Getting to Know Them

Reminiscence about Kitty McLennan and Doreen McKenzie by Donald Lang

My mother when she married came to live in a bungalow near the beach. It was some time before she got rid of a reflex at dusk to reach out and switch on the lights. I don’t know if the fairy penguins knew that house then. Certainly years later they used to come in under it and squabble during the night.

A year or two later an advertisement for a property auction nearby said proudly that it was serviced by a summer road and that metalling would be starting “this week”. A considerable amount of trade was carried along the coast by scows. These could be brought close to the coast in calm weather. My uncle Ian told me of Kitty McLennan who used many years before to meet the scow at the “biscuit rocks” and collect supplies. Kitty’s place on the local McLennan family tree was identified by a normally used second ‘title’. There were a lot of McLennans, and McKays and ‘Mac’s generally. Many of the family distinction names had travelled from Nova Scotia with their families. Her branch had this name which I ‘heard’ many years later as “Eenhomish”. I would have minimal hope of spelling it out so that a Gaelic Scholar might write it down. 

Mum may not have thought through and certainly never spelled out to me that Kitty Eenhomish could well even then still be thinking in Gaelic much of the time. Her parents would have spoken mostly in Gaelic when they arrived in New Zealand about half way through the previous century. That would account for a deliberation in speech so that Mum spoke of her, as did most of the locals, as “ArhhN-Tee”. ‘Aunty’ managed the house she shared with her brother. He was naturally known as “Unnn-K’l’ in the area, or referred to as “Angie”, and in local parlance he was “deaf as a post”.

Mum would have walked up to see them from time to time. There was that summer road but it took time to saddle a horse, and longer otherwise to harness it into a “buggy”. If Miss McLennan could earlier walk over a hill and down a few hundred yards to the biscuit rocks and come back with a full sugar bag on her shoulder, Mum could walk about a mile each way to be neighbourly.

The first few times Mum tried to be a good guest and help lay the table. The time was not yet when there would be a canteen of cutlery, so Mum raided the drawer where it was all kept, and laid places for three. Aunty came and looked it over and then moved ponderously around the table.

“He .. doesn’t .. like .. that .. knife.” It was picked up and returned to the place whence it came and another that Mum would not have found readily distinguishable in quality appeared in its place. While she was still thinking of memorising to do better next time, Aunty continued her progress. “He .. doesn’t  .. like .. that .. spoon.” And so on until the table had been relaid. Thereafter Mum left well alone.

Table talk there probably was. Births deaths and marriages went on even then. I suspect that Aunty would not have talked about scandals to a man even if he was her brother, or to a guest young enough to be her daughter. Bits of local history were important to pass on, possibly to explain that there was a much earlier cause for something that still stirred passions in their own time. Uncle would get well launched into an event that occurred before Mum was born, on the Tuesday just after New Year… At the other end of the table there was a stir. “It woss a Thursss-day”.

“It woss a Tuesss-day. The week before, it rained every day and…”

Mum did not have to worry about keeping her end up. When two people one of whom is only moderately deaf get properly launched into corroborative detail in support of a facet of a story whose gist you have already gathered, it is safe to drift. Many years later, among a family which had heard the story rehearsed phonetically, relevance in discussion was often refocussed by the remark “It… woss.. a ..Thurrs-day”

There was an election about this time, and I have no idea what day of the week it was, but Uncle was the returning officer for the polling booth in a school about three miles along that summer road.  Uncle had to be there all day, hence Mum was asked to provide transport for Aunty so that she could vote. That did involve harnessing up the gig. Collecting Aunty was quite a task. The slim slip of a girl who had raced down to meet the scow had expanded a bit. Naturally the figure had to be properly presented on a public occasion, and it creaked a bit when she was being helped into and out of the gig. Helped she was. She made her way into the polling booth, and eventually back to the gig where the feat of polite engineering had to be repeated.

There was time on the drive home for a few remarks.

First of course came the ballot about temperance. Then, and for many years afterward, each electorate had the option of voting for total abstinence from alcohol for that electorate. If the whole country had so decided New Zealand would have been “dry”, and a lot of my relatives would have been parched. Aunty had ‘of course’ voted for total abstinence, and then she came to the candidates. There were three of them on the paper and she named them, but the only one I remember was Fred Murdoch, who was still going when I was nearly old enough to vote. I think I have dubbed him Mr Blenkinsop below.

“Mister Arch-I-Bold sometimes takes – some of that – whisky – in public, so – I – crossed – his – name – out.”

There were no squares at that time I think, and it was probably quite satisfying to show that you did not want that candidate by following the instructions and putting a line, or two, through his name(s).

“Mis-ter Blenk-in-Sop wants to cut down support for The-Bible-in-Schools, so – I – crossed – his – name – out.”

“Mis-ter Chall-eng-er is a member of the Lab-our Party, so – I – crossed – his – name – out.”

That made three. In fact it made all three.

Mum too had voted and she did not tell us which [two] [real] names she had crossed out and she did not feel any need to continue that discussion then.

A few days later she took her sociable walk up to lunch once more. Table talk had only one topic on at least one of those visits. The returning officer at the local polling place was still cross. “I do – not know – and I – cannot – imagine – anyone – in this area who could be so stew—pid as to cast an informal vote.” There was no comment or correction from anywhere at the table.

1 comment on Getting to Know Them

  1. Hi there Jennifer,
    Bev Brett here. I just posted an editted version of the letter from Donald Lang on my fb site. I made an assumption that the letter was public because it was on a site. But if not can I get permission or I will take it off. We found out that it was Christy – not Kitty. I’m not making any money or anything. Just wated to share with folks in Cape Breton. Love the letter. I read it aloud at a talk
    I gave in Blues Mills with some descendants- and used the brogue.

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