Even most fruit and vegetables are grown in a way that kills or displaces wild animals, uses fish meal and blood and bone to fertilise plants, or requires killing ‘pests’ like mice to protect crops and grain stores (Photo: Getty Images)
Even most fruit and vegetables are grown in a way that kills or displaces wild animals, uses fish meal and blood and bone to fertilise plants, or requires killing ‘pests’ like mice to protect crops and grain stores (Photo: Getty Images)

SocietyMarch 29, 2020

Lockdown letters #3, Renée: Help yourself to my rhubarb

Even most fruit and vegetables are grown in a way that kills or displaces wild animals, uses fish meal and blood and bone to fertilise plants, or requires killing ‘pests’ like mice to protect crops and grain stores (Photo: Getty Images)
Even most fruit and vegetables are grown in a way that kills or displaces wild animals, uses fish meal and blood and bone to fertilise plants, or requires killing ‘pests’ like mice to protect crops and grain stores (Photo: Getty Images)

In our new series The Lockdown Letters, some of New Zealand’s best writers tell us what they’ve been up to in the days of Covid-19 alert level four. Today, Ōtaki author Renée.

I have a wild tomato flopping all over the path down the back of the veg garden. I picked a tomato from it this morning. I only have a small garden but it’s very vigorous. Last night on RNZ Nights I heard a guy talking about someone in the Netherlands working out ways to turn the “treasure in our toilets” into phosphate fertiliser and I remembered when I was younger and lived next door to a guy who peed on his lemon tree and his rhubarb because, he said, it was good for them. Maybe he was ahead of the game? At the time I quickly planted some rhubarb of my own so I had a cast-iron excuse to decline his offer to “help myself to his rhubarb”. 

This phrase became an in-joke between my sister and me. “Would you like to help yourself to my rhubarb?” she’d say, doing a very good evil leer then ruining it by laughing. Ah – sisters – she died when she was 60 and I was 63 and I miss her every damn day.

Friday I decided to make a bacon and egg pie using filo pastry from the freezer. A bit of a fiddle but it was delicious. Also baked some Anzac biscuits. I used to bake every Friday, same things every week. Anzac biscuits, peanut brownies, shortbread, a fruit loaf and a cake. I must have been mad but everyone took lunches in those days. Then the kids came home from school and wanted a biscuit… and a couple for their mates. Mandy Hager sent me a bread recipe that uses a can of beer instead of yeast and no kneading. Will do that this morning. I’m a Cancer, right? 

A writer friend rang me to check how I was and we talked about re-reading our earlier works and what that was like. A mixture of pleasant surprise, irritation and, the inevitable, “For Christ’s sake, what was I thinking?” She reminded me of the time I told her to cut the first 10 chapters of the draft of a novel she’d given me to read. It took a wee while, she said, but she did it, started at chapter 11, used some of the bits from the first 10 in the next draft, scrapped the rest, book published.

I am so so sick of hearing people, radio hosts, online writers, commentators, using the term “the elderly”. It’s such a grey ghost of a term – it makes us “the other” and reveals, in some cases, a deep irritation that we need to be considered at all, that it’s probably a good thing if we’re all knocked off because we’re such a drain on the community purse and time. 

Renée (Photo: Sarah Hunter by permission of Playmarket)

The prime minister called us “older New Zealanders”, which means she sees us as part of the general population and not a group of outliers huddled on the edge somewhere. I like the word old, but a lot of my contemporaries aren’t so keen. I think they see being described as old as meaning they’ve joined a cohort they’ve always dreaded, whereas I see the word old as a stronger and more accurate (maybe more vigorous?) term than “the elderly”.

I’ve lived longer than any other female in my whānau ever, so have entered new territory. This is a place which has its ups and downs, is very interesting if sometimes irritating. The thing is, I know the eventual destination but I don’t have a map so I’m sort of making it up as I go along… with a lot of help from my friends… 

Friends have shopped for me, stood in a queue to collect a prescription for me (queues right down the street from the pharmacy, all keeping a safe distance), and they have stood across the backyard and shouted to me and we’ve had some laughs. And they’ve found strawberries. “Take them,” I yelled, “I got seven at the weekend and six on Tuesday.”

“Just stop with the fucking skiting,” shouted my friend as she and a strawberry became one.

I want to give a big shout out to the Ōtaki Medical Centre and Hamish Barham Pharmacy – the medical and office staff, the pharmacists, their staff, and, comrades – let’s not forget the cleaners. They’re there doing their job, working while we’re sleeping, keeping us safe.

Tomorrow: Glenn Colquhoun

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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