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Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

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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Art and Exercise

Do you remember a particular teacher who had a strong influence on you. One I recall was not someone who taught me at school but a woman who was one of the organisers of a five-day Women’s Art Retreat I went to in the early 1980s. I don’t remember how I found out about this – probably through Broadsheet. It was held at a camp at Little Huia, a beach on the Manukau Harbour. The retreat was promoted as being suitable for people of any artistic ability, including beginners, but I seemed to be the only person who wasn’t a practising artist or art teacher. There were workshops every day, mono-printing, pottery, and drawing, amongst others. I especially remember a drawing class where we were asked to draw an outline without taking the pencil from the paper, a technique that enabled me to produce something I felt satisfied with.

One day I skipped the workshop and went to sit on the beach instead. Another woman, whom I hadn’t met sat beside me and chatted, then took her clothes off and went into the sea. At this time I’d not done any nude swimming in public and was surprised that someone would, especially as this woman was a local actor. After that I would often see her on TV and remember our beach chat.

The teacher I remember at that Retreat was Marté Szirmay. She was already known as a sculptor, and had been at Intermediate School with Stephen. At the Retreat she took an outdoor yoga class each morning, followed by meditation where I was introduced to the concept of mindfulness. I still have the handout of yoga exercises we did, which came from a book called Enjoy living through Yoga, by Swami Savasvati. Memory suggests that Marté was at that time a member of the Friends of the Western Buddha.

I continued to do these exercises on and off over the years. Since I left paid work I’ve done them daily, deleting some poses that I now find too difficult, and adding other exercises that I’ve been given by various physiotherapists for various problems. A few years ago I found it hard to sit cross-legged on the floor and struggled to manage with cushions A friend kindly gave me a yoga block that I can comfortably sit on.

The block awaits

When I do my daily routine I sometimes think appreciatively of Marté and how she introduced me to yoga. I’ve since been to other (Iyengar) classes, with other teachers, but she’s the one who instilled in me a lifelong habit.

To keep up daily exercise
is a good habit that I prize.

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Everyone drank tea when I was a child. My earliest memory of coffee was Bushells Coffee and Chicory Essence served at a milk bar in Manukau Road when I was a teenager, but I don’t recall ever actually drinking it. I would probably have chosen a soft drink in preference.

Aged fourteen I took my first trip to Australia and had my first cappuccino, a luscious milky treat, in a coffee bar in Melbourne. Home in Aotearoa powdered instant coffee became available and we all drank it. I had it with milk, the same as I had tea in those days, but later learned to drink it black, at first with two spoons of sugar. After Stephen and I met we often went to coffee bars. I remember the Piccolo at Greenwoods Corner, the Picasso, and places in Queen Street, especially one downstairs opposite Wyndham Street whose name now escapes me.

I can’t remember when I stopped drinking coffee, maybe around the turn of the century. It simple stopped appealing to me, but I still enjoy the smell of coffee brewing. My drink of preference for many years now has been weak black Earl Grey tea. For a long time I drank it with a slice of lemon, but that embellishment is no longer vital. Very occasionally when I was somewhere the tea was far too strong for me and there was no sign of hot water being offered I chose coffee instead, but didn’t enjoy it. Thankfully these days there is more understanding of individual preferences, and in most instances it’s possible to get just a splash of gumboot tea and a lot of hot water.

The last cup of coffee I remember was in Paris in September 2007. We were at an outdoor cafè in that city and it seemed obligatory for me to order a black coffee. It was bitter but palatable once sugar was added. Where/when did you have a memorable cup of coffee?

Cafè in Paris

Through years my taste has slowly changed
with preferences re-arranged

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Since I was twelve years old I’ve worn glasses all day, every day. In recent years I’ve had progressive lenses, which allow for both close and distant sight. A month ago I had a cataract operation on my left eye, and this week’s consultation with the optometrist suggested that I may no longer need glasses for reading or using the computer. The contrast between my eyes which used to be 2.5, is now 4, and having such a disparity means progressive lenses are less likely to be useful. So, the new glasses I’ve ordered are for distance only and I’m experimenting with no glasses for reading and writing.

This feels very strange! My glasses have always been the first thing I put on in the morning and the last thing I take off at night. The whole idea of spending awake time without them is difficult to get used to. I realised I could now have my photo taken with a naked face:

Ruth with naked eyes

I could even wear eye makeup if I could be bothered buying and applying it. I’m experimenting with doing things like moving around the house, without wearing my glasses. There’s a whole new me waiting to be set free! Maybe I’ll wear glasses much less – just put them on for going out or watching television.

I’ve found it hard to remember to take them off for reading, and keep putting them back on without thinking. It’s such a well-ingrained habit. I stop to write something, then find I’ve put my glasses back on before I go back to book or computer screen. Have any of my readers weaned themselves off continual glass-wearing?

Learning to trust my naked eyes, is not easy. I’ve bought a cord so I can wear my glasses around my neck, rather than putting them down in different places (and maybe forgetting where they are). It’s all a strange new world, and will be different again when my new distance-only glasses arrive.

