“Uh, lemme see ya shake in ya boots, come back to the old school back to ya roots” (Johnny L 2005)
I grew up on a dairy farm under the shadow of a beautiful mountain called Taranaki in a little community called Awatuna. Every morning when we opened the curtains in our front room, there the mountain would be. Some days cloaked in a dusting of snow, other days bare and proud, blushing in the hazy glow of the sun as it drifted down below the horizon of the Tasman Sea. Awatuna consisted of the local primary school with two classrooms and only about 25 students, our community hall that also housed the only playcentre for miles (kindergarten), a tiny little wooden church, and the local store that stocked everything from groceries to farming implements and animal feed.
Our farm was situated on the main trunk line between the towns Eltham and Opunake. Early every morning milk tankers that visited the locals farm would come rumbling past at top speed trying to make their collections and deliveries on time. Then at around 8.a.m the local buses that collected all the children from the local communities as far east as the town of Kaponga, would come tearing along the road on their way to our closest high school in Opunake.
Our home had been built by my Grandfather and father, and was a modest white weatherboard house with a black rough tile roof. Growing up I remember thick carpet in varying shades of green, 70’s patterned wallpaper and a window seat that at TV time all four of us kids would line up on. There was a fluorescent strip light on the ceiling above the dining table, and a wheezing, rattling storage heater along the wall blowing out heat for the winter. Later my Dad had a Kent woodburner installed with obligatory 1980’s orange brick surrounding it. Our kitchen served a dairy farm family well. Painted in green, it had large pull out bins full of flour, sugar and bread.
Each morning after milking my Dad would walk up the tanker track carrying the white plastic billy with its red lid, full of steaming, frothing milk, that he would pour straight onto my glucose covered Weetbix.
Living on the farm in Awatuna, we were a self sufficient family. We had our own vegetable garden that my Mother lovingly tended full of everything from cabbages and tomatoes to more exotic cape gooseberry bushes, a guava tree, and a large walk-in strawberry hutch. Out the back of our house was what we called our orchid, although it was more of a paddock, the grass kept down by sheep, with a lemon tree, pear tree and an assortment of apple trees. There was a chicken coop with free ranging chickens that provided us with eggs, and for a short time I remember behind the milking shed we had a concrete pig Sty with two big pigs that didn’t do much more than eat and lie in the sun.
In the spring, the orchid became the romping grounds for baby lambs and calves, (some which would become pets in the lead up to school ‘calf day’), and in summer it would be converted into a cricket pitch for us kids. Mum bought boxes of peaches and peeled and bottled them all herself, and in summer we would go berry picking at a farm about half an hour from the town of Hawera. We would take empty ice cream containers and wander the farm for a couple of hours, picking Raspberries, and Boysenberries, and eating our share until it was time to take them to be weighed and paid for. Not long after my sister Marnie, or me, would be vomiting up a berry coloured mess on the side of the road. Blackberries we picked wild from the side of the road, or we would get permission from a neighbour to invade their roving bushes.
One day we had a girls day out picking. My Mum, Marnie, my Auntie Vera and Nana Harvey got on our boots and headed out to pick Blackberries down the back of our neighbours farm. We had a great day, singing and gossiping and picking away, until we got to a point where there was a ditch that needed to be crossed. Mum, Marnie and I backed up for a run up and leapt it rather easily, but my Nana was getting on a bit and there was no way she could physically make the jump.
Auntie Vera came up with the idea that she could put Nana on her back, take a run up and jump across. Back then Auntie Vera was a tall, strong, country woman herself so I guess everyone thought it was possible she could get Nana across. We watched as Auntie Vera heaved Nana up onto her back and took the first tentative and very wobbly steps towards the ditch. “Careful!, don’t slip!” We called out from the other side, as Auntie Vera went to jump. However she couldn’t get the speed or leverage and instead made a sort of slow motion half step/ half leap before her knees gave way, and though she made it to the other side, she collapsed in a heap with Nana rolling off her back and half into the ditch.
We all gasped and ran to where they both lay sprawled, expecting Nana to be groaning in pain or fright. Her eyes were closed and her body was shuddering as though in tears, “Oh God, Nana are you alright?!” we cried surrounding her, But to our surprise, Nana was lying there shaking with tears of laughter!
