Topic: Labels by Karen Peterson Butterworth

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How we persist in stamping present-day understandings on past events. Like the night after Mum’s ashes ceremony. When my brother Ken, staring over his wine glass into the Kent fireplace, burst out, “Our mother was a child abuser.”

And a bit later, “We were a dysfunctional family.”

At the time I was so pissed I felt only a surge of recognition. “Yes, that’s how it was.”

I worked off my hangover in the garden next day, fighting tough weeds, scoring my hands on notched stems. Even in childhood I could never stay long in a confined space with my siblings. Books, the bush and the garden were my refuges. Still are.

While I pulled weeds Ken’s words ticked over in my mind. How could he say that, when she never laid a finger on him? Or any of the young ones. Not really even me. Not a finger. Only the clothes pole and the pot of porridge.

I see her again, rushing at me with the pole like a medieval jouster. It's pointed at my stomach. I'm twelve years old and I have no lance of my own. At the last moment she veers aside. She tries to pull up, hits the tankstand with a terrible jar, and collapses into a crying heap. Dad rushes out, alerted by the little ones' screams.

That must be what Ken was remembering. But I’d known all along that she wouldn’t hit me. She was really quite a drama queen. The pot of porridge missed me too. By a wide margin. Dad laughed that time. 'Your aim always was terrible, Edna,' he said, as he cleaned up.

Today I can stick my own labels on Mum. Premenstrual tension, overwork.


Why didn't Ken call Dad a child abuser?


Another scene. Dad coming up the drive in the pre-war Chevvy. Not seeing the toy pram on the garage floor. Getting out of the car and staring down at the heap of tangled metal and canvas. He knows instantly my brother's been playing with it. Him chasing Ken round and round the house. Ken’s eyes popping, little legs pumping. Then the crack of hard hand on small bottom, the yells turning to roars of outrage.

I don't think Ken remembered that. You forget physical pain soon afterwards. It's what you see, smell and hear that sticks in your mind.

Dad had a razor strop. There was theatrical menace in his voice all those times he half rose, saying, “Where's my razor strop?” but I never saw him use it – or even his hand more than half a dozen times, and there were five of us.

At school we were constantly being upstaged by kids who displayed strap-shaped blue welts on their thighs. We pretended ours were all inside our pants, an area too 'rude' to be shown. 


A dysfunctional family?


What about the hours we played or read together as a family in spite of our parents' workloads? Dad getting up at six o'clock to milk the house cow before he biked to work at the sawmill. Mum feeding the baby, cleaning out ashes, lighting the fire and stirring the porridge. Harrying us out of bed and into the freezing bathroom and our clothes, cutting lunches, checking schoolbags, hair and fingernails, and shoving us off to school.

Then all day cleaning up. Emptying the pee pots in the orchard to nourish the fruit. Blacking the stove, her face and apron gathering smudges. Sandsoaping the kauri  bench and table, mopping and polishing the lino. Shaking the mats. Filling her biscuit and cake tins. Feeding chooks, scraping nappies and rubbing sunlight soap into them on the corrugated washing board. Stoking the outside boiler, hand-wringing the steaming washing, hanging it out. Feeding the baby. Weeding. Folding nappies. Keeping one ear on 4YA on the mantle radio. Classical music, domestic science, sparkling career choices for her kids. Dad and Dave, and Much Binding in the Marsh at night. But never jazz or swing. That was on 4ZB, the vulgar station.

Dad coming home from work, “Have you got a wee bite for me, Nedda?”

A quick cuppa, a glance at the Otago Daily Times and a smoke before he chopped the wood and we carried it in and stacked it. Used tobacco tins lying round the house full of matches and butts. Scorch marks on the mantelpiece and the dunny seat.

One of them filling and pumping the mantle lamp at twilight – its menacing hiss and kerosene fumes. The lantern to see us to the outside dunny, and candles for going to bed.

The youngest ones on Dad's knee being bounced and sung to in his glorious Celtic tenor. Barnacle Bill, Down by the Cane Break and Good Old Jeff. Him drying us after baths before the evening milking. Him winding the cream separator up to a whine and singing loudly. The Road to the Isles, The Mountains of Mourne, I Never See Maggie Alone. One of us turning the churn handle to make butter and another tossing it between wooden butter pats.

Both of them with thick biceps, thighs and calves, and I thinking that's the proper shape for a man or a woman. Still do, but the muscles people get from the gym don't look right. Too hard and perfect. No scars or varicose veins.

The way we washed our bodies every day and bathed once a week to save tank water. A smell of fresh sweat in the morning, a little stale by night time, but still friendly. On holiday, discovering the unbelievable stink of city kids who bathed daily.  That smell of worry mixed with deodorants, perfumes and fancy soaps that still suffocates me in lifts and public transport. And finding our city cousins actually liked this odour and detested the smell of sweat.


