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ANAHERA GILDEA

The Queen’s Chain

My mother was born in the summer of ’53, as the Queen took her first steps on our soil. Nan cursed and swore cos she never got to see nothin’ – not even from the hospital where the patients crowded at the windows to watch the Laudalette pass by. But she named her daughter Elizabeth anyway; they all did.

That’s how the women do it in our line – I got my name, Te Ao Haere, cos I was born straight into the ’75 land march, well, close as intention can get you. My mother liked to think she supported her people with each push and each bear-down that forced me out.

As soon as she was allowed, she squashed the whole world down into a single vinyl suitcase and slid us both into the car like she was trying to get us back in the womb.

‘Back to the land!’ she shouted. ‘Back to our roots!’ And she left, swearing at the city behind us.

Our house was built in the fifties by my grandfather before the rest of the street got built up round it. The land came through from Nan, from the Raukawa whānau. It started where my feet hit the curb and finished up at the creek down the back. On the day my mother and I arrived to move in, the lawn was newly mowed and there were rough broom marks on the path from the wire gate to the doorsteps. Blades of grass blew onto and off the concrete as we walked towards Nan at the door. Overgrown shrubs and foreign grasses ate away at the foot of every wall and crawled up the back fence.

When I was old enough to keep my gumboots on, it got to be my job to help her drag the weeds to the pile down the back. She would talk to me about each of the flowers as we passed like they were her other children. There was red roses and hot-pink dahlias, jonquils and tulips, lilies and irises, and falling-over ranunculuses. She reckoned the smell of a flower in the last minutes of its life was the best, most amazing thing.

‘When you were born you were sick.’ When my mother would garden all the pretty stuff would let her thinking out.

‘We stayed in the hospital, just you and me, and you had to get fed from a tube.’

She never looked at me when she was telling, she just went back in herself and remembered out loud.

‘I would line up beside the other women in a little room on a chair facing the wall. We had these new electric pumps with long rubber tentacles on them, that you pulled out and attached to your breasts.’ She would show this bit by waving her arms around and I would laugh, kind of faking it.

‘Everyone would just stare at the wall and no one would talk directly with each other cos women were more modest then.’

Whenever she paused to clear the space around a plant I would just wait and then she’d go on again like she’d never had a stop.

‘The sound of the milk hitting the plastic catch bottle and the chug of the machine was like strange music in that quiet room. Suck chug spray. Suck chug spray. I would collect as many bottles as I could fill, and we would all keep looking at that wall while we put the lids on, taking off the tentacles and mopping up our spills.’

Then the bad moment would come and she would get sad and confess, ‘I didn’t breastfeed you.’

‘I know, it’s all good, Mum. No one cares,’ I would whisper but she never heard me. You can’t hear the dead, I reckon.

‘But I did my best,’ she would finish.

Eventually the view from the road became of lilies curving up around the path and shooting heavenward, like it was them that held up the walls, the stamens yearning forward inviting the touch that got coloured fingermarks pasted across clothes.

‘Never a dull moment round here, Te Ao,’ my mother would say, with the air of someone who could cultivate an intricate work of art out of seeds and dirt. ‘Women born under the auspices of great happenings can handle anything. We can rise and walk about in our lot, wear it like every dress we ever bought that looked great but that we had no occasion for.’

And at the end of every day, as if it was the signal to the world that she was off, she would pick a few stems in payment, using scissors to clip the flowers at just the right length, snip off the stamens and let their mustard dust fall down around her feet. Inside the house, in a long glass cylinder half-filled with murky water, she would display the fresh ones, folding the old bunch in her hands of steel and taking them back down to the pile.

Crises weren’t really her forté, my mother. It was the cycle of life she understood – growing things and then letting the dying ones go on the pile, draped in sunlight, with every edge, every lip, every leaf, curling in on itself.

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