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.

Microscope magic

Ha! There’s something alive down there!” I fairly cackled with glee.  I love the stereoscope.

Looking through the magic oculars had revealed a hidden world.  A critter crawled past and I tried to count its legs.  I could only see 6, but it had the plump body and quick gait of a mite.  And those clear plump mounds with the beautifully and precisely placed white speckles, those must be its eggs.

Look in the centre of the photo for the translucent precisely speckled egg.

I picked up a leaf off my desk and peered at it again.  Nothing.  I could see nothing.  As a kid I had always prided myself in having good up close vision, even if at distance I struggled, but this time I saw precisely nothing.  I got out the 10x lens and squinted through it—now I could make out little white flecks that could be plant hairs.  I popped it under the scope, and suddenly there was something.  Lots of somethings, in fact.  I chuckled again and bounced in my seat.  Wow, they were tiny!

But what kind of mite could it be?  I tried googling and got a list of invasive-pests-to-be-aware-of…..I sure hoped we weren’t the first to find an invasive pest.  That would be complicated.  But an image search was reassuring—those mites from Chile were red, not clear like the ones I was seeing.

Then I remembered that cyclamen mites and broad mites are microscopic, so tried an image searching for broad mite eggs.  There they were, those perfect speckled domes!  “Ah-ha!” I exclaimed out loud, hoping somebody else in the office would share my enthusiasm.  No one noticed.

I started an email to the commercial crop manager.  I guessed that he wasn’t going to share my thrill of discovery, but I had to tell SOMEBODY.  I clamped the phone holder onto the ocular and focused on a particularly tantalizing egg, then snapped a photo of a microscopic herd of mites hiding in the nook between two plant veins, and was immensely gratified to find that the photos were decent quality.   I tacked them to the email.

The operations manager walked past to the desk.  “Hey, want to see something cool?”  He humoured me, and glanced at the photo.

“Nice.  How are you going to kill them?” he queried, right to the point as per usual.

“Oh, probably try Avid, it’s the only miticide we’ve tested on this crop.  Multiple applications….there are a lot of mites and Avid doesn’t kill eggs…..but aren’t they cool?”  He nodded and moved on.

Just then the grower in charge of the plants walked into the office.  “Hey, want to see something cool?”  I pointed to the picture on the screen.

“Wow, what are those?” he asked.  He has wonderfully expansive facial expressions, and shared my excitement.

“Broad mites!  You know those twisted bronzy leaves we thought were from high EC?  They’re full of mites!  And look at this!” I held a leaf under his nose.  “Can you see anything?”  He shook his head.  “No!” I chortled, “but here, look through the lens!”

A whole mass of mites fits in the crotch of a tiny leaf vein, nestled in among a few plant hairs.

He peered, mezmerized, at the leaf that was teeming with microscopic life.  “That’s a good a discovery!” he said.  “We would be waiting for those shoots to grow out after we water the pots, and we would be saying why these shoots not better, because the problem is really mites.”

Yes!  He understood the picture, and the gravity of the situation we almost found ourselves in.  I giggled.

Later that night I continued to talk Jeremiah’s ear off about the mites.  “Here, just LOOK at these beautiful eggs,” I adjured him.  “They’re gorgeous!  And tiny! and….Oh, and how was your day? ….signed a contract sounds good… Kaikoura….hey, I wonder if those mites can carry disease?!  Oh look, it says here the females are quiescent and the males carry them around on their backs until they’re ready to mate.  I actually saw that!  I SAW one carrying another when I LOOKED DOWN THE SCOPE!”  He nodded and smiled.  He was trying to share my excitement.

I can’t quite put my finger on it myself.  For some reason I find that miniscule world that is chocker full of life, and precision, and beauty to be terribly alluring.  And the thrill of discovery at a successful yet unexpected diagnosis never gets old.

It’s so good to love one’s work.

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.

Girly plaits

When we were expecting Naomi, we didn’t find out by ultrasound if she was a girl or a boy. We had known Milo would be a boy, and the second time I wanted to experience what it was like to be surprised.

When the midwife handed her to me I had a quick peak at her nether regions. “A girl” was confirmed. I had believed that I didn’t really care if the second was a girl or a boy, but my first thought betrayed me. “A girl! I’m going to do HAIR!”

I’m from a family of 4 long-haired girls, and our close family friends had three more girls. Imagine the fantastic hair dos we came up with.

Since Naomi was a baby I’ve always braided her hair to keep the whispies under control, but we are just coming into the time where Naomi herself is liking fancy hair dos.  Yay!

