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Archive for the ‘Family Stories’ Category

In November 1987 I became Administration Manager for Mrs Pope Ltd, with an office conveniently located in Cashel Street.  Older relatives had once worked for this firm and I was pleased to be joining a company with a long tradition.  Those who’ve visited the Centennial Street at Canterbury Museum will be familiar with Mrs Pope’s shop there.

When I joined there were nine shops and a warehouse, and we sold women’s and babies’ clothing, and knitting wool.  At my interview I was told the job included a late Friday night, but I negotiated away from that.  The office was a large attractive room on the first floor above the shop, in the old Weekly Press building.  As well as a lunch room there was an outdoor roof garden where I could sit at lunchtime, or I could walk a short distance to the Otākaro/Avon river and sit there for my break.

Old Weekly Press Building in Cashel Street

The Managing Director was Frank Baddeley who’d taken the business over in 1958.  His four sons were all Directors and worked for the company in various capacities.  Staff were able to buy any of the merchandise at cost plus GST, and I did a lot of knitting while I had access to cheap wool.

Department stores of this kind struggled in the late 1980s and 1990s.  In 1992 I was made an Associate Director of the company, with Frank Baddeley stating that as the overwhelming majority of the customers and staff were women it was appropriate that there should be a female voice at the top level of management.  Ruth’s experience as a mother as well as a businesswoman will add an important dimension to the Board’s decisions.  I’m sure his intentions were sincere, but in fact decisions continued to be made around the family lunch table (all the sons went home to their parents’ place for lunch).  Formal Board meetings tended to be a formality with little opportunity for me to have input.  These meetings were held in the boardroom of our external accountant, and my main memory is that the chairs around the table were obviously designed to accommodate slim male bottoms rather than more generous female ones.

When I first joined a computer system for managing stock and sales was in the process of being written, but this was never successful, and records continued to be kept manually.  Once documentation had been processed it was “filed” haphazardly in a large container in the Warehouse.  Because the firm was totally owned by the Baddeley family there was no requirement for annual auditing.  However, one year the IRD decided to audit us for GST purposes and sent a man to do this.  He spent weeks (maybe months) going through this chaotic pile of dockets and eventually located one minor mistake (in an area I was not responsible for).  The amount recovered would have been far less than the IRD man’s wages for the time spent.

Sadly the firm’s profits continued to decline and in 1993 the company went into receivership.  This was a stressful time for everyone, especially the fifty female staff who would all lose their jobs.  Because Mrs Pope Ltd had such a long tradition in Christchurch the announcement made the front page of the Press.  I spent days processing a final stocktake and suffered a severe bout of RSI/OOS from continual use of an adding machine.

At the end I hosted a meeting of the six remaining shop managers at my home.  We shared our feelings about the closure, and Frank Baddeley arranged for each of us to be given an engraved silver tray in appreciation of our service.  Mine has since sat at the back of a china cabinet.  When I took it out today it looked tarnished, so I polished it, and was consequently unable to get a photograph without the reflection of the camera.

Tray given by the Baddeley family

One of the Baddeley sons retained ownership of two related companies and asked me to continue administering these, working from home.  As well as this I picked up some other accounting work, and for the next year I worked for five different clients while completing some Polytech study.  I was pleased to have flexible employment but missed the companionship of working close to others.  Wages still needed to be done weekly, and I had no backup for illness or holidays.

I spent six years with Mrs Pope
until the firm ran out of hope

 

 

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Once we’d found a house to rent in Christchurch, I made an appointment with Drake Recruitment Agency to see what employment might be possible.  I wanted to try temporary work until we were sure we wanted to settle.  They soon found me a role, implementing an Apple Accounting System.  This was the first such one in Christchurch, and if I had questions, I had to wait for an answer to come the next day from the northern hemisphere.  The Apple computer I was using had a small screen, quite different to what I’d used before, and I found it difficult.  I transferred all the manual data, much to the gratitude of the firm’s accountant who was wary of the new system.  He asked me to stay on permanently, but I declined, mainly because the office was in Addington, and I wanted something within walking distance of home.

In February 1987 I took a job as Regional Administrator for Andas Business Systems, where I controlled accounting and office procedures for their four South Island branches.  The office was in Cashel Chambers the old Farmers’ Co-op building in Cashel Street where both my parents had once worked.  One day, to my delight, it snowed, and I stood outside revelling in the snowflakes.  The next morning a ball of snow landed on my desk, amongst my papers.  One of the technical engineers, who lived in Diamond Harbour where the fall was heavier, had collected snow in his garden, and kindly brought it in for my delight.

