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Charming old black and white photo of a line of school children, all in school uniforms holding little suitcases.
Mary-anne and some of her siblings; she is second from right (Photo: Supplied)

BooksNovember 16, 2021

Remembering Mum, aka the lady who wrote Grandpa’s Slippers

Charming old black and white photo of a line of school children, all in school uniforms holding little suitcases.
Mary-anne and some of her siblings; she is second from right (Photo: Supplied)

Celebrated children’s writer Joy Watson died on October 4, aged 83. Her daughter Mary-anne Scott writes about their farewells, synchronicity, and life in a big family of books. 

On the morning of Tuesday 28 September, I loaded my guitar and a chilly bin into the car for a couple of nights away with friends at a remote Hawke’s Bay beach. I realised my mother was on my mind. I had run out of time to visit her that day and then I saw I’d missed a call from the residential home she lived in. They hadn’t left a message and no one was available to speak to me so I drove there, my heart pounding in my ears.

Sure enough, Mum was very ill.

Later that day, when more of my siblings gathered to hold Mum’s hand, I went home to put the perishables back in the fridge and message my friends to say I wouldn’t be meeting them. My heightened sense of anxiety must have seeped into my text because the reply read: The beach will be here, waiting for another time. Let the tide come in and go out; you are where you should be. I let my shoulders drop.

Just as I was about to drive back to Mum, I noticed a parcel on the doorstep from my publishers at OneTree House and knew the advance copies of my new book, The Tomo, had arrived. I left the parcel inside the door for later.

Photo of a middle-aged woman in a long-sleeved black top, having a cuppa, staring intently at camera. Book cover shows a dark scene of figures silhouetted in a field, above a cave.
Mary-anne Scott and her sixth novel, which is based on a true family story (Photo: Supplied)

I grew up in a big family of nine children and our parents were great believers in the value of a roster. The schedule of our lives was pinned up on the kitchen wall and we could see at a glance — in fact, everyone could see — where we should be or what we should be doing, at any given time. It covered music practices, chores, homework, bedtimes. And now, in this crucial time of seeing our beloved mother out of this life, we drew up a roster. At first, we’d clustered like moths around Mum’s flame but there were health guidelines to be followed. We were lucky that eight out of the nine of us were able to be with her and we settled into a routine of visiting her in masked pairs, according to our timetable. We were acutely aware of all the people who’ve been separated from dying loved ones over the last 18 months.

Two deep chairs were pulled up beside Mum’s bed and for six nights and seven days we kept vigil. The sound of our voices and laughter, the quiet chat through the night, the presence also of her grandchildren and sons and daughters-in-law, might have all been what kept her at the party far longer than she intended. I wouldn’t have wanted to leave either.

We talked about Mum’s fairness and her patience. We never had to jostle for her love and she was loyal with our confidences. Her sons-in-law used to try and outdo each other in being “Joy’s favourite”, which she loved, but she never showed a hint of preference. She kept life uncomplicated, partly because she was married to a man who analysed, worried and wrestled with big questions, but mostly it was her nature to find happiness in simple things, like a warm drying day, a slab of redwood lying on the beach or a sunny corner to read her book. Our parents were strict, well, Dad was strict and Mum backed him, but she also found humour in stories of misbehaviour, particularly when it involved one of her 29 grandchildren. They all loved her zany, sometimes corny, sense of humour and were proud of the books she wrote.

Mum read widely and her love of words underpinned every aspect of her life. She often shared “listen to this” passages with us — if we couldn’t escape fast enough. She enjoyed puns, word play, cryptic crosswords and tongue twisters, and always remembered the lyrics to the songs Dad played on the piano late at night. Her board game of choice was Scrabble and woe betide anyone who took her on lightly.

The Hastings Library was as integral to our lives as the local church. Our visits were nearly as regular. Each Saturday we filled several cartons with books we’d read that week and we trooped off to return the load before we found new reading treasures. As a child I wanted to dive deep into the adult section but it was hard to get past the librarians who were more inclined to be gate-keepers back then. Mum often defended me at the issuing desk or borrowed the book for herself. I was searching for clues to the adult world and although the answers were often too obtuse for me, I’m grateful she never censored my reading.

Mum’s own writing began as birthday poems for us and then she won a competition for a short story in the Women’s Weekly. It seemed extraordinary to me that they would pay her prize money for her piece and I cherished that story as if it were my own.

