Sometimes you’re the windscreen; sometimes you are the bug.

“Sometimes you’re the windscreen.  Sometimes you are the bug.”

I contemplated the truth in that old Dire Straits refrain as we drove back to Christchurch Sunday night after a weekend trip in the back country.

I knew which one I felt like.

In the back of my mind I knew I was being melodramatic, but why, oh WHY, did trips with the family always seem like such hard yakka?  And how could I change that for next time?

There’s a three day weekend in October to celebrate Labour Day.  [That’s right, this story is a month old already.]  Since it had been a while since we took the family on a hike, we decided it’d be good to go on a family adventure together.  We weren’t very proactive with plans, for various reasons, and the very week of the holiday found us still looking through maps and bouncing ideas around.

Part of the problem with weekend plans is that we all have very different ideas of what constitutes a good weekend.  The kids want to watch cartoons in the morning, see their friends all day, possibly at a playground or a skate park, and eat lots of candy.  Mom and Dad want to adventure in the back country, climb some hills, work up a sweat.  Mom wants a break from cooking, Dad wants to eat meat; Mom wants to make impromptu plans, Dad wants careful planning and execution.

West coast weather wasn’t looking too promising, and we wanted to limit our driving time, so we chose a trip out the back of Hanmer, at one end of the St James cycleway.

Jeremiah got the gate combination from DOC, and we decided to drive in as far as the Rav4 would go, then bike the rest of the way to the hut.

Turns out the car made it all the way to the hut, which was already occupied by teenage boys, but the weather was nice and we set up tents in the grassy paddock nearby.

“What do you want to do this afternoon?” I queried Jeremiah.

“Let’s bike up over the saddle to the Waiau River,” he suggested.  I looked at the hill.  The kids would most definitely be walking their bikes, but maybe that would be ok….I hoped. [this photo isn’t of the pass, just the cool bridge that crosses the river before the pass]

Turns out it wasn’t ok.  Not only did they NOT ride their bikes, but they whinged and carried on, even when I walked their bikes for them.

So we left their bikes by the side of the road, caught up with Dad, and told him we needed a change of plans.

We walked a little bit up a ridge line, but first one, then the other decided that walking up hill wasn’t for them.

We left them to stew in their whiney attitudes and eat the rest of the candy in their bags while we walked up a little higher.

Then we turned around and walked back down.

Back at camp we decided a foray to the local hot pools was in order.  Natural hot pools aren’t usually the vision of paradise on earth that one might dream of, what with the bacterial slime, the sulphury smell, and the sand flies, but this particular set of pools was about as good as they get.  People have built up the edges around the hot spring seep, so the water is contained and lots of people can fit in the deepened pool.  Sand flies can’t swim, we told the kids, put your shoulders in the water—but not your face or ears, or you might catch a protozoa that swims to your brain and makes you DIE.

Kids don’t mind muck, or the threat of brain parasites, so they quite liked the pools.

Jeremiah’s not much of a hot spring fan, so he cooked sausages, which we ate while reclining in the water.  Not a bad way to end a day.

“Sometimes you’re the Louisville Slugger, baby; sometimes you are the ball.”

Yep, that evening we were the slugger.

During the night the Norwest picked up, rattling the tents and putting boundaries on the plans for the next day.  Until you’ve experienced a New Zealand wind you might not appreciate how much of a show stopper it can be.  We hunkered in the shelter between the two tents for breakfast and thought about strategy.  No exposed hill walks for us.

We decided to go for a leisurely valley walk, Jeremiah with his gun and binoculars, kids with an eye for rabbit highways.

In the end that part was brilliant—we found rabbit highways, state roads, back lanes, condominiums, porches, porticos, and no shortage of rabbit toilets.  The kids were amused imagining the bunny dramas, while Jeremiah scanned the hillsides for bigger game.

Back at camp for lunch, we took stock.  The wind was, if anything, increasing, and the clouds were starting to look suspicious.  We decided to break camp, hit the hot pools one more time, and head home that evening.

On our drive out we were passing the best 7 km stretch of the whole St James cycleway.  Cognisant that we were ending the “biking weekend” without doing much biking, I suggested that we drive to the hilltop, park, and bike down the easy grade decent to the homestead.  My memory of that stretch was a sweet hardly-push-a-pedal glide with a smooth surface and effortless speed, just the kind of ride kids would like.  I’d have to bike back up to get the car, but that seemed a small task.

