Parker Road, Oratia. This was my beginning.
It is 1975. A mother, a young girl of 24 2,000 km from home. She’d had a tough childhood in Sydney, her father had disappeared, she was estranged from her mother and had recently separated from an unhealthy relationship. With few possessions or clothes, her only worldly treasure was a new-born baby. She met my dad, Graeme, in 1977. A musician, he captured her heart with his music and they fell in love. And the three of us became a family. Her one-year-old daughter became his own.
At first we lived in a caravan, on the small plot of land Graeme’s father had bequeathed him at the north end of the family orchard. Where, as a young boy, he had grown beans for market, worked and earnt a living, was now where he was going to make a home for this new little family. Graeme and his father relocated an old homestead that was being moved to make way for a new Girl Guide building at Otimai in Waiatarua. Originally Captain Theet’s cottage, built just over in the next valley in the 1800s, it would spend the rest of its years in Parker Rd.
I vividly remember the giant holes being dug by hand for the foundations, I remember being told to stand back from them in case I should fall in. They looked huge, yellow clay holes bigger than me filling at the base with oratia rain as they waited for the house. The house arrived, full of mysteries and treasures. Old coins and artefacts sealed into the walls, kauri planks throughout, it was a giant palace to me (a tiny house, though, by today’s standards), two storeys high, secret cupboards, a fireplace and a coal range, creaking old floorboards, and a spiralling staircase of worn wood. It was an exciting place to grow up in.
The best thing about my new home, was that just outside was a grass carpeted avenue of apple trees that led from my back door straight to my grandmother’s house. Through my daily traverse of this path, it became to me like an aboriginal songline, a dreaming track, my little child’s meandering always accompanied by made-up songs, a peaceful place where I was totally free to be a child. Always accompanied by fantail, I existed in my own little dream world as golden as the photographs of this time.
This is me in my grandmother’s arms in 1978. Her name was Eileen Gash. Although not related by blood, this had no bearing on her love for me. She was my grandmother in the deepest, truest sense of the the word. She took me in, into her life, and her home and deep into her heart. I could not have been more loved if I was born from her own flesh and blood. I was hers, and I knew it right from the start. I became this line’s 5th generation to live here.
Eileen caught the two of us, my mother and me, as we floated untethered and uncertain, without roots and it was with her love that she grounded us. As a woman with a deep faith, I know she she knew the meaning of building your home on the rock. From the start her love was that rock, she embedded us into a strong foundation made from her patience, gentleness, constance and love. Deeper than most ever know love, she loved. Quietly, gently and constantly.
She was a gardener, she grew beautiful trees and had flowers everywhere. My mother and I were like her flowers too, she grew us, she tended us, she loved us and thought we were lovely. She was always a giver, she gave her time, and her love and effort to so many, all throughout the community. She was generous and kind and so so gentle. Everything about her. Her heart was gentle, her touch was gentle, her voice was gentle.
She is the reason I am here.
When I was 12, she died of a heart attack, at the end of her flower-filled driveway on a sunny afternoon. The following year the rock my life was built on disappeared, it turned to sand and blew away. I left home two years later. Over the following 20 years I moved continuously, once in a two-year period I counted twelve places I had lived. I travelled the world and I lived everywhere. I was unsettled, displaced, and without centre or direction. Just moving. In 2004 having returned from living in Manchester, living in the city, my husband and I met and two years later had a baby. My own little girl was born. This precious delicate treasure I was now responsible for is what made me return.
I knew I couldn’t continue to live the nomadic life that I had been living. The world I had inhabited for the last 20 years was not suitable for a baby. Things would need to change. In my heart I searched for what I knew was beautiful and good. For what a child needed. Stability, love, peace, family, consistency. Time seemed to go slower in Oratia, there seemed to be time for things. For people, for gathering, for laughing and for playing. This is what I wanted for my kids, to have time for them and with them.