We had a tall and very long washing line that stretched between the chicken run and one of the cooking apple trees. It was propped up in the middle with a long wooden beam and we would hang a large load of washing out, prop up the beam and leave it to dry, flapping in the strong country breeze. There were times when my Mum and I would be in the car, racing along the road to get home before it rained so we could get the washing in. We would see the washing in the distance jumping animatedly on the line like awkward dancers, as dark clouds gathered on the horizon. As soon as we pulled into the drive I would run out the back gate and pull down the beam (being careful the washing didn’t drag on the ground), bundle it up in the wicker basket, and tear inside before the sky exhaled and the rain came down. And come down it did.
Some days it felt like it would rain and rain forever. The mountain would be practically non existent, shrouded under low cloud and drizzle. Winters there could also be incredibly frosty, every few years it would snow quite hard and we would wake to a sheet of white that stretched from our front lawn to the very top of the mountain. In contrast the summers felt long and hot, and when we weren’t camping down Opunake beach, we would cool off at our local primary school pool, or frolic in one of the freshwater rivers on our farm.
Out the back of the orchid we had a large hay barn, which in winter was piled high with bales that my brothers Craig and Warrick and their friends would spend hours in, burrowing through the hay and making gaps in the bales, converting it into their den. I was afraid of trying to follow as whenever I started to crawl in after them – the dirty heels of their gumboots disappearing into the darkness – their voices would become muffled and I would quickly become disorientated in the darkness and have to hastily crawl out backwards to the safety of the sunlight and fresh air.
In Spring however, the barn was full of new baby calves. Dad would set up the big steel circular cafeteria, and he and Mum would carry heavy steel buckets full of fresh, steaming frothy milk and pour it in. Then the calves would be let out and they would rush like eager school children at home time, pushing and shoving each other out the way to get to the rubber teats. They would still be sucking even when it was empty, milk bubbles at the side of their mouths, the whites of their eyes showing as they bent their heads lower and lower to try and get the last of the milk.
If it was sunny out, the back door of the barn would be opened and the calves would bounce out into the hay paddock dotted with daffodils. I loved watching this moment. The calves would kick and frolic into the sunshine chasing each other around till they collapsed in the warmth. I would crawl through the hay paddock pushing down the long grass making imaginary corridors and rooms, the sweet smell of crushed stalks beneath my damp knees. The calves would come and sit with me as I sang at the top of my voice, or had a conversation with myself, their greedy mouths trying to suckle at my fingers or the toes of my teat like boots.
My older brothers Craig and Warrick also built wooden platforms that they hoisted up into the tops of the macrocarpa trees and hammered bits of wood into the trunks and boughs to aid in getting up there. Warrick built a little shack out of four by two and corrugated iron below the platform and divided into teams and often accompanied by some friends – with Craig the oldest up the tree, and Warrick on the ground, they would fire ammunition of seeds and cones and sometimes even shoot BB guns at one another in a mock war.
I thought my brothers to be very brave and ingenious, and wanting to be like them I can remember climbing up into the macrocarpa fort, once with my brothers help, and then trying to do it again on my own when they weren’t around. I got up there slowly and with a huge amount of determination and courage, but as I sat on the platform, the wind slowly rocking me back and forth, I realised I could not get down. I tried backing down the branch but my boots kept slipping and I had to quickly scramble back up to the safety of the platform before I fell. I climbed trees a lot, I thought I was pretty apt at it, and though I had fallen before, sometimes crashing down through a series of branches and often landing hard on my back or side, I had never been seriously hurt.
This time though, I wasn’t feeling so confident that I would be alright should I hit the ground below, from up on my raft of wood -it was a long way down. I sat up there in tears getting colder, until somewhere in the distance I could hear my Dad whistling as he approached the cowshed. I immediately started to cry out for him and when he yelled back in reply, and began to get closer to where I was stranded, my spirits were lifted. Dad would save me!
“How’d you get up there?” Dad shaded his eyes with his hand as he peered up into the tree.
“I climbed!” I cried, as if stating the perfectly obvious, and wiped my face with as much dignity as I could muster.
“Christ” Dad muttered under his breath pushing branches aside and scratching his head as he worked out the best way to get me down. Rather than try to climb, He came from the side of the tree, coaxing me down a weaker bendy branch that almost touched the ground as I edged along it. Then when Dad was close enough to reach out to me I jumped into his arms, where he delivered me safely to the ground.
There were often many incidents where Dad or Mum had to come to our rescue. They let us run around quite freely learning lessons the hard way, and pulling us out of various scrapes and mishaps when it was needed. One of these days, Mum had gone to town and Dad was out on the farm working. My sister and I were at home by ourselves playing, and Craig and Warrick were down in their huts playing ‘wars’ with their friends.
