Shona was a five foot one powerhouse of a woman that never stopped. She knitted, sewed and crocheted for her whānau while raising six children, working outside of the home and keeping her gardens immaculate. She was exactly the kind of home maker that the world expected her to be in the 1960s and 1970s and she was my maternal grandmother.
My memories are of a tiny woman who laughed, drank a sneaky gin when no one was looking, baked up a storm, smoked almost continuously and told loud, dirty stories that stung my sheltered ears. I knew the grandmotherly version of her, but this story is about a different Shona. The version of Shona that was driven by necessity and need and sometimes by the desire to escape her difficult reality.
She was a pou in her whānau and she is a big part of why I create today, because of what she passed on to my mum, who then passed those skills on to me. She took charge of her own household when she was just a child as her dad (my great-grandfather) was an alcoholic who used to beat her mum and throw her out on a regular basis. As the second oldest child and possessing a special kind of determination, she took charge and took care of her siblings. A well-known story in our whānau was that at nine years old, when her mum was “away” she took the fabric that my great-grandmother had purchased to make pyjamas and nighties for her siblings and proceeded to sew them all up herself with no patterns and just a treadle sewing machine at her disposal. Basically, no one could tell my grandmother that she couldn’t do something. That just wasn’t something she would accept. That same sewing machine was one of a few precious taonga saved from a house fire a few years later when Shona’s dad went back into their burning home to retrieve it (along with a bundle of handsewn sanitary pads).
I own both a sewing machine and an overlocker. Both of which I rarely use. Finding the time feels like a luxury I can’t afford. From manual treadle sleepwear at age nine to electric machines collecting dust in just two generations.
My mum was raised in Mangorei Road in New Plymouth with her sister and four brothers. They lived just inside the town boundary and they were poor. There isn’t any way to sugar coat it or a nicer way to put it and there isn’t any shame in poverty being a part of my mum’s early life (or my own early life). It is what it is and it’s a part of my history.
I worry sometimes that my own children will never know this kind of poverty, this struggle. It’s confusing. I don’t want them to lack, but I do want them to know what it’s like to go without. To understand what that is like.
Shona was married at around age 19 and started having babies almost straight away, her children all being born between 1954 and 1962. It’s no surprise that all my mum’s memories of Shona are of her furiously doing. She didn’t read, unless it was a pattern or a recipe and if she did sit down then she was knitting. Obviously, I was most interested in knowing about the knitting but what I learned surprised me at first, though on reflection I know I shouldn’t have been
Shona would buy op-shop sweaters and unravel them to re-knit the wool into jerseys, cardigans, slippers and socks for her whānau. My mum remembers standing up with her arms outstretched while Shona would unravel the wool and wind it around them to get the kinks out. Sometimes she’d dye this unravelled and re-purposed yarn in the laundry tub before she knitted it up. What we now call upcycling and eco-friendly, she did to keep her growing family clothed. Mend and make new turned into a 21st century trend. She made all the jerseys for her children and no one was off the hook; my grandfather, my mum and her siblings all helped by knitting sleeves on jerseys while the technical work and cabling was left to Shona, who could make almost anything without patterns or instructions.
Kmart jerseys and Postie Plus leggings on my daughter, while I spend $70 and three months on one single handknit cardigan.
She knitted my granddad’s work socks and every winter she’d knit slippers for the entire family. My mum had a prized handmade Andy Pandy toy and my aunt had a Milly Molly Mandy doll. This feels particularly sweet to me given that my nickname from my father has been Milly as long as I can remember, which comes from the Milly Molly Mandy character. That this was a part of my mum’s childhood in the form of a handmade gift that my aunt owned feels like another tohu to me in a whole series of signs and coincidences.
I read Milly, Molly, Mandy books when I was a child. Library loans always. For my own children I shun Enid Blyton for hard cover Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and living room bookshelves overflowing with modern fiction with culturally diverse stories and “strong female characters”.