The catch was that the westerly had really turned into a gale.  We parked the car and felt it rock in the wind.  “You really want to bike with the kids in this weather?” Jeremiah queried.  Yes, I wanted to.  “I’ll just run back up, it’ll be easier than biking in this wind,” I offered.

Near the trail start the track turned sideways down a hill, so the wind was at our elbow, and at the same time there was a slight up-hill grade.  Naomi slowed to a stop and the whinge started.  Milo and I plowed along, laughing at the gusts, but Naomi wasn’t restarting.  I left my bike and jogged back.  “I don’t think it’s a good idea to bike with the kids in this weather,” Jeremiah posited.

“The wind’s at our back, it’s all downhill, and we have rain gear—how freaking easy can it get?! Let’s go!” I commanded.  So we went.  Whenever we got to the slightest incline, I heard Milo behind me moaning about the hill.  Naomi basically checked out and coasted the whole way, underneath her waterproof hood I couldn’t tell if she was enjoying it or not, but I thought it wise not to stop her and find out.  We reached the bottom, I parked my bike with the food basket, and turned around to run back into the wind.  After 10 minutes I glanced over my shoulder to see if I was making any headway, and there was a full arched rainbow stretching over the valley, through the flinging raindrops.

“Sometimes it all comes together, baby; Sometimes you’re gonna lose it all!”

 

Architecture of a holiday

No Kiwi would travel all the way to America for shorter than 4 week’s holiday.  It’s one of the charming things about the culture, and we took full advantage of it as we applied for a month’s annual leave and our employers didn’t bat an eye.

This time we went to the New York, and, remarkably, got see all our parents and siblings on both sides of the family during the course of that month.  I have three sisters (Kelsey, Rebecca, Susanna) and Jeremiah has 4 siblings (Ben, Missy, Isaiah and Moriah).

We started in the Adirondacks with Jeremiah’s parents.

The Shaws invited the Harros up to join us for a few days

During the Harro’s visit we drove down to Massachusetts to see a circus Kelsey used to work for.  We stayed with Susanna and Dara overnight, then went came back up to the Adirondacks.

(flick between this and the photo above and you can see everyone smiling with open eyes)

I had a work conference in Ohio that I jetted off to for a few days, while the kids stayed with the Shaws and Jeremiah got out on a hike with his brother.

Soon after we visited with cousin Ayla, Moriah and her husband Aaron in Glens Falls,

then went down to NYC for four nights to see my Mom and Dad’s new digs in Harlem, and attend my nephew Emerson’s baptism…..

and ride the subways…

and cool off in fire hydrants, like genuine city kids….

When we went back up to the Adirondacks, Missy and Eric (Jeremiah’s sister and brother-in-law) had arrived down from Nova Scotia

Sue hosted a big family gathering at their place where we got to see some of the extended family, and interspersed during our time in the Adirondacks we paid visits to the grandparents

and great grandparents

and enjoyed casual Adirondack days.

Transformed by white

We’ve had two days of strong southerly rains in Christchurch, making me think with sympathy of the emperor penguin dads huddled in the dark on the antarctic ice, where the weather system originated. This morning a hard frost covered the garden but the sky itself was clear. NZ is a commonwealth country, and, God Bless the Queen, we had Monday off today.

We refurbished some old pairs of gaiters and waterproof pants for the kids, and headed for the white hills.

“How much longer until we get to the snow?” Naomi wasn’t thrilled with riding in the car fully clothed in her outdoor gear. “We’re not sure, hun, we’re just going to drive until we get to snow deep enough for sledding.”

We reached playable snow by lake Lyndon, so we peeled off the main road and drove a little bit around the lake to a mostly smooth hill that didn’t end at the road or pricker bushes.  The snow was crusty and our flimsy plastic sleds weren’t up to the task, but we turned them around and rode them backwards after the fronts had broken apart. 

The highlight of the day wasn’t actually sledding, it was building. As the sun spent time on the snow it became a bit more malleable, and we could cut building chunks. Naomi is posing, but the wind break was really Milo’s project.

