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Meet my parents

Welcome to One Ancestor at a Time, my very personal journey to discover history through the lens of my ancestors and the world they lived in. I’m Suitualoa Simon Young. 

In this instalment, I’m going to introduce you to my parents. Every family tree starts just one generation prior, which in some ways doesn’t feel like history, because I was alive most of this time. But it’s a good reminder - history is happening all the time.

Let’s meet Graeme and Annette. 

This is the photo on their headstone. Yes, they are both no longer with us, which is partly why I feel ok making this video. 

It’s two years since Mum passed. It’s 45 years since Dad passed. 

The photo is from very early in their lives, perhaps before they were married, circa 1960, and it’s one of the happiest photos of them together I’ve ever seen. Now, at the end of their lives, I see it this way: they’ve completed their journey down here, and they are looking back in encouragement, saying “It’s your turn now”. 

Just under 9 years ago, I turned older than my Dad ever did. It was weird. All of his lifespan, summed up in a man younger than I currently was. I was 3 years old when he passed, after a battle with brain cancer. My memories of him are a collection of vague impressions, supplemented by a lifetime’s searching through photos and artefacts. 

In some ways, Dad was like a fictional character to me. Elusive, unknowable, yet much missed. C.S. Lewis wrote a book called A Grief Observed, but my young mind was unable to take in what it was observing. It was a grief experienced, but not understood. 

There was always a sense of unfinishedness with me and dad. I was always looking for him. It didn’t help that Mum was a hoarder and our house was big and messy. Reminders of him were everywhere, like clues. I had dad’s clothes, his watch, his camera - not working any more - his glasses, his tools … oh, my gosh, so many tools. When we packed up the house just a couple of years ago, I marvelled at all the things he could do. Fix cars, do basic carpentry, plumbing, electrical wiring, ham radio … he was a polymath, good at so many things. And mum too. But then, that’s also part of their generation. Raised as the world was leaving the Depression and going through World War II, they learned how to make do, how to reduce, reuse, recycle before it ever became a catchphrase. 

Piecing together dad’s life is based on a few artefacts. His baptism certificate. A testimonial from his first job - Check out the phone number: 8! Got to love small town New Zealand. Dad worked in printing his whole life, ending up at Wilson and Horton, printers of the New Zealand Herald. 

Dad was a keen photographer - he even used to develop his own photos - so there are many photos he took, and not a lot of photos with him in them. He was happier on the other side of the lens. These candid everyday shots are from when he was in the Open Brethren Assembly Bible School. That was when he met my mum. 

They got married in 1962 and moved to the wild west of Auckland, in what is now an affluent suburb but back then must have felt semi-rural. There’s a letter to my dad from the council saying “thanks for your enquiry about sewerage - it’ll be ready in about 2 years”. So they really were camping out. 

While I had a lot of dad’s things, I didn’t have a lot of his thoughts, and that’s maybe what I miss the most. The few insights I do have are from around the time he was fighting his final battles with cancer.

There’s a letter to his mother - my grandmother - from the year before he passed, when he was recovering from a brain operation. It is an incredibly trivial letter - back in the days that letters were the only way to communicate besides phone and face-to-face - but it is such a treasure to me, because it’s him, his mannerisms and thoughts. I even get a mention! 

“I’ve been going up to hospital for radio therapy each weekday. Usually I work until about two, then drive into the hospital and have my treatment, then drive on home. There is not a great deal of side effect, but my head does tend to feel tired afterwards, so it is good to get home and sit down & relax - although Simon doesn’t always think I should relax!!!” 

Sorry Dad.

He passed away on March 24th, 1979. Mum took on the role of mother and father for my sister and I, and did the absolute best she could, not realising that she herself was fighting a health condition, chronic fatigue syndrome. 

We lived in an affluent area but we definitely weren’t rich. However there was one thing we had in abundance and that was culture. I took for granted having around me more books than I could ever hope to read. That felt like my birthright. We didn’t travel a lot, but through the world of books, we were regularly encouraged to travel across space and time. We also visited the museum, the zoo, art gallery, and concerts regularly. Our lives were full of curiosity and exploration, and for that I am forever grateful. 

In 1987 Mum had a mid-brain stroke, a very rare form of stroke that doesn’t paralyse either side but affects the ability for the eyes to focus. For years after that stroke Mum had to wear an eye patch. Being Mum, she made a set of colour-coordinated eye patches to go with her outfits - the most stylish pirate in the world. Mum was creative; she was a multimedia artist and valued originality above everything. 

I’m not sure if Mum ever fully recovered from that stroke. She could get around ok, but many years later, she developed vascular dementia, which eventually took her life at age 83. The trouble with dementia is, I don’t know when I had my last proper conversation with her. 

Grief is messy. Death and loss is messy. Dad left too soon, Mum’s body endured too long after her mind left us. 

Grief is a teacher. It teaches us to be compassionate, if we’re listening. 

Around the time we had to decide to let go of the family home, I learned about the land losses that had happened to Māori as part of the colonisation of New Zealand. I had an emotional attachment to this one house, because it was where I had grown up. Our family had it for exactly one generation. And yet I felt a sense of profound grief at saying goodbye. How, then, must tangata whenua have felt, when the land they had a deep spiritual connection with for generations, was taken from them unjustly?  Not only that but their culture and way of life was undermined, the very operating system of their collective. And it’s only just being restored, under a torrent of scepticism.

I can’t equate my grief with theirs. It’s plainly not the same. But I can use my grain of grief plus imagination to try to put myself in their shoes. To me this seems perfectly reasonable

I learned one more thing from Mum, the art of just listening to pain. This is especially hard for men. We like to solve problems. And yet Mum’s chronic illnesses posed a challenge that couldn’t be solved, only lived through. When someone is in pain and you can’t solve the problem, sometimes it takes more strength to simply listen to them. 

As Mum was in her final days, when she stopped eating and the rest home staff told us it was her body shutting down, I sat with her, and started planning out the video for her funeral. I was telling her story. 83 years of life, condensed into 10 minutes. I saw patterns and trends I had never seen at the time. I saw that mum had been a quiet revolutionary, with a strong sense of mission to help people through creativity. She believed in a Creator, and she loved creation, and creativity. 

When you’re at the end of someone’s life and you’re making an assessment of them, you do so with kindness. All the things that may have troubled you about a person in life fall away. You see only the absolute best in them. 

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could look at everybody that way?

I mean, call me naive, but what if we could just look at one another - while we are still living - as treasured human beings who one day will no longer be with us. If we could look that way at our family, our colleagues, our frenemies, our enemies … even our politicians?

I’ve been Simon Young, and this has been One Ancestor at a Time. If you liked this, please subscribe to the YouTube channel so you get the latest updates! Thanks so much. 

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