I needed to visit the Dunedin office, and rang to say when I was coming and ask if someone could meet me at the airport.  There was a shocked silence, and I was told I would have to take a bus.  I’d never flown to Dunedin before and had no idea the airport was so far from the city.  When I got there and met the office clerk, a woman in her late forties, she told me how she’d come for a job interview in her school uniform and been there ever since.

I’d hoped this position would be long term, but after a few months the company merged with another to become Trilogy Business Systems (amid comments that a trilogy is a tragedy in three parts).  The other company already had an Administrator, my role was no longer required, so after five months I was out of work.  Just three months later I saw they were advertising the Administrator position and took some pleasure in knowing the other person hadn’t lasted.

After this experience I thought I’d try something completely different and secured a position as an Office Skills Tutor at the Academy in the wonderful McLean’s Mansion.

McLean’s Mansion

I’d trained office workers one-on-one but had little experience of leading groups.  They simply wanted someone with wide office experience, and I certainly had that.  I struggled to keep a class of twelve students of varying abilities engaged, sitting up late at night preparing lessons and creating resources.  Some of my students would spend hours completing an exercise that others could do in half an hour.  Other Academy students were on courses preparing them to work in hotels, and they spent time polishing the carved balustrade on the staircase.  I soon decided this teaching was not for me and resigned after two weeks.

My next role was Office Manager at Pecom Technologies Ltd, who produced weighing machines for chickens.  When I started I was told they planned to move their office from Sydenham into the central city, but this never happened, and after a few months I was on the lookout for a position within walking distance of our new home in the Avon Loop.

I spent months trying to find a role
that matched my main location goal

 

 

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By 1980 I was ready for a change of employment, and sought a position as a full time Office Manager.  In the same week I was offered two such jobs.  One was at Coates Inks, and the other at Dominion Oil Refining, a company that collected waste oil and re-refined it.  I chose the latter because I liked the fact that they were in the business of recycling.  The day I went for the interview happened to be my “carless” day, so I took Stephen’s Austin instead.  This was the first job I had which was not within walking distance of home, but Stephen was working in the same area.  He started earlier and went by bike.  I drove, then picked him and his bike up on the way home.  I took the newspaper which we had delivered at home to work with me.  Stephen bought another copy on his way to work, and we would sometimes phone each other for assistance with completing the crossword.  This was the only permanent job I’ve ever had where I couldn’t easily walk to work.  I never wanted to be a commuter!

There were four other staff under my supervision, and I did wages and administration for the factory, dispatch office, and sales team.  The company was jointly owned by B.P. Oil N.Z. and Repco, an Australian firm.

Stationery and marketing items

During my first week, as my introduction to the other managers I was taken out to lunch at an upmarket Ponsonby restaurant, where we had several courses with wine and liqueurs.  While I enjoyed the luxurious meal, I was horrified at the extravagance, especially when I later saw the Visa bill.  Of course, this was the era of corporate excesses, but my first experience of them was mind-boggling.  Some of the senior staff followed personal pursuits in business hours, and most enjoyed lavish hospitality at the company’s expense.  I was given a weekly $10 petrol allowance for my personal car, even though I used a company vehicle whenever I needed to go anywhere.  This was all in the days before Fringe Benefit Tax.

The company had a nationwide network of people who collected and shipped used oil to us, and a distribution network of agents who held stocks of our re-refined Supreme oil on consignment.  Each month these stocks needed to be checked, and I would sometimes go to Wanganui or Wellington to count the barrels.  Inventory stocks needed to be quickly calculated, final invoices processed, and creditors estimated, because Repco in Australia required our monthly results within two working days.  Cheques were written for all creditors on the 20th of the month, but often languished in my desk drawer for many weeks afterwards.

A decision was made to computerize in 1985.  When I asked who would oversee implementation, I was told it would be me .  A Wang VS15 system running FACT software was installed, and I started on a steep learning curve.  All orders, inventory, debtors, and creditors went on to the system.  Whenever I found a bug in this new system I was told by the FACT support person that it was a feature, not a fault, terminology that has stayed with me ever since.  Backups were put onto a hard disc, which I took to the bank for safe-keeping, a disciplined habit which proved very worthwhile in the Christchurch earthquakes.

At one stage I went to Waitangi for a FACT Users’ Conference, where it seemed other users had different operations from ours.  The conference was held at Waitangi Hotel, and after the evening dinner there was a performance of pseudo-Māori culture, obviously intended for tourists, which I found offensive, and I left early.

