. If you want to know more about centimorgans and the relationships they indicate there is information at the Shared cM Project, facilitated by Blaine Bettinger. When you get a match and there is a family tree available it’s good to seek the most recent common ancestor. To see this information you may need to pay a subscription to Ancestry, although some aspects are available through membership of Christchurch City Libraries.

New matches can solve family tree mysteries, but beware there’s always the possibility of NPE – Not the Parent Expected. On Facebook there are groups of people who have discovered through DNA that their father is not their father which can obviously be distressing. Sperm donation, which in the past was supposed to be anonymous, may be revealed through DNA.

I was pleased when my DNA matches alerted me to the fact I had a half-brother I hadn’t known about, but not everyone may welcome such news. It’s good to arrange to have close relations tested, especially those who are one generation back, but you need to consider the ethics of this, and ensure you have informed consent. DNA can be used to identify criminals, but Ancestry does not allow requests for information from law enforcement agencies. Sharing of medical information is problematic because the data could be used by insurance companies.

For keen genealogists DNA adds to the toolbox, but it is only one tool among many. Fiona, who is an enthusiastic advocate for genealogy, stressed that if you’ve had your DNA done you should leave the results to someone in your will, passing on the ability to login and access information.

There’s lots of scope with DNA
but it may take you just part-way

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Which War?

Writing to an older cousin I mentioned the war, confident that he would know I was referring to World War II. For us Baby Boomers born soon after the end of that war it will always be The War. It’s the war our parents were familiar with. My mother-in-law in particular spoke often of her experiences in London during the Blitz. My generation grew up during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, but those never gained the same resonance or the same wholehearted support.

David Hill wrote an essay this week pointing out that Armistice Day, marked at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month was about celebrating peace, whereas Anzac Day can appear to be more about glorifying war. Armistice Day is unknown to many of a younger generation in Aotearoa. A couple of years ago I was making a medical appointment and the date set was 11 November. I remarked to the young receptionist that that would be Armistice Day. She replied that the date was her birthday, but she’d never heard of Armistice Day.

In news reports, especially from Britain the war in Ukraine is becoming The War. At this morning’s Auckland Dawn Service the Ukraine flag flew over the War Memorial Museum at the request of the R.S.A. For many in Aotearoa there is more feeling of connection with this conflict than with past ones in Asian countries, and there is fear as to how it may escalate. Will this be the defining war of the future?

We wonder if war in Ukraine
will involve all the world again

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Avian Adoption

For my birthday I’ve been given symbolic adoption of a bird. Not just any bird, but a kākāpō. “My” bird is Marama, one of only 201 of the critically endangered species alive today. She was hatched on Codfish Island on 6 March 2002 and is the smallest adult in the population

It occurs to me that as female kākāpō start breeding around six years of age, she may have children. Maybe I’m a kākāpō grandmother! Kākāpō are possibly one of the longest-lived birds with a life expectancy of over 90 years. Marama will probably outlive me.

Years ago I adopted a Powelliphanta snail, a giant invertebrate native to Aotearoa, ranked as being of national conservation concern. I named my snail Serena, giving her a female name despite these snails being hermaphrodites. In 2005 I was concerned when she needed to be moved because of mining in her habitat on the Stockton Plateau of the West Coast. I’ve since lost track of her and don’t know how she fared after being transferred.

In the 1970s our family adopted a tiny tortoise that lived at Auckland Zoo. Not long afterwards we read in the Herald that tiny tortoises had been kidnapped from the zoo, and wondered if ours had suffered a sad fate.

I just hope Marama lives a long and peaceful life without stressful disruption.

I hope that she will prove to be
a bird of great longevity

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Tribute to Tennyson

Who is the first artist you can remember engaging with? This is a question we were asked in our writing class. I remember an old 78 record of Doris Day singing The Black Hills of Dakota which I loved, but the artist I chose to write about was Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His The Lady of Shalott has been a lifelong favourite, and I love his rhythm and rhymes. We later had an L.P. record of Richard Burton reading Tennyson’s poetry which introduced me to The Lotus-eaters and others.

Some years ago I was browsing at Shand’s Emporium in Hereford Street. They had a box of books in front of the shop and I found a short illustrated biography of Tennyson, published in 1909, which I bought for five dollars.

Biography of Tennyson

Today is exactly sixteen years since my mother died. During her last hours I sat and read Tennyson’s poetry to her, knowing that she loved it too, and being aware that hearing is the last of the senses to fail.

I liked to think his rhythmic word
could be the last one that she heard

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Mother’s Death

The date was 27 October, and this jogged my memory, but I couldn’t remember why.  It was Facebook Memories that reminded me this was the day 25 years ago that my Mother died.  I can never forget her birth date (16 December, Canterbury’s true anniversary day), but her death date had faded in my consciousness.

