Dad was shaving when I asked him. “What pen name could I use if I sent my poem to the Children’s Page?” His face covered in lather he paused, and gravely stropped his razor on the leather strop hanging from the handle of the bathroom door. “How about Miraflora?” he said. I had no idea what it meant, but it had a literary ring about it, and the explanation of ‘many flowers’ seemed poetic, so Miraflora I became for my modest childhood journalistic career.
I now learn that there is no such Latin tag! But nevertheless it seems to me that phrase is a fair summary of my life. The many flowers which have made up my personal ‘bouquet’ have included a happy family upbringing, a good education, a great husband, two lovely children – and spouses and grandchildren thereafter, interesting career and voluntary activities, comfortable homes, great travel opportunities, many wonderful friends, and all this grounded in the Christian faith. The background of the Depression, the second World War and other conflicts, civil unrest and economic hardship have devastated the lives of others around me, but have not blighted my personal sheaf of many flowers. So it is with profound thankfulness that I now write for my children and grandchildren a little of the many flowers along my way.
Our parents, Ian McKenzie and Molly Robertson met at the University of Otago in the early 1920s, and though there was obviously an attraction and they wrote regularly for some years, they did not marry until December, 1926. Dad was born and raised with his two brothers in Victoria, Australia until the family arrived with their (Presbyterian clergyman) father and mother in Wanganui. His grandparents however, had emigrated from Scotland in 1854. Mother’s family had emigrated to New Zealand in 1902 and were similarly of intelligent, hardworking, thrifty Scottish background. Mother had only one year of secondary school education but nevertheless matriculated and went off to Teachers’ College and University in Dunedin, and Dad had had secondary schooling in Wanganui. Now, living at St Margaret’s and Knox Colleges respectively, they both finished degrees and left to go teaching.
My earliest memories are snapshots: isolated incidents rather than sequences. Sometimes family photos reinforce the memories though they are then captured in black and white rather than colour. The house where we were all born and where I spent the first years of my life had been carefully designed by our parents, Molly and Ian McKenzie. Dad was always interested in architecture but as their first home was designed and built there was detailed consultation with his fiancée by letter. School Lane was a short street connecting the Boys’ High School where Dad taught, and the Girls’ High School at the other end. In my memory the large section on which the house was built was already planted with shrubs, trees, flowers, fruit trees, and a large vegetable garden, but our parents must have worked very diligently in establishing that during those early years when Mum was pregnant and gave birth to four children. There was also a fowl run where Dad kept chooks but I was always scared of their pecking, flapping habits. Level with the fowl run there was a tall pine tree on which our swing was hung, and then below a rock wall the section fell away to a stream below. One Summer I remember our parents creating a terrace halfway down, and I have an image of afternoon tea there. In the stream I began learning to swim, and on one or two occasions I must have been taken to the bush on the far side. We also had a small sandpit up near the back door.
The neighbour’s properties were also familiar territory, and I climbed the Puriri tree in the Masseys’ back garden, and we had at least a couple of large outdoor birthday parties for mothers and small children in the orchard at the bottom of the Courtneys’ garden. The homes of Dad’s fellow teachers were familiar places nearby – the Sligos, Glanvilles, Smiths and Dunns, as well as people like the Inksters and the Connells that my parents knew through the church.
I know that these were Depression years and that Dad, like most people had salary cuts so that Mum was in despair when she realised she was expecting Fraser. But I cannot recall any sense of hardship, and I imagine that Dad’s vegetables and eggs and Mum’s thriftiness and her ability to sew and knit everything we wore probably enabled them to cope well. There are photos of Moragh, Fraser and me dressed for a fancy dress party: Fraser was a brown paper parcel, Moragh was a Hawaiian maiden entirely dressed in skeins of wool not yet knitted up, and I had a Bo-peep costume improvised in some way. One magic term I went to dancing lessons and at the end of the time there was a recital! I had two costumes – one in green and white Japanese rayon and we danced to “Lily of Laguna”, and the other Dutch costume with red and white striped skirt and a Dutch cap with wings cunningly wired by my mother. The crowning moment came at the end of the performance when bouquets and gifts were handed up to the stage and I received a posy and small box of homemade sweets. It was only years later that I realised my parents were my admirers.
I remember the first and only film I attended in the Whangarei years. Dad took me to a matinee in the Regent Theatre and there were horses galloping on the screen. More vividly I recall a High School concert in the Town Hall with a spectacular finale and I think the star fainted in the final tableau. Towards the end of our time in Whangarei we got a radio, a Philco, but the only item I really remember was the dramatic announcement that Kingsford Smith or perhaps Jean Batten had flown the Tasman. And Dad producing eerie sounds as he twiddled the shortwave. I remember being taken to see the buildings downtown illuminated for some Jubilee or special occasion, the glow in the sky when Hoskings’ Drapery burnt down, the flood which swept through the grounds of the Plunket Rooms, the storm which left dead birds littering the beach at Waipu Cove (or was it Laings Beach?) when we went there once. I suppose I must have gone in a bus or car in Whangarei though I have no memory of that. But the high yellow baker’s cart and a rather less handsome butcher’s cart calling at 4 School Lane are in my mind so horses were still in use. One day downtown I was taken to see the smith at work in the forge with glowing brazier.
It may have been because of the Depression, but at this time children did not start school until they were 6. I was sent however, to a Kindergarten – a proper kindergarten run by a German woman, Mrs. Hertzel on the back porch of her home. There were slates and markers, and a large blackboard propped up on which I think there were sums or letters. Sometimes we did little dances to the gramophone in another room and “Tiptoe through the tulips” belongs to this era. There was a garden at the back, though once we were offered ripe persimmons from a tree in the front: I was most unimpressed.
