from Invercargill to Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand
My grandmother once glued 3,000 seashells to a wall at her house.
The house sat one paddock back from the Invercargill Racecourse: two-storied, brown brick, with a cracker view of the track from the upstairs balcony, and the wall, downstairs, measured about four metres by four. She began with a simple trim of ostrich foot shells along the wall’s bottom edge. A border of bivalves followed, some patches of periwinkles, a line up of limpets, then hundreds of tiny clams to fill in the gaps of her white, wide-walled ocean. Outside, tides rolled in and out, moons waxed and waned, seasons passed, but on and on Nana plastered: cockles and cat’s eyes, pīpī and pūpū, scallops and sea snails.
It took her took an entire year to complete her grand mosaic of molluscs. It was the feature wall of a mermaid’s palace, the seaside galloping in from across the paddocks, multiple beaches glued to a wall, an ocean of art indoors.
My nana is a collector. Principally of shells, though she has many other fine assemblages: souvenir teaspoons, garden gnomes, pink stones, and lately, a burgeoning collection of meerkats. It’s the shells, though, that are her masterwork. This is no casual weekend gatherer we are dealing with here, like those people who take home the occasional pāua shell to sit on the windowsill next to the bath, or like those kids who pick up cats eyes only to abandon them later, smelling like salt and death, in the footwell of the car, no, Nana’s shell gathering has been sustained, prolific, mercenary. When we were young, my sisters and I were her seasonal workers on the sands of Southland, digging our fingers in at Oreti, bracing ourselves against the southerly at Riverton, sifting through oyster shells abandoned between the barnacled piles at Bluff. My cousins were employed up in the Bay of Plenty, plucking pink-fanned scallops and yellow-brown takai from Waihi Beach, shapes from the sea we mainlanders thought were terribly exotic when the tide, or Air New Zealand, brought them south. Nana went out collecting too of course – in between Organ Club conventions and Aquarobics sessions and Meals-on-Wheels volunteer deliveries – every time the salty sea breeze called her.
It is always Grandad who answers the phone when I ring, always in the same way.
‘Halloo!’ he chimes.
‘Hi Grandad, it’s Sonya.’
‘Sonya! So it is!’
Grandad, 91, a trainer of horses well into his eighties and long-term Trackside devotee, puts me on speakerphone because Nana’s hearing aids have been playing up. I’ve called to talk to her about our family history; Nana is 88, and I’ve had the sudden urge to collect it. But I also want to talk about the shells. It is one of the abiding memories I have of Nana from my childhood: the things she carried, those treasures she kept.
It is late January. At my childhood beach, Oreti – that beach at the bottom of the world where the horizon dips, where you feel as though you might be about to swim off the edge of the earth – the tides are still coming and going as they should. The water is warming up, the marram grass on the dunes is flowering, and the Coronavirus is still just a vague nothing-much, happening on shores far, far away.
‘When did it start?’ I ask her, ‘your shell collecting?’
‘In Wellington,’ she says. ‘When I was about six or seven.’
It was 1938, she thinks. Her family had moved north chasing work and washed up at Lyall Bay, back when Wellington airport was just a strip of grass beyond the far end of the beach.
‘Why did it start?’
‘I don’t know I suppose it’s just … always my love of water and the sea.’
In the background the old pendulum clock chimes, one ding for half past the hour. That clock, mounted on the sitting room wall of their Invercargill retirement village bungalow, has rung its way through four different houses now, and thirty-odd years. Ding! Another half hour has passed. Ding-Dong! And another.
‘Now, shall we start from the start?’ Nana says.
Nana was born in Invercargill in 1932, where an optimistic town planner had ordered the streets built four lanes wide, but where there wasn’t much around of anything at all. She arrived into a world still suffering the effects of the Great Depression and of the First World War, but it was the Second World War that really troubled her – when her family couldn’t buy enough butter or sugar or meat, when she feared the arrival of the Germans, when they had to run and hide in the trenches dug around the primary school if the air-raid drill sirens went off, when her uncle got man-powered to Cairo and her father, too old to go to war abroad, got marched north to Christchurch to be trained up for the home guard.
‘Us kids were absolutely petrified because we thought we were going to get bombed,’ she tells me. It was Nana’s job to hold the classroom door open when the siren went. She was always the last to get out, and was terrified she was going to be left there when the shells (of the weaponised variety) started falling. They were still living in Lyall Bay when the war broke out, and Nana remembers the whole family marching down to the wharf in the wee small hours of the morning to see the departing of the first echelon for Egypt. ‘I was only six or seven,’ she says, ‘and I wondered why all the big people in the crowd were crying.’