Yesterday someone else had been up there and built a major igloo out of snow blocks, most of which was still intact.

Jeremiah occupied the igloo much of the day, making hot chocolate and doling out sandwiches.  The wind was brisk and inside the fort was much more cozy than outside.

Our dear friend Mr. Kennedy has recently shared some photos from our childhood, and among them was this one, a snow cave we made at Sunnymeade circa 2002. The top layer of girls is Jennifer, Sarah, Susanna and Rebecca.  

Another ancient picture of a pair of cheesy grins, just for sh__s and giggles. Today I strapped on my snowshoes and trudged up the hill, eliciting a friendly comment from a woman that “I must be from somewhere cold.” She had never seen snow shoes before. Yep, there’s much fun to be had in the snow.

Memorable Memorial

“She’s sleeping a lot, and not eating much.  If it’s important for you to say goodbye in person, you should plan your trip for the next two weeks.”

Dad’s email was pretty devoid of sentiment. That was probably his coping mechanism to manage emotion.  From half way around the world in New Zealand, mine certainly were raging.

I am the oldest grandchild.  Mommom was only 52 when I was born, and since we lived in Saratoga, only 45 minutes from Delmar, we garnered the grandparent attention like no others.  We spent a lot of special time together.  For me my grandmother’s passing wasn’t a distant fact of life, as it is for so many others who had un-involved grandparents.  It was a bereavement; a loss of a source of identity, a loss of a great love.

Before Poppop died I had planned a trip back to the states with both my kids; Milo was 3 and Naomi was 8 months.  I had wanted to bring the kids back to meet both grandparents, as a way of honouring them and thanking them for their involvement in our lives.  When Poppop died three months later, I didn’t make a trip back for the funeral; I felt I had already said my goodbye in person.

But with Mommom, I felt differently.  At the end of her life, she wasn’t able to have conversations.  She might have recognized me, but then again she might not have.  I was already too late to say goodbye in person.  And after she died, I wasn’t sure how to move on.  No one in New Zealand knew her.  No one could share special memories to celebrate her life and enjoy her legacy, and that’s how she deserved to be honoured.  I needed the family for that.  I wanted to go home.

My uncle’s statement corroborated: “I will do everything including throwing toys out of the pram to wait until you can make it.  You need to be there and we need you there.”

It’s good to be wanted.

The memorial service was set for the end of May, plenty of time to plan a trip.  This time I went alone; we had a family trip already planned for July, and besides, I wanted to focus entirely on the Harro family.

I decided to fly in to NYC a few days early and spend some time with my Mom and my sister and her new baby.  Kelsey was working, so during the days Mom and I traipsed around Harlem and Manhattan with four-month-old Emerson, navigating the subways and enjoying uninterrupted conversation in the city’s many parks. Here we are at the NYC Botanical garden.

My first day in NYC we met Kelsey for lunch in Bryant Park, Manhattan, near her work.  Kels was home in the evenings, so we got to reconnect then too.

Kelsey is in the process of buying her own apartment, but this is her temporary lodging, and is probably typical of NYC living–tiny!

My major impression of NYC is that it’s HEAVING with people. Surprise, surprise. And on such a lovely spring day, everyone was out enjoying the day. This view is from the steps of the NY public library.

On Friday we took the train to Albany, where the rest of the family was gathering.  My aunt had organized a block of hotel rooms for us all to be close, and under one roof we had maximum time to converse after years of separation.  Some of my cousins have kids of their own, a passel of quick-moving boys, and I spent the first evening reviewing their names, wishing I had flash cards.  Quinn, Mason, and Colton.  Miles and Cooper.  Fox, Macaiah, and Teddy.  There, I’ve written them, I ought to be able to remember them….if they’d only stand still.  I gawked at my cousins Spencer and Crosby; they were young teens last I saw them, now they’re young men.  Does Crosby realize that he looks just like Clayton?  And Riley is driving!  Kevin has bulked out, John now has no hair…..and Duncan has more than his fair share of curly locks.  And the uncles and aunts!  Everyone has aged, and put on some weight.  But their fundamental characters are so stable and recognizable after the decades.

