Topic: Aunty Rora by Kristina Jensen

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Her skin is as soft as….

Wait. I have to think for a minute. Cool watermelon temperature with a kitten fur texture. That about captures it.

I don’t want to say ‘was as soft as’. I know my ‘aunty’ Rora Paki-Titi isn’t in the land of the living now, but I can see her looking right at me, with that special look that made me feel included. She is here with me as I write, guiding my hand, chuckling softly in that child-like way of hers. You know she’s thinking of something funny but she won’t always tell you if you ask.

She winks at me, one of her informally ‘adopted’ mokopuna. Me, a white pakeha girl dropped into the close-knit Māori community of Oparure, nestled in the hills of the northern King Country about five kilometres from Te Kuiti. ‘Adopted’ along with all the rest of us white kids by the aunties that live around the marae.

Colour wasn’t much of an issue with them. If you were part of the school, you were expected to act accordingly. Know the drill, show up, follow the rules or else one of those nannies would be whopping you round the head with her slipper. And, boy, could they move fast if they caught you sitting on a table or putting your backside on someone’s pillow in the sleeping house.

Aunty Rora is all love and mother-hen one minute; the next, she’s yelling at that big boy, Lane, “Get in here, boy! Hurry up or I’ll get out there, by kare, give you a piece of my boot.”

We all stand in line, our hands over our mouths trying not to laugh. Time for ‘religious destruction’ as my mother jokingly calls it. Mrs. Paki is our guide and although I recall her voice almost hypnotizing me with the gentle practised rhythm of the storyteller, I cannot remember the actual Bible stories themselves or what it was that I was meant to learn from them.

She folds me into her embrace like an egg white into a pavlova, then squeezes me hard; really holds, so that I feel cherished. So different from the perfunctory quick contact-and-release within my own family. Her cool kitten cheek rubs against mine: her memories spill over, and she remembers her own childhood, travelling north to meet that old bugger of a husband, an arranged marriage and she with her hopes on London, being a writer.

Pretty young Rora swallowed all that and learnt to love her new husband ‘on the job’, kids popping out like firecrackers. Her eyes twinkle when someone mentions the notorious exploits of his male dogs. “Just like his owner,” she chuckles and we laugh with her.

My parents grazed the Paki land and hay was traded back and forwards between them, the common threads of farming connecting them. Rora’s husband, Mahuri, cut an iconic profile as he drove down the Oparure Road on his old tractor, head held high, an assortment of dogs on the back. We knew him as the old man with no teeth who held his trousers up with bailing twine.

My Danish father loved the eccentricity of these locals, their funny quirks of habit and connections to every other Māori in the area. When Rora died, he said, “You know, I waved to her every time she drove by me up on the road, but she always had her head up looking straight ahead, never saw me. That is how I will remember her. She looked just like a queen, like royalty.”

There are many things I could include here about Aunty Rora that would tell you what she was in the world: a writer, weaver, mother of ten children and a highly respected kuia, awarded an MBE in 1991 for her services to the community.  Right now though, I want to remember the profound impression she made on a young Pakeha girl moving into puberty and into a different sort of New Zealand, one that included learning powhiri and karakia on the marae, speaking te reo Māori at school and learning poi and haka.

I am visiting her this one time - the date isn’t important; what matters is that I know it will be the last time I will see her alive. It is important for me to acknowledge her. To tell her that I love her, appreciate her support and her involvement in my life and the life of my family.

She had woven a stunning kētē for my mother, which touched me greatly as it carried her mana and also honoured the connection she had with my mother. Of course, I don’t speak this love out loud. As she holds my warm skin-still-tight hand in between her cool wrinkled palms, I try to translate my respect and aroha into touch.

“I don’t get out much anymore,” she tells me. “Isn’t it beautiful here in the garden?” And we sit like this, soaking each other in.

 

I am surrounded by a tranquil feeling of peace and beauty: the beauty radiating from a strong Māori woman in the twilight years of her life. I want to just look at her majestic face and remember not necessarily what she is saying, more how she is saying it. I want the sound of her voice, musical, gentle and full of a preciously fragile timelessness to imprint itself onto my heart so that she can live forever as a whisper on the wind.

When I need courage, confidence or a connection to that timelessness, I hear her whisper now. Rora reminds me who I am, one of her treasured mokopuna. She reminds me that it is my responsibility to keep the connection going, believe in myself and pay attention to the beautiful moments in life.

 

About the writer: Kristina Jensen is a poet, writer and musician living on a boat in the Marlborough Sounds with her artist husband and home-schooled son. As a family, they advocate spending as much time with nature as possible. Kristina’s works have been published in New Zealand, Australia and America and she holds a Diploma in Creative Writing.

‘Aunty Rora’ 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 Highly Commended by judges Susan Brocker and Tommy Kapai Wilson.

 

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/EA9D-NAP3

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