About fifteen years ago a friend of mine was killed in a car accident. I saw her leave school on a Friday and she was hit by a drunken driver that evening as she drove into town to pick up her son. She was a much loved teacher and a dear friend and colleague. Bonds are formed with the people you work with. It wasn't a bond where we tripped the light fantastic together, rather it was the bond that is formed from honest work and the trench warfare of the politics of teaching. She was like a sister and a comrade in arms - many a time we rammed home powder and shot together into the idealistic barrels of our shotguns and fired both barrels in unison.
A few months after her death I came across a brown manila folder of hers. Inside the folder was a recently completed Reading Recovery analysis report on a child. I turned the page over and saw the impression of her writing on the blank side. Her signature was at the bottom of the page. At the end of her signature there was a small blob of ink from the ball point pen. It looked so fresh to me that it seemed as though she had written it that morning.
It wasn't a poignant moment. I didn't cry, I had done my grieving previously - it was more of a sharp realisation that our grip on life is tenuous and as thin as the thickness of the piece of paper that I held in my hand - somehow the immediacy of her signature had been the catalyst in bringing about that realisation.
I was reminded of all the above that I have written when yesterday I came across another signature within another story - let me explain:
In 1945 my Uncle Pat and another Government deer culler were drowned in the Haast river in South Westland New Zealand. He was the third of five brothers, my father being the fourth. He was a strong, handsome and very popular young man in his early twenties. As often happens the family never quite got over the death and not a lot was spoken about it by my father.
Recently on a trip to the Molesworth station in the South Island of New Zealand (see previous blog post) my brother Christopher and I got to talking about it. We both had different bits of conflicting information regarding which river the drowning took place in. When we met up later with our older brother Tony, he had the name of yet another river.
To try to sort it out, in the last couple of days I have been Googling and looking for information. Yesterday I came up with something that stopped me in my tracks. It was an assessment document completed for the Historic Places Trust concerning an old deer stalkers and road constructors workers hut close to the Haast River on the West Coast of the South Island.
The document has a number of photographs attached which are not only of historic interest, but of great personal interest to me and my family.
The photograph that stopped me in my tracks is the one shown above. In this photograph is the name of our Uncle Patrick written by his own hand on a rafter of the hut. This is what it says:
Patrick R Smith
450 Avonside Drive
Govt Deer Shooter
Off on the right hand side someone has written Drowned Burke.
A footnote in the text refers to the drowning as happening in the Haast / Burke - which I take to be the junction of another river.
When I rang my brother Christopher to tell him this he pulled out an old set of maps of various areas in the South Island that have been printed on cotton fabric, which used to belong to our Uncle Patrick and said excitedly "The signature written on the top of this map is exactly the same as the one in the photograph".
So the name of the river has been solved. Also a new information lead has opened up. Another footnote in the document refers to a book written by someone called Galbreath who mentions the drownings - so there is another lead for me to follow up regarding this tragic piece of family history.
When I look at that signature of my uncles that is now 65 years old, it reaches out to me with the same sort of fresh immediacy as the signature of my old teaching colleague. I feel a curious sense of continuity, of an abiding pattern within the shape of things. In a strange way this deep echo from a time before I was even born gives me a sense that all will be well.
When I make a pilgrimage to that hut, and look at that signature sometime soon, no doubt I will experience a new set of feelings as I look at that name and remember my uncle Patrick, my father, his immediate family and my old teaching friend.