Dame Fiona Kidman, legend, has a new book out today. All the Way to Summer is a memory lane of beloved stories, ending with a new one that is leaving readers sobbing. Here, in an essay especially for The Spinoff, she looks back on her life of love.
During World War Two I lived on a farm in the Waikato with my mother and grandparents and an assortment of unmarried aunts and uncles. My father was ‘away at the war’ and so these doting relatives had me all to themselves. They loved me with a fierceness they would maintain throughout their lives. But the centre of my universe was my grandfather. Every morning we would sit at a long sunlit table in the dining room and talk while we ate our porridge. He would spread his with butter and honey which I didn’t find odd.
After we had finished eating, we would set off together for the hills and roam them for hours, our conversation seemingly endless. He would tell me stories about his boyhood, although there were other more immediate things that didn’t seem to interest him much. We laughed and joked and everything I said seemed remarkable and worth another story from him. What I did not know then, but was told years later, was that my grandfather was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was prone to wandering. But, so long as I was with him, someone around the farm could hear our voices and know that we were both near by. Thus I had become his inadvertent minder.
The war ended. My father came home, although the farm in the Waikato would not remain home for long. He and my mother decided to move to the Far North. In 1945, that entailed a day and a half of train travel, the first journey beginning at Frankton Junction followed by a change in Auckland (yes, there was a passenger train from Auckland to Otiria Junction in the Bay of Islands then).
All the family came to see us off. It was the week before Christmas and I was three months shy of my sixth birthday. My grandmother was dressed in black from head to toe, as if for a funeral. My grandfather stood there, his face leaking with tears.
I never saw him again, but I was told that he would wander the farm calling out “Where is she? Where is the little girl?” I can’t write this, even now, without weeping. That scene has played itself over in my head many times, and this is not the first time I have written about it. But I can tell you that the love between the old and the young can be as deep and intense in its own way as romantic love can be for the mature. As a grandmother, which I have been for some decades now, and a great-grandmother too, I coined a phrase which I have passed on to others – “becoming a grandparent for the first time is nature’s way of reminding us what it was like to fall in love.”
For of course, I did fall in love in the romantic sense, and early on at that. I was a precocious child and at eleven I took a fancy to a boy called Eric, and he, or so it seemed, to me. But after some brief declarations of interest, he went off me. I wrote him a note. It said: “Dear Eric. I still like you. Do you like me?” I meant, really, do you still love me? For I adored his milky white skin, potted with pimples, and his tightly curled brown hair; it had to be love.
He discarded the note and it was picked up by another pupil who handed it to the headmaster. When I arrived at school the following morning, I was summoned to his presence. He looked at me with cold grey eyes. “I thought you were a decent girl,” he said. I cannot remember all the rest that was said, but I know that I fled the school, running through the neighbouring garden of the Miss Kemps, the two sisters who tended the lamp in the mission house at Kerikeri, trampling their Iceland poppies in my wake. They rang the school to report me, but by the time anyone could catch up with me, I was under my bed at home. There were some serious lectures from my parents about the dangers of boys in the days that followed, before I faced school again.
Boys. They didn’t say the dangers of love, it was too big a word to consider in the context of their wayward child. But I didn’t stop being in love. I went on being in love with one boy or another, only now I was more cautious about who knew what. Clearly, there were perils in love, it was a dangerous and dicey world. My next love was Polish. He wrote me long letters about the journey through the camps, about Persia, and the children’s camp in Pahiatua. My mother found these letters and burned them. My poor mother. I was her only adored child and I had turned into his handful, this bad sexy girl.
We shifted south: I fell in love with an older man whom I might have married in different circumstances. In one of my short stories, ‘Circling to your left’, the story of that doomed affair unfolds. We shifted south again, and when I was 17 I became engaged to a man my parents disapproved of, for various reasons. I kept the ring a secret. He was a nice young man but in the end I fell out of love with him for reasons that had nothing to do with my parents’ angst. Well, let’s be honest, I was transferring my affections, which is the nicest way of saying I ditched him for someone else. He had already built me a house and he was heartbroken. The someone else ditched me for the girl on the lolly counter at Woolworth’s and they got married.
I foreswore love. I thought I would never love again. I studied assiduously as a trainee librarian and stayed home and read French and Russian novels.
Then one day a school teacher walked into the Rotorua Public Library where I worked, a trail of eight-year-olds in his standard two class trailing behind him. I stopped stamping books, my heart seeming to stand still. He had a head of crisp black curls, an irrepressible grin, and a light in his eyes that said “I see you.”
We married almost a year to the day later in the Māori Anglican Church of St Faith’s on the edge of Lake Rotorua. For a long time we lived by the lake, and watched the purple light of long evenings fall over the water, until the children came along and we moved to the suburbs.
Ian and I stayed married for 57 years, until one swift evening we were parted by death.
To appropriate the title of that old Cole Porter song, I ask myself “what is this thing called love?” To which I can only say, love is various, love is not always kind (has someone else said that or am I quoting something I wrote myself? I can’t remember now). But from the distance of years, love for me, perceived in old age, has been about constancy. There were good times and times that were not always perfect, but the long accumulation of years added up to something total and irreplaceable. We were always there for each other. I call it love. We never stopped telling each other that we loved the other and we meant it. I think that saying it is important.
If I might make a generalisation, it is this: how we love comes down to choices we make and how we will live our lives in their wake. Some people will be faced with choice over and again, and each time something will change, the perspective shift, the joy or pain unpredictable. And the nature of love itself will change as we age.
Now that I am 80, I have looked back at the stories I have been writing for the past 50 or so years, and I see that there is a pattern to many of them. It is about those choices men and women make, and their consequences. I collected up a few of them, and some of them are about me and my life too, my own history of love.
All the Way to Summer: Stories of Love and Longing, by Fiona Kidman (RHNZ Vintage, $40) is available from Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.