A story by Dani Deluka paying tribute to a little cottage once used as a Catholic refuge for young pregnant girls.
Womens Weekly February 1983. Seeking: Plum Stephenson and Marianne (Tink) Smith.
Kahe McDiamond would like to make contact. Please phone…
Te Moana was our mother, we were her scandalous daughters. The sinners. No diamond rings on our fat fingers. We ended each day with the sea. She held us in her palm, as we lay on our backs in her restlessness. She too could swell, her huge waves rolling and crashing at whim. We came home from our walks with a touch of her calm. Or her wild.
74 Tilley Road was donated to the Sisters of Compassion as a small seaside cottage in which they might take retreat. But we were the lucky ones who got to share it. It was a bitter but extremely sweet time of friendship, and motherhood.
The tiny two-bedroom charcoal grey cottage with a sunroom was above the railway line, and had a wash house out the back which contained an old piano. It had a chalk blue coal range oven and a small simple bathroom with a large clawfoot bath.
Each room had a single bed with plain flannelette sheets and a woollen blanket. The sunroom was also made up this way. There were thin curtains, no linings, no lace – no telephone, no trimmings. Everything was basic and adequate. We loved it.
The dining room was warm with an open fireplace and there was a little nook for a library of books – we read nearly all. There were two comfortable old green velvet chairs and a small, well-worn, sunken maroon couch with wooden arms, which Tink used to curl up on to nap, like a cat.
It had all day sun, and the wind would catch the light and decorate the walls with the patterns of leaves from the outside trees. We would join our shadows together in the backdrop like three cut-out paper dolls. It was close enough to the sea that we could walk down in the early mornings and evenings but we were warned to be as invisible as possible and not to make spectacles of ourselves, in our condition.
Sister Beach, on seeing many young unwed pregnant mothers in her travels with no financial independence or place to go, had decided it was her mission to take care of those she could, gifting us the small house to spend our last three months of duration.
It was frowned upon by Old Fuddy Duddy. We named him this because he hated us.
Sister Beach said hate was a strong word, perhaps the wrong word, but she didn’t have another to replace it. He was the priest of the parish and scrubbed the idea from the beginning. But as the thought unfolded he was forced by the Sisters to allow a trial. We were the first experiment, and he told us that if we misbehaved or caused trouble, it would be scrapped. To him, and most others I suppose, we were the dirty girls who gave in to temptation. Condemned for a splash of teenage frivolous rebellion, a country girl’s curiosity, and a man’s evil violation. If only they knew. No one ever asked.
We were Tink, fifteen, Kahe, sixteen and myself, Plum, the oldest at eighteen. The flip flops of our tiny butterflies and soft heartbeats had well begun and we each had a puku that we could not disguise, or hide. We were given three packs of paper, a fountain pen to share, some pots of ink, and one extra floral corduroy dress to wear throughout. Not flattering at all I thought, and to whom would we write? We were each to leave for the hospital two weeks before our suggested due date. Adoption parents wanted newborns, fresh out the oven. Like hot cross buns.
We were to grow and harvest fruit and vegetables in the garden, and collect eggs from our chickens for the children in the orphanage. All I can say is hallelujah for Kahe. She was the most heavenly person I had ever seen, with thick jet black hair, that she braided, chocolate brown eyes and a melted honey complexion. She showed us the joy of having our hands and knees and feet in the dirt, and taught us how to be grounded, in all weathers. I’m not sure we would have survived without her.
Tink found little bunches of wildflowers or greenery which she put in jars wrapped in twine for our windowsills. She lit the candles and laid the table, and played us hymns on the piano. If Kahe was the caregiver, she was the dreamer. I was, perhaps, the observer.
Kahe spent hours stewing brown sugar apples and pears, and mashing mixed vegetables to send through to the abandoned and often disabled children ready for their dinner. By the end of our first day, she had onions and garlic hanging above the sink, potatoes dug up for dinner, vegetable soup with bacon bones on the woodburner, and was crumbling a pudding. For the first time in months she made us feel like we had a home. A nest, in which to rest, after a tumultuous beginning.