Along with the Wang/FACT system, the company purchased a number of Amstrad personal computers.  I loved being able to use one of these for correspondence, and other sales and scientific staff enjoyed learning about spreadsheets.

I resigned in late 1986, just as GST was being introduced, a challenge I was happy to avoid.  When they asked what I’d like for a leaving present I chose a personal computer, so a brand-new Amstrad was included in our luggage when we moved south to Christchurch, invaluable for writing letters to friends and family left behind.

It’s sad that Dominion Oil Refining stopped operating in 1999.  I imagine the cost of transporting used oil for re-refining became too high to be viable.

I’ve tried to not join the commuters
and no-one can avoid computers

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At the start of my third form year my mother was planning to build a home in the Theosophical enclave in Epsom.  It seemed sensible for me to be enrolled at Epsom Girls’ Grammar School, but the school would not accept me as I was currently living out of zone.  We moved into a rented flat that was in zone, I was duly enrolled, and a month later we moved back to our house in Onehunga.  Our Epsom house was not completed until much later in the year.  At the first assembly the headmistress mentioned that the roll was larger than it should be because of people moving into the zone at the last minute, and I knew she meant me.

There was only one other pupil who’d been in my Intermediate School class, but she ended up in a different stream, so I was once again amongst strangers.  Luckily I soon made friends, in particular two girls who remained close through my schooling and beyond.  In the third form I won the Maths Prize, a book which I still have, but that was my only secondary success.

My school memories are of many cold pre-fabricated classrooms, and of physical education classes where we were enjoined  to change discreetly into our rompers, without exciting the interest of the men who worked in the adjacent milk factory.  This was well before the days of pantyhose.  We wore stockings and suspenders, and illicit witches britches.

I don’t recall detentions, although I must surely have had some,  but our foursome was often caught playing cards inside at lunchtime.  The punishment for this was that we were made to go and pull out the ubiquitous onion plants.  Our results were checked to make sure we’d got the whole bulb.

EGGS 4th form, 1963. Ruth 3rd from right in top row.

In the fifth form (now Year 11) we were encouraged to pick up a sixth subject for School Certificate, and I chose German.  I eventually passed all six subjects, with an A in English and French, B in Maths and Latin, and D in German (39%), and History (32%).  In the German exam we who had had only one year’s tuition were pitted against students who’d been studying it for three years.  I somehow managed to write an essay about fussball, because it was the only subject I could recognise!  Part of the reason for my low history mark was because we had an inexperienced and not particularly competent teacher.  We were unkind to her, and on at least one occasion she ran out of the classroom in tears.  The syllabus was mainly about the second world war and held little interest for me.  A few years later when I read Dennis Wheatley’s Gregory Sallust books, I thought if only we’d been introduced to those it would have made the subject real.

In sixth form Maths we were introduced to trigonometry, and I remember the teacher saying: “You science girls will understand this.”  This Latin student, who’d dropped science after the fourth form, never quite grasped it.

My fifth form year was also the year I met Stephen, and romance was much more interesting to me than schoolwork.  Part way through my sixth from year I became pregnant and was obliged to leave school at the end of the second term.  There was no discussion about this – it was simply taken for granted.  I think there was some feeling that I might have been a bad influence if I’d stayed.  I was enrolled in the Correspondence School for the final term, worked at home, and also got married.  I was very relieved when informed that my University Entrance could be accredited in four subjects if I didn’t mind missing out on history (which I definitely didn’t).

Our elder daughter was born the following March.  I’d had no desire to go to university, and if I hadn’t been pregnant I’d probably have done a one year secretarial course at Auckland Technical Institute.  In those days there were no crèches and I was content to be a full time mother for the next few years.  I joined a Mothers and Babies group, went to Playcentre, was on a Kindergarten Establishment Committee, and had a second daughter.  In all these groups I was always by far the youngest mother there.  I remember once taking my daughter in a pushchair to a local event where the person at the gate wanted to charge me the child’s price, and thought my daughter was my younger sister.

Stephen & Ruth with Cathryn, May 1966

My school years ended differently
and I was glad to have U.E.

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Our home also accommodated pet mice.  The first came when Daughter Number One was given the privilege of bringing the class mouse home for the holidays.  On Thursday afternoon it arrived, complete with cage and treadmill.  Daughter Number Two, a pre-schooler, was fascinated and delighted to be allowed to hold and stroke it.  An hour later the mouse was lying on the cage floor, decidedly dead.  An inquisition elicited the fact that younger daughter, feeling the mouse was a little grubby, had carefully washed it with her facecloth and cold water.

