Stories about my Grandfather by Lora Mountjoy
I remember my grandfather as a dignified old man, with a moustache and a kindly disposition. I remember watching him as he sat at the big wooden table in the family dining room, eating porridge with butter and salt.
I was four when he died, but over the years as my mother and her sister and brother shared their memories of him, a picture of him grew stronger in my mind. Here are just a few of those stories.
George Mac. Donald Henderson was born in Otago in the mid 1870s. For his first four years he lived amongst family. His grandparents farmed inland from Dunedin, and his mother and uncles and aunts were raised there.
They worked hard in the day and joined together with warmth and music in the house of an evening. There were stories of Scotland, and visitors bringing news.
Meanwhile, on the road that ran past the farm, men with bundles and packs walked doggedly along on their way to the goldfields. But then things began to change. There was talk about a move north. While his parents discussed how to make the journey, by horse, cart and sea, George developed his own ideas, declaring to all who would listen, “I will ride my rocking horse to Wellinggun.”
I don”t know exactly how the family travelled but they did arrive safely in the capital. However, the ship that carried all their worldly goods was shipwrecked with a total loss of cargo. No rocking horse, no sheets or beds or chairs, nothing arrived in Wellington.
It wasn”t a good start for the family, but at least George's father had a job as poultry advisor for the Government.
But it wasn”t long before the poor health that had caused him to leave Scotland returned. Now a bigger load fell on the shoulders of George's mother. She took boarders into the house in Tasman Street and they managed to survive, but there was no money for luxuries like books and papers.
One of George's jobs was to deliver orders for the Gear Meat Company. There he would stand quietly in the shop, trying not to be noticed as he read episodes of the latest serial from the old newspapers piled up on the counter for wrapping.
When he was old enough, an apprenticeship was found for George.
He went out to Petone to the railway workshops where he made, as an exercise, the mysterious small, smooth block of metal that mystified me as a child. At around this time his father died. In George's papers I found two pages written in pen and ink longhand, a story about a young man who goes to work on the day between his father's death and the funeral. At smoko, the older men talk disparagingly about the lad, not minding that he can hear, calling him disrespectful and uncaring. The grieving youth is hurt, but stays silent. He knows the family will cope without him today more easily than they will cope without his day's pay.
So George kept going out to the workshops, taking the train from Thorndon station to Petone every workday.
Then, as in all good stories, one day there was a new face on the train. A pretty face, even though the hairstyle was severe and the simple dress and skirt made no concession to the current fashion for frills and puffed-up sleeves. How long was it before George started up a conversation? Did someone have to introduce them or did he comment on a book she was reading?
Who knows, but something began there, a courtship between George and Mary Player, a trainee teacher known to her family by her second name, Preston. Perhaps under her influence, somewhere along the line, George began to consider changing his career. He would become a teacher, too, and they would marry.
There must have been some issues to resolve. George's mother was a devout Catholic, educated by the nuns at St Mary's in Hill Street, and his grandfather built the first Catholic Church in Otago.
But when George met Mary's family he discovered a world of freethinking.
Her father and grandfather were interested in the new ideas of the age, and questioned the existence of God.
Mary's mother had come from Ireland as a bonded immigrant, and one reason she gave for leaving was that she was sick of priests bossing her around.
Unfortunately their conversations were not recorded, but eventually George persuaded Mary to come to Mass with him. Halfway through she stood up and walked out. George followed her and never went back.
In 1909 George was appointed headmaster of Ohau School in the Horowhenua.
By then he and Mary were married with two daughters, Dorothy and Bett. The family moved into the school house, which was on a ridge and separated from the school by a triangle of bush.
In addition to his day job, George studied for a degree. It was in 1912, while reading Marlowe for an English literature paper that he named my mother, his fourth daughter, Zenocrate.
I doubt whether Preston was consulted about the choice and though relatives were told of the birth and the baby's name, parcels continued to arrive arrived labelled only “for the new baby.”
More changes came during the time in Ohau.
Many of the children in the school were Maori and George soon became interested in their culture. By the time he came to write his MA thesis, the topic he chose was the infamous Bell Block land purchase, a series of events that triggered the Taranaki wars. By now he was becoming interested in anthropology and learning Te Reo Maori. But most of the time it was the daily life of school and community which he had to deal with.
My mother remembered when the 1919 flu epidemic came to Ohau. Maori were much more affected than the European settlers and George realised that in many whanau there was nobody left strong enough to prepare food. He organised for the settler families to prepare soups and stews, and travelled around the neighbourhood in his horse and cart, delivering the food and later collecting empty jars. My mother, who would have been seven at the time, remembers that she and her eight-year old sister Lindsay had the job of returning the washed jars to the original donors.
My mother loved her Dad. She saw him as a hero, and often told a story about the time the Wellington to Auckland express came to an unscheduled stop on the bridge just along the road from Ohau School.
As an important person , the headmaster was called and to the surprise of all, including the train crew who had no idea what to do, he walked into the cab of the locomotive, reached up and took a special tool and started the train moving again. Later he told his family that it had been his job in the railway workshops to make sure this tool was in its place.
No doubt this incident enhanced his mana in the local area.
Trains would remain a constant feature of their family life. From Ohau, George moved to Wellington to work for the Department of Education as Inspector of Native Schools. Here he and Mary bought their own house, which had many fine qualities but was perched on top of a railway cutting above the Khandallah Station. In those days the Auckland Express puffed its way along this line and George would often leap down the steep bank to catch it, heading off on one of his long visits to Northland, Coromandel, the Bay of Plenty or East Cape.
Later, much later, he would take his family on holiday in an unreliable Renault, leaving them to wait by the car while he visited old friends at marae along the way. Gifts were exchanged and one, a box of cigars George gave a friend, was returned, all the cigars smoked, but the box lid beautifully carved.
In the late 1930s, George met 98-year old Valentine “Taina” Savage, who spontaneously presented him with his memoirs, including those of this father Ben Savage. Over a hundred years before, Ben had chosen to leave grim servitude on a whaling ship and chance his fortune among the tribes of Aotearoa, where he had many adventures and had lived at Matata with Taina's mother, a woman of the tribe Te-Whanau-a-te-Hara-Waka.
George worked the story into a book and with the help of Zenocrate it was published as Taina. Long out of print, it is a beautifully-produced volume featuring woodblock illustrations by artist Mervyn Taylor. The style is old-fashioned, but the details are fascinating, especially to those familiar with the places mentioned in the story. My cousin Hamish Henderson has met descendents of Valentine Savage who still live in the Bay of Plenty and treasure their copy of Taina.
I treasure, too, my grandfather's memory and feel privileged to begin telling his story.
“Stories about my Grandfather” 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. You can read a review of Taina by clicking on the following link:
This page archived at Perma CC in October 2016: https://perma.cc/2C7V-PB8C
The original Tauranga Memories website also collected the following information:
Article first created: 2012-02-20 06:58:39 Article last updated: 2016-10-15 23:09:34
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