Kahe taught us her words, just by the way she spoke so lovingly to us.
“Kai’s ready ladies.”
“Haere mai my hapū sisters, swim time.”
“Mōrena whānau, did you have a good moe?”
“Our mahi is meaningful girls.”
I thought it was the most sacred language I had ever heard. It seemed to me, to be full of compassion, and gratitude, for everything. For food, shelter, warmth, water, each other.
My contribution was dishes and laundry which I did gratefully. To this day if I smell homemade bread or ginger loaf fresh out of the oven I am transported to Autumn 1943.
The townspeople welcomed us, asking if we needed anything by handwritten note, advising us to leave a return letter in our postbox of any requests. We were disapproved of by some no doubt, but overall we felt safe, and sheltered. Kahe wrote back. ‘Please may we have pins, needles, thread, fabric offcuts of any kind or size, and wool.’ Within the day all were supplied in abundance. She was able to make us new dresses, and knitted us each a maternity cardigan for the winter. A mustard one for me because she knew my love of sunflowers and a rust coloured one for Tink because it was the softest wool in the basket. For herself she used the deepest and darkest green, the colour of our village.
One afternoon a large sack of little clothes arrived. We pulled them out piece by piece with pure glee. Donated no doubt by a good citizen, probably unaware or naive, of our delicate position. We all knew our vows. Our promise to behave and hand over our special bundles to the church who took care of us, and not complain. To anesthetize our love, but be kind, be good, be quiet. Our hands were tied with the Pope’s rope belt.
We knew we would never kiss our babies sweet feet or sit by them making sandcastles. We would never cut the crusts off triangle sandwiches or place play dough into their chubby little hands. We wouldn’t be smudging the jam off their plump cheeks. We would not be proud Mamas walking a pushchair down the street. There would be no sweet bows to put in their hair or ruffles to fluff.
But that day, we washed every tiny garment with care and a cage of sunlight soap and hung them all out in the sunshine on the manuka line above our garden patch. Then we lay on our backs and let them swing over us in the breeze. None of us said a word, but I knew we all imagined our children in those baby dresses, and little ribbed dungarees. We allowed ourselves to daydream. At the bottom of the sack was a tiny music box that played Brahms’ lullaby. Tink pulled that trinket string a hundred times, and none of us got sick of it. I felt blessed to be bound to them both, if only by song.
We adored Sister Beach. She visited us every second weekend on the Friday night northbound slow train. We learned quickly she was terribly lazy but absolutely wonderful to us all. As a young nun she would say she was going to collect driftwood for the fire, but would lay on the sand and watch the clouds go by. Hence the endearing nickname.
She was as round as we were, with dozens of premature grey curls escaping her habit, and an infectious and delightful sense of humour. She loved music and played the harmonica which she carried everywhere. She never enforced the rules of the church upon us but was true to her faith, and lit the frankincense candle for the rosary each evening at five, then poured herself a tiny thimble of ‘communion’ red wine that she hid in our cooking cupboard. Sister B (as we called her) told us that the rosary beads originally came from India – where she prayed to be posted when the war was over. I envied her ritual and worship to prayer. Her mottos, ‘Girls give thanks, give praise, and always, always have grace.’
One night she toasted. “To the Americans. They have come a long way.”
We were very aware of our visitors, using our country as a training ground for the war. We knew they held dances at the hall. The three of us would hide behind the church and watch the men loiter and the women mingle and giggle on Saturday nights. The ladies, all glitz with their posh frocks, held cracked tea cups filled with a mix of cheap wine and grapefruit juice. They were divinely glamorous to us. The men mostly in uniform chugged back flagons of forbidden beer cheerfully. Oh how we would have loved to meet an American Marine!
It was glorious to watch, but I often felt ridiculous waddling home. We were the fallen women, unfit to marry, or to raise children.
Still, it didn’t stop us from dancing wildly to the wireless when we got home. We found kinship in that little house on the hill, and joy, despite it all. Tink taught us the lindy hop and the jitterbug jive. Whenever I hear Doris Day or Bing Cosby, I get lost in our laughter, like it was yesterday. Occasionally, forgetfulness of our predicament crept up on us. In amongst the angst and despair, somehow we held onto hope.
