Memories of Anne Lang by Donald Lang



Two days before she turned five Anne had a new baby brother. For the next three days that made five of us in the family under the age of seven. Associated in her memory was a new purse containing a 3d coin. A few years later all five, from Hector down to me, attended a single teacher school. We made up nearly half the roll, and if we had left it would have closed. In 1939 it did close when several primary schools were consolidated and a high school was placed with them, just in time for Hector. For quite a number of years, starting about then, my sisters had an objection to those who could not tell them apart. Anne was 16 months older than Mary, not enough to make size relevant. Anyone similarly placed knows that the sibling features are quite distinct. The school uniform provided one, inadequate, excuse. The blond hair, not that blond, was another. Everyone was expected at least by my sisters to be able to count to two. One plait down the centre of the back on Anne was different from two coming forward over the shoulders on Mary. The world contained, and contains, a lot of those who did not care enough to distinguish.

Authority and self-confidence arrived early in a small school fed by buses. ‘Our’ bus started near home, and dropped us with a couple of hundred metres to walk along a side road while it went off to collect along another route. In the evening the reverse process required a bell to be rung when it was time for us to move down from the school to our more central collection point. Some of the staff would still be winding down over a cup of tea then and keeping some sort of eye on proceedings. A message came to Anne one afternoon, “Mr Von Sturmer says it is time to ring the bell.” Anne was busy on something she thought more important and disagreed anyway. Without examining consequences she told a seven year old that “Mr Von Sturmer can go and jump in the lake!” She returned to her preoccupation, and did not expect that her views would be transmitted. Mr Von Sturmer, who of course was known to us as ‘Pip’, had just completed a good degree and had little teaching experience. In the staff room the dental nurse, somewhat older, was in the picture. Two minutes later Mr Von Sturmer, fiddling nervously with his tie, interrupted Anne “Did you just send me a somewhat cheeky message?” The message was withdrawn, and explained.

Mum had some ‘baggage’ about educational theorists. The occasion of this narrative is Anne. I am sure Mum would have blamed some senior bureaucrat for Anne’s complete consistency in spelling that word occaision.

She had already found a skill in drawing, mostly of landscapes. She continued to enjoy that all her life. It is probable that her paintings are good enough to grace most homes, but not as far as I know to sell. Her eye for the proper proportions of things made her question the continued usefulness of something once built at home as a hen house and developing along Joliffe lines. Dad was less enthused by her resultant green field development of the site. Her originality found more expression later in the patterns on the knitted sweaters she designed and produced, and did sell. An instinct to teach was applied to me so that by the time I started school I could recognise a considerable number of printed capital letters. The teacher was running an innovative program which integrated a remarkable number of activities through the primary years. This was one too many and I started from scratch. In later years, more or less from the time she started teaching the first years of primary school, her own handwriting was much more like printing. It was highly legible, but I suspect it may have led to battles when she was still supposed to be forming all the letters in an officially approved way. She did not read minds readily and once approached her high school teacher for translation of a comment on some returned work. The gentleman looked embarrassed and said “What I wrote was, ‘This is illegible!’”

WWII was obviously won by then but not to end for a couple more years. Earlier there had been a time when the outcome was not obvious. Many men were away in home defence units. A lot of management of a large sheep farm landed on and had to be learned on the job by Mum. Quite a lot of the routine checking could be delegated to five children. The threat of a seaborn invasion as a means of conquest went away quite early. We continued to patrol our considerable shoreline in search of useful flotsam and jetsam. Shipping sunk or damaged close enough to us supplied many interesting items. Less joy came from visits by fairy penguins needing to recover from encounters with oil. I don’t remember us being anything but helpless. We knew the farm and the shore well. In those years Anne and Ian, two years younger than Mary, made collections of native plants. They collected and pressed samples of everything they could find on the farm or along the shore. Their collections extended to include mangroves and any other species identified during simple family journeys away from the farm. It was not botany as a botanist would now see it, but botany as many still see it.

Mum was determined that any child of hers would be able to earn a living. Fashion took this as a given, for boys. She saw a career for a girl as an alternative to the still assumed marriage career. Sub-vocally she also saw a need for anyone widowed or deserted to be able to pick up the pieces. Picking up those pieces would of course have to include passing that same torch to the next generation. At the time visible and continuing choices for girls tended to be restricted either to nursing or to teaching. She had been a teacher herself and teachers were more numerous among close relations. To no surprise both Anne and Mary trained as teachers.

The man who had commented on her illegible writing was now a headmaster of a consolidated school with problems in getting staff. He went out on a limb to get Anne appointed to that staff. She enjoyed the staffroom and found an education in the surrounding community. A little before that move she boarded with a lady whose late husband was still remembered as a man of power locally. Anne was a little surprised to hear that her landlady was taking a medication containing creosote. Anne remembered that as being lavishly painted onto timber that needed protection out in the weather. Neither the flavour nor the smell appealed much. There were consolations. She assured the landlady “You are most unlikely ever to be attacked by borer.”

