It’s a long way from 151 Aorangi Road in Bryndwyr, Christchurch where this picture was taken around 1955, where I’m standing holding a toy plastic aircraft carrier, to a book about my father’s war on the real thing, and the humanity of his Japanese foes. I remember when I got the ship: a Firestone Tyre Company Christmas party, my father’s employment between being drummed out of the New Zealand Navy and us leaving for the West Coast when he got a job on the Railways.
I would not have had access to this shot if it had not been for a thirst for history, that search for lost time, and the need to re-connect with my lost English relatives that I wrote about in the previous post. Yesterday I met three more: Jen, my cousin, Uncle Geoff’s daughter; Gary, another cousin. Auntie Doreen’s son, and his Dad, Colin Watts, a lovely West Country Minehead man, now sadly confined to a care home due to his failing memory.
But his memory was not so bad yesterday for that distant world we call the past, which is also the last minute, not just the last month, or the last year. After taking a train out to Woking, I met Jen, had lunch and we carried on to pick up Gary at Twickenham to take him on a visit to his Dad. I was able to see this threesome all together for the first time in my life, and listen to their lovely patter, the rich mingling of English accents.
As they talked and revealed their different worlds and histories, Colin’s hold on memory became clearer: he was lost in the present and recent past, but alive and clear in the far ago years. He and Gary spoke about the old Co-op Store in Minehead and an incident when the father told the boy to go to the store for some food.
“I don’t have any money”, Gary protested. “Just tell them our number”, Colin instructed him and off he went, with 30772 all the currency he needed. I know this because Colin told us the number yesterday, sixty years after he last needed to use it. These are the layers we have, our whakapapa, the stories that attach to them; just because they are no earthly use in the present, they have heavenly currency in all of eternity, that mystery in which all we are and have ever been, dwells. Nothing is lost, only mislaid.
I had proof of this when we left Colin to his many worlds and drove Gary home to Twickenham, his home for now, empty of mother Doreen, dead and gone and Colin too, unable to run the ship any more. On the table was a picture of his Dad in his Navy uniform, and one of his wartime ships, the minesweeper HMS Westray.
Colin Watts, Royal Navy engineer.
That led to the discovery of a forgotten bundle of photographs my mother had sent to her brother’s sister over the years: her children, pictured since the arrival of her boys in 1950 and the birth of my two sisters in Devonport Navy Hospital in the next couple of years. Year after year, face after face, child after child spilled out of this old envelope where his late mother had stored the treasure.
I was overcome: I took some pictures of the first few, then gave that up and asked my cousin if I could have them. He was very happy for that: he couldn’t recognise any of us as he’d never known us, and what for him would have been one more sea of faces was to me and my siblings, I knew, a revelation. All the early family photos that were lost when my parents separated in 1967 had been faithfully preserved in a far off land and I had journeyed past the dragon’s lair – indifference – to claim the real treasure.
Sending copies to my brother and my sisters late into the night, receiving back their delight and their tears, I saw once more into the heart of whakapapa, the strata laid down over our years by shared family experiences, good and bad. I caught a glimpse too of the barren nature of what the world tells me needs chasing: the next material wonder that we just have to have.
I am grateful for all the technology that has made this possible, of course – this blog is being written on a laptop and will be published online – but really, isn’t it how we enhance our humanity and make true connections, what really counts? So here we are:
Jen my cousin and guide.
And looking our childhood selves, there we were…
Jeffrey, Jill, Eric, Elisabeth: 151 Aorangi Road, about 1955.