I come from a family of nomads; the daughter of immigrants from a country of immigrants. As a London child, when asked about my family’s origins, I knew the answer. My family was my parents. My parents came from New Zealand. It was a source of pride. My mother was from Waiheke, my father from Wellington.
Waiheke? Where’s that?
It’s an island.
No one asked, so neither did I.
Had I been there?
I flew through two nights to arrive at an airport of glass and steel and walked out into the humid green scent of a New Zealand summer.
I was driven to a ferry – the Baroona – on which I inhaled diesel fumes and complained to my mother of feeling ill. I stepped ashore with sea legs onto a broad wooden jetty at the bottom of a dusty hill; rattled along dirt roads to the A-frame house on The Causeway, where my grandmother baked scones and forbade us entry until she had removed her apron and brushed her hair. Only then were we expected to hug this strange woman we did not yet know.
After stuffing myself with Edmond’s recipe scones, I stood on the balcony of the one upstairs room with sloping walls and saw nothing beyond the bananas that grew heavy and ripe, brilliant yellow against the polarised blue Waiheke sky, and tantalisingly out of reach. My grandmother’s garden was full of fruit trees alien to an English-born child. Nectarines, peaches and plums grew from three sides of the same tree where she had grafted them onto a single rootstock. Cape gooseberries scrambled over the front of the house and, once instructed on how to peel their paper lanterns, I sat beneath the vine, gorging myself on fascinating orange flesh until chastised by my grandmother for my greed.
When I was beginning to form my first thoughts, to hear and understand the stories my mother told, my parents had been in England for only a few years. I inherited New Zealand as home still. Now, my long-separated parents’ homes are their own. They contain none of my memories.
Waiheke is one place where my memories overlap with the four generations of family that lived and live here still. Time stretches; what must have been only a few dispersed weeks have morphed into whole and frequent summers.
The journey across The Causeway, from my grandmother’s house to my cousins’, seemed endless to my five-year old legs. I trod the centre line of the narrow dirt isthmus with care – endless grey seas rising to the horizon on either side of me. But with my brother and my cousins I was safe. We chased a rainbow across The Causeway and, when it shifted away from us, sent my cousin ahead in search of gold; while we watched and shouted to him that he was there! He was at the foot of the rainbow! And he kept running beyond the rainbow’s end – unable to see what we saw.
Now, twenty years of mangrove growth have choked the inland side of The Causeway and little open water remains. It feels smaller – enclosed. New tarmac encourages the increasing traffic to speed across the water, offering a greater danger than the no-longer looming seas, and I prefer to walk the grass verge.
But when my mother talks of the long trek along dust roads to school, I see it in my mind, because I have done the same with her. Talking about the day’s events as we make the trek home, I share that place in my heart with her.
Written for North and South Magazine’s “Places in the Heart” competition.