Archive for the ‘Orbituary’ Category

Morris and the Comportment of a Good Heart.

April 11, 2017

 

 

Morris was not long married and father of one when he signed on with the British Army as a Chaplin in 1939. He would not see his family again for five and a half years.

“I feel asleep in a trench in the Burmese jungle and woke up to find myself surrounded by Japanese soldiers. They must have thought I was dead because they were taking no notice of me so I stayed dead for a few hours. Suddenly there were shots and two Jap’s fell down about me and the rest fled. A moment later members of my unit piled into the trench and one said ‘we got about five miles down the line and we realised we had lost you Padre’. They fixed me some food and a hot drink and off we went”.

About two months before he died he grabbed my hand and said he had a confession to make and needed absolution. I looked about like a startled hare and wondered if I was the right person for the job but he wasn’t hearing any of it. “I have never told anyone this but I need to get it off my chest. I had two affairs during the war. Once with an Indian nurse while on leave in India and once with a Chinese schoolteacher while on leave in South Africa. “You have to understand I was young and lonely and sure that I was going to die out there and I was looking for warmth and connection”. He paused for a moment then asked me if I thought he was a bad man? I didn’t and told him so. He seemed relieved.

 

Morris was an Anglican vicar who had felt the call to serve ‘the loving Jesus’ since he was a child. “I never rose through the ranks because I refused to play the game.” The game he was referring to was politics. Morris didn’t care about being seen to do the right thing, he did as he felt and this included tending to the needs of homosexual parishioners in a time when homosexuality was not only a mortal sin but also illegal with it. This did not make him popular with his peers nor did his acceptance of other faiths including Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. “At their best they are all paths to love” he confirmed.

It was his open mindedness that bought him and his wife to New Zealand, that and a daughter who had married a Kiwi and had moved out here several years earlier. She sent him a clipping from the NZ Herald about an iconic Anglican church in the heart of a major NZ city that was falling on hard times and in need of a vicar who could make a difference. Morris got the job and in 1967 he and his wife made the big move and began life afresh.

I wished I had of asked him more about these times because as I am writing I am only beginning to realise how spare my knowledge of him is. I am recalling snippets about how he revitalised the parish by organising dances for single Christians wanting to meet other single Christians and putting on special services for Gay Christians. They retired in 1979 and moved to the Central Waikato to be near their daughter.

Morris flirted with my then wife, a pretty and vibrant young woman of considerable charm while reassuring me that it was all a game. “I am a eunuch you see old boy so I am no competition to you.” He had contracted testicular cancer a few years before I met him and they had been removed. Not long after he had lost his beloved wife to illness. This last one was real blow and he staggered back to life determined to find new meaning. “I lost interest in the Church of England. It was moribund and had forgotten the essential Christian message of love”. Like me his searching had bought him to the Rosicrucian Lectorium, a Gnostic Christian sect based at Karapiro just outside of Cambridge.

The Rosicrucians suited Morris to a tee. They were Christian but they also borrowed heavily from the Eastern spirituality that had long impressed him. He liked their egalitarian attitude and enjoyed their fellowship though he couldn’t cope with their vegetarianism. He was part Basque and carried that peculiar Basque genetic profile that meant his body could not absorb iron from plant food. He needed flesh.

Otherwise he saw through their more pretentious allusions and made a great deal of fun at their expense. These Rosicrucians, (or as he liked to call them: The Rosy Crustaceans) were of Dutch origin and being typically dour were ripe for the picking. He referred to their founding figure Jan van Rijckenborgh as J Rickenfuhrer or Rickenburger as the mood took him all in honor of Rijckenborgh’s instruction that the leader should never be exalted. Of course they exalted him, at every turn, but Morris was always there waving the satirical flag to remind them of their obligations.

In this context he referred to their bi-monthly magazine The Pentagram as The Penthouse. To their credit they put up with up with it possibly because he was creakingly old and to protest would just be wrong headed. Still, for those of us less inclined toward unswerving fealty he was fresh air blowing out the bull dust.

Once he decided to surprise his daughter and her husband by going out to their farm with the idea of completing the renovations underway on their house while they were on holiday. He managed to pull the roof in on their living room while inadvertently setting their entire winters wood supply alight. That story followed him about like a bad smell and any mention of it were the only times I ever saw him look displeased.

Halfway through his ninety-third year his body shut down and he went fast. It was a peaceful death at home in his own bed surrounded by friends and family. The Anglican Bishop of the Waikato officiated at the funeral and stood before us all in his finery and waxed lyrical about Morris’s eccentricities (his Gnostic faith) and suggested that god would take into account all Morris’s good work and forgive him for his aberrations. Seriously, I wanted to kick the smug bastard where it hurt the most and regret that I didn’t. I have seldom before or since met a person with a truer heart than Morris’s. A man who judged no one but himself, he didn’t deserve to go out on a snipe like that.

 

 

 

 

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Grandpa, Rabbits and the Value of Non-Human Emotions.

