A promise kept, a life on the farm

Last updated 05:00 11/11/2012

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"How about working in the Rongotea Post Office?" said my aunt Hannah. "You'd get a job easily, Pat, and then you could stay here on the farm."

I was young and careless with others' feelings. "I would stagnate at Rongotea," I said.

Mum's shocked expression told me how much that had hurt but I ignored them both.

Mum and I had moved back to the family farm in 1956, a year after Dad died. When I left school I became a Teachers' College student and was awarded a third year in Wellington, the first in the family to go to university.

Hannah had never lived anywhere but on the farm. And I didn't ask myself whether it was a life she'd have chosen.

She'd had to leave school at the tender age of 10 – she was needed to work on the farm. As she grew older, she fancied training as a hairdresser, but her mother wouldn't give her the bus money.

Her brother Bob drowned in 1928 during a family picnic at Tangimoana. He was just 18. A few years later, their father dropped dead on the farm. Hannah's mother made her promise that she would never leave, and that she'd look after her youngest brother. John had been the one to find his father's body, and he developed a stammer.

The years went on. Ted, Win and Lorna all left the farm, married, embarked on new lives in Taranaki and the Waikato. Hannah and John remained. Their mother died in 1954 but Hannah stayed true to her promise. I believe she turned down at least two marriage proposals.

My Plunket book records that she gave me my first bath. Even before I went to live there, we spent all the school holidays at Rongotea. I loved to feed the calves and soon learned to help with milking and feeding out hay.

Farm chores were fun for me, a novelty. But Hannah had no choice, and when milking was done she was washing sheets, towels and milking clothes in the old Beatty, or out grubbing thistles, fencing, chopping firewood, digging cow manure into the huge vegetable garden. She found time for an elaborate flower garden too, and would walk me around, patiently teaching me the various names. "These are gladioli, Pat, and dahlias, and over there … you know what those are?" I never did but she hid her disappointment.

Hannah was a vegetarian. As a small child she'd had to hold the lantern while her father slit the pigs' throats. That put her off meat for life. But every day she cooked meat without complaining, including a weekly roast for John and the rest of us. She baked constantly and the tins were always full. At hay making time she'd trudge off to the far paddocks with billies full of tea and endless scones. Afternoon tea saw the oak table spread with a tablecloth, plates of pikelets, buns, sponge cake. By late afternoon she'd changed her frock for milking trousers and gumboots.

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Her whole life was the farm but she hankered after new horizons. On a chest in the hall were two figures, a dashing kilted man on a horse and a couple seated under a bower. They fascinated me. One of our ancestors, Hannah told me, was Chancellor of the Exchequer and he'd helped Bonnie Prince Charlie on his flights from Scotland … had these been given to him in appreciation? What a let down when it turned out that a great aunt had bought them in a Glasgow junk shop!

As a child I couldn't understand their solitary lives. I tried to match John up with Gladys over the road – she was a spinster and the right age – but it didn't work. In a Palmerston North department store one day, I watched in discomfort as Hannah tried to explain something over the counter. She was painfully shy and could hardly get the words out.

In 1961 I was at university in Wellington. One weekend a Colombo Plan student I knew said he was driving up to the Manawatu. He offered me a lift.

Hannah opened the door and I could see her embarrassment. To her, a a space alien might have been calling. My friend was jet black and she'd never seen anyone like him before.

She gathered herself together and politely invited him in. She put on the kettle and opened the cake tins. Hesitantly she tried to make conversation.

And then … I'm not sure how it happened but my friend revealed that he came from a farming family in Nigeria and was in New Zealand to study agriculture. At last Hannah was on familiar ground. Her eyes lit up, she asked him endless questions, she laughed and chatted. She could hardly bear to let him go, which of course eventually he had to do. She talked about him for years afterwards.

She was a farmer all her life, taking time off only in May when the cows were dry and John could go fishing. She never left New Zealand, in fact I don't think she left the North Island. When their hard work paid off and the farm finally made a profit, friends and neighbours invited her several times to go overseas with them. I know she'd have loved it. John tried to persuade her but no, she had promised to look after him, whether he wanted her to or not. Her hip plagued her and she was often in pain.

I took the farm for granted. Always there was endless baking, cups of tea, hot dinners, beds made up for us. As time went on, my own children rode on the dray, played in the hay barns and fed the calves. My former husband took his new fiancée there, I took all and sundry.

In January 1988 I stopped off on the way home from somewhere. For the first time ever, the farm seemed desolate, the dogs silent in their kennels. The house was eerily quiet. Later I learned that Hannah and John had driven to Hawera to a great-nephew's wedding. The ceremony was outdoors, and a great-niece asked Hannah if she'd like a chair.

"No, thank you, I'm quite alright," she said … and promptly dropped dead. No one had known she was ill.

I always knew her as Nan, and my children called her Aunty. She hated the name Hannah, and when it became newly popular in the early '80s I would send her clippings from the birth columns. She found it hard to believe that anyone would call their baby Hannah. I wish she could have known that my own first granddaughter bears her name.

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