Saturday morning was the graveside service.  Poppop is buried in the cemetery behind their Delmar house, and Mommom’s ashes are there too, in the same sandy soil she fought with in the garden for 40 years.  Poppop did always tease her that she’d be cremated, so she’d be warm at the end.

Saturday afternoon we went to Thatcher State Park, where my aunt had reserved a pavilion, arranged a catered picnic, and set up a tent overlooking an escarpment for the memorial service.  It was filled with family and close friends, many of whom I knew from childhood.  Mommom would have loved it there.

My uncle had invited anyone who wanted to talk to prepare something short to share.  I wasn’t quite sure what to say, but wanted to honour Mommom by saying something.  My uncle suggested sorting some special memories into categories and seeing if a theme emerged, and said to aim for 3 minutes, max, and I had worked and reworked my memories into a theme of sorts.  Then worked on making it familiar enough that I had a chance of delivering it without being a untidy emotional mess.

“How can I look back and encapsulate the gift I had of being the eldest grandchild, of living near Mommom and Poppop when they were young and energetic?

“In three minutes….!

“That’s hard to do.  So instead I’ll just share a few favorite snippets of memories.

“Some of my strongest memories are of the things Mommom LOVED.

-yellow forsythia

-the bright green Weeping Willows in spring

-the cheery Marsh Marigolds

-the Fraser Fir Christmas tree, with baskets of dried flowers and chocolates

-her little green car; “I’ve come to visit you in my “Green Apple,” she’d say

She named the practical plastic table cloth that protected the carpet under the kid dining table her “flower garden.”

We drank Red Zinger tea from her special collection of tea cups

Her favorite word was “Lapis Lazuli.”

“She delighted in beautiful things.  In warm and colourful beautiful things. And in names…she loved naming things.  There is feeling in the names.

“My enduring memory of Mommom is that emotion counts.  The feeling of a thing matters.  And the words we choose to describe things have the power to shape how we feel about them.

“So in her honor, I will pause to admire beautiful things.  I will name them.  And I will take time to savour them.”

I had expected lots of grandkids to say a few words, but only one other put their hand up.  If I had known I was representing Grandchildren in general, I would have added some more.  I would have gone into more detail about the things they did with us—the overnight canoe trips at Follensby, the sizzling apples roasted in the wood stove, the quilt making and car trips to Charleston, getting tossed into huge piles of leaves raked up in the fall, and the birthdays and school performances and music recitals they celebrated with us.  I would have pointed out that the activities themselves were fun, but the real value was the love they gave us.  It’s a wonderfully secure place to be, when you know your family loves you, unconditionally, regardless of personality faults, achievements, or lack thereof.  I was reminded on this trip just how powerful that is.   Grandparents and extended family add layer upon layer to what parents can possibly offer.

My dad and his brothers all had something to say.  Their stories certainly illuminated who Mommom was, but interestingly enough what they chose to share and how they shared it was also uniquely characteristic of who they are.  Stewart made us laugh and didn’t need any notes to carry his tale.  Dwight (and Laurie) had show and tell items and a themed story.  My dad had a long story with a back story about where Mommom came from with fear and loss to fullness.  Ted made us laugh too, and incorporated some philosophy along with sincerity.

The day after the memorial we went on a hike at Rensselaerville, along a waterfall and to a little lake.

Jack in the Pulpits were blooming just as I remember as kid, hunting them out in the woods behind Mommom’s house and peering beneath their little flap to the preacher inside.

The walk’s destination was a little lake with a stony shore, perfect for stone chucking.

That afternoon we headed back to 10 Sylvan Ave, the old family home now owned by family friends, for a picnic.  I had been worried about going back to the beloved house.  Sometimes a place is changed beyond recognition, and a return visit is sad.  But this time, despite changes made by the Jerebek family, it still felt like a family home.

A week is a short time to travel all the way back to the USA, but surprisingly it was long enough to be refreshing.  The shared history of family is pretty special, as is their love, a love that’s independent of performance and undented by personality foibles. The oldest generation is gone now, but I’m still wearing their affection, an invisible cloak against the wear and tear of daily life.  Thanks, Family.

Sometimes Motherhood is Sweet

There are plenty of disadvantages to being the primary care giver for kids, but a few days ago even I had to admit that I had a pretty sweet deal.