She published 15 books in total and many unpublished works were left in folders in the garage, but Grandpa’s Slippers was the book that struck a chord. She tapped into the psyche of grandparents, the quibbling, affectionate games they play, while also appealing to children’s love of repetition and story. “Good, that’s how I like them” became a mantra, but I don’t think any of us realised the extent and reach of Grandpa and his tatty slippers.

Photograph of an older lady, snowy white hair, blue and white blouse. Cover of her picture book for children.
Joy Watson and her iconic children’s book (Photo: Supplied)

Keeping children at the forefront of her writing mind, Mum wrote plays and poems for school children when she visited as part of Read NZ Te Pou Muramura’s Writers in Schools programme. Dad was a massive hit when she took him along in his slippers or an old grey cardigan and all credit to him because he was never a “slippers out of the house” sort of man.

Our week of waiting with Mum passed slowly but with its own momentum. As siblings we had time to listen and talk and we drew strength from each other as we tended Mum’s needs. One night, when I knew I was rostered to be sitting with my sister, Jude, who is an editor and had tended to my own words, I opened the box of books at home and slipped a copy of The Tomo into my bag. Later had come.

Jude and I huddled under the soft light in Mum’s room and pored over the new book baby; the hard-working midwife and the proud mother. We examined the font, the cover, the finished product.

There had been plenty of family involvement in this book as it was based on a true story — Mum’s father’s rescue of his sheep dog. I know Mum’s brothers were pleased I was honouring their father’s bravery and they provided me with an avalanche of information about the district, the conditions for farmers in the 1920s and details of the topography of the area. Mum couldn’t contribute, due to the cruel Alzheimer’s disease that befuddled her brain, but I’d spent many hours sitting with her, reading passages aloud anyway and writing quietly if she was asleep.

My brother Leo went on a road trip with me to the exact location, Pōhaturoa Station, on the inland road between Tairāwhiti and Wairoa on the East Coast. We stood on the site of the original house and thought about our ancestors, Oliver and Lily Evans, who managed the station, and also our grandmother, Emily Glynan, who’d lived up the road in Marumaru and came to work in the house and fell in love with the young shepherd, Phil Evans. My brother and I tried to peer through the windows of the Marumaru Hall where they’d attended dances and I recalled one of my grandmother’s stories about a group of eight energetic youngsters dancing the Lancer. Emily was swung so high and fast she became airborne and just managed to grab the doorjamb before she was launched into the night.

Today, the station is owned by an ahu whenua trust, the Pōhaturoa Trust, and a local historian, Richard Niania, one of the trustees, spent a generous day sharing his extensive knowledge of the legends of the maunga, Whakapūnake, of Māui and also the relevance of moa to this area. It all began to merge until somewhere out there on the sunburnt, dry land, as I peered into tomo and learned about the limestone karst conditions that allow tomo to form, my characters started to arrive with their backstories, aspirations and problems.

Very old black and white photo showing two horses and a dog, a man on one of the horses. Farm scene.

Photos of Mum’s parents and brothers stood on the dresser in her room. I also have an image of her father, taken at Pōhaturoa Station around the time he clambered down the 97-foot tomo to save his dog. Grandad is on his horse; a dog stands at his feet and he is staring straight at the camera. As we examined the new book that evening, I felt a sense of synchronicity in the arrivals and departures that were happening. Mum was a no fuss sort of person and I wondered if she’d find that word a bit contrived. But when I looked it up, I was pleased to find synchronicity described as “a wink from the universe”. She’d have been happy with that.

Eckhart Tolle said, sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.

Mum stopped breathing exactly as the sky dramatically darkened and a downpour of biblical proportions was unleashed over Havelock North. She’d always loved extreme weather and even the weather event felt in balance.

Beautiful, heartfelt messages began to flow in from people who knew Mum. The torrent of messages that came from people who didn’t know her was mind-blowing. People wanted to tell us how much they loved her books and how they’d been shared through generations of their families. Common themes were Joy must have known my parents! and Grandpa is always the favourite character for Book Week.

One of my sons’ partners, Callan, who’d not met Mum before Alzheimer’s set in, wrote: I’m yet to come across a Kiwi-born adult my age who didn’t have her books in their childhood. She’s left a lot of light in the world.

She has left a lot of light — and a lot of love.

The tide is out just now and the beachscape has altered. But the ocean still stretches all the way to the horizon.

The Tomo, by Mary-anne Scott (OneTree House, $24) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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