Suddenly the back door was flung open and I heard footsteps running through the house. Curious, I picked up my Barbie Doll and passed through the hallway, stopping at the bathroom where I saw Warrick shaking and breathing hard, as he looked in the mirror trying to pick a slug gun bullet out of his own forehead with tweezers! At the time I don’t think I even fully clocked what it was he was doing, I just stared at him thinking ‘That’s weird.. What is he doing?’.
It was only when Craig and his friend Neil Holdem came rushing into the house and I heard Neil on the phone to his Mum saying “Warrick’s been shot” did I realise what had happened.
At once it seemed as if Neil’s entire family came to the rescue! His Mum screeched into the driveway in her car, His older brother came blazing in on the farm bike, and his Dad even pulled alongside the road in his tractor! Once it was established it was merely a BB gun pellet that had ricocheted off Warrick’s forehead, rather than the shot gun bullet that everyone had imagined upon hearing the news, it was down to Neil’s Mum Judy to take him to the Doctors. Not wanting to leave me at home, Judy bundled me into the car as well and we headed out along the Eltham Road towards the Doctors. At that moment my Mum came driving towards us, so Judy flashed her lights and Mum stopped, heard the news and took Warrick to the Doctors herself.
I spent a lot of my childhood wandering over the farm alone, content to build dams in the river, or explore for hours on end. I was often accompanied by our family dog a Golden Retriever named Zeeko, and other than talk to him, I talked to myself. It was then that I also really discovered my singing voice. I thought it sounded like I had a strong voice, albeit a bit husky, but I wasn’t aware that I had any real ‘talent’ until I was around 10. All alone I would compose songs, experiment with rhymes, and what it sounded like to sing loudly at the top of my voice.
I also used to climb up amongst the boughs of the Magnolia tree in our garden and whisper little poems on the wind, or sometimes even conduct imaginary interviews with myself as a future famous singer. I always felt protected and safe amongst its large pink silky petals and flaxen leaves as I could watch visitors come and go and hear my Mum on the telephone in the house, but no one would even know I was there. Camouflaged against the mottled lichen covered trunk of the tree and its ever extending branches that provided the perfect seat, I sat and dreamed of growing up, moving overseas and becoming a singer or a writer.
My parents encouraged me to sing and dance, they themselves loved music and socialising. I thought Mum was very beautiful when I was growing up, as she was very fashionable and wore stylish dresses that she often made herself, and despite being a farmer’s wife always had carefully manicured nails, with long slender fingers adorned with a variety of rings. I would watch her in the evening before her and Dad went out to a party or to dinner, slowly painting her nails, and combing and curling her hair into a shiny bouncy halo, before spraying her wrists and neck with whatever fragrance she had purchased the last time she and Dad went abroad.
When I was in primary school I remember them going to visit Australia and Bali, Fiji, Singapore and Thailand, while us kids were farmed out to stay with various friends or family members. None of us ever went with them until the one holiday we all took to Australia to visit my Brother Warrick in Queensland, but we didn’t resent them for wanting to travel – we knew they worked hard for it. Besides, they always brought us home presents, their suitcases smelling like distant foreign shores, and full of exciting treasures. Decorated masks and headpieces, fake designer t shirts, my first handheld video game, and a beautiful traditional Thai doll that sat on my dressing table for years.
They also loved to have dinner parties and throw house parties. All their local friends would line their cars up on the side of the road and things would kick off with my Dad pumping out a mixtape he had spent hours lovingly making on the old stereo, or selecting records from down in the cupboard and playing DJ. (Although with one belt driven turntable, his mixing was more stopping and starting!) Back then my parents taste in music was pretty varied. In between ABBA and Meatloaf, Hot Chocolate and Jennifer Rush, there would also be some Fleetwood Mac and The Seekers.
I can remember one particularly lively party when a conga line formed and went out the back door, around the house, across the lawn and back in the front door! Though us kids would be put to bed and expected to stay there, more often than not, we, (or maybe just me) would wake up and want to join the fun. Dancing round the lounge in my nightie, singing at the top of my voice, I would be marched back to my bed with a kiss, and a firm “Don’t get up again” – But sometimes I didn’t even make it there. Mum loves to tell the story that at one particular party she found me asleep with my head pressed against the speaker.
Perhaps this early exposure to house parties is why I ended up loving raving and loud music. 🙂