Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What's for pudding, Mum?

80 years ago today, at 10.46am, Napier fell to bits. 

I went along with my 94 year old mother to a ceremony to mark the occasion.
The weather was like ‘Earthquake Day’ as I learnt to call as a kid: sultry, hot, close.
We sat outside by the deco soundshell. We were sitting on grass below which was the ruins of the city.
The bigwigs sat on the stage.
There were long moments of silence. My mother sat weeping quietly.
Like me, she had remembered to bring a handkerchief.

It had changed her life, and therefore my life. Nothing was ever the same for her after it. 
She was sent away to boarding school. Her two elder sisters went away to other towns. The family never lived together again. My grandfather, running a firm on which an entire extended family was dependant, was on his way to an early grave.
My mother lived with the memory of the young nurses screaming for help as they lay buried under rubble. 
‘And then they went silent.’

Yet I also learnt things from the stories about the quake: how to make an individual choice in what you do.
My grandfather commandeered a lorry, loaded it up with groceries and took it away from the fire.
Someone could call it looting.
I learnt it is sometimes better to make an individual assessment of things.
It has guided me through life.

As for the ceremony, I was struck by the embalming nature of recollection. 
There was a space for two ‘survival stories’ as they are called today.
Both shared the same kind of folksiness. Both ended on an upbeat note which was a little too cutsie for me.
(A boy in a refugee camp has his meal on the first night and asks - poignantly I guess: Mum, what’s for pudding?)
The other tale had a similar upbeat ending.
My mother’s tears dried. She became eagle-eyed. 
My memories are better than that, she said to me in the embarassingly loud voice of an old person who no longer gives a shit.

By contrast, there were the eyewitness accounts. The best one was from a sailor who was on the warship HMS Veronica which providentially was in port when the quake hit.

He described the sea going out and the ship’s bottom hitting the floor of the harbour -’it was like a mine going off under the ship’. 

They read out the morse code messages from the ship. First of all just registering a quake. Gradually it evolved into ‘ have gone into town. Appalling sights. Entire town appears to be ablaze.’

The sailor also described the reality for the survivors. There was nothing cutsie about it. Most of them were just standing there, in a state of extreme shock. 
Some were clawing at bricks with their bare hands, trying to dig people out.
Other people were burning to death.

We sat in front of two sisters. When my mother introduced herself, she found her own family story trumped.
Their father, a commercial traveller, had died on the morning ot the Quake. He was walking past McGruer’s. the department store, when its elaborate brick facade collapsed on him. He left a family of five children. 
On the day of the quake his wife walked in from Taradale - say five miles - but got to a group of men who turned her back. They said to her words which must have been embedded in her brain forever.
Remember him as he was.’

He would have been incinerated in the blaze that swept through the town after the quake.
The sisters said there was no support and it was the middle of the depression. ‘I vote Labour to this day,’ one sister said.
My mother blinked.

So that was my day of remembering the Quake. 

I wept too. 


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