In 1934 when I was 6 I started school, but very little remains of my two years there. Essentially I had a year in Primer 4 and a year in Standard 1, but cards from which tables were chanted, early “Beacon” readers, a concert in which I recited “There are fairies at the bottom of our garden”, a pleasant male teacher called Harold Webber, and some problems with button shoes that required a buttonhook to fasten them are about all I recall. I remember more vividly the oak tree we passed on the way home but under which one did not shelter because it might be struck by lightning, the pennies you could let the train run over on the railway line, the flowers from which you sucked honey, and the houses of friends on the route. I also always hoped to reach the pot of gold where the rainbow over Parahaki touched the ground!
They must have been demanding years for our young parents but I think there were few diversions outside the family, school and church and a circle of friends. I don’t know when Joyce came to help, but from then on Mum had some kind of help for many years. Nurse Jakeman delivered all of us at home, and Kitty Thomas who became a family friend was the Plunket Nurse. I have a faint recollection of someone coming once to do some sewing. It is probably Shona’s birth in 1936 that I remember and of course very soon after that the family moved to Wellington. In spite of having babies and toddlers we holidayed for several Summers at a bach at Browns Bay. It had somehow been left to the McKenzie family and I think Dad was the only person interested in using it. We must have gone down to Auckland by train and then – perhaps the first year we went there – we took a taxi all the way from Auckland with a table and four chairs stacked on the roof. Though the bach had a wonderful situation up on the hill looking out over the gulf to Rangitoto and with a large section dropping down the hill to an unkempt tennis court, it was all pretty basic. Mum and Dad scrubbed and painted (eliminating a large brightly coloured Greek key pattern from the floor of the main room), cut a track to the outdoor loo and down the hill through the manuka to the tennis court, and found some basic furniture. Years later Mum acknowledged that she hated it all in the Auckland heat, and I can only recall two primuses for cooking. There were dramas when Don Lochore was helping strain an old brass knobbed bed with wire mattress and something whiplashed. Dad lifted a kettle of boiling water and spilt some on Mum’s neck, and toddler Moragh nearly drowned in a drain on the beach. There was a frightening scrub fire on the hill road over to Torbay/ Deep Creek, and there were ‘gypsies’ we were ‘not to play with’ in a decrepit little cabin next door. But the beach, coffee bun from the store on special occasions, Sunday School with the Salvation Army where most of the children were ‘orphans’, and the Pirate Ship (cabaret) we passed at Milford are all vivid memories.
At some time during these holidays it was realised that I could not see the lighthouse on Rangitoto so when we went into Auckland (by bus? – I cannot remember), I was taken to an optician and then guided with eyes blurred from drops across Albert Park. Two incidents never quite forgiven relate to my Uncle Donald. Having tripped and fallen on the unsealed Browns Bay road I had a small gash in my forehead and he stitched it up and subsequently removed the stitches. But still worse, he took out my tonsils on my grandfather’s kitchen table, and the rare ice cream I was offered afterwards was no consolation. And now what is undoubtedly my earliest memory has also returned. My mother has told me that I was not yet two when Dad had his tonsils out in an Auckland nursing home. The doctor then went off to play golf – and Dad haemorrhaged badly. I can still see the white shell path up to the hospital and then my father, a pale unfamiliar figure in the bed. I am told they feared he would die.
From photographs I know that I had a considerable collection of dolls, a small cane pram, a heavy iron tricycle and a rather disappointing two-roomed dolls’ house for which I valiantly made furniture. One of my favourite books showed a much more handsome dolls’ house! At school we had Beacon readers and at home there were books but not many for children I think. Edith Howes “The Sun Babies” and the Australian books about the gumnut children belong to this period, and fairies featured largely in my imagination.
I suppose I sensed the impending change for I remember Dad dressed up in a suit one day at Browns Bay, and going off for an interview which led to our move to Wellington. I cannot remember the actual move which followed a month after Shona’s birth. Dad went down to look for a suitable house to rent and nearly took one in Hobson St but was concerned that the close proximity of Lambton Station would mean there were smuts on the washing. I have no impression of packers or removal, but we had a brief stay at 13 Gardner Rd when Grandad McKenzie baptised Shona in the sitting room. I know now that it was all a nightmare for Mum with four young children and a breast abscess, and Grandad critical of a crying baby. I think that Marie Lochore* accompanied us to Wellington to ‘help’ at this stage as she was waiting to begin her nursing training. It may have been on this trip that we travelled from Whangarei to Auckland by boat, a magical experience. There were separate cabins for men and women with bunks, green curtains, and brass fittings. Then the overnight train trip to Wellington, and this may be the time when we were put to sleep on the floor between seats placed back to back. Overpowering heat and suffocating smoke etch that on my memory! Mum and Dad had bravely taken us all down to visit the Oamaru maternal grandparents during those Whangarei years and that must have been a marathon. I have hazy memories of staying briefly at Kenilworth in Hill St or the Peoples’ Palace in Cuba St, and breakfast once I think at the Hotel Cecil.
* The close links with the Lochore family go back to Whangarei where Mr. Lochore was the Minister at the Presbyterian Church we attended until he and his wife both died quite close together I think from cancer. They left four able teenage children – Jean (a pharmacist), Don (a reporter on the “NZ Herald”), Marie (a nurse who later worked round the world with WHO) and Shirley (a dental nurse and the only one who married with children). Mum and Dad took a close interest in them all as well as in their aunt and uncle, Mabel and Walter Rushbrook who had become their guardians, and their lives were bound up with ours.