Topic: First Memories by Enid C. Meyer

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First Memories by Enid C. Meyer is a 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

We were at a gathering of our local Guild where our speaker was a historian on capturing the past. She asked, “What was your earliest memory?”

That was easy, though it was not a memory I liked to share. Often I return to that cold winter’s night when I was three years old and lying in a pram in the kitchen by my parents’ bedroom door, so they could attend to me if I woke crying. Yes, it was a pram. I well remember the bobbles around the hood that swung back and forth as they rocked me to sleep.

I’d trodden on a rusty nail when running around without shoes and my foot became infected. It was the Depression and there was no money for doctors. Mum told me later that whenever she saw the doctor he would ask, “How’s my little girl?” She would feel awful because his bill had yet to be paid.

They had tried everything to bring the swelling down and Dad finally applied a steaming hot bread poultice while I screamed for mercy. I’ve a scar to prove it. But my foot was saved and I laid in the pram to sleep at night for a month or so.

We lived on a farm in a soldier’s settlement near Featherston, balloted to soldiers returning from the First World War. Two of the neighbours brought back English brides. ‘Pommy girls’, my mother called them, who wouldn’t know one end of a cow from another.

We weren’t the first owners of the farm. There had been half-hearted attempts by previous owners to clear the bush, but much of it was still standing. Mum said every cabbage tree had liquor bottles pushed down the hollow boles of the trunks. It must have been a hard life for those girls brought from the streets of London to the wilds of south Wairarapa. No shops, no transport, no friends and no hope of salvation. No wonder they took to drink.

Dad and his workers were busy on the farm, but became friendly with the neighbours on each side, chatting about day to day problems, borrowing or lending equipment, often becoming an ear to listen to troubles as they came along.

One of the men had bought a motorbike and was keen to ride it around the paddocks. He soon had a following of bike enthusiasts turning up at his farm to do likewise, chopping up the turf. The cows objected to the noise and milk production dropped, making things harder than ever. His wife took exception to the lack of money and found solace elsewhere.

Dad was an enthusiastic duck hunter and was in the habit of going for a shoot on a Sunday afternoon to a pond near the neighbour’s house, to liven up the menu at the expense of the birds. One day while standing on the bank of the lagoon, he noticed a couple hard at work under the sheltering trees. As he put it, “They weren’t cutting thistles.” It was this neighbour’s wife and another fellow with a reputation for the ladies from up the hill, Dad ‘didn’t see’ them and fired a shot over their bows. I didn’t hear about this until I was much older, of course; but it did make things clearer for me about the night in question.

I was in the pram and the wind was blowing up a gale and shaking the house, making it hard for me to sleep. My foot was throbbing and it was dark with only the glow from the stove giving any light. Ghostly fingers tapped on the glass panels of the French doors, and a strange voiced called, “Les! Les” for my father. He came out wearing only his shirt, his usual night attire. He opened the door and ran for his pants as a woman fell breathless on the floor.

It was the neighbour’s wife. She told Dad she had gone looking for her husband when he didn’t come home from milking. She found him dead in his car. He had gassed himself. The woman was distraught and sobbing her heart out. By now Mum was up and the kettle was on to make a pot of tea. Even if we lived in the wild, we did have electricity. She built up the fire to warm the room, and Dad went off to dress and take the woman home as soon as she had recovered a bit.

She was sure her husband was dead, and he must have done the deed as soon as he had finished milking and let the cows out of the bails. As they left our house, Dad said he would still go and find his mate and see if anything could be done, then phone the authorities.

I don’t remember the funeral at all. The women of the district gathered around the widow and tried to help her, but it was too late for the sort of help she needed. Living in such an isolated area without friends or family would be hard even on the children of pioneers, brought up as they were not to expect much in the way of luxuries. And that was exactly what they got. “Not much.”

Hard work and hard conditions were the norm.

But for a girl who had travelled half-way around the world to Paradise, as it would have been described to her, the soldier’s settlement farm she was taken to would have broken many a strong heart. Hours of drudgery removing the stumps of trees cut down when the mill went through the property taking the best timber. Work that was never-ending.

The tired man who came to bed at night worn out with heartbreaking effort would have spent little time reassuring her that good times would come.

The cabbage trees with their dark secrets are long gone, but the farms of the area survey. Today they are an example of the men and women who broke them in.

Or were broken by them.

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/VSF5-NZPR

 

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