You are old now, 120 years or so, but you are still beautiful. No trip to Auckland is complete without walking slowly by, admiring you lovingly from the street, daring to put a hand on the white picket fence, and remembering …
At a busy Auckland intersection called The Harp of Erin (although the pub which gave it its name is long gone), Main Highway swoops down towards the suburb of Ellerslie. In the 1920s my maternal grandparents moved to a lovely old house at 100 Main Highway, just past the Catholic Church: this is where I was born in 1952, and where my first memories originate. I wasn’t actually born there, but rather nearby in Cornwall Hospital. However my mother was the seventh and last of my grandparents’ daughters and she was born in the house in Ellerslie, as were two of her older sisters and their only brother, Jim, the baby of the family. When my grandparents moved to Auckland from Tauranga, travelling overnight on the Ngapuhi, they already had four daughters: when Jim was born in 1928 Nellie, the oldest of the seven sisters, was 17 years old. So by the time I arrived in the next generation, the house was already well-loved by our family.
My grandmother, centre, with her seven daughters and only son. My mother is far right, aged 13. The photo was taken in the garden in Ellerslie in 1939. It was one of the last times they were all together as Nellie, Winifred and Fay would soon move to new homes ‘overseas’. All the dresses that the girls are wearing in this photo were made by Laura, the second oldest sister, fourth from the right in the photo.
From my childhood I remember spacious rooms with gorgeous floral wallpaper, cosy fireplaces and warm, dark, wooden furniture. A magnificent well-worn kitchen table: a place for eating and ironing and cutting out dress patterns, for writing and playing and for setting the world to rights. Around this table I imagine my aunts’ and my mother’s suitors were vetted, and my uncles – and eventually my father – were judged suitable.
The little path from the front gate leads to a verandah with delicate fretwork around the eaves.
I remember very clearly waiting happily, hopping with excitement, on the verandah with my grandmother holding my hand: my parents were bringing my new-born brother home. It was January 1955. Sometimes people say I was far too young to remember that, but I’m convinced that I do: my grandmother’s joy was easily transmitted to me.
In due course Lance and I would play our games up and down the wonderful central corridor, clattering around on the back verandah and bounding down the steps into the back garden. A back garden for a carefree childhood: a vege patch, flowerbeds and an enormous plum tree to clamber about in.
Although showing signs of age, the plum tree is still blossoming and bearing fruit.
Over the back fence trains rattling north and south. There were two outhouses – the original toilet, although by then we had an indoor one as well, and the wash-house complete with its massive copper: this was an antiquated laundry arrangement which as a child I regarded with awe, little appreciating my grandmother’s drudgery of having had to light a fire under it and keep it stoked while doing the washing for a family of 10.
My mother, aged 16, at the laundry in the back garden, October 1942
Best of all Lance and I had our Auckland cousins to share all this with – when they came to visit we would all snuggle up with our grandmother on the back steps and someone’s Brownie Box would capture our grinning faces: not that it was easy to get us all looking the same way at once – as any handful of photos of the same moments will show.
6 Auckland cousins and our grandmother, on the back steps at Ellerslie, 1955. That’s me centre left and Lance is the baby.
Not long after I started school we moved away from Ellerslie. Until my grandmother sold the house, going back to sleep over with her was a treat for my brother and me.
While all around modern constructions have convulsed 100 Main Highway’s setting, the house remains unscathed: the picket fence and the gate, the front verandah and sash windows are just the same. It’s a majestic house, still well cared for. Last year it was for sale and I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time inside and in the garden for the first time in over 50 years.