What to do?  Unthinkable for elder daughter to have to face her classmates with the news the mouse had not survived even one night in our house.  It fell to me to drive across the city to a shopping centre open late on Thursday night, and carefully choose a look-alike replacement.  Classmates need never know our family secret.

We had goldfish too.  When one of them was swimming at an odd angle, and obviously not feeling the best a daughter insisted we phone the vet to ask what could be done.  The vet said he didn’t know but if we brought it in he would have a look at it.  I had no car that day, so took a taxi, with two daughters, and the fish in a container.  The vet took a look, said he couldn’t do anything and offered to dispose of the corpse.  He was kind enough not to charge us.  We walked home, about a mile and a half, with tears streaming from both daughters lamenting their lost loved one.

A budgie in a cage graced our kitchen for many years.  We named him Archimedes (Archie for short, pre-empting a later royal baby).  I hoped to teach him to say “Eureka, my bath is overflowing”, but he never quite got the hang of that.  When we prepared to move south we intended that Archie should come in the car with us, but he conveniently expired a few weeks before we left.  Having pets is a good way of coming to understand the cycles of life and death.

When Stephen and I were preparing to leave Auckland and move south, the daughters had left home, but we still had four cats.  (The last remaining hen had gone to a retirement farm in Thames.  We later received a postcard to say she was happy and enjoying the attentions of a rooster.)  A friend offered to give our four felines a temporary home until we were settled, and then freight them down to us.  We took them to her house where she shut them in a shed.  The next morning she phoned to say they’d managed to escape, and we wandered the streets for hours calling “puss, puss”.  A passer-by asked if I’d lost a cat and I confessed shamefacedly that I’d lost four!  They were never found although the friend kept checking our old house in case they’d managed to find their way home.

Once we’d settled in Christchurch we needed a cat and went to the SPCA to find one.  I couldn’t resist a handsome black cat whom we named Blott.

Ruth with Blott, 1988

When we found that a stray cat was sneaking through the cat door and stealing Blott’s biscuits we named him Monster, after the Cookie Monster.  Despite advertising no-one claimed him, so he joined the family.  Some years later another stray adopted us.  She was a good mouser, so became Miss Molly Mouse Muncher.  Again we had no success tracing her origins, but months later a card in the letterbox told us her name had been Mushroom, and her family had too many pets so were glad she’d moved in with us.

With only two humans in our household, we were not so tempted to add more animals, although we sadly missed our chooks.  In 2001 we bought tiger worms for our compost bin.  Individual names for these were not practical, so they were designated Wylie One, Wylie Two, etc.  In 2007 we bought them a Can’-o-Worms worm farm, where they happily live and breed, and supply garden fertilizer.

Molly died at the time of the earthquakes and we willingly adopted a refugee cat, a cuddlesome Burmilla called Bentley (his original owner was a car enthusiast).

Bentley in tree

When Bentley’s time was up we decided we wanted another Burmilla, although we’d never previously had designer cats.  This is how we came to acquire Ziggy, whose pedigree name is Avon Ziggy Stardust, the adorable feline who now rules our home.

With lots of worms and Ziggy too
our home’s complete, I think, don’t you?

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A pet is an essential part of a home in my opinion, and my pet of choice has usually been a cat.  The first cat I can remember was a ginger female called Mary.  She regularly had litters of kittens, and there was never any difficulty finding homes for these.

Ruth, aged three, with long-suffering cat

We also had hens who lived in a building at the bottom of the garden that had once been a playhouse.  The door to this was propped shut with an old toboggan.  At one stage I begged my mother for a puppy, and one was eventually obtained.  However it cried pitifully at night and ended up being returned to the pet shop.  With my friend Karen’s family I went to a dog show where I was loaned a dear little Scottish Terrier.  I proudly led this round the ring, we were awarded a prize, and I gained a box of barley sugar.

When we were first married and living in rented homes there was no consideration of having a pet, but when our second daughter was born her elder sister was given a kitten, to make up for the inevitable lessening of parental attention.  This kitten was named Fur, short for Furry Purry Pusscat.  Over the years there was a succession of cats some of whom became mothers and grandmothers.  A particular memory is of the cat who had her kittens on my bed while I was in it.  She snuggled next to me and during the night produced several offspring.  Stephen, always kind to animals, slept on the couch that night.  By morning the mother cat had cleaned up any mess, but the bedding still got a thorough laundering.

