We grew up in a house full of books. Almost every bedroom had built-in bookshelves that were double-stacked and full to bursting. In our household, the rule was you can spend frivolously on books, so long as you choose good ones because there were always be at least four people to read it. My mother and sisters and I grew up nourished on serif fonts and paperback newsprint. Even now we have to check and double check who has purchased which new release from our favourite authors so we don’t double up too much. I carry this habit with me; like the shopping habits of an overweight woman – books and shoes never let me down. In fact, because of books and shoes it has never occurred to me to consider anything else normative. I grew up listening to my mother read Tennyson and Longfellow to me in perfect meter.
Did you ever see the sound of a word carving out space for you to live inside? I did. The way my mother could roll her tongue into the rhythm of Hiawatha’s song, painting a word picture of Nokomis, Daughter of the Moon and her wigwam is perhaps my most treasured sound of childhood. I wait eagerly to hear her speak it aloud again to my niece and nephew.
Of the few places we called home in my youth, it wasn’t until we arrived in Patey St that I think we truly made ourselves at home again. After leaving Hau Moana, our green square house overlooking the Manukau Harbour, we finally found ourselves again in the early 1900s bungalow within walking distance of the best schools. There was little romance in the position of the house, just the earnest love of a woman determined to give us every launch pad she could into the world. But slowly, as we peeled back linoleum from native hardwood timber floors and as Mum sanded and then painstakingly painted every architrave and doorframe in enamel paint; Patey St became a love story to what is possible.
In the bones of that bungalow are the built-in bookshelves I now crave and the stories we learned within her walls. We fought and screamed and cried and pushed our way into adolescence and adulthood in those walls.
In the height of our romance with Patey St, as we knew her, the formal living room boasted deep pink fuchsia walls, a Regent style carpet and floral curtains. You had to stand in the space to understand how perfect it was and if you did, you would see two pink Edwardian armchairs. This room, with an explosion of colour was always heaven to me.
My mother, finally independent, had created rooms in a house that was entirely her own making. In my memory coloured by fondness, everything about it was luscious – from the English rose garden to the floral wallpapers and the Edwardian chaise lounge. My mother made an escape from the world, where Tennyson, Browning, Keats and Longfellow made sense. I would arrive home from school, discard my bag and books and disappear into the world of poetry and novelists she gave me, sinking into one of those pink velvet Edwardian chairs.
When the time came for fuchsia to yield to beige and the onslaught of real estate agents began, my desire to keep the pink armchairs matched my mother’s reluctance to let them go. My stepfather – kind, gracious, a little bit naughty, had always preferred one of those armchairs by the fire. My own home had a fireplace less full of poetry but just as warm. I will not let them go, even now when I travel thousands of miles from home. When the time comes to bring my pots and pans and books to fill shelves here in the Continental United States, there are two pink chairs that will find their way back home to me. Where there is poetry waiting. A chair without a book to read is no place to rest.