This loss, this time, is something material.
Driving alone in her blue box car, the fish-bowl, viewing the infrequent traffic out of rain streaked, perfectly square windows. Tail lights squinting through the autumn dusk. The road is bumpy, potholes haphazardly filled, sections of gravel, men at work signs discarded and falling over at the roadsides. No one cares anymore.
I drive alongside the Avon river, following my childhood after school route. Past the fence where, as a screaming eight year old, mum once pulled the car over in a rush of annoyance and told me I was walking home. I walked half a block frowning until the tears melted my face, turned the corner and there she was, in our beat up red-orange Ford Cortina.
Past the playcentre with the witchy a-frame roof, past the school that wasn’t mine, and the yellow clothing donations bin with the blue children painted on it, holding hands in perfect symmetry. Past the place where on one Christmas Day, our whole family stopped on the way to lunch to push start a stalled car on the side of the road.
Past the house on the corner that was a ‘monstrosity to the neighbourhood’ when it was built. I remember walking to feed the ducks with Oma and stopping outside as she chatted to the builders, and then, silently amazed at her audacity, following her inside as she decided to ‘have a nose around’. White stark walls, two floors (a rarity in Christchurch in the nineties), open plan. On the second floor was a white and chrome bar and mini fridge, and this impressed the ten-year-old me immensely. How luxurious, to have your own in-built bar! All this white concrete monstrosity is gone now, no match for plate tectonics. The section is broken, rubbled and empty.
I indicate left at the old block of shops. The dairy is still there, the destination for bare-feet errands: tubs of icecream, milk, newspapers. All the rest- the hairdresser, fish and chip shop, bike shop- are all gone, so I’m surprised the dairy is still standing, but on turning into her street I see it’s boarded up and empty. Dusty Coke billboards curling on the sides.
Her street is unrecognizable.
The road is worse here. I slow to navigate a one-lane path through the sink holes, erratic humps in the tarseal. The houses that remain are gaping sadly at me, windows dark or smashed in, fences half torn down, weeds and bushes and trees choking out domesticity. I almost drive past hers, number 80, and at the last minute I recognise a tree in her front hedge and pull over. I get out, into the soft autumn rain.
Everything is gone: her house, her garage, her mailbox and driveway, her vege garden, her sheds and sleepout, her immaculate front and back gardens, her brickwork patio and fence surrounding it, her shelves of bulbs, tools, gardening gloves and the occasional lost easter egg, her concrete paths, her bird bath, her weathervane, her lemon tree. This has all been replaced by a thriving blanket of weeds, grass and wildflowers.
I pull my jacket close and walk up the non-existent driveway, unable to cut across what would have been the rose garden. Someone has dumped an old washing machine on the lawn and it sits there, sad and rusting and lonely. I think of the washing machine obliquely observing, bearing witness to this empty property and this makes me cry and I stand there, where the front door used to be, and cry in the rain on my dear Oma’s bulldozed house in earthquake-wrecked Christchurch at the start of autumn. Bizarrely, there’s a car, and it’s turning down the driveway next to Oma’s house. I don’t want to be seen, so I duck down behind a holly tree, and listen to it drive down to the back section. Footsteps, voices, front door slamming. Imagine what it must be like, living in one of the only inhabitable houses in this red-zoned ghost suburb.
Shaking off the tears I pick my way across her section. Recognition of particular trees and bushes is bittersweet: I would ride my bike between these two, in a figure of eight. Here, I lay on the grass after my parent’s wedding, 14 and too cool, under the blossom tree. Here, I tried to bowl my Dad out in a game of cricket. In true kiwi style he responded by hitting it over the fence, roaring victory while others scrambled to retrieve our only ball. Twice. Here, my sister and I, in old paint shirts that reached our knees, painted two wooden chairs, and our arms, noses, hair, feet in a buttery lemon.
And here, after a whole family day digging up and transporting a native kowhai tree, Oma made a little seat out of two stones and a block of wood.
Amazingly, this seat is still here, tucked under overgrown ferns. I sit on it, cold wet wood seeping through my pants. This, this little seat makes all this loss okay. This seat is all that’s left of the lovely, beautiful, shiny childhood memories I have from my Oma’s house, but it’s symbolism is enough. I sit and think about the devastating earthquakes. I think about Oma, climbing out of her bedroom window in the pitch black, wading through mud and silt to find a safe place to sit until help arrived. I think about her, sitting on her lawn in the afternoon with her neighbour and her baby, drinking wine as the earth shook around them, waiting until help arrived. I remember our last Christmas at number 80, unfazed by the uneven floors, the doors that no longer shut and the complete unpredictability of living in a country built on fault lines. We were happy to be together, on this hot sunny day with good food and laughter and cricket and presents. I think about the devastation across the city, the lives lost and neighbourhoods abandoned, the long months of no electricity and heating and water. I think about the stoical, inherently brave kiwi attitude: “She’ll be right.”
And you know what? She is. My Oma is 87. She is the strongest woman I know. I love her fiercely. Last week she finally was able to buy a new house. She moves in next week. This house will be our new centre. And that’s okay. This loss is okay.
I’m wet and cold. I slowly walk back with determination across the site of the old patio, kitchen, lounge, conservatory. I nod to the washing machine: “Take care of the place.”
Christchurch, the second largest city in New Zealand, was hit by a 7.4 earthquake on 4 September, 2010. This happened at 4:35am and miraculously, no one was killed. However it was the start of three years of aftershocks, of which the most devastating hit on 22 February 2011. This was 6.3 and killed 185 people, making it New Zealand’s second deadliest natural disaster. It caused widespread damage to infrastructure: 10,000 houses were damaged and 100,000, already weakened by the previous quakes, were demolished. ‘Red-zones’ were created; entire suburbs unsuitable for building. Now, although a significant rebuild and repair project is underway, Christchurch is a shadow of its former self.