There’s new eye muscles I can flex
I’m learning to live without spec’s

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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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I’ve written before about my father’s death in 1954.  In the 1990s family deaths followed each other in quick succession.  First my father-in-law in 1991, then my much-loved sister-in-law in 1992.  I saw her death from cervical cancer as a casualty of The Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s Hospital.  A G.P. trained in the era of Professor Green failed to follow up on symptoms.

After her funeral I wrote a long letter to my brother Bruce in Australia sharing my feelings about her death and funeral, and the need to be prepared for such an occasion.  He responded that he didn’t care what kind of a funeral service he had as long as the hearse was capable of reaching 7,000 revs per minute from a standing start.  (My brother, a physics lecturer, was a keen amateur racing driver).

Bruce in his 1951 Singer 1500, racing at Rakaia 1957

One evening in April 1993 I received a fateful phone call.  It was my eldest nephew ringing to tell me my brother had died suddenly of a heart attack on Boronia Peak in Victoria’s Grampian Mountains.  Bruce had paid regular visits to Christchurch in the preceding few years and our relationship had become closer than ever before.  This news was a severe blow and hard to comprehend.  My immediate need was to go to Australia and be with his loved ones.  I booked a standby flight, arranged leave from work, and the next morning went to break the new to my aged mother – one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. 

After the tension of waiting at the airport for a standby flight I was on a plane headed for Melbourne.  Bruce’s partner (a close friend of mine from Christchurch) and his eldest son were at the airport to greet me and drive me to his home town of Ballarat, where I arrived just 24 hours after hearing the news of his death.  My nephews and niece were almost strangers, but in the emotionally charged situation we quickly got to know each other.  Plus, there were three members of the next generation, two of them only six months old.  Because the death was unexpected there needed to be a postmortem and while we waited for the body to be released, we planned the funeral.  As a ritual-maker this was a task I could assist with.  To my surprise his eldest son (aged 32) had never been to a funeral before.  His brother (30) had been to three during the previous year, all friends who had committed suicide.

Bruce’s archives yielded a copy of his letter to me outlining his instructions about the hearse.  When we read Bruce’s words the eldest son immediately said: “He means the Alfa” – Bruce’s treasured 1974 Alfa Romeo Spider 2000 sports car.  This son spent most of his waking hours for the next three days in a friend’s panel beating shop carefully building a frame to hold the coffin on top of the sports car.

All through this time I was getting up early in the morning to phone home and talk with Stephen and another close friend who both gave much-needed support.  Stephen offered to fly over to be with me but I declined, knowing his presence would disrupt the family dynamics even more.

He died quite unexpectedly
a bombshell for our family

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My birthday is on the second of January, something I share with only 11,900 other people in Aotearoa.  This date is ranked 362 out of 366 and considered fairly rare.

On 1 January 1949 New Zealanders became New Zealand citizens in their own right, where previously they’d been British citizens.  I was born on the following day, so must have been one of the first to be born a New Zealand citizen. 

The ‘day after New Year’s Day’ is always a public holiday here, but not in the U.K.  As a child I always had some kind of a celebration, often just a small one because so many people were away on holiday at that time.  I remember one year when a school friend was dropped off for my birthday party and her younger brother was invited to stay too to swell the numbers.  Games such as Pass the Parcel were played and there was always a birthday cake.  One memorable year this was an ice cream cake from the Perfection Ice Cream Company just down the road, which my brother fetched on his bicycle – no large domestic freezers in those days.

Teenage birthdays have faded into the mists of time, although I’m sure they were celebrated.  I do remember that the first year after we were married Stephen went off tramping with some senior scouts leaving me, heavily pregnant, to languish on my birthday.

On my 20th birthday I was again pregnant, although not showing it as much this time.  I remember meeting a friend the week before who found it difficult to believe a birth was expected on 3 January.  In the event my younger daughter was born on the 4th, so we have always shared significant decade birthdays.

I believe in celebrating a birthday on the actual day, but this wasn’t possible for my 21st.  Close friends were marrying in Wellington on New Year’s Day, with Stephen as Best Man, and Cathryn as Flower Girl, so that took precedence, and my party was eventually held later in the month.

While the children were small, I adopted the habit of having a beach picnic with friends on my birthday, often at Cheltenham, one of my favourite Auckland beaches.  After we moved to Christchurch, I hoped to continue this tradition, but the first year we tried it at Spencer Park, and ended up sheltering in a van in the rain.

On my 40th birthday we were camping in Golden Bay with Alf’s Imperial Army for a New Year Tournament.  I’d taken a number of birthday presents with me.  Again, it rained, so I sat in the car with Stephen and Louise to open my gifts.  I just remember feeling so loved as I unwrapped presents from old and new friends.

For my 50th I planned a special celebration.  We hired the Hurst Seagar Room at the Arts Centre, invited a crowd, and asked them to wear something over the top.  Louise came down for this, but Cathryn had already emigrated to England.  I planned it as a ritual, with candles and invocations, and five people each told the story of one decade of my life, with a suitable song played after each.  I employed a student to serve catered finger food, people helped themselves to drinks, and my women’s support group baked five cakes.  Later we had an Irish band and barn dancing. 