Did I know that once, during the polio epidemic, they weren’t allowed to go past their front gate for weeks? Maybe even months? Nana cant quite remember the time frame. ‘I was 8. That was quite along time ago you know,’ she says.
When the clock chimes again, a full ten cacophonous dongs for ten o’clock, Nana says: ‘I’ve realised I keep going back to myself in the olden days.’
‘But that’s good,’ I tell her. ‘I want to hear it. The world was so different when you were young.’
‘Oh, wasn’t it ever, yes.’ Nana’s yes’s lilt, they always have, coming out as a gentle yey-es, as if she’s slightly unsure, half way through the word.
All through her childhood, whenever the war or the polio epidemic or her grumpy father would let her, Nana went to the beach. She loved the beach. And she loved the shells the beach provided. She would run there everyday after school to swim and search for shells, then trudge up the hundred steps to home. Even when her family returned to the wind-lashed south, Nana’s shell gathering continued. Her collection grew as she did, a rising tide of sun-bleached carapaces gathered from the beaches of her youth: Lyall Bay, Oreti, Riverton, Dunedin’s St Clair.
She was dedicated, too. Once, when she left her clothes in a pile on the beach to swim, she returned to find them all on fire. Poof! There they were up in flames, as she collected shells in her togs further down St Clair beach. Some cad had flicked his cigarette into them. Nana is pragmatic: ‘Lucky my undies weren’t affected,’ she says.
Her family didn’t have much. The dress for the school dance was made out of old curtains, the biscuits made with dripping, toilet paper made from cut-up squares of newsprint. Nana longed for things: a doll’s pram, a trike, a garden gnome or two like the wealthy lady who lived down the street. There wasn’t enough money for any of them.
‘Nobody had much back then,’ she says, ‘way back in the olden days.’ There’s a wistful tone to her voice, as though she’s sauntered all the way back to the beach, to that time she saw a handsome young chap sitting on the sand singing Mexicali Rose to his girl, to that time before the war, and before Trackside TV, and before grand-daughters ringing on cell phones. ‘I just had a real fancy for all these shells. They used to fascinate me, the different shapes and colours. Those ones you could hold to your ear and hear the sea roaring…ye-es.’
Shells, unlike prams and trikes and garden gnomes, were free for the taking. The ocean just handed them over, gratuities from the sea.
‘Hi Grandad, it’s Sonya.’
‘Sonya, so it is!’
It’s February. Nana’s just back from getting her new hearing aids turned down. At a concert at the local church yesterday they gave her a heck of a fright, blasting her ears with a loud screech.
‘I’ve never really thought of myself as a collector,’ she tells me, ‘not until you started asking me about it.’
Oh, but she was. She is. It wasn’t just shells. There were also stones.
‘Oh yes. I suppose now that you say it …’
When my grandparents bought a little crib on the edge of the Arrowtown camping ground in the 1980s, Nana’s collecting moved inland, to freshwater. The Arrow River bed, full of schist and gold dust and miner’s ghosts, also held a collection of sparkly rosé-tinged rocks. We called them by their scientific name: pink stones, and Nana decided that she must start amassing those too.
My sisters and I went on collecting missions for her every time we visited. Some days there were none, but other days, perhaps after a storm had forced the silvery braids to change their course, perhaps on a day our young eyes were more alert thanks to us being jacked up on sherbet from the Night n’ Day, the valley’s ghosts and the snow-fed river obliged us, sending pink stone treasures down from the mountains and depositing them at our freezing pink feet.
How many pink stones is too many pink stones? We never found out. Nana never saw a pink stone she didn’t want to keep. Some of them were – are – huge. Pink boulders.
‘You’d probably get told off for doing that now wouldn’t you?’ I ask her. ‘Taking big rocks from the river like that?’
‘Oh help, I don’t know. I never got caught anyway.’
They’ve survived through all the years and all the moves, Nana’s collection of pink rocks, shifting with her by wheel-barrow and sons-in-law to each new house smaller than the last.
‘I’m the only one here in the retirement village with pink stones,’ she says proudly, and I imagine a flock of jealous pensioners peaking through their net curtains, coveting Nana’s rocks. And when she says, ‘the one I’ve got at my door now, I want that to be my headstone,’ my heart thuds a little harder, just for a beat.
She ‘never really thought of herself as a collector.’
She also collected souvenir teaspoons. Hundreds of them dangled from purpose-built racks, rattling their kitsch hellos in the westerly wind. And garden gnomes: I remember Snow White and the full seven dwarfs, a Cinderella garden gnome, ducks, chickens, geese; an entire concrete Disney village populated her front garden.