For a number of years we had a dog, a Foxy-Spaniel cross called Candida, Candy for short.  I took her to obedience classes, but she was a poor student, and never well-trained.  Stephen, who was a travelling serviceman at the time used to take her to work with him, and she would chew anything she found lying around including, on one occasion, a light bulb.

Later we had chooks, starting with half a dozen red shavers we liberated from a poultry farm.  They all had names, I remember Big Bird, Henny Penny, and Fifi.  As well as their daily mash they had a liking for silver beet, and would nibble the leaves, leaving delicate lacy white stalks behind,  Of course we couldn’t bear to leave them in their small run, so eventually fenced off half the back garden, where fruit trees grew, to give them space to forage.  I fancied some more exotic fowl, and we adopted Wing and Wang, two black Chinese Silkies, known collectively as WingWang.  They were delightful and I proudly took them, shampooed and groomed, to the Easter A & P Show.  They won 2nd and 3rd prize, with first prize going to their sister who’d remained with the breeder.  As I sat with my two prize-winners a little boy came up and asked me if they were kiwis!  Later we added two golden Chinese Silkies (Sing and Song) to our flock, along with an Old English Gamebird.  I was keen to get a couple of Orpingtons and negotiated with a breeder up north to obtain these, but they never arrived.  We concluded they must have missed the bus.

Sing, Song and Wang

One day tragedy struck.  A corgi dog got into the hen’s yard and killed several.  We took one wounded one to the vet, but she didn’t survive.  This was the same day in 1983 that the family were all booked to go to Western Springs to hear Simon and Garfunkel.  When they played Bright Eyes, there was not a dry eye among the four of us.

A pet completes a family home
could be a cat , or chook with comb

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The Liberal Catholic Church was the denomination I was brought up in.  I understood that it was originally a Dutch Protestant Church, and that it was linked to the Theosophical Society (T.S.).  In both Christchurch and Auckland the Church used the T.S. premises for its services, until the Auckland congregation built their own church in Grafton in 1964.

Liberal Catholic Church of St Francis, Grafton Auckland. Taken 2014.

The N.Z. Church states that it aims at combining the traditional form of worship – with its stately form of ritual, its deep mysticism and its abiding witness to the reality of sacramental grace – with the widest measure of intellectual liberty and respect for the individual conscience.  Both the Church and the T.S. were an important part of my mother’s life, and as a child I usually accompanied her to Sunday service.  I loved the incense and the chanting, and still do.  When I returned to Christchurch in the late 1980s the Church here was still operational and I went a few times, especially near Mother’s birthday.  However by this time the congregation had shrunk to just a few.  Having a particular interest in various forms of the Goddess I was intrigued to find an invocation to Mary was now included, and nuns from the nearby Anglican convent were involved in this part.  Sadly the T.S. building where Christchurch services were held was demolished in the earthquakes and as far as I’m aware there is no longer a Liberal Catholic congregation in this city.

In my Primary School years the Church, or possibly the T.S., had a junior section, known as the Order of the Round Table, and I remember taking part in a ritual which involved bread and salt.

My mother was deeply involved in the T.S. whose motto is There is no religion higher than truth, and she had a keen interest in Eastern religions and esoteric philosophies.  She was also a member of the Co-Freemasons, attending rituals where she wore a long white gown and a special apron.  I’ve talked about this to a male Mason who was adamant there was no such lodge and only men could be Masons, but I know this is not correct, and there is a website for the Eastern Order of International Co-Freemasonry in New Zealand.

When I was about eight my mother extravagantly ordered a pair of Kirlian glasses.  These were supposed to enable you to see auras.  She got me to stand naked while she scanned my aura, but I don’t think she had much success.  Mother was always fascinated by the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, and we went together to hear George Adamski, who claimed to have had contact with Venusians, speak when he visited Christchurch.  The only thing I remember about his talk was my fascination with his accent which led him to pronounce ‘the earth’ as ‘te ert’.

After we’d moved to Auckland Mother took me to experience church services of various denominations.  I think this was to enable me to make up my own mind as to which form of religion might suit me.  One Sunday we went to the Spiritualist Church where a Scottish medium gave messages from people who had died.  Mother told me she’d done something similar after my father died and had got a message saying it was all a lot of tommyrot, which she said was exactly the word he would have used.

