2017: My mother and her hundred-year-old tree

by Hilary Stace

My mother Jeanette was probably crafting haiku when the stroke caught up with her. My daughter and I found her a few hours later lying on the floor beside her chair. A gold-covered notebook with her poetry jottings was beside her. It was open at a page about aeroplanes and airports.

at the airport
not sure which hair colour
to watch for

the plane airborne
its shadow
grounded

She was alive, but barely, and could no longer speak or walk. She was 89 and up until that day was intellectually vibrant and fiercely independent. She gave us time to say goodbye and died quietly a couple of weeks later in the local hospice.

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Jeanette Stace.

Each time the cherry tree outside her house spreads its cooling blooms across the road another year is marked since she died. Ten now. I am living in that house surrounded by many of her books and plants. My parents smile at me from a photo propped on a book shelf.

Soon after her death a box arrived from Japan. It contained 24 plastic bottles of green tea and among the Japanese writing on the labels was her haiku in English.

in the park
looking up at the tree
the same age as me

Jeanette had won an international haiku competition sponsored by a Japanese green tea company (the annual Ito En Oi Ocha New Haiku Contest). Had she told us? Possibly, but we hadn’t heard. Because we her children never really respected her poetry writing. Perhaps because parents are always slightly embarrassing to their children. Perhaps we thought of it as just a hobby, one of her many interests, and the Poetry Society merely one of her clubs.

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Photo: Hilary Stace

She had a full set of Landfall in the spare bedroom, earthquake-safe on their shelves behind rubber cords, and was occasionally published in it. Since 1939 her work appeared in numerous publications and I remember at school acting in one of her plays for children from the School Journal.

After we all left home she started squeezing in time and space for herself. She discovered a flair for haiku. The way you could get a pithy observation of the world into a few syllables suited her busy, minimalist style. When computers came along and then the internet (slow dial up) she was an early adopter. Each morning the haiku group – kindred souls from around New Zealand and possibly elsewhere – chimed in via email to critique and sometimes savage each other’s sparse words.

Her output grew with poems about family, gardening, current events, growing old and death common themes. Haiku were frequent but also the longer-form tanka and other poetry styles.

grandson’s visit
we compare notes
on his parents

the twin towers burn
on this spring day
I plant tomatoes

Dying Plant

Death begins at the leaf’s tip.
Strange that from the outermost part
the slow withdrawal, the creeping retreat
of life should start.
I had always thought
that death starts in the heart.

She also wrote many loving and observant poems about her grandchildren, including a stillborn baby: hidden, unacknowledged pain.

A fellow haiku enthusiast from Katikati in the Bay of Plenty provided the impetus for the development of a haiku pathway in a public park in the town as a Millennium Project. Boulders inscribed with poems line peaceful paths under trees. The pathway opened in 2000 and my parents endured a long bus trip to the event as by then neither of them felt capable of driving long distances. Why didn’t one of her many adult children drive them? – I don’t know. Eight years later I finally went to see it for myself. Her rock was positioned beside a seat and read

one at each end
of the park bench
a man                a woman

We don’t talk about emotions much in my family but as my father Nigel’s health deteriorated she wrote:

Nigel

Nigel is dying
I am trimming the dead fronds
From the maiden hair fern

Now I will rake up
the fallen leaves
in the front driveway

Nigel is lying on the bed
his breathing is difficult
the leaves are blowing away

He died in 2001, more than 61 years since they married. Then they had been fresh graduates from Canterbury University, starting a new life together in Wellington in the early and uncertain days of an overseas war which New Zealand had joined.

My mother was lucky in that as an intelligent young woman in the 1930s she had the opportunity to have an education. At university in Christchurch she was taught by Karl Popper in his brief, unhappy sojourn in New Zealand, and academics including I.L.G. Sutherland who had started questioning white New Zealand’s relations with its indigenous population.

Her new ideas sometimes perplexed her conservative middle-class family and her husband, whom she met in the university’s journalism class. He was the editor of student magazine Canta. Although he had directed to study engineering by his father his work would always be with words – for many years he published journals about engineering. They both travelled to World Power (later called Energy) conferences which were often held in cities behind the Iron Curtain. Travelling provided good material.

crossing the date line
back to yesterday
not even a jolt

Second-wave feminism in the 1960s hit when Jeanette’s youngest children were still at home. She returned to university for a Masters degree in Sociology followed by employment with the Society for Research on Women. She enjoyed New Zealand’s centennial of women’s suffrage in 1993. A hundred years earlier some of her Canterbury relations had disapproved of that scandalous Kate Sheppard and the Christchurch suffrage activists.

My Suffrage Year Poem

I’ve loved every minute
of suffrage year,
the meetings, the medals,
all those bits on the air

All those wonderful women,
not just Ada and Kate,
who kept themselves busy
getting men in a state

Can’t wait for another
great suffrage book.
A small bit of funding
was all that it took.

You can dig out great grandma
if you’d like to know
if she signed the petition;
they’ve got the records on show.

