Makes You Think

Kay McKenzie Cooke is part of WORD Christchurch 2020 Spring Festival

Non Fiction, Featured, Suitable for Young Adult Readers
Kay McKenzie Cooke | The commuting Book
Kay McKenzie Cooke

Sep 09   ●  12 min read

I was looking forward to 2011. I hadn’t been finding 2010 to be a very settled year. On one level I put the unsettled feeling down to it being the Year of the Tiger. A new granddaughter was born early on in the year. Both her mother and her sister were also born in the Year of the Tiger. The Year of the Tiger was said to be a year of sudden surprises. My granddaughter was not a sudden surprise. More like a welcome arrival.

As the year progressed, on a personal level, surprises did seem to be happening; one of them was a wonderful, quickly-arranged visit over from Japan by our son. He had with him his nine-month old baby son for us to meet (and hold and hug). There was also my mother’s 80th birthday in September to look forward to.

Then at 4:36 a.m. on September 4th, there was a not-so-good surprise. A massive earthquake hit Christchurch causing a great amount of damage, but miraculously, no loss of life. Luckily, all our family there were okay and their houses largely undamaged.

In the aftermath we selfishly wondered if our mother’s birthday party, planned to be held at our sister’s place in Christchurch, would go ahead. Could we expect our 80-year-old mother to be alright there with all those aftershocks and talk by geologists of the likelihood of another ‘big one’? However, my sister and her two daughters were okay, their house was okay. My sister said, “Of course it’s still on.” So the party went ahead with the arrival of a sister secretly flown over from Perth to surprise our mother, a success. A nice surprise this time. Another surprise, my brother bringing up from Southland a feed of titi for us all to enjoy. Some of the whanau enjoying them more than others.

While in Christchurch for the birthday celebration, we experienced the sheer terror of repeated after-shocks. Our Christchurch family were now able to correctly guess the magnitude, following up these guesses with a quick check on their phone’s earthquake app. to confirm. We saw first hand the broken parts of the city; how cracked and shattered it was. I drove with my sister to go and buy supplies for the party, slow traffic on damaged and blocked roads meaning the trip taking us hours longer than it would have normally.

In the midst of this bruised city, I found myself thinking about what the city of Christchurch meant to me. In the mid-70’s, marriage brought me to Christchurch for almost a year. At the time it felt like I was simply moving from one flat city (Invercargill) to another. However, the differences soon became clear – more people, more buses, more traffic, more energy, more ambition, more sophistication, more choices. And better weather. Hotter summers. (An actual summer, in fact. One with hot Mediterranean-style winds.) My sister was also living there at the time, but unlike me, she has never moved. In 2010 she had been living there for nearly forty years.

Early in the twentieth century, three of my father’s sisters (Agnes, Alice and Al McKenzie) moved, in turn, from the family home down in Orepuki, Western Southland, to live in Christchurch. They all married there, raised families and died there. In fact, while in Christchurch this time round, my sister and I met for the first time a relative – a descendant of Al’s. I remember us sitting at a favourite cafe of his, the owner hailing him as we walked in the door. We sat at an outside table and as we talked on the banks of the Avon River, cheerful daffodils bobbed normally in the spring breeze.

After working out what number removed he was as a cousin (twice or thrice?) we talked not only of the earthquake, but also of family, dating back to the nineteenth century. We discussed great-grandparents and grandparents, and family members (a lot of them in Christchurch) who have succeeded from the marriage of Livinia, whose parents emigrated in the late 1800’s from Derry, Northern Ireland, and William, whose parents were born in Scotland. Of the family’s Southland-Christchurch link; those who stayed, those who moved on. It gave me a feeling of solidity, even of stability. A sense of things going on from a solid base of family lines. Earthquake or no earthquake.

We also discussed how it was going to take a very long time for Christchurch to recover. Christchurch; attractive, sorted, proud, established, with the willow- lined Avon lazily and prettily meandering through its heart. I remember showing this city (in many ways modelled by the English pioneers on towns and cities ‘back home’) to English friends when they visited sometime early on in this 21 st century. Back then, we wandered through the Square, popping into the Cathedral where we heard part of a lunch-time service, the Vicar’s lingo amusing our English friends. “We love how laid-back Kiwis are,” they remarked. He was particularly amused by the ‘No worries’ refrain he’d been hearing over and over. Paying for a coffee, asking for a table for two, buying a ticket for a ride, signing for a rental car … ‘No worries,’ all the way. We sat drinking coffee in the sun, savouring the Square’s bright and busy hum and year-round-holiday atmosphere. We thought (as you do) that this was how it was and would always be.

In the Chinese calendar, 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit (or Hare) and promised a genuine, no-worries, placid year. I read somewhere that the Year of the Rabbit can be so laid back, people become apathetic and lazy. I could put up with that, I thought. Especially after the up and down nature of 2010.

However, 12.51 on Tuesday, February 22nd 2011, again the earth shifted under Christchurch. This time with catastrophic effect. This time lives were lost. This time much of the city was flattened and the once-solid-looking face of Christchurch was forever changed. Those of us outside of Christchurch watched the disaster unfold on TV, remarking how it was like we were watching something that was happening overseas. It was grim, horrific, shocking. A pall fell over the country.

Those of us safe and sound, felt a sad helplessness and maybe in some odd way, we also felt guilty. Some of us felt vitally connected to those in shock and those who mourned. We are all New Zealanders. All Kiwis. The National Anthem became pertinent.

After the Christchurch earthquake, a Japanese Group in Dunedin decided they would hold a fair to raise funds for Christchurch. Our son who lives in Kyoto, was amazed and warmed by how many people over in Japan showed their concern for him and his New Zealand family after the February earthquake struck. They knew the devastation earthquakes can wreak. Plus, of course, there were the tragic deaths of Japanese students in the CTV building to add brutal emphasis. Footage of the Christchurch quake played continuously on their televisions, our son said. Little did anyone in Japan know at the time that at about 3.00 p.m. Japan time (about 6.00 p.m. NZ time) on March 11th, a devastating earthquake would hit Japan, followed by a deathly tsunami.

Our son told us what it was like for him, safely removed south in Kyoto and experiencing the same shocked helplessness those of us outside Christchurch felt when that earthquake struck. He talked too about a sadness that fell over all of Japan. Never imagining that they would be raising money for their own country, the Japanese Earthquake Fundraising Group in Dunedin added Japan as a recipient for money raised. We went along to their fair, the grandchildren with us. Hoisted on my hip was my one-year old granddaughter, born in the Year of the Tiger. Among other things, we bought a simple water-colour of Japanese kanji for the word, ‘Family’.

“One thing earthquakes do is make you think,” I heard someone at the Fair say. A work colleague said to me, “Somehow this whole earthquake business puts things into perspective.” My sister said, “I think the planet is trying to tell us something.” My sister-in-law who experienced the earthquake first-hand, said that it has made her re-think her whole way of life. She wants to simplify.

I think back to my great-great-great-grandparents and the upheaval in their lives when they made the long trip over on ships to these shaky isles. And before them, my ancestors on waka from Hawaiiki. I wonder what they would say? I’m guessing something like, “Life goes on.” And so it has for Christchurch, even if it is a city still very much in recovery. The sun still shines. Let’s hope that we can keep hearing that common Kiwi refrain, ‘no worries’ ringing out, keeping the calm, keeping strong. Kia kaha, Christchurch. Stand strong. No worries.

Kay McKenzie Cooke is part of WORD Christchurch 2020 Spring Festival!


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