Why was Pop Special? by Simon Overall
My grandparents were elderly; for a child, the eternal elderly. They were Granny and Pop and there never was a time when they weren’t Granny and Pop. Pop was the mythical figure of work and war, an ex-farmer and soldier. They had lived long lives and there had been adventure and courage in the things they faced.
In my adult life I wanted to explore this theme, the experiences they had known. My brother recounted that Pop had used two spade handles to assist him to rise and was determined to do it without assistance. Of Granny he said “She made scones”.
Something that conveys a poignant element of their lives - they had known privation, but there was always sustenance… because flour and water and butter and jam could be turned into a meal. While Pop laboured without, Granny laboured within. Every day their wood stove was made blazing hot to make scones.
One day they were feeding the stock when Pop found he was struggling to lift the cow's fodder. He turned to his grandson and said…"You won't tell your mother I can't lift a bale of hay, boy.”
Though he was stooped and aged, he was a determined gardener. There was an elemental intent in his cultivation. When working with him in our vegetable garden I found the decaying body of a bird, a mere sparrow, cadaverous and dry.
"Dig it in," he said. His voice had a low rasping resonance. "It'll make manure."
Pop was from the border country of the UK. A picture is worth a thousand words, and we have a photo of him and his siblings taken in the 1890s. They look well dressed and prosperous. I scanned this photo to my laptop and with each press of the enlarge button he becomes more cherubic, more real. As I peer into the image he is peering back – aware, trusting, quizzical, perceptive.
When he was nine, Pop’s father died and their breadwinner was gone. With this loss, their support was from kinship and the family went to their grandfather’s home. They earned their keep by farming. The grandfather owned two farms and the family became a productive unit, working the land, deriving a living and supporting each other. Pop’s life on the land had begun.
A letter from Pop’s niece in the UK recounts an interesting narrative:
When the grandfather was getting on in years he was gambling and drinking. Agnes (Pop’s Mum) sent for her brother to come from Frodsham to sort things out but one farm, High Buildings, had to be sold up. John Hutchinson (the grandfather) had kept the family very busy and said that it would be all for them some day, but there was nothing left.
From a point of distance this seems a poignant disinheritance.
As young adults the boys decided to better their lives through emigration. In 1908 Pop and his brother settled to work on farms in the Taranaki, and their mother joined them in 1910.
They were part of the settler community of Kaponga. It was the calm before the tempest. Soon New Zealand was at war, and during its course ten per cent or more of the male population served overseas. Pop was conscripted and arrived in France in 1917. He was severely wounded and during his convalescence in London he met Granny and she became his war bride.
He obtained land under a soldier settlement scheme. Some of these were ill-planned. The twenties saw a depression in commodity prices. Men who had already endured other battles were now bleeding from indebtedness. Pop lost his land but continued farming his herd as a share-milker, until they, too, were put up at a mortgagee sale - seven pounds per head, a third of the purchase price.
Thus he came once again to be a member of the rural proletariat and spent the rest of his life working for other farmers.
When he first lost his herd he became a ‘relief’ worker. The prime movers of these relief gangs was the human body - hands, arms, strong backs and shoulders. My Mum said at one time he cleaned drains. His pride not allowing him to slacken, he worked with shovel or whatever implement was to hand, the money he received being for the support of five children. Poverty is relative; such hardships were shared by many families in those times.
My appreciation of Granny and Pop’s life is of the sombre challenges of work, often solitary, methodical and relentless. Cows milked, weeds pulled, fences mended, children fed and clothed. A cycle that was continual. The story of their lives is about character.
In later years Pop moved the family to a farm in Walton in the central Waikato. He sometimes worked in the cold Mamaku ranges, living in a basic hut, attending to stock and breaking in bush. At one time he injured his head and no medical attention was at hand. He peeled back the scalp and poured iodine in the injury.
At a later time he contracted pneumonia. This caused him to consult a doctor - once only. When Granny asked what the doctor had said about the now-healed head injury, he replied, "I didn't take my hat off."
A taciturn toughness and distance was manifest about him.
They were visitors to our family for a fortnight's stay each year and it was during these weeks that Pop methodically dug our vegetable garden. Thus I learned his character of cultivation. As well there was a certain way he chopped wood for the fire. As his body was infirm he raised the axe laboriously, then used what strength he had to impel it into the wood. This was something he had had to do all his working life - secure fuel for the family’s wood-burning range. The family knew Pop was home when there was heard, outside in the dark, the sound of axe on wood.
When I was a boy playing military games, downing imaginary enemies, my mother once bid him to lift his shirt to display his bullet wounds. He did not like boys with firearms, yelling with an earthly alarm and dismissal when I fired a slug gun around his place of work, the wood-shed. He did not yell out clearly, but made some kind of bellow.
One could think either of two things; that he was not an articulate man of words at all, and this occasion was consistent with his manner - or he had a dislike of weapons so much that it rendered him speechless. I think both propositions are true. The second implies he endured some unnerving and perhaps horrible experiences in the war. About Anzac Day he said, “I remember every day. I don’t have to go to the service.”
In the latter stage of his farming life he managed a small property, and fed out to the stock with a draft horse. Because his body was infirm, fitting the horse collar was a laboured process.
He retired when he was seventy four. He worked on, not knowing how to rest, except now he was a gardener, not a farmer. He worked for the Surridges, a family in Tirau. They had a big section and Pop maintained it. He would sometimes fall and not be able to right himself and Mrs. Surridge would raise the alarm, “Pop’s down.”
He was weeding under a tree before one such fall, and before he could be assisted to rise, had to be dragged or eased some way. He was pulling weeds while they did so.
These are iconic images in my mind. The tome ‘Desiderata’ says, “Keep kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.” Despite age, Pop did not surrender his compulsion to work.
He yielded up life and strength reluctantly. When we visited him in what was to become his hospital deathbed he was hoisted up to be supported by pillows. He could only say, "It's nice to see you." To my mother he added entreatingly, "When are you going to take me home?"
His life spanned both the pioneer and the modern phase of the twentieth century. He toiled throughout and died with no estate. Such lives and such a progression are part of the social history of New Zealand. Through Pop’s experience it is part of the psychological and spiritual heritage of our family. One is rarely conscious of it but such things are part of the skeleton of one's psyche, the bones which underlie our consciousness and spirituality.
It was in Tirau that Granny and Pop came to the end of their life cycle. Their last resting place is on a hill and on all points of the compass can be seen the green Waikato sward. Through this account I greet him, saluting the character of his life and his endeavours with axe and spade.
About the writer: Simon Overall is resident in Paeroa and has just completed a short family history. He has also written extensively about abuse in a psychiatric hospital, and has canvassed on other issues of violence in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Go to: www.violenceinnewzealand.webs.com. Simon’s e-mail is email@example.com.
‘Why was Pop Special?’ 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.