All the money, the grants;
in a flash the time’s gone.
Is one year enough?
It could go on and on.

So all you men
you can come out from cover.
Alas – suffrage year
is now nearly over.

My one great regret
that I won’t ever see
what they’ll dream up next time
in twenty nine three.

Jeanette and her sisters grew up in a house with a maid and a picture of conservative Prime Minister William Massey on the wall. Over her lifetime her politics veered more and more to the left. I don’t know when she penned this prescient little poem.

Contradiction

Thanks to the people’s party
I got my start
now I’ve made my pile
our ways must part

She was also a long time peace activist and member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

peace group meeting
the two of them
still sniping

Although we didn’t appreciate her talent, my friend Jane did. Jane offered to be her literary executor, to which Jeanette agreed. The Japanese green tea competition success finally inspired the family and Jane agreed to select some of her best for a posthumous collection we would call Green Tea, after the surprise bottles. We found poems – haiku, tanka and longer poems ‒ in ring binders and on hard and floppy disks and on pieces of paper, often numerous versions. How to tell which were works in progress and which the final form? Somehow Jane managed. Then we siblings squabbled about what to put in or leave out. I was keen to include one inspired by a last road trip with Jeanette to a café near the Manawatu Gorge.

outdoor café
a leaf
in her latté

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So we collectively produced a nice little book of poems, Green Tea. Jane says they are popular with students at her high school who need poems for school requirements – short, accessible, often humorous. The profits from the small print run added to a little prize in Jeanette’s name for the NZ Poetry Society haiku contests (open and junior).

Finally, we appreciated her talent and the thoughts she left us with. Her words often accompany me when travelling.

checking the map
the road disappears
into a fold

ferry terminal
slowly the wharf
starts to move

in the sounds
imagining Captain Cook
around the next point

My mother never made a fuss about much but she was proud of her famous cousin W.D. (Bill) Hamilton, who was an Oxford evolutionary biologist. His mother Bettina, my mother’s aunt, was a friend of Landfall founder Charles Brasch and the older man acted as a mentor for Bill although they were usually in different countries. A 450-page biography of Bill was published in 2013 by a Swedish Sociologist from Chicago; she stayed with my mother during her research. Several years earlier my mother wrote a poem about her famous cousin which succinctly summarises this large book.

kin

my famous cousin insect man Bill Hamilton
enthralled by them all thrips lice aphids parasites
and all the social insects bees wasps termites ants
everywhere he finds his treasures with their secrets
under rotting bark in childhood Kent in Brazil
longs for a weta to be sent from New Zealand
offers a twist to Darwin not just the fittest
what about altruism some insects may die
let close kin reproduce their DNA survive
the questions come quicker than the time for answers
late recognition for the unpretentious man
sometimes forgets to give his once-a-year lecture
in Africa to search out source of HIV
is dead in a few weeks killed by a parasite

As her generation slowly passed on poems about dying and death increased.

they discuss options
cancer stroke heart attack
and all the rest
they laugh as if
they are given a choice

Being a prepared woman, she had also written her own eulogy. In it she considered the word ‘numinous’ and marvelled at life, although she was not sure what tense she would be in at the time of reading. That became my job at the funeral, at which we also handed out little paper haiku to those who attended. I also read out her poem:

Towards

It occurs to me
that growing older
has much in common
with the state of pregnancy.

Somewhere ahead
something is about to happen
it is not yet revealed
exactly what we can expect.

With no turning back
from the way we are set upon
no way will it not happen
only in time will we know.

One January evening a couple of years ago, my daughter and I were walking in the Wellington Botanic Gardens, which has a popular summer concert series and light installation. We admired an enormous puriri tree underlit by a gold spotlight. Sitting on the circular seat at the base of the trunk we looked up at a huge complex of golden furry boughs. Then we noticed a plaque recording that the tree was planted on Arbor Day 1917. Jeanette was born in March 1917, and often visited these gardens.

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Photo: Hilary Stace.

We had found the tree which inspired the green tea win and consequently the book, and her family’s belated respect. The tree’s vastness would have challenged her, as in her 80s she told my daughter she thought of herself as about 27 – certainly not as aged as a majestic tree.

This year, 2017, the anniversary of her birth, the summer lights are on again at the Wellington Gardens. This time the 100-year-old puriri is underlit with a flattering pink glow.

Now we too sit on this circular seat, contemplate the magnificent spreading boughs nurturing numerous epiphytic plants, and remember her. And realise at last how profound was her influence on her family’s culture and values.

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Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared as part of the Speaker series on the Public Address blog site, published on February 3, 2017. It appears here with the kind permission of the author. It has been adjusted slightly for publication here. Read the Haiku Showcase entry for Jeanette Stace.

Dr Hilary Stace is a Visiting Research Fellow with the Wellington Health Services Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington. Her research interests include aspects of disability and her 2011 PhD was on autism policy. Hilary is a regular contributor to the Access disability blog on Public Address.