March 18, 2017

 

Grandpa lived just down the road and would often stick his head through the backdoor of our house and say “Want to come down the farm E-Hoa (Maori for ‘my friend’)?’ Of course I did and after putting on my gumboots on we were off. First stop was the cowshed where we would collect the shovel which he would heft onto his shoulder before making that long guttural sound that meant the phlegm in his throat was being loosened and prepared for the big theatrical ‘hoik’, a kind of exclamation point I copied for years after in my quest to be just like him.

We were on the lookout for rabbit burrows but along the way he talked about many things including one of his favourite subjects, trees. “That’s a Macrocarpa” pointing up at one of the grand specimens he had planted decades before. “They come from the Monterey district of California which is near San Francisco. They are endangered there but not here. Here they grow like weeds!” he chuckled. “We call them abortion trees because if cows eat the green early on in her pregnancy she will more often than not loose the calf. Nothing worse than a branch from one of these buggers coming down in a storm and the cows getting at it.”

“See that plant there?” he said pointing at a sprawling large leafed plant with a pink flower that grew on the pasture margins all over the farm. “Yes” I said bending down for a closer look. “It’s called mallow and the cows only ever eat it after they have given birth. “Why is that Grandpa?” I asked. “Well,” he mused “can’t say for sure but I suspect this plant contains something the cows need at particular times. When they are hungry for it they will do just about anything to get at it. Not even an electric fence will stop them.”

This would bring him around to his most treasured subject, soil. “We have very poor soils in New Zealand and lacking in just about everything” – referring to minerals and trace elements. “See this one here” he says pointing to a white umbelliferous flower atop a feather shaped flower. “Yes” I said. “It’s called yarrow and we plant it because it prevents scouring in calves (a broad descriptive term for diarrhoea). It is also a good at finding selenium in the soil and New Zealand soils have almost no selenium so it is a handy plant to have around.” He goes onto explain about white muscle disease in calves (caused by selenium deficiency) and how distressing it was until they figured the cause.

Then there were the yarns. “Our neighbour was a grumpy old man and we used to tease him and one day he chased us up a tree and we couldn’t escape so we (siblings) peed on him. That got rid of him” he chortled. I must have heard this story umpteen times over the years and it was never told the same way twice. Some of my cousins held this against him but not me; I was fine with it sharing a proclivity for embellishment as we did.

“Right, here we go” he says and sure enough in amongst the waving grasses he has spied a bare patch. Bending down on his knee he scoops away the dirt with his puffy dairy farmer hands and explains that when the mother is away feeding she fills the entrance to the burrow so that it is hidden from predators. He urges me to reach down into the hole and I am always little hesitant imaging that there might be something down there waiting to bite me or worse. He is patient and taking a deep breath I do it and discover soft warm wriggling bodies laying on dry grass. A sweet musky aroma lifts from the hole. It all feels very comfortable and secure. I withdraw my arm and Grandpa takes over.

Hauling the wee bunnies out one by one he knocks their heads hard against the steel of the shovel and tosses them on the ground. The bodies wriggle for a bit and blood leaks out their noses. When he is done he puts them back down the hole and collapses the burrow with the shovel.

“Cows can break a leg if they stumble unawares onto one of these damned things” he says without affectation. I feel a little uneasy and wonder out loud if the mother will be sad when she returns to find her babies dead and home ravaged. “Can’t afford think about those sorts of things” he says, “got to stay on top of them or they will overrun the place.”

Farmers can’t afford to think about animals in that way, it’s a fact of life. Once you do you are on a losing run to nowhere. Grandpa tells me the story of Laurie Discombe. The Discombe’s were an early settler family in the district and had a road named after them. Laurie was one of those strange breed of dairy farmers who never married, just settled into a life of cows and remained that way. He was quiet and shy and a bit uncomfortable around people.

As he got older Laurie found it harder and harder to part with his cows once they reached the end of their productive lives so he just started keeping them. Eventually he has more retired cows than milking ones and then no milkers at all. He ends up losing the farm. That’s why farmers can’t afford to be sentimental about these things.

I was twenty-two when Grandpa died. He dropped right in front of dad and me while we were down the farm one day and it was the biggest shock I ever suffered. I grieved harder than I did when my sister was killed a few years earlier. He and I were close and I felt understood by him though more recently I had become aggrieved when he criticised my penchant for tight jeans saying that I looked like a homo.

I was a musician and this was my uniform and I felt a bit miffed about the comment (I was also more liberal in my attitudes than he was) so I stopped talking to him for bit. He died before I could get past it. Now I realised there would be no getting passed it. I was a bit of a mess for a while after that.

Eventually I gave the farm away. I was too sensitive and cared too much and felt ashamed for many of the cruel things I did because I did not know any better. I thought often about a story attributed to the prophet Muhammad I had read somewhere. Some boys plucked a baby hawk from a nest and seeing the distressed mother following them about the Prophet asked who was causing this mother so much pain? In the asking I imagined he was also querying if non-human emotions were any less significant than human emotions?

After some thought I realised that for me feelings were feelings regardless of the species but I also understood the practicalities of managing land. Recently I found a rat nest under a friend’s chook house and did exactly what Grandpa would have done. It was necessary given what rats do on these islands. The upset mother camped about the wreckage and made herself vulnerable. The cat found her and that was that. Bloody tragic and I am still struggling with it.