If only Old Fuddy Duddy could have seen us. He would have ushered us toward the confession curtain faster than you could light an altar candle and cried Amen The End!
When we first arrived at the little cottage, we huddled together wrapped in crochet quilts one of the sisters had made for us each. We were terrified of our short future, but grateful for our good fortune. Kahe lay grey army blankets down and brought out the old dusty pillows so we could sleep in front of the fire. The only storm we suffered roared through, blowing silver light into the room and shuddering the walls and wooden floorboards, but we had each other for warmth and comfort. Slowly we began to tell our stories.
Kahe was taken, alone in her kitchen, by the grocery store assistant. Her family was out, she was at home studying for school. He was a friendly-enough chap so she let him in for a cup of tea and a chat, which was always her father’s welcoming way. But once inside, he leaned over to kiss her on the sofa where they sat, which she refused. In anger he held her down with the strength of a grizzly bear, his hand held tight over her mouth as she tried to fight him off. But she was no match for his monstrous madness. Even though I never knew anyone stronger in spirit.
It was brief and, as he stood up and looked down on her, he said “If you breathe a word I will say you are a liar and have another lover, your brown boy Ihaka.”
It was her sweet sixteenth and her chocolate birthday cake was still cooling down on the bench for her six younger siblings when they arrived home. She tried to carry on with her recipe writing, but her pencil shook with rage, and fear. And fire.
Ihaka was her best friend, she would never get him into trouble. If things had been different, she knew they would have married.
When she was found out, they assumed Ihaka guilty and his family sent him north. He was to be the scholar of the family and not an early father.
Tink was the closest thing to light that a person could be. Fairy-like with a short blonde pixie haircut and piercing blue eyes like lapis lazuli. I fell in love with her sweetness and innocence. She loved to dance, and they called her Tink because she tinkered on the piano from a very young age. Her dream was to move to London and become a stage star. Her parents’ prayer was for her to go to nursing college.
“I lost my virginity in a treehouse” she spoke as soft as a leaf falling, and blushed bright red when we both laughed, but quieted as she continued.
“It was my own fault, I felt a desire for him like nothing else I had ever experienced. We had got together quite a few times, and experimented. I loved kissing him more than anything. More than piano. More than dance. One day he said, You can’t get pregnant the first time puss, and we will be married as soon as you turn sixteen.
“He had already given me a fake ring. He wanted to travel and I saw him as my ticket out of it all. I was his ragdoll after that.”
On the day they lay down together, he was thoughtful and kind. Afterwards, she quivered and trembled in his arms in the dappled sunlight.
Until they saw faces at the window. Her older brother and friends, laughing. The young man fled, pulling his britches up as he climbed down the ladder humiliated, flushed and mortified. He never spoke to her again. She put her school uniform back on, and covered in dirt, and hurt, she went straight to her mother before her brother could. Her mother made her tell her father and they hid her secret as a family.
When Tink realised life grew inside her, her parents shipped her to the Salvation Army boarding house, abolished and bewildered before she could say boo. I remember thinking if she were a bird, she would be a canary. So venerable and precious. So yellow.
At eighteen, I had an official beau. I felt I was the guiltiest girl, having been with him many times. I told the girls of my adventures to outdoor films and the milk bar and long walks in the botanical gardens. For three months he held my hand and promised me a fairy tale. I chose to be oblivious when he said he was careful and I accepted this without hesitation. I always threw caution to the wind, my mother said. It was true. I was cock-a-hoop and so happy to be in love! Delirious in my naivety.
Until he was called to war, and left suddenly, leaving only a smidgen of words on an old tea stained envelope. A brief apology stating not to linger over him, that if we met again it would be fate.
On hearing of my delicate situation, my mother pushed me out onto the street in her slippers and curlers. She was dreadful scared I would give her a bad name. I found my way to a quiet chapel lucky to find a kind nun who took me in until morning. Calls were made, and I was to catch the bus to Wellington to the House of Compassion. I felt again the plain girl in school with freckles and no friends. His family were not told of my predicament. He remained footloose and fancy free.
