17 February 2015

Celebrating a life well lived

Last week my Nan (my dad's mum) passed away at the incredible age of 97 and 10 months. She was an amazing lady and I want to do her memory justice by telling you a little bit about her and how we cherished her memory last weekend.

My Nan, Marie Ruth Fletcher was born 18 April 1917 in Wellington. She lived in Wellington in her early life, firstly in Arawa Road, Hataitai before moving to Norway Street in Kelburn. This house has incredible significance for me as when Mark and I bought our first house, it was also in Norway Street right across the road from my Nan's old house. I often think that the reason the little 2 bedroom villa caught my eye in the property magazine was because I recognised the name of the street.

Marie's Dad and my great-grandad, Maximilian Gandar was a strapping 6 foot 6 (you can see how much taller he was than everyone else in the photo below!) and was involved in town planning and surveying and he also helped build the very steep zig zag path that connects Norway Street with Plunket Street above.

After they moved there, my Nan attended the school my kids go to now - and last year when the school had its 100 year centenary, I managed to speak to the oldest attendee who remembered my Nan and her family as he had lived on Norway Street too!

Marie's brother Les (who later became a politician, Vice Chancellor of Massey University and High Commissioner to London) attended Wellington College and was a keen rugby player who went on a sport exchange to Nelson during which time he was billeted with the Fletcher family, and the friendship that Les developed with Iain Fletcher from this trip eventually led to a burgeoning relationship and a marriage proposal for my Nan.

They married in 1941, but only six weeks after this my Pa Iain was sent off to war as a medic, and they wouldn't be reunited for 4 and a half years.......imagine being apart for all that time! During his time in the war, he fought in the 26th Battalion in North Africa and Italy, and was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in rescuing injured troops under fire in the battle of Cassino. This is an excerpt from the records of the battle:

'As the dawn approached enemy mortar and shellfire increased. Direct hits were scored on a number of houses but no casualties resulted. No. 8 Platoon, stationed in and around the Roundhouse, was unlucky. A mortar bomb wounded five men, including the platoon commander, 2 Lt McLean.39 Up until this stage Capt McKinlay had been unable to make wireless contact with Battalion HQ and all messages were being relayed through B Coy's set. By this means Battalion HQ was advised there were casualties to be evacuated. Captain Fletcher decided to go forward and attend to the wounded on the spot, despite the fact that it was broad daylight and the Germans were shelling all approach routes. The doctor arrived safely, and later the injured men were evacuated in jeeps, which ran the gauntlet of enemy fire to reach the station.'

During the war, my Nan kept herself busy working for the Shell Oil drafting office and as a voluntary nurse in the maternity ward in Wellington. After the war, they spent some time living in England as Pa won a medical scholarship to go there and I recall my Nan telling me how hard those times were living in post-war London with all the rationing while raising a small family - with four children born in just six short years.

On their return to NZ, they settled in the small town of Waitara, just north of New Plymouth where my Pa practiced as a doctor running his own surgery for nearly 40 years. My Nan as well as raising four children supported Pa in his practice answering the telephone. I have wonderful memories of family holidays here in their glorious big garden, checking for fish in the goldfish pond, the luxury of having a spa at their house, listening to records and stories like Thomas the Tank Engine on their gramophone and the sound of the mantle clock chiming every half an hour. I was lucky enough to inherit the clock and although it's seen better days I hope to be able to restore it to its full glory.

My Pa was a keen tramper and introduced all his children to the love of the outdoors, but my Nan had always had trouble with her hips and wasn't able to go on these long walking adventures. Her hip troubles meant that during her life she had 3 hip replacements but despite her physical limitations she was never idle. Her time spent gazing at beautiful scenery while the others were off walking may well have been a reason for her developing her love of watercolour landscapes and pen and ink sketches. She would stay at the car while my Pa walked, sketching and later painting what she saw. She even held art exhibitions for her work, and during her life must have painted hundreds if not thousands of still life and landscape works. Even in 2013, at age 96 she was still donating her art for a good cause - I found this article in the Taranaki Daily news about her donating her art.

She was also an accomplished organist and singer - having sung in the New Plymouth choir for many years. At some point, she also took up a role transcribing books into Braille using a special typewriter - something she did for 25 years and was awarded the Queens Service Medal for Community Service in 1995 for her many years of effort doing this.

They retired to New Plymouth in the early 1990's and celebrated their golden (50th) wedding anniversary surrounded by all the family in 1991. Despite Pa's health deteriorating around the time my Nan turned 80 and their move just down the road into the Molly Ryan retirement home, they even managed to celebrate their diamond anniversary in 2001 before my Pa then passed away in 2002.

My other grandmother (Gee Gee) who is nearly 90 and still lives in her own home lives about a 5 minute walk from Molly Ryan so on every visit to see her, we would also pop up to Molly Ryan and spend an hour or so with Nan. She had an incredibly sharp mind and memory and could tell us amazing stories from her earlier life - being Wellingtonians we were always especially interested in her childhood stories from Wellington and her years spent in London.

At Easter last year with her health deteriorating further, she made the difficult decision to move to Auckland to be closer to my aunty Jan. We visited her at Molly Ryan as her life was being packed up around her, and it would be the last time I saw her. She died peacefully on 12 February.

Her funeral was held last Saturday on Valentines Day - and it wasn't until we were with the extended family that I realised that my Pa's funeral had also been held on Valentines Day - 13 years earlier. The day was an incredibly special one - attended by all 4 children, and 11 of her 14 grandchildren. She also had 21 great-grandchildren although only a few were able to attend. It was the first time I had seen many of my cousins for over 20 years and was a wonderful opportunity to catch up on their adult and family lives.

My cousin Ruth and me

My cousins Stephen and Campbell

Cousins Daryl and Jono

My dad with his older brother Rob

My mum with my dad's older sister Corrine

We congregated at my Aunty Jan's house in Drury, South Auckland before the funeral and Nan was brought to the garden before the church service so we all had a chance to say our own farewell to her - it was a beautiful setting having her there under the big old oak tree.

My dad, his sisters and their special friend Kerry farewell their mum

Jan, Rob and Corinne (my dad's siblings)

Jono with mum Corrine

Rob and Carol with my mum and dad

Cousins James and Andrew with their dad and Andrew's little boy Josh

Ruth, my aunty Jan with her daughter Rebecca and me

The beautiful grapes hanging overhead you could pick and eat straight from the vine.

Each of the children spoke at the funeral, and as it was Valentines Day, all the grandchildren put a red rose on the casket during the ceremony, and the great-grandchildren who were there also put on a white rose.

Pa's war medals (including his Military Cross) and her trusty walking stick also accompanied her on her final journey.

She was an incredible lady and her life touched many.

Our loss is heaven's gain.

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