This morning Naomi put on her newly repaired Anna dress and asked for a fancy hair “plait.”

Kiwi crate obsession

“When is my Kiwi Crate going to come?”

“I don’t know, Milo.”

“Dad got the email that it was coming three weeks ago–WHEN will it be here??”

“It’s really hard to tell, Milo.”


We had this exchange, verbatim, EVERY DAY, for the last three weeks.

Each day he’d come home from school, and ever-hopeful, and peer into letterbox….only to be disappointed.  “When is my…….”  “Don’t know…”  “three weeks!….”  “Grrr!”

Until today, when the long-awaited orange cardboard box finally arrived. 


20190328_194301.jpgBuilding the kiwi crate project took precedent over afternoon snack, over rugby practice, over dinner….though sadly not over watching netflix.

Kiwi Crates are kits with a science theme.  They come with all the pieces to make a project, and kid friendly instructions to follow.  They can be built in the attention span of a child (short), and kits come for a couple different age ranges.

Milo has gotten some genuinely cool projects the last couple months involving electronics, hydraulics, and mechanics.  He’s good at following the instructions and perseveres to get it right.  An engineer in the making.

Naomi loves kiwi crates just as much. We got home to find a green box and an orange box on the door step. The kids swooped them up, grinning fiendishly, and emptied the contents on the living room floor.

Here’s the project that Naomi got to build this time. Inertia is the theme, and it’s meant to be explored by a type of curling game, and a mini bowling game. The random pieces were air clay and were custom built by Naomi, adding an artistic flair to the project.

Christmas on the Otago Rail Trail

“We are now on Christmas Vacation!  That means fun times, laughs, and treats,” Jeremiah declared.  He believes in optimism.  The car clock read 9:52 a.m.

The morning had been hectic with last minute packing and cleaning.  The kids had been “helpful” in the typical way 5 and 7 year old siblings can be: Harass–Squawk–Sent away to room–Emerge to tease again.  I emptied the trash, wiped counters, sent Milo over to the neighbor’s with surplus plums, and squeezed Naomi’s hair into a pony tail.  Jeremiah packed the roof rack, strapped on the bikes, and ate the last waffle before starting the dish washer.  Doors locked.  Garage closed.  “Hold tight, garden,” I said to the unmown lawn ringed with cheerfully untidy flowers.

30 minutes later we were zooming down Route 1 when Naomi quavered “Maaahm, I’m going to throw up!”  I scrabbled frantically for the barf bucket, shoving it under her chin half a second too late, and felt the pink liquid cascade down my wrist and shower the car seat.  She must have had berries on her waffle.

We stopped at Rakaia and stripped down Naomi and the car seat, using the RV wash station to hose out the car seat.  The kids played on the playground.  Soggy car seat lined with plastic bags, we buckled up again.  “I’m hungry!” Naomi declared.

The kids slept through Geraldine so we set our sites for lunch at Tekapo, where a new playground was recently installed at the lakefront.

Milo rejected the pb+j that we’d packed, and opted to spend his own money on bacon and egg pie at the cafe.  “This is The BEST bacon egg pie I’ve ever had!” he declared.  Autonomy from parental food choices tastes fantastic.

We drove through Twizel through heavy thundershowers.  I checked the forecast nervously; just scattered showers clearing predicted for tomorrow, our first biking day.  We could handle that.

The track started at Clyde Railway Station, appropriately enough for a Rail Trail, and it was dead flat.

The Rail Trail has boxes at all the former stations where you can stamp your Otago Railtrail Passport. Most of the time there wasn’t much left to see at the site of the former rail stations, but there are little red shelters with historical info inside. We stopped at all of them.

Naomi petered along for a kilometer or two, stopping to adjust her backpack, take off her jersey, take off her gloves, look at the flowers, adjust her helmet…  I acquiesced, a model of maternal patience.  Glancing at my watch, then at the ominous white haze I could see on the distant hills, I decided it was time for rapid movement.  “Come on Naomi!”  Not a budge.  I couldn’t see Jeremiah and Milo ahead anymore.  “Do you want a tow?” I offered.  Nod.  The pattern was set for the trip; towing over tantrumming.  Pretty good deal, we decided.

Here’s one of the former train stations. We have our coats on, which means we just made it through a shower.

Our first day was the only one where we saw rain, thankfully. Clear spells and rain showers, which became increasingly rainy toward evening. The last leg towards Omakau was the only time we towed Milo on the whole trip. The kids were troopers, keeping up a brave face despite cold hands. Maybe the fists full of gummy bears helped.