The youngest three don't remember much of this. By the time they went to school in the fifties we were modern. Still no electricity, as we couldn’t afford a mile of power lines. We had a Rayburn heat storage stove, a kerosene fridge, and a washing machine with a lever we kids pushed to and fro in shifts.

That weekend none of us thought to mention the hugs on the doorstep before and after school. The eager question, “How was school today?” Mum pausing from her ironing, pastry rolling or spud peeling to help us sound out a difficult word.

Hours spent on rainy days making flour paste, spreading paint and paper on the kitchen table, moulding Plasticine, cutting out pictures for scrapbooks. Always one of us practising the piano. Mum taking an interest and never minding the mess.

Walking to the swimming hole on the Clutha gravel road with dust tickling our eyes and noses and our gym shoes skidding. Bush walks with Dad naming the trees and birds with his liquid South Otago Rs - red pine, black pine, maple, lemonwood, rifleman, bellbird, robin –  and Mum following with Latin and some Maori, proud of her one year at high school and the reference books stacked at home.

Her best friend was one-eighth Kai Tahu. We talked in fractions of 'blood' then, and Dad knew every fraction of his working dogs' lineages. Knew what to expect of them in temperament but was sometimes surprised. Why should people be different?

The toys at Christmas. Dolls’ faces moulded out of papier mache with features painted on and wool hair glued on. The hand-made doll's cot and cradle, the laboriously sanded and re-painted secondhand bikes.

Mum sewing our clothes at night on the treadle machine and Dad pickling and preserving because, “I'm not going to stop work until you do, Nedda.” Or “Time for bed, sweetheart. That can wait till morning,” and that funny smirk on their faces.

The time I saw the pink tablets on her dressing table and asked, “What are those?” A pause, a blush, then, “Just soap, dear.”

The weekend her family were expected. The house clean except for whiskery mould on a few jars, but hellishly untidy. All of us rushing round and throwing everything into boxes under beds. Mum collapsing in exhaustion and quaffing her nerve medicine straight from the bottle.

Dad meeting her family at the gate and telling them she was sick. Then Mum appearing in her dirty floral house dress, staggering and yelling, “I've finished my medshin. Gimme shum more green medshin!”

Dad taking a first proper look at the label. And her almost a teetotaller. His folks too, but not him.

Of Mum's frustration becoming physical I remember only the two times – unless you count the screaming fits. This was labelled suburban neurosis later. Cabin fever, people call it now. Jammed in between four walls day in, day out, with a heap of small people as ornery as yourself.

I know myself well enough to see my own part in it now.

My brother could equally have said, “We were all abusive children,” or, “Humankind is a dysfunctional species.”



Footnote: The writer's youngest sister, a baby at the time this story ended, commented about the scene of the crushed pram: “And now for the real story. Kenneth and Mirren had been using the old cane pram (not a toy canvas pram) as a trolley, riding it down the drive. They were called up to the house for lunch so parked the pram in front of the car which was in the garage (a lean-to under the tree.)

“Dad had his lunch and then went and got into the car (going somewhere) and drove over the pram. Thinking that one of his kids may have been in it he was very white and shaking and bellowed out, ‘Where are those kids?’ Kenneth and Mirren, understanding by the tone of his voice that they were in BIG trouble, ran down the hill to where a very angry father awaited and had their bottoms spanked. There was no chasing around the house and no roars of outrage or pain. I don't think the spank was that hard and we did understand that we probably deserved it.”

Author's response: “This is a timely reminder of the difference between history and memoir. Over decades the human mind inevitably garbles and tangles childhood memories and places them out of sequence. At the time the story ends Ken was aged three and Mirren a toddler. The author recalls a vivid image of their father chasing Ken around the house, but it must have been for a different and earlier sin. The family's pram was cane, and their push chair canvas and metal.”

About the writer: Karen Peterson Butterworth was born and grew up in Catlins, South Otago, and now lives and writes in Otaki. Winner of the 2001 BNZ/Katherine Mansfield Essay Competition, she has published three non-fiction and two poetry books and had stories and poems published in New Zealand and overseas journals and anthologies. She jointly edited (with Nola Borrell) the 2008 anthology, the taste of nashi: New Zealand haiku, and has won two Australian haiku competitions and been placed in poetry competitions in New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Great Britain.

‘Labels’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers, and was awarded 1stPrize by judges Susan Brocker and Tommy Kapai Wilson.


The author's 1940s butter ration card.


The Peterson farm, Riverview, with view of Tahakopa River, bush and estuary, with the house hidden by trees. Watercolour sketch by H. V. Miller, late member Otago Art Society.


The Peterson family dressed up for an aunt's wedding - author at right, aged about 12.


The Peterson children and their mother in front of their house - author aged 9, back right.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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Labels by Karen Peterson Butterworth