Kahe would never give up her child despite the circumstance, even though she had signed the forms so she could stay at 74. One day I asked her how she got through what she did. Her hands were buried deep in dark soil.
“Because I am a rock in the river, not a feather. My roots can’t be pulled from under me that easily. My ancestors hold my soul, not a slippery eel.”
I knew gardening furiously was her therapy. She used every ounce of energy in her body, whilst Tink and I were amateurs, leisurely when it came to weeding.
She had a plan to leave, complete with map and compass. She would catch the morning freight train when it stopped at Paekākāriki. We accompanied her several times to the station to watch and time the whole scene. It only stopped briefly, but some of the carriages were simply tied down with tarpaulin that could be undone and crawled under. We didn’t know where she was going, but we knew she would travel light, with only the clothes she wore, a supply of food and some warm woollens for baby.
I wasn’t afraid for her. She knew how to hunt rabbits, fish, and how to forage for food in the forest. She had the guts and charisma of her great grandmother, Kahe Te Rau-o-te-Rangi who swam across seven miles from Kāpiti Island to the mainland with a child on her back. She was a lioness. Born brave.
Her own mother had also been a wise woman. She had taken her family to a special place many years ago. It was mostly scrub and gorse and they had to trek their way through a fair bit of tangled bush before they came to a beautiful little stream where they camped.
Her mother had made it very clear one night as they all sat under the stars, that this was their land and never to sell it, not even in desperate times. Kahe remembered her saying, “Here you have earth to grow, fire for warmth, water to drink, food to hunt, quiet for prayer, and fresh air. Everything you need.”
Kahe convinced us the full moon was good for our babies so we sat outside under it in our bloomers, and read stories out loud. It was marvellous. A sky bath for our infants.
Every other evening she led us into the water with enthusiasm, after everyone had left. Tink and I were both cautious but she was contagious. She ran in with total abandon then came back to the shore and led us in holding our hands, as if we were her children. It was our most treasured time of the day. She taught us that the water held our weight, and made us light. Mentally and physically. She was right.
Then Tink went into labour – early, and quickly. Kahe was at the births of all her siblings and was our guide. There was no time for anyone else to arrive. Instinctually Tink’s body moved with fluency and poise as if a dance, or a piano symphony. Her years of training and discipline held her in good stead.
When the contractions came fast, she stuffed the warm muslin flannel from her forehead into her mouth and bit down hard so only muffled sounds came out.
“Keep her warm, give her sips of water, help her breathe. Big deep belly breaths.” After waking at four in pain, and her waters broken in the bath, Kahe decided it was time for Tink to be by the fire. We worked together in harmony. A small bed was made for her on the floor, Kahe continued to sing in Māori softly and sponged her with a tonic of kawakawa as she guided us through the process.
At six she moved Tink gently outside as she wished into the early morning air and laid the flax mat on the ground to cover the dew. Her fragile body had limbs like bare winter branches blowing in the breeze, but she held her end of the bargain with dignity and strength, and with the dawn light a little girl slipped into Kahe’s hands and was softly placed onto the ground like a tiny pink rosebud.
I cut the cord with careful instruction and Kahe wrapped the placenta in cloth. She nodded her approval. “Well done everyone, kia kaha, we will plant it under the pohutukawa tree.”
The warm butter sun lifted up and over the hills, and Tink tucked her baby inside her arms with the cardigan wrapped around them both.
We all sat in silence with the bird chorus for a long time until she asked in a small voice,
“What’s the word for a strong woman in Māori?”
“Mana Wāhine” Kahe replied.
“That’s what I’ll call her, after both of you.”
“And her mother,” I said, and reached out my hands for my sisters.
After a few hours of rest for all of us, Kahe said quietly. “Let’s take your daughter to the water to baptise her.”