Her death in 1995 was unlike all the others.  My mother died in peace at the end of a long life and I had the privilege of being with her for some hours up to the time of her death.  She was ready to go “over there” and we were all ready to let her go. 

My Mother had been a Theosophist all her life, and had studied all the great religions.  She had an affinity for Buddhism and ancient Egyptian beliefs, but she was open to all forms of worship especially the rituals of the Liberal Catholic Church.  When my mother was nearly eighty and unable to live independently she moved from Auckland to a rest home in Christchurch.  Her relationships here were limited to the people in the rest home and my own immediate circle.  When I asked what kind of funeral she wanted she told me she didn’t care and I could do whatever I liked.  When I pressed her to choose some music or perhaps a hymn she said that she would like “Amazing Grace”.    Her grandchildren were all overseas when she died. I was to be the only blood relative at her funeral and I could do whatever I wanted.  In the midst of my grief my creativity enjoyed a free rein.  I chose a sympathetic funeral director, Cheryl Cowden, who offered every support yet trusted me to know what was right.  My ritual group Lunatrix helped me with full support.  The Harewood Crematorium chapel was the venue I chose because it was open to the outside world.  I wrote the entire funeral service and designed the service sheet.  I went to the market to buy huge sunflowers.  I collected a board full of photo’s.  I spent hours on the phone to her grandchildren checking out how they would like to be involved.  And I grieved. 

My Mother’s service was a full feminist ritual with about twenty participants.  Apart from the rest home managers those who attended were my own friends some of whom had never met my mother.  We started with a purification.  Guests had their hands washed and dried by Christi, a woman of Lunatrix, before entering the room to sit in a semi circle around my Mother who lay in an open coffin surrounded by flowers.  There was lily-of-the-valley oil burning and an organist playing tunes from Rogers and Hammerstein.  To my surprise Mother’s reflection showed clearly on the window behind where she appeared like an angel looking down on us. 

Mother’s funeral with coffin reflected in the window

I had asked Anne-Marie of Lunatrix to lead the ritual so that I could fully experience it, and she used words I had written while adding thoughtful words of her own.  Four women then lit candles to the four directions invoking the power of different Goddesses.  The woman who invoked fire called on the sun god Ra in reference to my Mother’s interest in Egyptology and to bring in a masculine aspect in honour of my brother.  I lit the fifth candle for the spirit.

Anne-Marie named my Mother’s forebears and her descendants, then Denny (also of Lunatrix) read the eulogy I had written with additions from her own knowledge of Mother.  We then all sang “Amazing Grace” with me fondly considering that Grace is yet another name of the Goddess.

After this I read “The Charge of the Goddess” a prayer which has deep resonance for me, and I placed a flower in the coffin.  My husband Stephen read messages from the six grandchildren and placed a flower for each one of them.  Others were then invited to speak and when those who wished had done so all were invited to take a flower (or a piece of parsley) and place it in the coffin.  I shall never forget the sight of the women from my support group walking up together with their flowers.  One carried a tall iris and I was vividly reminded of the wall paintings from Egyptian tombs.  After this I snuffed out the candles while everyone recited Starhawk’s blessing for the dead and Stephen and I screwed down the coffin lid.  After the recitation of the Celtic farewell blessing the coffin was lowered to the strains of “The Carnival is Over”.

Everyone came to our Cottage for refreshments afterwards and two comments strongly affirmed the way the funeral had been conducted.  One was from the male partner of a friend who said it was all so wonderful he would like his own funeral to be exactly the same.  When I queried whether he would like to have even the parts referring to the Goddess he replied that he would.  The other affirmation came from a friend who turned up an hour later and told me she had been walking on the riverbank unable to come to our home because she was so overwhelmed with emotion.  My Mother’s funeral had been exactly the way she would have wished for her own Mother’s funeral and she had been prevented by her father from doing things the way she wanted.

Some time later I went to the crematorium to collect a cardboard box containing Mother’s ashes.  I was asked where I planned to put them, which I gather they record in case anyone enquires later.  My intention, which I carried out, was to place them in my garden.  My first instinct had been to scatter them in the river, but I was aware that would be offensive to Māori.  I didn’t want to place them under a particular plant, but simply to return them to the earth from whence all life originally comes, so I scattered them all around the garden.  It was some years later, in a tikanga class, that I learned that would make my garden unsafe for any Māori woman who was pregnant.  I discussed this with a spiritual Māori friend who then offered to do a cleansing which removed any danger.  So Mother, wherever she may now be, can rest in peace.

My mother’s gone I don’t know where
she had no fear of over there

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Washing Dishes

I’ve never lived in a house with an automatic dishwasher. When we were a family of four often with extra people for meals, I would have loved one, although it would have been hard to find room for it in our small kitchen. Environmentally it’s better to use a dishwasher. These days, with just two of us, a dishwasher is hardly necessary, although I’ve occasionally thought, after a dinner party, it would be nice to have. I’m the kind of person who always needs to do the dishes after dinner and couldn’t bear to leave them for the next morning.

