Topic: Letters from Joe by Leonie Couper

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When my brother Joe arrived on Labour Day in 1952 routine in our household vanished forever.  Joe was the child who choked the septic tank with toilet paper, painted kittens blue, used his older sister’s dinner plates as flying saucers and caused his father a few chats with the local policeman.  Conversely it was Joe who mowed neighbours’ lawns, babysat their children and took over the garden of his aging grandmother.

Before Joe we were a family of two parents and three children; the youngest seven years old.  Four more babies followed, but it was Joe who altered the landscape.

Joe was nine when I left home to work in Wellington.  Shortly after began the letters which broadened my knowledge of him and his hurtle through the decades.  The first, painstakingly scribed in blue ballpoint in August 1961, included instructions on how to cure a possum skin; advice for which I don’t remember asking.

Over the years eight page letters signed with many kisses told of the goings-on in the neighbourhood, the escapades of him and his mates and his passion for ‘gurdening.’ Spelling was not Joe’s strongpoint.  A distraught letter arrived when Rastus his much loved dog was run over by the milkman.  The new pup Suzie’s paw print appeared on a letter a few months later.  By then lots of love had been replaced with fondest regards.

I was married and living in Auckland when Joe, then fifteen, wrote, “What do you think about lighthouse-keepers? I am thinking of being one for about fifteen years and then if I’ve saved enough getting a farm.”  The lighthouse-keeping never eventuated, along with later thoughts of going to Massey University to study geology.

Joe was sixteen when my husband and I took him on an Auckland Tramping Club trip to Mount Ruapehu.  The memory of the muscle-taunting climb up the mountain that day in January with the sun crystallizing icy peaks remains with us all.  For Joe it sparked a lifelong passion for tramping and climbing.

The passion did not extend to school work.  Half way through the seventh form Joe’s letter began, “I knew you would be angry when I left school but I thought a lot about it and it seemed to be a complete waste of time.” 

Anger was not what I felt.  Joe was blessed with a keen intellect.  Our family hoped he would gain a bursary and go to university.  Instead he joined the work force at the local timber mill and supplemented his income with possum trapping.  Then, after an altercation with his boss, he bought an old truck and went fencing around the Wairarapa and Hutt Valley.

There he might have stayed except for an inner spark of ambition.  Approaching 22 he wrote, “I have been down to Wellington for a couple of interviews.  It seems that I’m not much good to anyone as I am so I’m going to go to university next year.  I think a B Com is the most useful degree…

The following year Joe entered Victoria University in Wellington to begin a commerce degree.  Anything more removed from his adventurous soul was impossible to imagine.

In 1976 while working in the accountancy department of General Motors and studying part-time Joe became deeply depressed and ready to quit. He wrote, “…all those years of wandering around the wop-wops has slowed my brain down I think.  The girlfriend situation is a bit hopeless – they are a different breed down here – a person like myself without a background in the social norms and values of these kind of people is at a bit of a loss.” 

To beat the black dog he joined a tramping club, took dancing lessons and read books on positive thinking.  Towards the end of the year and still morose he penned, “….I am getting old faster and faster it seems.”  He was 24.

On a business trip to Wellington my husband arranged lunch with Joe and suggested he come to Auckland to finish his degree.  He could work on the new house we were building in exchange for board.  Joe agreed.

Before moving north he took his youngest brother and an old school friend on a tramping trip in the South Island.  Over the Olivine ice plateau they went with ice axes and packs containing tent, sleeping bags, rain gear, four layers of wool and food for twelve days.  Coming down from the plateau Joe led the charge over the Routeburn Track before trekking through Fiordland’s bush and rivers.

When the trio eventually emerged unshaven, lean and hungry Joe had conquered his demons.  With his worldly goods piled into his blue Vauxhall Viva he arrived in Auckland to begin again.

Full-time university and a Dale Carnegie course followed, slotted in with wielding a paintbrush and trundling wheelbarrows loaded with sand and scoria.