Much of our ancestry came from a two stage migration out of Scotland by way of a pause of a generation spent in Nova Scotia. The Northern Hemisphere forbears might have been startled to attend summer games on New Years Day. Naturally those who could manage came a long way for family reunions then. Competitions and highland garb became inclusive. The names of the pipers usually had some echo of Scotland but dancing is universal and so were the names. In any case there was no ownership of a Sailor’s Hornpipe or an Irish Jig. By the end of the day we had been within earshot of one or more pipers continuously for six or more hours and we always agreed that we could hear them all the way home. There were occasional mutterings querying the right of “that person to appear in that tartan”, but no ceremonial inquisitions. It was noted that those who were not guided by their ancestry in their choices were often misguided by a desire to achieve a colourful result. The weather was not cold as Scots know cold, but rain did happen. It may have been at the close of a sprinkle that Anne surveyed a considerable singular expanse of a kilted figure approaching and announced that she now understood about the pot under the rainbow.

She understood as well how useful it was to turn a phrase. Dad needed to have a number of meetings with a tiresome group led by a widow whose ‘Christian’ name was ‘Rose’. She and others belonged to a category known to us as ‘picnickers’. In other places they would be ‘summer people’, and when they went home they were reputed to be civilised. Dad started to refer to this widow as “The Last Rose of Summer”. Anne amended that, for all of us, to “The Rose of Last Summer”.

It is unwise to go out unprepared on significant occasions. There was an engagement announcement for a pretty girl from the district. The future Mother-in-Law was asked after church next day about the ‘catch’, who was not locally born. “He is a nice clean living New Zealand boy.” A week or two later I heard Anne pursuing Ian through the house. “Slow down, you nice clean living New Zealand boy. There are words I would murmur in your shell pink ear.” He concentrated on keeping the shell pink ear well out of reach.

Moving south she again took a position in a school in a lively area. It was at a party drawn from a considerable area that she met Dick Greed. As he explained later, there was considerable disparity in height, “so I stood her on a beer crate and after that we could see eye to eye.” The family has listened with delight ever since to his Somerset rumble and the turns of phrase that lurk in it. Great Aunt Eva was a little flustered on the day when ‘the others were out’ and Anne arrived with this young giant, for relative inspection. They left before the other two members of the household returned and she had to give a description. All she could remember was that he had “lovely eyebrows”. The “lovely eyebrows” were a talking point for a while. He still has them.

Cooking, sewing and all skills of homemaking were considered essential extras for any career a girl took up. She eventually modelled four homes and the surrounding gardens as required and as the family and farm needs changed. The form of the meals served to all who happened to be under the roof always tempted, especially with the offered ‘seconds’. Restraint did not come easily to visitors. Breakfasts did change character over the years as fewer of them were required launching pads for days of haymaking or in the shearing shed.

I paid less attention to the sewing except for an early occasion when she was making pyjamas for herself. A mere male has to reconstruct the cutting of four identical pieces to make up the legs. The next step involves sewing four seams; two short from the waist meeting two longer from the ankles. There remain two, longer yet, running outside from ankles to waistband. What followed tells me that the material had a right and a wrong side. When she discovered what she had done, she pinned things up accordingly and paraded wearing the correct side out, a lot of hip room and very short legs on the garment. She then unpicked and restarted.

There were the inevitable family wars from time to time. Each of us had at least one turn of being in the wrong. There may still be some echoes but mostly as we aged we worked out that all our characters had set fairly solidly. If you knew the terrain you could walk without bruises.

Outside the home she became and continued an excellent local citizen. There were all the standard activities in support of the library the schools and the things that made the town attractive. She approved, sometimes, of some of the local clergy. Some senior public servants in New Zealand and one or two commercial people elsewhere will still remember trying to install an irradiation plant out in her boondocks. The people who oppose everything surfaced first. The next wave read the documents in support of the proposal. The commercial people had put in some bits with dimensions suitable to submit in Canada and a few for New Zealand regulations. That would require correction in most jurisdictions. The proposed executive officer, in his share, made a number of dangerously inaccurate assertions about plant and transport safety. The public servants turned up to support him at a hearing without reading the documents. In the upshot the proposal was ruled out as having exceeded the powers of a local government that had accepted it. The scientific merits are still moot according to this reading of events. The dissections of the errors offered are presumably still available somewhere. I don’t think any of the proposers or supporters would chance their arms again without doing a lot of scientific homework.

Up to the day she died she was getting ready to gear up and ensure that a line of 70 metre pylons would be evaluated carefully before it became the accepted means of carrying high voltages over long distances. She had noted sceptically the reassurances by one of the senior public servants encountered earlier.

She was not herself automatically opposed to all things new. She enjoyed the store set up inside a large corrugated iron sheep on the main street. She enjoyed the number of local businesses with similar corrugated iron illustrations of their work. To date this does not include the panel beaters. She supported the building of a “Doll’s Castle” just at the edge of the town despite considerable local opposition. Those who oppose everything, and those who take up the cudgels for anything that is opposed, could well be bemused. I think that she would eventually justify things she did by instinct, once challenged. She knew that many items that are now preserved as heritage were once considered as spoiling existing beauty. On the other hand items that can possibly endanger those around should be evaluated before they are constructed. Some compensating utility can be balanced against risk in advance. It may be too late when the costs of demolition are unfairly put in the same pan as inadequate utility.

She is buried in a district where a hobbit would be comfortable to live. I decided that in taking farewell I should place with her a few sea shells that come from the beaches she had known so well.

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