Down at the tide’s edge, she said a karakia. She prayed that baby would have the knowledge of peace, love and goodness, and held her up to Tangaroa, the Māori god of the sea. It was the most blessed and sacred day I have ever experienced. I was spellbound by her dedication and tradition surrounding the birth and Papatūānuku, Mother Earth. It would shape the rest of my life.
A few days later when it was time to let go, Tink was ten times more fierce than I would ever be. Old Fuddy Duddy tried to place his impatience on her back to hurry her along, but she refused to move and kissed Mana a thousand times, her tears the size of raindrops falling on her little girl’s face. Sister Beach let her hold her one last time and held her hand high in defiance.
“Let a child say goodbye to her own child, with dignity. There is enough trauma here already Father. We don’t need drama.”
He glared at her but walked back to the car and closed his door. I saw him, as a hunter, waiting for his catch, to lead her to redemption.
Kahe took off her pounamu and placed it around Tink’s neck. We both said we loved her. Our tiny dancer whispered “Arohanui” and slipped away gently, holding the beginning of a lifetime of grief, with the grace of God. She would save her true mourning until privacy and solitude could embrace her. I wanted to remind her of her lightness. But it was gone. Her dazzling eyes, now dark.
The days continued but melancholy sunk over us like a thick fog. Kahe detailed her next journey, thoroughly, in her room. I finally found someone to write to. My little hot cross bun. One morning on our early walk, we were horrified to find two marines drenched and covered in sand and seaweed, washed up and shivering with fever on the shoreline. I stood frozen in fear but Kahe got to work straight away. She yelled at me to run to the house for blankets and to knock on every door to ask for help, and coffee, and whiskey. I returned with half the village who had gathered rugs and flasks of scalding hot drinks, and scotch. Eventually, we were told to go home. Word grew of a training exercise gone wrong. Kahe refused to leave and stayed with one man holding his hand, until emergency services arrived.
Maybe a few hours later she crept in while I slept, after the morning’s tragic events. She gathered her few things and left. There was a small fire burning when I woke up and porridge ready in the pot. Even in her last moment she was sharing her love with kai and kindness. I heard the train rumble past and opened my eyes momentarily, until I realised the house was empty. I ran out into our garden and frantically waved farewell to my beautiful friend. My soft haere rā was picked up by the wind and blown north right behind her.
For two days I lay curled up inside myself like a shell in the sunflower cardigan, exhausted by emotion. The bones of my skull ached and I was stone dry from crying. Only moving to nibble on crusts of bread and make tea that sat cold and undrunk on top of a bible, beside me. And then I sat silent in the garden. My baby lay still with my heartbreak no doubt feeling my despair from the womb. Later, I would write Tamariki, in the arms of the angels, on his tombstone.
It was now middle June. Winter. The saltwater warned off frost, but I still felt the chill as I tended the chooks. The word June, Pipiri, in Māori means to cling together and keep close. But my girls were gone.
A few days later, three marines stood before me, with an armful of flowers and two handmade wooden medals, engraved: To the young women who rescued us, we won’t forget your bravery.
Our very own three wise men offering gifts of appreciation for our heroic efforts for their fellow sailors a few days before. Many had drowned along the coastline, but our morning victims had survived. One of them turned and winked as he walked away. If only Tink and Kahe could have been there! Handsome men on the doorstep of 74! We were famous.
There was no resolution to our narrative. No pledges made to keep in touch. Just three pinky promises entwined late one night to never forget each other. The house was sold to a fisherman, and we were forgotten. But he may have found a miniature footprint that was dipped in a small pot of black ink, and pressed gently on a hidden floorboard. Our story was held deep in the ground, rootbound, like flickers of gold dust.
Immersing myself in Māori rongoā, I became a midwife. The beauty of Kahe’s language and medicinal knowledge of plants, carved a path of discovery for me. Her rich and traditional culture had fixed firmly and deeply into my spirit.
This morning I pulled out and played the little music box for the first time in forty years.
I never knew where Kahe ended up, but whenever I pictured her she was climbing a steep hill in the sunshine surrounded in green fern and huge kauri trees. She was cloaked in stunning feathers with a black moko, on her own land with a baby on her back, and another by her side.