In August 1978 while he was preparing for exams in eight papers our mother died of an asthma attack.  Anger, bitter tears, desolation followed.  Our grandmother and eldest sister had died within days of each other in 1972.  In 1975 our father passed on.  With our mother’s passing the nucleus of our family was gone.  Spring became winter. 

Joe walked in and out of exam rooms in a daze and passed all eight papers.

Joe was in his final year at Auckland University and working for a firm of chartered accountants when my husband and I and our two children left to live and work in Fiji for a time.  Letters resumed.

I have decided that I will have to get married.  That only leaves the problem of finding a girl that can put up with me,” wrote Joe. 

Self improvement began again.  Tennis, Toastmasters and drama classes joined the list of leisure pursuits.

Finally in 1979 came the coveted Bachelor of Commerce degree.  Success bought a Paper Tiger yacht, two mortgages on a house and an $18,000 salary.

I am looking at various career paths at the moment including PNG.  I really must do something soon however as age 29 is getting old.” 

Joe’s finances improved but the butterfly of love still flitted out of reach.

The dawn came shortly before Joe’s 30th birthday. “I have two female flatmates at the moment.  One is a gorgeous, golden-haired, shy, petite person with a wonderful personality…

The following year Joe married Pamela, his gorgeous golden-haired flatmate.  Over the next few years we joined them on adventures around New Zealand.  Photographs from the summits of Mount Ngarahoe, Mount Tongariro and the McKinnon Pass on Milford Track filled our albums. 

Joe became finance manager for the Union Steamship Company, sold the Paper Tiger, bought a share in a 16-foot keeler and in 1988 completed an MBA course, signing with a flourish a 200 page thesis.

Restless genes were twitching again and in February 1989 Joe and Pam headed to Papua New Guinea where Joe had secured a position with another shipping company.  Letters told of learning Pidgin English from their Highland house boys, of majestic mountains, bushwalking, bats and leeches, bars on windows and Boof the dog.  Joe called us his ‘Wontoks’ (one talk) and signed his lettersluk autim yu yet’ (look after yourselves.)

Joe and Pam had been in PNG six months when a tropical illness brought Pam home for treatment.  Soon after her return to PNG their first child was conceived; a life-changing event which brought to an end the halcyon days.

Back home Joe secured a contract as finance manager with a newly-formed health board and he and Pam settled in Tauranga.  While attending a conference in Southland shortly before the birth of their daughter in September 1990 he took a trip on the Kingston Flyer steam train. 

Standing on the swaying connection between carriages Joe shouted to the mountains, “I’m going to be a Dad.”

After their daughter’s birth Joe and Pam bought a block of land at Pyes Pa near Tauranga.   Lambs, cattle and uninvited goats followed the clearing of gorse and ragwort.  Joe resurrected his fencing skills and Pam painted white pickets between tending a fractious baby. 

A second child, a son, arrived in 1992 three days after Joe’s 40th birthday.

High-salaried positions followed along with a move to Hamilton, but on the home front dark clouds were roiling; clouds that Joe in his endless climb noticed too late.  Early in 1996 he and Pam separated.

Joe plummeted.  Back to bachelor flats, unmade beds, unwashed coffee cups and children on the weekends, along with self-awareness courses, Mars and Venus books and deep philosophical discussions on how to win Pam back.  He might as well have been peeling daisy petals; she loves me, she loves me not.

After years of yo-yo emotions their young son provided a solution. “I have noticed when you stand up you argue.  Perhaps if you sat down you wouldn’t,” he said.

Christmas 2000 Joe and Pam reunited.  They are together still. 

The letters though have long ceased.  E-mails have taken their place.


About the writer: Leonie Couper was raised in Martinborough in the Wairarapa District.  She and her husband Ian have two adult children and three grand-daughters all of whom have been coerced and cajoled into listening to, editing or proofreading a proliferation of written work, some of which occasionally gets published.

‘Letters from Joe’ 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.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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