It’s school holidays right now, the two week break between each quarter of the school year.  It’s always a juggle with working parents, but this time some friends and I decided to take a day or two off, pack up the kids, and head into Rod Donald hut for an overnight.

It’s a hut that you have to book, so we took a gamble on the weather.  Last time we walked in there it was wet and misty, but the hut has a nice cozy pot-belly stove and the walk is so short that we could bring luxury food and games; even a hut-bound overnight is fun.  And these two friends happen to be English, where any weather is good weather, so I knew we’d be ok.

Look at that blue sky! We “lucked out” with the weather. That’s a term I never really contemplated,, but the Kiwis find it really confusing….and for good reason. I don’t mean that I was out of luck, but rather that I got lucky!
It doesn’t look like we’re on our way to a hut in the hills, but we kinda are. We stopped at Birdlings Flat on the way to Little River, where we admired the stones and searched for agates.

Sally is a geologist, so you can see why she’s happy.
The little gem and mineral museum at the end of the dead end road is really worth a stop. The book there said that agates are formed in the voids left by gas pockets in lava. Water laced with minerals finds its way into these bubbles and slowly deposits crystals. The resulting agates wash up at Birdlings Flat as they are eroded out of the mountains, washed down the Rakaia River and tossed up on the beach. I love them almost as much as the kids do.

The hut is perched on the side of a hill overlooking the town of Little River, but the track to it actually starts above, at the pass. Since we were driving past the hut access road on the way there, us mommies hopped out of the car and carried the bulk of the overnight gear up the steep drive to the hut. That way the hike with the kiddos was really more of a stroll through pasture than a tramp.

Look at these hooligans! We were three moms and six kids, a passel of noise to be sure.  The boys walked along brandishing sticks at imaginary zombies and kicking a rugby ball, while two girls tied themselves together with a tow rope and sauntered along in a pair.

The hill top trees are warped by the prevailing wind into grotesque shapes, nice to contemplate on a pleasant sunny day, but fearsome if you were faced with the prospect of an exposed overnight in bad weather.

There’s our hut. Such a lovely site.

The kids made themselves at home with games….

…and with drawing

The mommies played on the slack line.  It’s a funny thing when I stop to think about it–why do I find this balancing game so fun?  I’m not sure.  Balance is a skill, it takes practice, and every time I make it to the other end I feel accomplished.  Yeah, I probably just crave gratification.   

What a friendly view. Last time we were here we just had to imagine it, swathed as we were in mist. This time the kids played hide and seek for hours in the grass outside the hut.

It’s interesting sharing kids with other moms, watching their styles. Milo spent–no joking–45 minutes trying to get this 2 meter long domino train of cards to work. They’re very touchy, and he kept knocking them down before he was finished. Emma took pity on him and used a pencil to make a safety stop so he wouldn’t lose the whole thing if a section fell over, a well as fended off the rest of the gang from coming too close and accidentally setting them off. I was ready to call it an exercise in futility and move on at the 15 minute mark, but both Milo and Emma were determined, and they eventually got it. Boy, are they pleased with themselves!

Failed attempt number 572:

Success at last:

School holidays end this weekend, and Naomi’s sojourn at school starts on Monday.  The times: they are are a-changing.

 

Unseasonable Taste of Summer

No, no, no, I KNOW it’s not summer. But it sure felt like it this past weekend. Sunday we played at Rapaki beach and even dabbled in the actual ocean.  Of course we displaced dozens of crabs and scores of snails in digging out the warm pools as well.

It barely hit 20 degrees on Saturday, but Milo got all red in the face on our little port hills hike, and said it was “Too HOAT.” Little kiwi, he has no heat tolerance! We told him to toughen up or else he’ll melt come summer.

Jeremiah packed the barbie and we charred some sausies for lunch at Sign of the Kiwi, along Summit Rd. Did you know that flax sizzles and pops when grilled? Milo now does.

Troup is having a feed.  The roof was burned off the Sign of the Kiwi last year, but it’s fixed up just like new now.  Actually even better than new–the underneath is lined with metal, maybe making it more fireproof than before, but the old fireplace is blocked off. 

The ball’s ricochets are a little unpredictable off the stones, but Milo didn’t care.  

