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California, New Zealand. Two passports, two homelands. And detours.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

memorials in small towns

Last March I went running on a back road near Kurow, a farming town in the middle of the South Island, where I was spending a lot of time then. It was autumn, like now, and the light on the hills in the early evening was changing. There aren't many trees in the area; it was dusk on this road  and so I made it my aim to run to the one big oak tree in the distance, before turning back. It was planted by an old farmhouse on a long straight road.

When I got there the lights had been turned on in the front of the house. I didn't want to hang around too long; I worry about dogs. But then I saw that under tree, near the roots, there was a plaque that had been placed in the ground. Weeds were growing up around it.  I stopped and crouched down to look and pushed the weeds back, and on the plaque,  mossy and faded so you could hardly read it were the names of two boys who died, one killed in Italy and one in Africa, in WWI. The surname of the brothers was still the same one the mailbox almost ninety years later. You look at that one mailbox, one farm, in the middle of the  mountains and two losses for a mailbox out here seems pretty unbearable.

Memorials  - sometimes trees with plaques, but more often in stone or concrete - are usually in the centre of towns, I've found, but not always down here. When I started writing this, I remembered this photo I took two years ago. You have to look hard, but there is a war memorial for WWI in the paddock below the house. That was what I first saw when I stopped the car, this structure in the middle of nowhere. When I hopped over the fence and climbed up towards it, I saw this house, with open windows, curtains blowing, vacant for years.

Down the road, in a nursing home on the coast, this woman I interviewed about Anzac Day, Lorraine, who is 92, said there were always dances going on in those years, for men coming home and the farmboys leaving during WWII at the town halls. They were boys you had known from birth, who were like brothers, and boys you had crushes on, and maybe that one boy who drove you crazy, that you couldn't get off your mind. She said they would dance all night until that last slow song Wish Me Luck, a song that she still hated, because it was always the song that ended the night. You wouldn't want to let them go. But you could never let that show in your eyes.

I don't know if Memorial Days are more haunting to me now because I am older, or because I live in a rural area with an ageing demographic who weren't raised to give grief a lot of room, and you see how many names are engraved on these plaques and memorials, how many trees are planted for a soldier who didn't come home, and you wonder who was left in these towns to love.

Yesterday was Memorial Day in the U.S. It just made me think about this...


  1. Martin Luther King once said, "We are not makers of history; we are made by history."

    Great post and interesting food for thought.

    And if you ever run back to that big oak tree, do me a favor & pull the weeds from around the base of the plaque

  2. Hey Gwyneth, I loved reading this! In upstate NY where I grew up, sometimes you will come across old gravestones while walking in the woods. Often the names have eroded away, but I have wondered who these people are... Emily

  3. I know, and what kind of community used to be there...lots of story about a place in the gravestones