Overdue letter to Ma

MumDad25th 01

Hey Ma, I’ve been meaning to write this letter for such a long time – like, 50 years or more. Excuse the casual introduction but that’s the way people address their elders in the 21st century. You’d be amazed at the technology today. We email, skype (video phone calls) and tweet (too hard to explain), using hand-held telephones which can take photos, home movies and, oh, make phone calls. You can be constantly in touch with family and friend on social media, firing off messages and photos through the ether.

You’d marvel (and I suspect not totally approve) of my putting your photo on the Internet where millions of people can check you out, if they have a mind. Life now is so different for teenagers. In your courting days, Dad had to ask permission of your father to take you out and have you back at the front gate by 10pm. You communicated with hand-written notes and secret glances across the high street or at the dance hall. Today, girls as young as 12 and 13 are allowed to have boyfriends and ‘sleep overs’ with their girlfriends and who knows what goes on when their hand-held computers are passed around.

You may already know this if there’s some kind of Wikipedia (online encyclopaedia) in Heaven. You believed in the Hereafter, which was probably a good thing, given that you had only 48 years on the planet, including 11 years in your adopted homeland, New Zealand. Women with breast cancer in the 1960s were often diagnosed late and treatment was limited to a mastectomy and radiation therapy. Then your doctor signed you up for new, experimental drug treatment.

“It may not help me, but if it helps some other puir soul in the future that’ll be a fine thing,” you said, faith grounded in the Scottish Methodist church.

It is true that the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1960s was one in 20, and is now one in eight. However, this is mainly due to more people living longer – into the age bracket where they are more likely to get breast cancer. In the 1960s, the life expectancy of a female was 73. Since then, life expectancy has improved to 84 and a great many women live into their 90s and beyond, mainly due to the vast improvement in diagnostic techniques for cancer and all manner of illnesses, great advances in heart surgery, vaccines and treatment for the sort of chronic ailments that put people in a pine box in the 1960s.

The ability to detect cancer early has greatly improved. These days, most women in the target age range have routine two-yearly breast scans (mammograms) which can find otherwise undetectable tiny tumours. And treatment with less invasive surgery, more effective drugs (chemotherapy) and/or radiation can then ensue.

As a result, of early detection and improved treatment, the survival rate has greatly improved since you were afflicted. The five-year survival in 1965-1969 was just 64%, according to the Cancer Journal for Clinicians. So if you’d been diagnosed late, your chances were slim. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says the five-year survival rate now is 89.4%.

Ma, at 67, I have a suspicion of blokes my age who talk too much about their mothers, living or dead. But I have sort of kept you alive in a sense, writing a couple of songs based on your observations and impressions and my memories of the new country. Lucky I kept a few of your old letters and notes of the six-week journey on the Rangitiki in 1955.

When children are left motherless, nothing fills the void and a step-mother, if there is one, is just a (hopefully nice) woman who loves your father. In the 1960s, teenage boys were not encouraged to grieve – we didn’t know how. We became blokes, drinking beer and listening to rock music, getting obsessed with the All Blacks and (trying) to chase girls. As life went on, it should have been obvious that crude sublimation was never going to help a sensitive lad who lost his mother at 17. That major life trauma shaped chapters of my 20s and 30s and got buried beneath the rest of the baggage until it came time to unpack and let go.

Yes, I should have persevered with the piano, as you insisted, because as you said, it could have earned me a living of sorts. Instead, I managed to harness this other gift for words. I came to music later in life − a self-taught musical dunce by the Conservatorium standards. Nevertheless, I’m told the words and music fit together fairly well.

And you missed my weddings, Mum. I married young, spent 12 or 15 years working, travelling, being a drunk, and getting sober. I met a great woman, well, actually I met two. The first one when we were both much younger. If you’d been around you might have persuaded us that 18 and 21 was a bit young. We sort of outgrew each other, but we both got re-married and went on with our lives. Now, this other great woman, she’s been in my life for 34 years. You’d be pleased with my choice, although she’d tell you the choice was all hers! (Who chased who? Ed.)

