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Life Is Too Short To Drink Bad Wine: 36 - Neighbours

Gayle Woodward experiences for the first time what it is like to be the mother of a child in trouble.

Do read Gayle’s delightful story of family life in New Zealand. Click on Life Is Too Short To Drink Bad Wine in the menu on this page.

Jeff began to play with the children who lived in the blocks of flats around us. They were, in the most part, older than him and he really just tagged along, copying what they were doing.

One afternoon they were all playing in the vacant section next door. The summer grass was long and seedy. The other boys brought Jeff back inside to me in a panic. His eyes had begun to swell alarmingly. I had no idea what to do so rang Mum from the phone box and asked her to take us to the doctor. I found that Jeff was suffering from an allergy to grass, of all things! Antihistamine was the remedy and an allergy test for him was booked.

Another afternoon, when he was out riding his little tricycle with the other boys, they disappeared. I called and he came straight home, minus the others. Later that afternoon the older lady who lived below us on the other side of the vacant section came to introduce herself and to tell me that Jeff had pulled out every single one of the plants in her side garden. I could not believe that he had done it but had to admit that he had been away from my view for a while.

When asked he simply said, “Yes”. The other boys had been part of it but had run away and left Jeff to be seen with the destruction. This was my first experience of having a child in trouble. There would be many more, but this first was puzzling. I decided to be more aware of where he was playing in the future. I began to think about moving away into our own house with a bigger section for him to play in.

The blocks of flats around us had all kinds of families in them. It was an interesting place to live, if not very savoury. In the front were a Maori couple and their baby son. They fought loud and often. All the cars were parked at the back behind our unit. One night as the husband left his house after an argument and got into his car to drive away; the wife crept up behind him and put the baby on the ground behind the car.

The baby sat there crying. His father did not hear him. He started the car. At that we burst out of our door waving our arms and yelling to attract his attention. The baby was saved and they moved out soon after. I often wonder what kind of life that child has had.

Another night, upstairs in the next-door block, someone threw a sewing machine through a window. We heard the noise and came outside to be met with the sight of a woman hanging out of the broken window shouting, “Help! I’m being raped!”

We had visitors and I wanted both of the men to go and help her. They had no intention of doing anything like that for her. Apparently she had a notorious reputation and they did not want to be involved.

After the Maori couple left, a young couple from Palmerston North moved in. They were very young and had a tiny baby son, Dion, with a cleft palate. The baby had been born suddenly in the front seat of their Volkswagen on the way to the maternity hospital. We became friendly with Wendy and Phillip and had many happy evenings and outings with them.

Wendy wanted to go back to work as they were pretty hard-up. She asked me if I would care for Dion during the day, while she worked. She would pay me. I was just pregnant again and home with Jeff during the day, so I agreed. Jeff showed very little interest in the baby who slept most of the time in his carrycot placed on our bed. When it was time for his feed, I had to spoon feed the milk into his mouth using a special curled spoon because the cleft made it impossible to suck. He was a calm and cute baby who was easy to care for. I could not wait for our next baby to arrive now.

Jeff began to attend Play Centre in Glen Innes. He was shy with the new children he met and clung to my hand. At Play Centre parents are encouraged to attend with their children so the clinginess was not a problem. I played along with Jeff. We had some local shops just up the hill from our flat. Jeff and I would walk there to buy fruit and vegetables at the green grocers and milk and bread at the dairy. Usually the greengrocer would give Jeff a piece of fruit to eat on the way home. Jeff was always very polite and said, “Thank you”, without being prompted.

One day, Jeff was given a carrot to eat and decided to carry it home to eat there. At the road which we had to cross, and where we had lessons in road crossings, the carrot slipped out of his little hand and rolled to the centre of the road. At that very moment, a car came along the street and squashed Jeff’s carrot to smithereens. His eyes were big and his mouth quivered. His carrot was gone but he did not cry.

The next time we had to cross that road Jeff took over the crossing lessons. “Look to the right, no cars. Look to the left, no cars. OK, we can go!” Now he added, “You might get squashed like the carrot!”

My relationship with my mother, always stormy throughout my teenage years, changed utterly when I became a mother. She was experienced and helpful in a role as grandmother and loved Jeff with a fierceness I had not seen in her before. I now understood where she had stood for all those difficult years.

We walked all over the neighbourhood and even to Glendowie to spend the day with Nana. I usually took a pushchair with us but it was only on the homeward stretch that Jeff would want to take a ride. He was interested in everything he saw on our walks. There were trucks to see, and dogs and cats, and ‘alumances’ would rush past us with sirens wailing. He liked fire engines and loved planes going overhead. He called all planes ‘Air New Zealands’ He would ask, “Is that Air New Zealand going to Rotorua?” Once in his young life, he had been to Rotorua. Woody was working there and we went along for the ride. Now, every train or bus or plane that Jeff saw was going to Rotorua. Soon, every motel in New Zealand was a Rotorua too! On one of our walks I was inspired to write this after Jeff had asked these very questions of me:

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