There’s something satisfying about doing dishes, stacking them neatly on one side of the sink, filling the sink with water, adding the dishwashing liquid (filled from a bulk container at PIKO), setting the rack beside the sink, and then working my way through glasses, china, and cutlery, to bowls and saucepans. I think dishes should be left to drain in the rack, but Stephen usually comes with a tea towel and dries them quickly. It feels good when they are all put away and the bench is clear again.

It’s a companionable task washing and drying dishes, and an opportunity to chat. I remember years ago various camps where we all had our own plates and cutlery and washed them in large tubs of soapy water. In Christchurch we’ve sometimes had power cuts and done the dishes by candlelight while there was still some hot water. If a friend is sick and their dishes have piled up, to wash and dry them is a practical way of helping. When I’ve been overseas I’ve bought tea towels as souvenirs, so drying dishes can bring back happy travel memories.

I remember when I was a child we used a skipping chant “Wash the dishes, dry the dishes, turn the dishes over”. Do you remember that?

I wonder if there are many people like me who still wash dishes by hand?

Dishwashers may be more hygienic
but my tea towels hold mem’ries scenic

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Secret Sibling

I’ve recently discovered a half-brother I never knew I had.

Earlier this year I did a DNA test through Ancestry.com, mainly because I was interested to know details of my ethnicity (98% British, with 2% Germanic Europe – presumably the Huguenot connection).  I’ve since had occasional emails about matches, but not really understood what they could mean.

Last month I met M, a third cousin once removed, for the first time.  She and I had corresponded over our Rout family tree, and she knew I’d registered my DNA.  As she was coming to Christchurch, she suggested we meet and offered to help me further interpret my DNA results.

As soon as she looked at my records, she pointed out that I had one remarkably close match which showed 1029 cM across 16 segments.  To be that close the woman identified had to be either a first cousin, a niece, or a half-niece.  Some excited emails and phone calls soon provided the information that this woman’s father was born in 1944, as a result of an affair his mother had.  At that time, my parents were separated, and my father could well have been in the relevant area of the North Island.  One of the few things I know about him is that he was a persuasive talker – some would say a con man.  I’m also aware that my mother knew he had sometimes been unfaithful.

Sadly, this half-brother is now dead, but I’ve spoken to the half-brother he was brought up with and learned that my father was almost certainly unaware that he had a second son.  So, my brother Bruce and I never knew we had another sibling.  I was delighted to learn about this addition to my family and yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting his two daughters – my half-nieces.  I won’t share any more details as I want to respect their privacy, but I’m thrilled to have enlarged my family circle in this way and to have learned more about my half-brother.

One thing we have in common is that his first initial is the same as mine.  I wonder what he was like.  I wonder how he could have lived his whole life without each of us knowing about the other.  I wonder . . . . .

Ruth and Bruce, unaware there was a missing sibling

My family circle quickly grew
a brother that I never knew

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Death of a Brother #3

I continued to guide the planning of a ceremony that reflected my brother Bruce’s life and met as many of the family’s needs as possible.   On the morning of the funeral we were finally able to individually view Bruce’s body and say our personal farewells.  I was struck by the mark on his forehead where he had been winched off the mountain by helicopter. 

After saying my goodbye, I sat outside the funeral home beside a small lake and watched dragonflies flitting about.  They are an insect I’ve always been drawn to, and now they are a link with my brother.

As we gathered before the funeral it seemed as though everyone else was hugging in small groups and I suddenly felt very alone and missed Stephen dreadfully. Then I saw a man with a ponytail who looked kind and reminded me of Stephen.  I approached him, introduced myself and said I needed support.  He immediately offered a hug, but all I wanted was a hand to hold, which he willingly provided, and we joined the procession together.  As we neared the venue, I felt stronger and detached myself.

My nephew drove Bruce’s Alfa Romeo with the coffin from the funeral home to the crematorium.  This was no easy task as the powerful motor was not intended for slow driving.  The rest of us walked together in procession behind the car for the half mile.  This physical journey, accompanying the hearse, was immensely important and satisfying for me.

Newspaper item about Bruce’s funeral

The funeral was crowded, with a young man Bruce had mentored as M.C.  He used an article I’d taken with me which had been printed in the Canterbury Car Club Newsletter when Bruce left Christchurch in 1962.  I spoke about our early life together and Bruce’s three eldest children spoke too.  I felt a tremendous sense of achievement that Bruce was honoured and farewelled in such an appropriate manner.  The ceremony had no spiritual references, my scientific brother being an atheist.  After the ceremony two of Bruce’s colleagues approached me, said they were fellow members of the local atheist society and sought permission to write up the ceremony for their newsletter which I was happy to agree to.