‘Oh yes,’ Nana says, ‘I had them all just about.’
She also had a collection of miniature cups and saucers (far too small to be of any use for all the teaspoons), a wide assortment of things coloured lavender, thousands of copper coins kept in old beer flagons, and meerkats. Meerkats are her latest thing. She has meerkat garden gnomes, calendars, wind-up toy meerkats and statuettes. She has seasonally-specific meerkats too; at Christmas time little Santa hat-clad meerkats poke out from the indoor plants.
‘I’ve got a movie of them now too, a dvd, have you seen it?’
Her voice sounds like a smile. ‘Oooh you’ll have to come and visit me and I’ll play it to you!’ (The implication being that I don’t come and visit her enough.)
Does anyone collect things anymore? Like people once collected stamps and model cars and Royal Dalton china? Like my nana collected shells?
I collect books, I suppose. Rather, I keep books. The biography on Kate Sheppard I got for my 11th birthday, an ancient little tome of Christina Rossetti poems I bought from an op shop during my first year of uni:
What are heavy? Sea-sand and sorrow;
What are brief? Today and tomorrow;
What are frail? Spring blossoms and youth;
What are deep? The ocean and truth.
In one of my other books, The Songs of Trees, David George Haskell writes: ‘An affinity for savanna-like landscapes is one of the neurological quirks that we humans carried with us as we spread across the world. Another is the desire to collect curios, especially pieces of the past. We’re a storytelling species, so perhaps these artefacts are anchors and touchstones for the tales from which we find our reality.’
Back when I travelled, when everyone could travel, sometimes a Nana-shaped nostalgia would pull at my brain, or some in-built familial instinct would kick in and I would find myself in the souvenir teaspoon section of the gift shop. I would also pick up exotic shells and stones from lakes and rivers and far-away shores, only to loose them at airport biosecurity. I have continued to pick up a lot of shells and rocks over the years in fact, far more than would perhaps be considered normal for a grown-up. These things do to get passed on I think, not the shells and rocks themselves, but the desire to pick them up and take them home, to cling on to that place and time from which they came.
Nana and Grandad lived on 80 acres at Kennington, out where the road away from Invercargill becomes the road towards Dunedin. They collected five daughters between 1953 and 1963, and they all have the gene. My mum once collected cow-based paraphernalia, but now it’s fabrics and stationary and old maps. My aunty Sheryl collects vintage knitting patterns. Aunty Andrea: match boxes. Aunty Jenny has extensive collections of hairdryers, sunglasses, and approximately 54 sets of salt and pepper shakers. My cousin Kerryn has a pencil collection and a shoelace collection and a vintage apron collection. My other cousin, Anna, admits to 16 teapots, 57 tea cups and 92 different types of tea, at least that’s how many she had last time she counted them, which was back in 2017. When my sister Nikki confirms that she owns 15 vintage retractible builders’ rulers, I start to wonder if there’s some sort of group therapy we should all be doing.
‘I’ve always wondered,’ Aunty Jenny writes on our family group Messenger thread, ‘what is bigger? A selection of collections or a collection of selections?’
We’ve started chatting more often lately, my aunties and cousins and I.
There’s some sort of chamber music concert going on. ‘Hi Grandad, it’s Sonya!’
‘Sonya! ‘Tis too! The very one!’
‘It sounds like you’ve got an orchestra in your lounge!’
‘It’s Nana, playing the organ!’
It is late March. Nana plays on, but the world outside has stopped.
She says, when I ask: ‘We are doing very well.’
She says she’s keeping busy during lockdown with her organ and her crochet and her knitting.
She says: ‘Oh, I’ve always got something to do. I’m knitting dishcloths at the moment. Real flash ones! I might knit you one actually.’
‘I’d love one.’
‘Oh, right, well I’ll put your name on my list.’
‘And how are you?’ Grandad asks.
Thanks to COVID-19, my husband and I, both freelancers, have lost all our work. We are not sure how we are going to pay the mortgage. The tide is out.
‘Oh well, a lot more than you’s got troubles,’ Grandad says, and he’s right.
Nana’s shell wall has lasted more than three decades. The Great Shell Wall! While I was watching Fraggle Rock and listening to Kylie Minogue and roller-skating down the driveway outside, Nana crouched and stretched, crouched and stretched, dabbing and pressing, dabbing and pressing, week after week, month after month.
It took a bit of organising, to get all her scallops in a row. A bit of trial and error to get the consistency of the grout just so. The family weren’t that impressed, she says. But I remember, as a nine-year-old, being full of admiration. I thought of it as the wall of a great sea creature’s palace, gilded in royal clams.