This medium told me I would soon be taking a long trip (this was not long before my first visit to Australia).  I was given a message from someone who said “You don’t know me, but ask them about Elizabeth”.  Mother told me afterwards that Elizabeth was her pet name for her own mother who had died before I was born.  I was convinced by this, but had no desire for further messages.

In 1962 Mother built a home on leasehold land in the Theosophical enclave at Mt St John in Epsom.  Here we were surrounded by people of similar values and interests.  Until 1959 there had been an alternative school there, run on Montessori/type lines, but this had now gone, and most of the neighbours were older people.

From at least the 1960s Mother regularly practised yoga and was a vegetarian before either of these were popular, and for many years she audited the books of the national Vegetarian Society pro bono.

Mother next to Swami Karanunanda, Yoga Weekend, Oratia, March 1970.  Photo: Auckland Star

Wide range religion was habitual
and left me with a love of ritual

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Away to Auckland

In 1959 Mother made the decision that she and I would move to Auckland, leaving my brother Bruce and his fiancée in charge of the Convalescent Home.  I was excited about this prospect but didn’t really understand that it meant leaving behind my friends and everything that was familiar.

Ruth, Mother, and Bruce, taken in September 1959, just before we left.

I had crossed Cook Strait five times on the ferry, but this was to be my first ever aeroplane flight.  Memory suggests that we took only what we could carry.  I do remember leaving behind my dolls and toy cash register for a small girl who lived with us at the time.  Mother carried the iron in her cabin bag.  Maybe some other things were freighted.  I’m sure she would not have left her sewing machine behind.

My mother was a qualified accountant, having studied part time for years during the 1940s.  She now wanted to renew her membership of the Society of Accountants and to do this she had to pay subscriptions for the twelve years since she’d let her membership lapse.  She quickly obtained accounting employment at the NZ Co-operative Wool Marketing Association in Onehunga, rented a flat in a large old house, and I was enrolled for the final term of Standard Four at Onehunga Primary School.

This was a huge culture shock.  There was no room for me in the top class so I was put into a lower stream where I shared a double desk with a Māori boy.  I’d never met anyone Māori before, in fact I’d probably never even seen a Māori in white Christchurch.  My desk-mate was perfectly polite, but to me he seemed like an alien.  I made friends with a few girls, but they were also not the kind I was used to.  They played boisterous games such as Tarzan and Jane, nothing like the genteel pastimes, e.g. knuckle-bones, that I was used to.

Mother had been a lifelong member of the Theosophical Society and had for some years attended their annual national Conventions, so she had a ready-made community, but I was shy and inclined to retreat into books.

With her small nest egg Mother purchased a one bedroom house, made of fibrolite, on the industrial edge of Onehunga.  When it was time to finalise the purchase she came and took me out of school so I could withdraw the money I had in my Post Office Savings Bank as she needed every penny.

Our house in Onehunga.  Note cat in letterbox.

In early January we returned to Christchurch for my brother’s wedding, and I spent the rest of the summer holiday with Karen and her family.

At the beginning of February I started at Manukau Intermediate School, where the grounds had once been the site of a zoo.  None of the children I’d met at Onehunga Primary were in the same class, but I made friends and settled down happily.  In Form Two I had an influential teacher Mr Bush.  His wife was Dr Alice Bush, a pioneer in family planning, and he was well ahead of his time, handing out sex education pamphlets.  In the school holidays I was given a small paid role at the Wool Marketing Association,where together with the son of another employee, I sorted thousands of white copies of invoices into numerical order.

With Mr Bush’s encouragement I applied for an open scholarship to St Cuthbert’s College, and was gratified to be placed first among the thirty-nine who took the exam.  Mother and I were summoned to meet with the College Principal, and this discussion led us to declining the scholarship.  Although it would have paid my fees for two years, there were extra expenses which would have been difficult for Mother to manage, and I wasn’t keen anyway, realising that the other students would be from quite a different social class.  I would be quite happy to go to Onehunga High School, but that was also not to be.

In Auckland I had culture shock
security took quite a knock

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At age three I went to St Luke’s Play Centre which was held in the Church Hall now demolished.  My main memory there is of the morning snack which consisted of apples and oranges cut into quarters and handed round on plates.

At four it was off to Sunbeam Kindergarten in Cornwall Street, which my brother had also attended.