I sometimes drive past the family farm but never call in. I can’t, it’s all too painful the place being the minefield of memories it is for me. I was supposed to take it on but was emotionally ill equipped for the life and my rejection of the legacy caused a world of familial disappointment that still haunts me to this day. The last thing Grandpa and I did together was set about planting a dozen Algerian oaks he had grown from acorns.

I thought his evergreen tree was an odd choice being the notoriously slow growers they are. “They’ll take forever to be something,” I told him. He just winked then set about winding up for one of his pointed hoiks. That was thirty-five years ago. These days the trees are quite something and when I drive past I look at them and their magnificence and think about him and the lasting power of grief and wonder at life’s grey contradictions.

 

 

Hilary.

November 4, 2016

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 Hautapu Cemetery.

What do I remember about Hilary? I remember that she wore red boots that were once described to me by someone who should have known better as ‘Frankenstein boots’, big solid things with steel frames attached to support her frail calf muscles. One of her legs may have been longer the longer than the other and the boots designed to compensate but I am not sure but I do remember that she used crutches.

I remember that she wore a catheter and had to endure regular enemas because her bowels were improperly formed and suffered multiple operations on her spine and legs but those events are only a whisper to me. I was farmed out to my maternal grandparents through much those years so my parents could focus on the difficult task that had been thrust upon them and as they struggled to come to terms with their new situation in life I was at large the dreamtime of childhood, apart and mostly unaware of the main event.

 

I remember that we are lying in her bed with the covers up over our heads listening to children’s stories on the radio, laughing, acting out and having fun. It is a warm and innocent moment where there is no disability, just two siblings lost in revelry. I imagine that she of had lived we would have been very close, a feeling reinforced by other stories about us passed onto me by our mother.

There was a spare ten months between us, a fact that (in my mind at least) almost made us almost twins. We shared a similar sensibility and intellect and I wonder how different things might have been had I had her in my life, the usual kind of questions that haunt those left behind to deal with the complexities of living.

A few years after her death my mother described her to me as intelligent and wilful, the latter a quality she needed in spades to navigate the world carrying with her the burdens she did. Halfway through her ninth year she used that wilfulness to successfully lobby for a radical change in circumstance. Hilary was determined to be ‘like the other kids’ and instead of being taken to school in the car asked if she could take the bus. After much soul searching our mother agreed.

Along with our neighbours she was collected from outside our house and after school deposited a few hundred metres down the way where they would disembark and would walk around the front of the bus and wait for the driver to wave them safely across the road. This done he would put it into gear and move off. On this day everything went as normal but Hilary new to the system was struggling with crutches and schoolbag failed to keep up. She was still in front of the bus when it roared into life.

I wonder at her last moments? Perhaps there was a startled panic as she realised what was happening? I hope it was quick. It was certainly horrifying for the witnesses one of whom ran to our house yelling that a girl had been run over and to call the police. My mother knew straight away. I was already home and I will never forget her scream, a heart rendering wail of grief that ripped the guts out of everyone present. For Dad it was even worse. He was milking the cows and someone had run to cowshed requesting a tractor to help move the bus off the body. He did what was required only to find the crushed body of his second born lying under a tyre.

 

As for me, that day is coloured by a strange conclusion that for many years after shaped the way I perceived the world. My school reports from that time observe that I preferred to work alone and alone is how I often felt. It was not an uncomfortable state but part of me wondered at the activities of the other children and asked if I was not missing out on something important.

This need for social acceptance become something of an obsession and I had begun to aspire to be something I wasn’t. On the fateful day I got my wish and there I was throwing a ball back and fourth with another boy howling with laughter and revelling in the joy of connection. I have no idea how this came about but I clearly remember going back to class at the end of the lunch break thinking that ‘today had been the best day ever’. It turned out to be quite the opposite and I concluded that great tragedy follows on the heels of great joy. It was a long time before I felt safe enough to be happy again.

I remember the day of her funeral and the dreamlike journey from house to church to graveside. I remember looking at the small delicately padded white coffin and remember thinking that if I willed it hard enough it would open and she would rise out of it and return to us. It did not happen and by the time the vessel was lowered into the earth at the cemetery I was exhausted.

 

Where do you go from here? Nowhere it turns out, you just endure it, a dreamlike state of disbelief, a hundred pressing questions and a morbid state of waking confusion. You live and you endure and eventually you heal, or at least you think you do. Some wounds cut so deep that there is no proper recovery, just the semblance of one.

I look back on these memories and wonder at their accuracy gathered as they were by a child adrift in the most tragic event any family should expect to endure. A wash of images and sensations, reflections of people coming and going, awkward words, strained silences, moments of forgetting followed by the anguish of remembering. I may have gotten some of the details wrong but this is how it lives in me.

Dad is now in his mid-eighties still visits her gravesite every Sunday, his devotion a living act of love. My mother celebrates her birthday with that same unwavering fidelity. Her name was Hilary Ann Johnstone. She had a freckled face, brown hair and carried her bits and pieces about in a little blue case with a brown handle. She died aged nine and a half, 02/10/1972.