‘Its been there thirty years,’ Nana says, ‘so it must’ve been alright.’
It’s still in the family, in fact, albeit not nearly as big as I remembered. My aunty and uncle live in the house now. Many things have been removed or re-painted, many things have changed, but the shell wall stays put.
It is April now; the virus is claiming lives, but Nana plays on. Nana, collector of sea shells and stones, a keeper of things, a woman who doesn’t let go, a women who remembers Lyall Bay when the airport was just a strip of grass at the far end of the beach and a chap singing Mexicali Rose to his gal and the start of the Second World War. A woman who remember many wars: Korean, Vietnamese, Gulf and Cold, cultural revolutions and communist ones, great depressions and great leaps forward; a woman who remembers the conquering of the moon and Everest and the Four Minute Mile; a woman who, while clever men in other countries invented things that people didn’t know they needed — satellites, televisions and the internet — watched the sun rise over the chook house every morning and sink into the dock-covered back paddock every evening and raised five babies from girls to grown-ups, all of them smart and strong.
‘Do you feel frightened?’ I ask her. ‘About the virus?’
‘Not one bit. I’m 88. The thought of dying doesn’t worry me one bit.’
I ask because I’ve just read a letter my friend’s elderly father wrote, on Facebook. Marshall Seifert is 80. He grew up in New York, where more than 10,000 have already died. His letter is a plea: for the old to start telling their histories, and for the young to sit down and listen.
What if we oldies, he writes, on behalf of our nation and our own mental well being, were to take on the task of telling our own personal life story? The ups and downs and round abouts that have made up our long lives. It would not only give you a task during your long isolation but would also strengthen the ties with your children and grandchildren. The start facts are: not all of us are going to get through the next few months and if we don’t, we wont even get to have a funeral.
‘For the last few weeks I’ve just been surrounded by death,’ Marshall tells me over the phone from Waitati, North Otago, after I ring him up as well. ‘It’s too real.’
He tells me that we don’t spend enough time with our grandparents. He tells me that in the media, they’re invisible. He tells me that the people most at risk from this virus, are the people we hear about the least. ‘Life can be like a movie, you know? There’s a lot of things that just aren’t real. But that does not count for families. Families are real. Families are you.’
‘Im busy hooking a rug to put over my organ,’ Nana says, next time I call. ‘In between knitting dishcloths. I’ve got yours nearly finished.’
‘And it’s pink.’
‘Have you ever had a pink dishcloth?’
Nana hasn’t asked for shells for years, not since the shell wall got finished. Not since the pink stones and the garden gnomes and the meerkats took over. But I have continued to pick them up. So have my kids, though they aren’t as excited as I am when we find the perfect specimen, one of those ones that Nana would have loved: complete shells, the perfect shape for the waiting gap, wall-worthy.
Pāua, mussel, scallop: sea creature’s abandoned armour of myriad colours and luminescent pearl, gifts that come from that special unseen place below the waves, they dull a little when you get them home to the lawn, with their ocean washed away. But like Nana, my shell gathering has always been more about my love of the sea than the shells themselves. It is about my collection of memories, those ones that stoke an ever-increasing nostalgia for home: of finding crabs and watching waves and being properly bitterly cold, of the southerly pushing us forward, me and my red-cheeked sisters, out in pursuit of the ocean’s treasures. When I pick up shells from the warm pōhutukawa-fringed beaches of Auckland where I now live, what I am remembering is Nana and the rest of my family at Riverton’s back beach, where divers collect pāua from between the bull kelp and rocks, and the wave-pressed sand where pīpī shells are left by the tide along Taramea Bay, and that view all the way back towards Bluff, where fishing boats dock at salt-stained wharves, and the sun rises out over the Awarua Plains.
I left that place many years ago, for brighter lights and bigger cities, for the wide open water, but increasingly, and particularly at times like these, I have the urge to make my way home; back to the source of my family’s stories, to the wind-rushed beaches of my grandmother’s childhood and of my own, like a shell returned to the sea.
Auckland is in lockdown. Again.
‘How are you?’ Nana says.
I’m feeling the need to collect things, I tell her.
Sonya Wilson has worked in television news and current affairs for more than 20 years, reporting and producing for Breakfast, One News, 20/20 and Sunday. She has a Bachelor of Broadcasting Communications and, more recently, a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. She’s currently a producer on TVNZs political show Q+A, runs the Kiwi Christmas Books charity campaign and produces the podcast, Bookland Presents: How to Love. She lives in Auckland where she is growing two young boys, an avocado tree, a Labrador puppy and an elderly Burmese cat called Graham. Her debut novel, an adventure-fantasy for children, will be published by The Cuba Press next year.