Bruce’s partner immediately returned to Christchurch, but I stayed in Ballarat for another week, processing the whole episode, getting to know the next generation,  spending time with two former sisters-in-law, and making new discoveries about my brother, myself, and our family patterns..  I stayed with a nephew, his partner, and their baby daughter.  By chance, Judith Durham and the Seekers, who had been favourites of Bruce, played a concert in Ballarat that week.  The three of us went together, held hands, and wept.

Two days after the funeral I finally managed to get a few hours to myself and enjoyed the luxury of simply wandering round town in the sunshine.  I found myself walking incredibly slowly, and I realised this was part of the physical unwinding from tension.  I enjoyed looking at the wonderful Victorian buildings with lace iron work on their verandahs, and I sat for some time in the middle of an avenue, not unlike our familiar Bealey Avenue, except that instead of chestnut trees these were oaks, and the gentle breeze kept up a steady fall of acorns all around me.

During all this time I was physically and emotionally stretched to my utter limits, yet whenever I felt I had nothing left to give I discovered a further depth to my own strength.  I was sustained by the love of my new-found family and by my regular early morning phone calls home.  I flew back to Christchurch on Sunday afternoon, went back to work on Monday morning, and spent Monday evening with my ritual group of close women friends who lovingly offered me spiritual sustenance and music.

There was one more task I needed to do to complete this funeral process for myself, and three weeks later I flew to Auckland for the purpose of sharing my experiences with my daughters.  It’s hard to explain what an ordeal this was for me.  My daughters are easy to talk to and very understanding and yet I was literally scared shitless.  I was overwhelmed by my new knowledge that I had to break my family pattern of hiding emotions by fully sharing with my daughters all that my brother’s death meant to me.  I was going against strong messages I’d received from my mother which I knew she had received from her mother.  Messages my brother had also heard.  Above everything else was my determination that I would break this pattern, and I did. 

It was a suitable farewell
which I went on to show-and-tell

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When my brother died unexpectedly I’d packed hurriedly in a highly stressed state in a cold Christchurch April and was not prepared for the warm Australian weather.  It was a couple of days before I surfaced sufficiently to realise that when I went outside the temperature was 28 degrees.  The nights were a little chilly but during the day the sun shone, and I was sweltering in woollen clothes and boots.  Luckily, I had remembered to pack some deodorant.  It was amazing how cheering the warmth was.  At a time of bleak wintry emotions, it was as though mother nature was wrapping her arms around me and offering the comfort of her warmth.  My grief was, in a small way, being compensated for by these unexpected summer days.

There was a psychological warmth too, for despite my grief at my brother’s sudden death there was compensation in the fact that I was now meeting his small grandchildren for the first time.  Up until then the only people I had a close blood relationship to, apart from my own daughters, had been my brother and elderly mother.  I’d met my nephews and niece at intervals over the years, but the fact that they lived in a different country meant there’d been no real opportunity to get to know them.  Now we were thrown together at a time when emotions were running extremely high.  I was the only member of my generation there, and they welcomed me with open arms and open hearts.  As well as meeting two nephews’ partners for the first time there was the overwhelming joy of also meeting two small babies who were my brother’s grandchildren, and my own link to immortality.

Ruth with Bruce’s granddaughter April 1993

This joy, combined with the despair and anger I felt at the loss of my brother served to keep my mind in a state of confusion, which was not helped by the fact that I was constantly feeling overheated.

I soon realised that it was stupid to keep suffering in my unseasonal clothes, and I determined to buy something lighter, but that was not easy.  There were a thousand and one tasks and discussions that I was needed for, and with no transport of my own, and no knowledge of local shops, buying clothing in a hurry was not simple.  On a brief trip to the Town Centre to buy food for the funeral I explained to my nephew’s partner the kind of clothes I preferred – hippy-type was the easiest way to explain my taste – and I promised to choose something quickly if she would just point me in the right direction.  Thank goodness she understood and directed me to an Indian emporium – very suitable for buying clothes for an Indian summer – and I purchased a light shirt to wear to the funeral.  Footwear was not so easy as three shoe shops I asked for sandals had no summer stock at all, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to spend money on a pair of thongs I knew I would never wear again.  So, I sighed for my sandals far away in New Zealand and continued in my socks and boots.

It was two days after the funeral, when I finally found a shoe shop that still had summer stock and bought myself some sandals.  What bliss to let my toes wriggle free after being encased in boots for so long. 

I later heard on the radio that the temperatures for that week were the highest that had been experienced in Ballarat in April since recording began.  It seemed appropriate that in a week when I had experienced incredible highs and lows of emotion the very weather itself should reflect the fact that this was a special season.

The reason for my trip – a bummer
and I was not prepared for summer

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