A couple of weeks after my father’s death I started at St Albans Primary School.  I can vaguely remember the first day with my teacher Miss Curl.  I knew no-one, was totally bewildered by my father’s disappearance, and painfully shy.  I remember eating all my lunch at morning playtime, assuming that the day’s ordeal must by now be halfway over.  After this inauspicious start I had no difficulties with school.  For the first few weeks I was taken to school on the back of my brother’s motorbike, and recall other children looking surprised to see us arriving at the Sheppard Place entrance.  Later I took a bus to the Westminster Street entrance.  One memorable day when it was snowing a girl from over the road and I were taken together in a taxi.

I have a clear memory of the time when it suddenly dawned on me that the word “DUNE DIN” written on the taps in the bathroom was actually the same as the town Dunedin that we spoke of.  I guess a reasonable brain stood me in good stead, and while I possessed few books of my own my mother and I were regular patrons of the Christchurch Public Library.  When I was eight or nine I also had a subscription to the independent St Albans Library (in the old Carnegie building) where I devoured the adult romance novels which were denied me at the Public Library.

I still have my school reports from Standards One, Two, and Three.  In Standard One I was a little inclined to chatter but is a willing classroom helper.  In Standard Two I was writing excellent stories and had no difficulty with Arithmetic.  My Standard Three Arithmetic report said that I will have covered S 4 syllabus by the end of this year.  Doing excellent work.  In Standard Three I cultivated a garden plot at home which my teacher came to assess.  I was awarded a Project Certificate A Grade, Third Class, for my garden.

A school uniform was introduced at some stage.  We then wore a blue gingham dress in summer, and a gym slip with blouse and tie in winter.  While I did well at school there were times when I was not so keen to go, and I can remember scratching the inside of my nose to make myself sneeze and convince mother I needed a day in bed, when I could then listen to the radio serials, such as Portia Faces Life and Doctor Paul.

I had several good friends over this period, but the one that stands out is Karen.  We met in 1956 when I was in Standard One and she in Standard Two of a composite class.  Her home was only a few blocks from mine and it was there that I learned what a “real” family could be like.  There were brothers, sisters, two parents, Sunday afternoon drives, camping holidays, boogie woogie piano playing, and romping physical games, none of which featured in my own home.  Karen’s family included me in all of this, and introduced me to comics, paper dolls, sibling rivalry, dog shows, and life in general.

1956 Standard One. I’m 4th from right, second row from bottom. Karen is 2nd from left in the same row.

Their hospitality was returned when Karen was included in a holiday trip around the North Island with Mother and Bruce.  We all fitted somehow into Bruce’s small Singer Sports car, crossed Cook Strait by ferry and drove all the way up to Auckland.  Bruce, who was a keen car racer went to the Grand Prix at Ardmore, while Mother, Karen, and I went to see The Wizard of Oz.

The highlight of the Standard Four year was the trip the whole class took to Wellington.  The ferry left Lyttelton with streamers flying, and we were all too excited to sleep.  In Wellington we visited Parliament Buildings, a couple of factories, and a beach, then it was back on the ferry for the trip home.  I doubt if today’s students with their exotic holidays abroad get more pleasure than we did from our inter-island trip.

Annually there was a school picnic, where parents and children went by bus to a suitable location and there were activities such as sack races and egg and spoon races.  My mother always managed to come on these outings.

I think it was in the early 2000s that St Albans School held celebrations for its 125th birthday.  The Saturday was open to the public, and I went hoping I might re-connect with some of my old classmates, when people gathered for decade photographs.  The only person I recognised was David Caygill who’d been in my class and was now the local M.P.  I met and spoke with a woman who’d been a year behind me.  She’d come down from Wellington especially for the celebration and was also disappointed not to find her classmates there.  In 2011, during the earthquake aftermath I had accidental telephone contact with a woman who’d been in my class.  She told me that the group who had once been my friends had all gone on together to Christchurch Girls’ High School, and that they still met regularly.  I hoped I might be invited to join them, but never heard from her again.

Contact since lost with all those friends
and much too late to make amends

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“I have been searching my memory to try and recall something positive to say in his favour but the dreadful truth is that I can’t manage to remember anything good about him” was my brother Bruce’s response when I wrote and asked him to share his memories of our father.  Although my parents’ relationship was difficult and possibly abusive, my personal memories of my father are all positive, which may be partly due to childish naivety.

It may have been because my father was a less conscientious Convalescent Home worker that he seems to have spent more time alone with me as an infant than my mother did.  At various times father belonged to both the Open and Closed Brethren, and mother later told me she found it hard when she was forbidden to listen to the radio or cut her hair.  In the years before his death he was a staunch member of the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church, and I spent hours with him working in the Church garden.  We were together there one day just before Guy Fawkes night when a couple of boys came by with their guy on a trolley asking for “a penny for the guy”.  My father said he’d “rather take God’s blessing, thanks”.  I sometimes accompanied him to church services when he would keep me entertained by drawing stick figures in the hymn book.