While she knitted and repurposed, she also sewed the whānau clothes after a woman next door taught her how to properly tailor and fit clothes made from patterns she’d trace off of garments they already owned. She used a treadle Singer sewing machine until she managed to purchase an electric sewing machine. The new machine became a prized piece of equipment that only Shona and my mum’s older sister, my Aunty, was permitted to use.
I studied fashion design once upon a time. Thousands of dollars to learn pattern drafting and grading and I can count on my hands the number of garments I’ve sewn my children. But hey, I still have the sewing machines.
My grandparents kept a large veggie garden that fed their family and food was simple and from scratch because that was all there was. She preserved fruits and made pickles and jams from any surplus and they would regularly go roadside blackberry picking so she could transform the berries into jellies, jams and crumbles.
Our whānau has the privilege to choose a vegan diet. Weekly trips to the local supermarket and specialty extras, just because.
Money was always tight and so Shona worked nights in a local fish and chip shop and the whole family, kids and parents, would clean the local school together to bring in some extra cash. On top of all of this mahi, she loved to host whānau and friends. She’d make giant pots of pork bones and puha and the house would be filled with people who would enjoy the fruits of her labour.
The list of ways that Shona created and made is endless. From making her own laundry soap to growing plants from cuttings, she found ways to build a comfortable home for her family when there was nothing to build that home from. Learning about her has reinforced how much I have to be grateful for. At the risk of bursting what seems to be a romantic image of semi-country life with a focus on handmaking and creativity, this life and the pressure of maintaining what she’d built while financially stressed and raising 6 babies, all born in quick succession, took a real toll on Shona.
When my mum was about eight years old, my grandma, who was experiencing extreme depression, overdosed and was admitted to Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital where she stayed for 6-8 weeks. While she was receiving treatment, my mum and her five siblings were divided up amongst whānau so my grandfather could maintain his two jobs. The family was dealing with a serious trauma but they couldn’t risk the loss of income his work brought in. I don’t know much about Shona’s time at Tokanui but I know the place has a dark history and that she was there during a time when mental illness wasn’t well understood and stigma was extreme. She received electric shock therapy and eventually returned home. She told my mum that the ECT made everything feel “sharp and annoying” and she was irritable and bothered by little things. I am not sure, but I believe that this wasn’t the only time she was hospitalised with what my mum was told were “nervous breakdowns”. I have my own memories of talking with her when she was in her late 60s and memories that the ECT had for a long time suppressed, had started to flood back. She was left with a trauma that hadn’t ever had the chance to heal and she spoke to me about things she’d experienced with what felt like fresh pain and anger.
Society now is shifting and we’re looking at mental health, our responsibility as kaitiaki for our environment and the fast pace of life in a whole new way. Things like slow food and slow fashion are riding a wave of popularity that feels so cut off from this not-so-distant history. People are talking about mindfulness and mental health and wellness openly and stigma and shame is being rejected.
I am glad that these things are happening, and I can’t tell you how thankful I am to be mothering in 2019 and not 1969. This gratitude aside, I am not going to forget what Shona’s story has taught me. None of what she did was a choice for her. She made and grew and produced all that she did because she had no other option but to do so. She did it and did it and did it until she couldn’t anymore and then the world slapped a long-term band-aid on her pain so she could go back to doing it some more. There are women all over the world, mothers all over the world that don’t have the choices I have. I feel even more uncomfortable with the privilege I hold as a mother and a maker than I did when I first started learning about my grandmother’s life but I have a better understanding of what that privilege means now, a better grasp of the weight of it. I have choices. I can moan about pay inequity or the amount of plastic packaging on vegetables while women around the world don’t have the funds to feed themselves and their families, let along buy a bag of capsicums. My choices are easy and they come with the mental energy to talk with friends about eco menstrual products and why men always feel the need to take up space in public forums (But seriously, why? Question time is not an invitation to ramble). This doesn’t invalidate my experiences or mean that I am immune to being broken by the expectations and pressures of my life, far from it. But it certainly is a healthy reality check which gives me whole new perspective on the power I have and what I do with that power.
(I’m not going to stop knitting)