And then there’s this great extended family, in Australia where we live and back home in Aotearoa. In your last year there were just the seven of us and three wee bairns. Today in Australia, New Zealand and Canada the whanau, as the Maoris call it, number 42, all loyal, loving people, including your 6ft 5in grandson.

We keep in touch with your sister’s daughter in Scotland and another cousin in England. I went to visit your surviving sister in England a few years ago – she’s in her mid-90s and still living in her own flat.

When I saw this tiny white haired-woman come to the door it gave me a pang. When we lose mothers young, we forget what they looked like, but to me, she looked as if you might have done had you been alive today.

I gave her one of our CDs (the modern version of an LP), one of four albums, most of them songs I wrote. Your sister said: “You got that from Winnie, you know. She could play anything on the piano, your Mum. She didn’t need the music – if she knew it, she could play it.”

Well that does sound familiar. I have fond memories of listening to you practice the organ at the wee wooden Methodist church. I’d call in after school and try out the latest Beatles song, picking out the melody with one hand.

I knew there was a reason I loved all those great Hammond organ songs of 1967 – Whiter Shade of Pale, I’m a Man, Light My Fire. It was hardly Trust and Obey, but the music helped me through a difficult year.

So this is me, belatedly toasting my absent mother, and the countless other mothers whose leaving left their children bewildered and lost.

Yours aye,

Bob Jnr



Travel without regrets

la traffic
LA freeway photo by Jeff Turner flickr

Dedicated readers will know by now my penchant for tinkering with numbers, so you won’t be surprised that I have done an inflation-adjusted calculation on my/our travel adventures over 45 years. O.M.G. We could have bought a second home, or a third; a luxury yacht, a Maserati or achieved the mythical $1 million retirement target.

New Zealand is Australia’s most popular outbound travel destination – 1.06 million went there in the year to March 2015; 483,000 for a holiday, another 603,000 on business or visiting family and friends. The next most popular outbound destination, according to Austrade’s Tourism Research Australia, was the USA (590,000 holiday makers and 286,000 people doing business or visiting family and friends). In third place was Indonesia (830,000), then Thailand (596,000). The UK is up there, with 510,000 Australian visitors. In all, 8.81 million Australians travelled overseas, for holidays, for business or to visit family and friends.
The other 15 million or so stayed home.

Ignoring travel alerts

Surprisingly (well, I was surprised) 77,000 Australians went on holiday in the Middle East and North Africa in the year to March 2015. There’s a risk/reward equation that probably adds a frisson of excitement to travel in unstable regions.
Egypt (population 91 million) attracts tourists who have the Pyramids on their bucket lists. Wikipedia says Egypt attracted a record 14.7 million visitors in 2010, but numbers have dropped significantly since 2013, due to civil unrest and travel warnings.
Reader M took her teenage sons to Egypt in 2008, “for an education”. It was also a rite of passage, as she had travelled there in 1985. She has no plans to return to Egypt, however, disillusioned by the lack of progress in that country since visiting 23 years earlier.
“Back then Egypt was pretty much culturally secular and was atmospherically a wonderful cross of east meets west. Many women wore the head scarf but an equal number did not. Cairo was cosmopolitan, with French, English and Italian influences. People were open, educated and friendly and the country looked affluent.

“Fast forward 23 years and nothing had been progressed in the country. In fact, a real sense of stagnation was evident. Not a road mended or a building finished….. Every woman was covered and there was pollution and filth everywhere.
“Where previously we were invited to people’s homes and the conversation was about global issues, politics, religion and family, this time the conversation was one-way rhetoric-driven, narrow, politically driven. The difference was staggering.”

Renovate or travel?