Next morning dawned bright and crisp, and we cracked on.  Here was voiced the most memorable complaint of the whole journey, when I asked Milo to brush his hair:  “Ug! When am I going to lose my hair?!”  Now, that’s a pessimistic way of expressing the optimistic side of an aging process about which most men feel negatively!

It was a quick downhill ride to the first treat stop, a nice little cafe at the Lauder cross roads.  I don’t think we’ve ever patronized cafes quite as frequently as we did on this trip.  

Tricycle riding looked like more fun to Naomi than bicycle riding.

With hand rails added and some extra boards chucked into the deck between the train sleepers, the old bridges are still being used for the cycleway.

There are two long (~200 meter) tunnels on the second day of riding. It took a crew of something like 40 men two years with wheel barrows and picks to carve out this tunnel. Old photographs from the later 1800s showed a crew of bearded men staring morosely into the camera, leaning on their shovels.  Just imagine the drudgery of their lives.

Here are the remnants of one of the tunneler’s huts.  The huts were roofed in canvas. Otago is the coldest part of NZ in the winter, with regular frosty nights.  While cheerful on a summer sunny afternoon, in winter it would be abysmal.  We read a newspaper clipping from the times with two politicians complaining against each other’s management of the rail project.  “The work is proceeding heroically with men working tirelessly to open the pass, the government should support it with more money” versus “The work is proceeding over-budget and over-schedule; they should use horses and drays instead of hand labor to rectify this wasteful situation.”  Half truths and one-sided stories aimed at damaging the other’s reputation.  Nothing has changed in 125 years.  

Oturehau is the hamlet where we stayed that second night, and it boasts the oldest general store still operational in NZ. The friendly proprietress/historian served us ice creams, despite being technically closed for the day.

We had been encouraged to book accommodation well ahead because the Christmas season is busy, but the days preceding the holiday were actually very quiet. We were the sole occupants of this humble hostel.

On the road again… the tune of Dr. Seuss’s ABC’s and what felt like dozens of renditions of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. A mild hill, then it was mostly down or flat for the next couple days.

The rail trail doubles as a scale model of the solar system. One step equals 75,000 km. As we got closer to Ranfurly (where the sun was housed) we passed planets with more frequency.

Somewhere near the trail high point was a sign for 45 degrees South latitude. It was light until after 10:00 p.m.

We got ice creams and stocked up on groceries at Ranfurly, for the next couple days food was self-catered. Just outside Ranfurly was this hillbilly’s idea of comical fence decor–dozens of pig skins (and heads) left to dry over barbed wire in the sun.

We stayed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at Peter’s Farm in Waipiata.  One brother runs the sheep and cattle farm, while the other runs the guest lodgings in the historic mud brick farm house. The sister returned with her family for Christmas, and the grandparents, retired and in their 90s, came up for the day. It could have been quite awkward, as we were the only non-family staying there, but it was actually lovely. It was like borrowing an extended family for the holiday, and we enjoyed laughs over their white elephant gift exchange as if it was our own.

We stayed at the sleep out next to the old farm house, kids and parents in separate huts. Luxury.

Merry Christmas! We haven’t preserved many Christmas traditions, but stockings is one of them. We had a box with a few treats sent to the farm.

Sand banks are hours of fun.

Boxing Day we resumed our ride.

Leaving the farm, Milo got to “heard” sheep along the driveway. I thought this might be the most memorable part of the trip to him–the power of one small human to move hundreds of sheep is amazing–but the next day the rabbit chase was even better. You’d think a rabbit being approached by a bike would duck into the nearby grasses, right? This silly individual scampered straight ahead on the road for well over a kilometer, until Milo, on his bike actually gave up chasing it.

Yum, cool-aid tongue in the shade for lunch.

Train cars….an excuse to stop for a diversion.

Milo had a little bike computer that told him the distance we’d traveled and the time it took. “22 kilometers and 1 hour 52 minutes biking,” he’d announce, impressively. I’d glance at my watch; 2:00 p.m. We’d departed at 9:30. Ah, MOVING time. We made a lot of stops. And the kids did great, really they did. It was just the last day or so when patience was wearing thin, on all sides.

Oddly, if one kid was throwing a wobbly, the other seemed to behave like a saint. Naomi had increasingly frequent stuck spells where she didn’t want to get on the bike or get towed, and Milo was usually the one to coax her forward again. Here she is, in full pout, hackles up, with Milo ready to go in for the rescue.

We spent five days biking, in total, and one rest day at Christmas, and covered about 150 kilometers. 158 if you count the jaunt up to Peter’s Farm, Milo reminds me. Mission accomplished.