The pretty red dress that Nana sent

Once, when Nana was passing through Tirau, our tiny Waikato town on the main road that ran all the way up from Wellington to Auckland, she came to school. She called me out of class, which was unheard of. She insisted, said my Mum later. After all, I was her first grandchild. Nana’s silver hair was tinged with blue, her face was powdered, her smile was dazzling. We sat,
incongruous and uncomfortable, on the wooden bench in the shelter shed near the shrubbery. Nana’s glow faded a little.

Not long after that day, a parcel arrived. It was from Nana; a red-and-white striped store-bought dress that instantly and forever became my favourite. It had gathers from a drop-waist, a frill around each armhole, and buttoned down the front. But when the school holidays came, it was simple, home-made cotton frocks and light cardigans that my younger sister and I wore as the hostess greeted us at the top of the steps onto the DC-3 for the NAC flight to Wellington where Nana and Pop lived. We rather resembled the sisters in the Rita Angus painting of Fay Weldon and her sister. The difference was, we had several more siblings – three younger ones and the baby – at home, and Mum was no doubt glad to give us away for a short week or so.

At their flat, on those weekday Woburn mornings, Pop would bring Nana breakfast in bed on a tray before he left, bowler-hatted, umbrella’d and jaunty to catch the train to his government job in the city. Later, Nana would emerge after an age from the duck-egg blue bathroom in a steamy mist of talc and Chanel No 5 to gossip and laugh on the hall phone. Then in the sunny afternoon, the friends came, for bridge and gin in the elegant drawing room. Those days were a revelation, so different from the austere, hard-edged routines of home.

We were given threepence each for an ice-cream at the dairy, but delayed and played in the secret places amongst the hydrangea bushes along the low front wall. Haven’t you gone, she said when we looked in to see the card-players intent on their game, that’s why I gave you the money.

Other days, we put on our best dresses in the dining room that had become our temporary bedroom, Nana donned hat and gloves, and we went to town on the train. Then we took the tram to James Smiths, to wander in the toy department, to wonder at the china dolls, the xylophones, and the magical diaramas of Santa’s elves hard at work and the reindeer in full flight. Or we went to the zoo, in the awkward company of another grandmother and other grandchildren inherited for the holidays, with elephant rides and chimpanzee tea parties, the chimps also in their finery and on their best behaviour.

In the weekend, we piled onto Nana’s bed after breakfast for the childrens’ programme on the radio. When they announced they’d be playing the laughing policeman, Nana sang and chortled jollily along. We had never heard it before.

We learnt a lot that holiday. We learnt how to play bridge and how to move unobtrusively around the Bridge Club tables emptying ashtrays, how to read the Best Bets and pick a likely winner when the trots were on at Trentham, to listen intently as the commentator raced unstoppable to the finish line to see if our horse won. We learnt that a Poppa could still have an eye for the girls when the small dark-green Renault swerved toward the footpath and Nana twinkled in amusement.

Nana and Pop had been married 40 years by then. A long piece in The Evening Post in June 1923 described the bride looking charming in turquoise blue satin. After the reception, they left for a small town much further north, the bride in a silk going-away frock and a fur-lined velour coat that, the paper reported, was a gift from the bridegroom.

They never owned a home my father told us afterwards, they always rented. Pop earned a decent salary; he was high up in the Justice Department. But they spent it all. We could have done with financial help, Dad said.

After a few years in Te Aroha, Nana and Pop returned to Wellington with their toddler daughter, Jeanette. Back they came to the life and lustre of the city. Back from life below the looming mountain that looked out over the stretched landscape of the plains.

Our holiday too came to an end; and I gazed out the aeroplane window, unseeing, on the journey home, with a flat empty feeling in my stomach.

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