So far, we have not been that adventurous. In 1990, we’d been doing the sums on a major renovation of our 1930s colonial in Annerley. We planned to claw the $20k back from mortgage payments as we’d been keeping ahead of the game. Suddenly, in 1991, I found myself between jobs, with two months’ leave before I started the new one. We took our son (aged 9) out of school and spent the $20k on a tour of the US, Canada and New Zealand. We parlayed with the boy’s teacher – he had to keep a journal and make notes of all the amazing things he saw (Niagara Falls, the bilingual McDonald’s in Montreal, the Grand Canyon, Universal Studios, Disneyland, Giant Redwoods, Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump (more on that another day), and Fort McLeod, birthplace of Joni Mitchell (and She Who Planned the Itinerary). We hired a 20-foot recreational ‘ve-hicle’ (RV) from a depot at Anaheim and set off on the LA Freeway at 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon. What were we thinking? I later counselled son that “Mum and Dad were screaming in the car” was not the sort of diary entry his teacher would appreciate.

No regrets at all

Looking back, you never regret the money spent on travel, even when it was shitty; when the digs were below standard, when you all had head colds and the exchange rate was unfavourable. I remember nosing the RV into a parking spot at the Grand Canyon lookout. Our son got out, ran over to the rim of the canyon (it was almost sunset) and went “Wow”. We all went “wow”. He took an amazing photo with a cheap Kodak camera. We drove right around the canyon in the next week, shopping at Native American roadside stalls, talking Aussie to people, feeling light-headed from the rarefied air. A lasting family dinner-time catch phrase stems from overhearing this at an Arizona RV park all you can eat buffet:
“Hey Hank, you wants any more?
“Nope, if I eats any more I’ll be sick.”

US road trip

We rattled across four states in that big RV. The odd highlight (for me) was parking it in a 500-lot RV park in Las Vegas, getting a complimentary shuttle bus to the casino, winning $17 on the slots and queuing up for the $3.99 all you can eat buffet at Circus Circus. I tried to persuade SWPTI to get (re) married in an Elvis chapel (you can do that in Nevada), but she couldn’t get out of Vegas quick enough.
Every time we stopped for a meal at a roadhouse or diner, the wait staff would fuss over our boy and say “make him tark”. We did three days at Disneyland, drove up the coast to San Francisco, took a tour to Alcatraz, went camping in national parks, hugged a redwood, made sure we stored our food in bear-proof lockers. We drove across the desert in the RV we dubbed “Horse with No Name” and nearly died of carbon monoxide poisoning because someone left the rear window open.
We ended the adventure the way it began, stuck in a 90-mile traffic jam (between Vegas and Anaheim).

Those inspired to travel reading books by Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Bruce Chatwin and such probably see travel as M does − as a pilgrimage (religious or not), to experience the journey for itself and to walk in other people’s shoes.
Others have a list of famous places, or a list of risky things to do in said places (e.g. running with the bulls at Pamplona, climbing Uluru or bungy-jumping off the Kawarau bridge at Queenstown).

Uluru 02 LW
Photo by Laurel Wilson

On our first visit to the Red Centre, we arrived at one of the elevated spots where one can watch the sun set over Uluru. There were a lot of people there, complete with picnic hampers, bubbles, wine glasses, cameras and mobile phones.
Anyway, the sun began to sink and the rock started changing colour; it should have been time for a bit of hush, right? Not for two old blokes from Queensland who spent the entire time talking about how the Broncos were going and who’d win the State of Origin. They’ve come to this ancient, spooky place and can’t handle the feeling they aren’t really supposed to be there. So they drown the feelings out with white fella tribal talk and a few tinnies.

Next day we walked past 30 people waiting to climb the Rock (the climb was later closed because of high winds), which doesn’t excuse the wannabe climbers from ignoring the wishes of local Aborigines.
We took the Mala Walk around Uluru and I wished I’d gone before I left because (hint for others), there are no public toilets on this 11km walk. Apart from that, it was stunningly beautiful; a bit overwhelming, really.
As travel probably should be.