There was no where else I could imagine being. I would return home to Oratia, and shape for my little family the goodness of the life I had known growing up here myself. As soon as she was growing in my belly I started making plans. We would build a home between my grandparents home and the home I grew up in, where my dad still lives.
We worked like crazy, we jumped into debt way above our heads, borrowed to buy the land. We had rent to pay, a land mortgage and a construction loan at an interest rate of 10%. Money was flying out faster than we could make it. It was tough. We were stressed and tired constantly. Council was tough, consents were tough, we had never done this before and it was hard learning as we went.
My husband readied the section for the house. I had no idea what tough work it was going to be. It was tough and long work even with a ute and a good chainsaw. I began to recall, and finally re-read, the journey of those before us, as I had read it as a child in Oratia my Valley, a book written about the early settlers of Oratia and produced by members of our wider family. I read it with new eyes and a new heart, the new experiences in my own life bestowing a new perspective and a deeper respect and understanding of the toil of these intrepid people.
Our daughter and I watched my husband Danny work, me heavily pregnant with our 2nd baby. I wasn’t much help in the massive task in front of him, crafting the overgrown orchard into a new garden. At times it was tough, even tougher than his ute and chainsaw, but not as tough as our rescuers tractor. This is one of the things that reminded me why we wanted to be here. When you needed help, family was always there.
We cleared the section and moved an old house on. We have worked, in between jobs and raising young a family to wrestle this place into a home. We planted fruit trees for the enjoyment not just of ourselves and our children, but our future generations. Our children’s placentas are buried here, each of them beneath a special palm tree. We thought we could do this, because we thought it was our choice to have this as our home for good.
Now we have learnt otherwise. My everything, our everything – not just the physical land, but the reasons we believed this was place we could belong to for as long as we wanted – has been stripped away. We have been given the message in no uncertain terms that we have no rights to our home. We have been violated and our privacy invaded from the sky above to the ground beneath. Others have come to know our patch of dirt as intimately as we do, in the name of assessing it in order to take it away from us. We have been told that we can be removed and compensated (with an insultingly low price) for the timber and paint and the blood sweat and tears we have given this home. Not that any price would be adequate, because this place has never, ever, been about money. We gave so freely of ourselves because it was for us, for our children and for our grandchildren. As it has been for five generations before me.
We have been treated so rudely by those with power, they who make decisions and write letters from sterile boardrooms. We have been treated with arrogance and a real lack of empathy, a line thinly disguised behind the words ‘acceptable process’. I had an expectation that the laws protected us, that people mattered. Was I so wrong?
Now in my home there are six of us, four of whom it is our responsibility to grow and shape and garden like beautiful flowers, just as my grandmother did. Exept now, the ground beneath this garden is threatened by corporate CCOs and vested interests well beyond our comprehension. Two worlds have collided, one cold and heartless, the other the delicate universe of my home and family. We weren’t ready for this, we weren’t prepared. But we’re getting there. We are fighting.
We are not rich or privileged or powerful. We have had to shape an army of guardians out of everyday people, out of busy mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas. We work around jobs and livings to earn to pay the bills. We have sacrificed time with our children and loved ones. We have ceased checking homework and keeping up with school efforts, we have stopped after school activities because the stress of trying to do it all was too much. We have cried, lost sleep, lost our appetites; we have argued and sat desolate. The joy of living has for now been replaced with fear, anxiety and stress. No one should have to go through this.
Our four little ones faces are now so uncertain, I have had to answer questions like ‘where will we go?’, ‘will we go together?’ and ‘what will happen to grandpa?’. Today my second daughter, my tough one, all of a sudden crumpled and cried into my shoulder because her best friend and neighbour had drawn her a picture expressing her grief at the awful possibilities of losing each other, all her unexpressed fear and worry emptied out of her in shaking sobs. I had no answer to that but to hold her and say with as much confidence as I could that I will never let this happen.
Watercare. I won’t.