See that gorgeous trunk that looks like a crepe myrtle? It’s the fuchsia that is native to NZ.

I apologize for the out of focus picture….but this is vaguely what the fuchsia flowers look like. Not quite puffy ballerinas like the ornamental varieties, but recognizable nonetheless.

Testing, testing, NZ medical system

When we were expecting Naomi I thought to myself “Good.  I’ve had one baby in the USA, now I’ll try the prenatal care and birthing system in New Zealand.”  I was pleasantly surprised how well the NZ midwifery system worked.  I felt that if I had run into complications that care would have been efficiently referred to an obstetrician, but the midwives I worked with were professional, skilled, and personable.  And the post-baby support beat the US system all hollow.  I’m a NZ birthing system convert.

I recently got to test the general medical system in NZ out….not that I have much personal experience with major medical problems in the US, so probably not a fair trial.  This test was a bit more rocky than the baby test.

April 2016 I started a problem that was eventually diagnosed as disc between two vertebrae bulging out and pressing on nerves, causing leg pain.  It sounds so simple in that description, but living with the problem was misery for months last winter, and I wallowed around in the NZ medical system waiting for one appointment or another… 4 months before getting an MRI (and therefore a correct diagnosis) and 9 months before getting approval (funding approval) for a surgery to correct it.  I’ll spare you the details of the wallowing.  I might do better the second time around, but probably not.  Basically the problem wasn’t an emergency (not life threatening), so rather than your first port-of-call doctor (a general practitioner in this case….well, after physiotherapists couldn’t do any more) ordering an expensive MRI scan, they order an appointment for you to see a specialist…and 6 weeks later when your appointment comes, they order and MRI for 4 weeks later….then wait again for a follow-up appointment.  You get the picture.  Health care is slow because it is rationed.  Economics is considered.  Unlike in America.

But in January when the approval for a surgery finally came through, I was actually feeling better.  Gradually, ever so incrementally, my back had improved to the point where I could mountain bike, and after that it got better on its own, slowly but steadily.  By late summer I was back to standing straight, not to mention back to hiking and rollerblading and all the stuff I love, and feeling that perhaps the slow-and-economical health care system was ok after all.  It’s financially sustainable at least, unlike the American system.

BUT THEN, that disc bulged again.  I don’t know why.  I didn’t DO anything.  But all of a sudden I was right back to where I was a year ago, limping around, not sleeping well, unable to do anything fun.  The only difference was this time I took more pain killers, because we were booked for our big trip back to the States and I just had to cope.  And this time, I already had all the contacts in place.

While in the States I was able to organize a new MRI appointment for the day after we got home, and an appointment with the surgeon two days later.  The funding approval was still valid from January.  He didn’t really have space in his surgery list for me, but he said it was a quick job and he’d squeeze me in the next week.  I felt like you do when you’re 40-weeks pregnant, when even the process of childbirth sounds better than the prospect of staying pregnant.  Cut open my back and take out that lump of the disc?  Yes please, that sounds great!

I don’t have many photos to share of that process.  I suppose I should have taken a picture of the knitting I was working on for hours before it was my turn for surgery, looking forward to the relief of the anesthesia.  Or the cheerful OR nurse with the bright blue eye shadow who said she had had the same problem (“It’s horrible, isn’t it?” she commiserated.)  No picture can show the relief of waking up and having the squirmy-can’-t-sit-still leg pain gone.  Just gone.

Sorry, this might gross some folks out….but did you know that disc cartilage is fiberous? That is the little piece that was causing me so much grief. “Can I see that piece of disc?” I asked the recovery room nurse. “You’ve already seen it twice!” she exclaimed. Had I? At least the last time I could focus properly.

I lucked out that the operation was at St George’s hospital. It’s pretty posh, and I even had my own room. Just one overnight stay, and then I was home.

That was a week ago, and I’m back at work now.  (Not back to vacuuming yet….thanks Jeremiah.)  Moving a little slowly, but feeling tremendously much better.  The surgeon says there’s a 95% chance that that will be the end of the saga.  A few cases re-occur, but if it does, I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.  In six weeks from now I should be able to get back up into the mountains to backpack, maybe in time to catch the end of the snowy season.

I guess the NZ medical system did work for me this time….eventually.