George, Bruce, & Ruth Gardner, 1953

Father was very involved in the Boys’ Brigade and one New Year I accompanied him to a Boys’ Brigade Camp at Glenroy where we slept in a bunk house with the other leaders. The bunk above mine was occupied by a large fat man, and his bulk caused the bunk to sink alarmingly.  My brother was one of the camp cooks on this occasion, and somehow he managed to produce a large cake for my birthday on the second of January.  This coincided with visitors’ day and the many visiting parents all joined in to sing me “Happy Birthday”.

When I was four years old my father and I went together for a holiday at Mount Cook.  He would periodically say he needed a break, and this was at least the second time he’d holidayed there without mother.  I still have two letters from his first trip which include the message “Give my wee girl a big hug from her Daddy”.  For our expedition mother made me a little red woollen suit with a hood and I felt very smart.  Staying at the Hermitage was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  The highlight was the time when mother phoned and a bellboy walked through the lounge calling out “paging Miss Ruth Gardner, paging Miss Ruth Gardner.”  At four years old I felt very important.

Warmly dressed for Mt Cook, 1953

This care and special attention stopped abruptly two weeks after my fifth birthday when my father was killed in a road accident.  He was bankrupt at the time and the family had no car but my brother owned a motorbike.  On this particular morning father had taken Bruce on this bike to his holiday labouring job, and was returning home about 7.30 am.  Heading west on Kilmore Street he went to turn right into Manchester Street outside St Luke’s Church.  A car had just crossed the intersection from the other direction and my father didn’t realise it was towing a trailer.  They collided and he was thrown from his bike.  In those days there was no question of wearing a helmet and his head injuries were horrific.  He was taken to Public Hospital.  Bruce remembered being surprised that no x-rays had been taken although it was known that several bones were broken, and then slowly realising that x-rays were unnecessary because death was inevitable.

I remember being taken to the hospital.  The Ward Sister didn’t want to let me go in to see my father, but I made a fuss and was eventually admitted.  All I saw was a shape lying in the bed with a head swathed in bandages.  I was totally unable to believe that this was in fact my father.  We returned home in the late afternoon and there was a phone call from the hospital to confirm that father had died at 6.40 pm.  About nine o’clock, when we were all in bed the police came.  Mother was not up to dealing with them and it fell to Bruce, not quite eighteen years old, to go to the mortuary and formally identify our father.  The police were apologetic but insisted that it couldn’t be left to the following day because there was a Royal Tour in progress, the Queen was due in Christchurch, and every single policeman would be needed for Tour duties.  Adjacent to the death notice in the “Press” was a notice stating that the Royal Cinema Performance at the Regent Theatre that week was completely booked out.  My father was cremated on the day of that performance.

I have absolutely no memory of the funeral and for years believed that I had been sent away and not permitted to attend.  However, when I eventually asked my brother how this could have happened, he assured me that I had in fact been present.  My young mind, unable to comprehend what had happened or to deal with the grief, had completely blocked out the memory and replaced it with an untrue image in the same way that early experiences of sexual abuse can be buried.  I once consulted a hypnotherapist with the hope of recovering this memory but was advised that it was better not to unearth such a traumatic experience.

It was thirty years later that Bruce told me how on the day of the funeral he and I went round the garden, picked a small bunch of miscellaneous flowers, and he put a rubber band around them.  At the funeral he took my hand and led me up to the open coffin while mother remained in her seat.  Bruce moved two wreaths slightly apart to make room and after some prompting, I placed my flowers between them.  He said we both knew that our contribution looked rather humble alongside “proper” wreaths.  He then lifted me up for a brief look at Father who apparently looked much more presentable than he had in the mortuary.

Life must have gone on, but I have few specific memories of the next few years.  Both my mother and my brother seemed remote to me.  I’m sure they were both kind, but also busy.  Surely my father must sometimes have been talked about, but I have no memory of this, and believe I was given no opportunity to express my grief.  In my fantasies I imagined that my father was not truly dead but gone on some mysterious journey from which he would eventually return to claim me.  Around the age of eight or nine I had a recurring dream that I was cycling around St Albans in the twilight, recognising familiar landmarks, but quite unable to find my way home, and I linked this feeling of being lost with my lost father.

It’s sad to think of me at five
with just one parent left alive

 

 

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