I eased the car off the main highway, around the curve, across the small white timber bridge that helps feed the big river, and onto the backroad; then accelerated into the late autumn green and yellow landscape. The milking sheds were the only bright lights in the fading afternoon sun as they finished their hosing down. The twilight bogan moths were just starting to appear, as the long line of black and white cows wound their way out into the paddocks.
I could never decide which was my favorite part of the journey home. The moment of lift-off as I departed, knowing that I was finally on my way and could savor the anticipation. The long final descent across the harbor tidelands, their blues, and greens mixing with the taupe sandbanks revealed by the tides. The familiar green fields and stands of pohutukawa trees fringed the airport drive as I pointed the rental car to the exit. The crest of the ranges as I looked down onto the cloud shadows on a green tapestry laid out to the horizon. The flat section of the highway running parallel to the wide brown river which too was now accelerating as it approached its journey home to the sea. Or, this the final run along with the dairy and deer farms familiar to my boyhood memories.
I could now relax, saturate myself with the colors of the landscape, the childhood connections, and memories tied to home. For the first years of my marriage, my wife would always correct my referral to “home” as my birthplace, rather than where we lived. But I had a deep attachment and longing to this country; everywhere else was “where I lived”, an address, not home yet.
So what made this “home”. In my mind, it was the familiarity, the certainty, the flood of memories which had now filtered down to a prized collection, the rejoicing on being together once more.
Across the farmlands, past the meatworks that had provided my student funding, and over the high concrete tied-arch bridge that had carried us across the river to school. Everything seemed smaller and shorter. I climbed the final hill past the College (the bike sheds were still there by the entrance) and headed for the final approach down the lanes of paddocks to the village.
He was there. I saw his form near the gate in the sweep of the car lights as I entered the street. I expected that; he was my watchman, my father. He stepped back as I glided into the driveway, and then moved forward arms apart. “Good to see you” ..….. man hug….… “right on time”; although there was never any established arrival time. It was, of course, the safe arrival that was right on time. Mother stood on the balcony, stepping out from the kitchen very briefly to balance arrival time with dinner time. Nothing had changed. Dad continued to circle the car like a dealer preparing a trade-in quote. He had never held a driver’s license although we owned a modest car. It was never ever discussed, just accepted as normal in the family. Mum drove, Dad navigated and nixed any vehicle that strayed into his self-established safety zone.
We moved inside. Dad always carried my cabin bag as if it contained the launch codes. I hugged Mum, who would always break the embrace with a blunt family news item that had been simmering like some of the pots on the range. “We lost Billy last week”. Bang, no other details; cousin, friend, neighbor, horse, cat ?… it didn’t matter, it was out and now just as quickly, was the roast from the oven. My 1976 Time Magazine photo was there on display just inside the door entrance. My younger brother (there were two sisters in between) once suggested they were rotated for each of our visits, but on another homecoming, he noticed a new trend… favoritism there had been no change in the lineup. His comment, apparently, went straight through the same open window that was sucking in the last of the warm evening air.
I pulled the usual Duty Free gifts out. Dad’s “medicinal” aged whiskey and Mum’s French brand perfume. I still think they regarded them as wartime luxuries and never expected to see them in their local town shops. The whiskey went straight to the oak credenza to stand next to its nearly depleted last arrival. The perfume was spirited into the bedroom, somewhere.
After this brief haIt, it was time for dinner. Full plates of carefully prepared roast lamb and vegetables. I always admired Mum’s effort to bring “the best-cooked meal since last Christmas” to the table as if I had not eaten all day. It made you feel special, welcome, back at home. The apple pie was next, thick brown sweet pastry with Grannies poking out. Nothing intruded on the conversation, the TV sat grey and silent in the corner (“even the news is terrible these days”), and there was no technology anywhere crying out for attention. We wiped up and sat down to deal with the “family” news, finishing our dinner conversation over cups of tea. The evening closed quickly with an introduction to the bedroom of my youth, the folded fresh towel and the turned down quilt, nothing had changed.
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