This is one of my favourite photos of my parents. I’ve got others, one in the back of a taxi after getting married, another of mum in her early twenties that sits on the microwave and keeps an eye on me in the kitchen. Those are all taken before they left for Oxford. According to my sister dad said to mum: Come with me now or lose me forever. She went, leaving her nursing training behind. I wish now I’d asked her whether the story was true. This picture though is on the way to England, on that long slow boat trip that took them through the canal at Panama. This is Panama and they’ve stopped long enough to wander round the city and stop in for a beer. Their close friend Pat Wilson is on the left; the photographer is unknown.
Through my mother I can follow my New Zealand roots back to my great great grandfather, John Octavius Batchelar, and to a great grandfather whose name I can’t recall, other than the surname Nielsen. The former arrived in Wanganui around 1870 before ending up in Palmerston North running the Royal Hotel. Making money there meant he could buy land, precious land, on the banks of the Manawatu. Not one of the great early settlers; but good enough to be part of the Wellington-Manawatu rail company that effectively killed Foxton when the main trunk line came though Palmerston rather than Foxton. And good enough for the research centre that sits on his old land near Massey University to be named after him.
On the other side, my unnamed great grandfather came out with the Norwegian settlers who cleared the bush on the other side of the ranges. Of all things for a Norwegian to be, he was the Methodist minister at Norsewood. His tenure came to an end when his church joined with the wider New Zealand Methodist church. He was told to preach to his Norwegian congregation in English, a language many of them couldn’t understand. Family lore goes that he went slowly mad living just outside Palmerston North somewhere on Napier Road.
My grandma, Elsie Mary Laurenson, mum’s mother, was born to one of the eldest of John Octavius’ daughters and was only a few years younger than some of her uncles. Growing up in Thorndon, Wellington, around the time of the 1913 waterfront strike, she was under strict instructions not to acknowledge her uncles should she see them in the streets as members of Massey’s cossacks. I’d like to say this was anti-cossack sentiments on the part of her parents, but no, it was pure self-preservation and fear of worker reprisals.
Her marriage to David Marcus Isaiah Nielsen was his second. She was a dead-ringer for her dead predecessor. Unknown to Elsie, David carried a photo of his first wife in his wallet until he died, when she found it. Not unusual, I’ve heard, for a man to re-marry a similar looking woman but it was too much for his son from the first marriage: committed, never seen again.
The photo sits unframed on the bookshelf. Dad, with pipe, is in shorts; that may be the reason they’re in a bar and not a restaurant. But they’re young and happy, on the way to a new life in an old country, drinking beer in the hot equator city, sharing time with a friend they’ll never lose. Feilding, Danniverke, Wellington, Te Kuiti, Christchurch – small towns of birth and upbringing, entering the world – behind them at least for now.