Dancing at my 50th birthday

It was a wonderful evening!  We even had people from the YWCA hostel across the road who heard the music come and ask whether they might be allowed to join in, which we had to refuse.

My 60th was a quieter affair, a Garden Party at home with 18 women and Stephen.  Guests were asked to bring a small symbolic gift to hang on a trellis and make a garden collage.  We introduced ourselves by saying our name, and year (optional) and place of birth.  A couple of poems were read: The Cat of Habit by Janet Frame, and Finding Her Here by Jane Relaford Brown.  Each woman hung her gift on the collage and talked about its significance, then we held hands to sing Happy Birthday, and feasted.

60th birthday invite
60th birthday cake

In 2006 the Octagon Restaurant opened in the old Trinity Congregational Church (where my parents had been married).  That was one of the few restaurants open on 2nd January where there was live music, including a restored 1871 pipe organ.  I had several very happy birthday dinners there, the last just before the church was damaged in the 2011 earthquakes.  I keep hoping it may again become a suitable birthday venue, but no sign of that yet.

Birthday dinner at The Octagon. Sadly, Ann and Denny on the left have since died.

For my 70th birthday I again planned a ritual with women friends in our back garden.  Just 14 women this time.  One sad aspect was that three friends who’d been at my 60th had died in the meantime.  I’d asked people to think beforehand about their answers to several questions and there was deep sharing among the group, some of whom had not met before.

Cutting the 70th birthday cake

I wonder who will still be around to celebrate my 80th?  Anything can happen!

A birthday’s time to celebrate
when friends and cake can make it great

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Finding Feminism

I was first introduced to feminist ideas when I met members of the Broadsheet Collective in the early 1970s.  I became a subscriber, went monthly on a Saturday morning to their city office to help with stuffing the magazine into envelopes, and enjoyed the discussions that accompanied this.

Through the 1970s and 1980s I took various Women’s Studies courses through the Auckland WEA, some of which were led by Margot Roth.  I was introduced to women authors I’d never heard of, such as Jane Mander, who wrote The Story of a New Zealand River and who had attended Onehunga Primary School where my daughters went, as I did for just one term.

In 1979 a friend asked me to go with her to the United Women’s Convention in Hamilton at Easter, but I declined because I thought that the family’s needs over a holiday weekend should come before mine (this was probably before I’d done assertiveness training).  I had no such hesitation in attending Women’s Studies Association Conferences from 1985 to 1990, even co-facilitating a Women’s Spirituality workshop at one.

It wasn’t until 1982 that I joined a Consciousness Raising group.  I saw it advertised and enjoyed meeting a diverse group of women and discussing all kinds of intimate subjects.  I was surprised to find that two lesbians in the group were totally non-political.  Previously I’d never knowingly met a lesbian who wasn’t politically active.

Feminism was an ideal counterpart to my involvement in Values/Green politics and my eventual engagement with Women’s Spirituality.  It gave me identity and sisterhood and has remained an important integral part of my life.

As a young bride I’d taken my husband’s name without a second thought, but after twenty years of marriage I realised that I’d given up my birth name without considering what that meant in a patriarchal society, and I wanted to claim a name of my own.  At that time I’d met only one woman who was married and didn’t use her husband’s name.  I thought long and hard over what surname I wanted to use and was reluctant to return to my ‘maiden’ name as that favoured my father’s family over my mother’s.  However the meaning of my Gardner family name appealed, and eventually persuaded me to make that choice.

Legally any woman is always entitled to use her birth surname (and children are entitled to use their mother’s name) but society is not always as welcoming.  When I went to change the name on my bank account I was told I’d need to provide proof of separation.  I stated that I was not separated and didn’t intend to be, and that was apparently something they hadn’t encountered before, that had to be checked with head office.

Over the years I took part in all kinds of demonstrations, for peace, a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, take back the night, etc.

In 1989 we were settled in Christchurch and I decided to attempt some tertiary study.  It was the Feminist Studies Department at the University of Canterbury that attracted me, and I enrolled in FMST101 Feminist Perspectives: The Re-presentation of Women, where I was introduced to women in all kinds of spheres many of whom I’d never heard of.  I relished the lectures and discussions and managed to satisfactorily complete the assignments.  An academic friend kindly critiqued my first essay (the first I’d written since leaving school) which enabled me to improve it before submitting.  Our tutorial group included a woman with a nose stud, the first time I’d met one of these at close quarters, and I needed to carefully choose a seat where that wouldn’t distract me.

The following year I enrolled in a Stage Two course Women and Change where I was part of a group that researched and reported on why women leave traditional religions.  I loved doing both these papers but did not choose to attempt any more University study.  I’d proved what I wanted to, that I was capable of passing tertiary papers.  Sadly the Feminist Studies Department at University of Canterbury has since disappeared, but some students still manage to incorporate feminism in their studies.

As I’m a woman I must be
a feminist – it’s plain to see

 

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