The first winter in our home town was the most challenging of my life.
My daughter was two months old when we moved to Tairua in late summer. We renovated our first home with six weeks of painting and a new carpet, and moved in.
It was an adventure and a dream. We had bought our first home, had a baby, and were now living a short walk down the road from our favourite beach in the world.
It soon grew colder. With winter, dark rain clouds descended over the ocean turning it concrete grey, and the easterly winds whipped up a stormy beast that lurched itself onto shore.
I suddenly found myself hunkered down in a town where I had no women friends.
I would treat myself to a massage at Tairua Massage Clinic where I met the owner of the business, Tina Raymond. It became a six-weekly appointment that eased my aches and temporarily erased my loneliness.
Tina’s spiritual touch helped me with the grief I was going through over the loss of my dad – aged just 52 – only a year or two earlier, to cancer. After a couple of visits, she invited me to her magnificent house which overlooked the sea at Te Karo Bay.
The house was surrounded by native gardens and exquisite rock landscaping that her husband Cliff spent every evening and weekend extending and maintaining. We would drink tea and eat baking, and soon found ourselves laughing together. We are still good friends.
Tina told me about the Playcentre movement in Tairua and suggested I might like to wait until my baby was six months old, so that she was better protected from colds and bugs before I brought her along.
The day my daughter turned six months, I was there. I can honestly credit this moment for changing my life in this small coastal town. My baby seemed to find playcentre enjoyable enough. I felt embraced.
The word in Maori is awhi; to embrace, hug, cuddle, cherish. It also means to surround. A purere awhi is an incubator. From the Maori dictionary: awhi rito is the noun for leaves that embrace the centre shoot of the flax bush, the harakeke.
In Māori thought, the harakeke (flax) plant represents the family. The centre shoot is the child. It is surrounded by the awhi rito (the parents) as protection. The outside leaves represent the grandparents and ancestors.
At Tairua Playcentre beside the sea, I had walked into a garden of harakeke, alive with mums and dads caring for their children and each other. it could also fittingly be called a community incubator, where a sense of community is nurtured.
Playcentre is run by the mums and dads who attend. You do not drop your kids off and go to work or the gym or for a walk and a coffee. You stay and play. You also contribute by taking on a small area of responsibility such as looking after the library or the dress-ups or organising the storage shed.
The kettle was always on the boil. Sweetly sung nursery rhymes played on the CD player, but there was also the sound of hammers (adult-sized hammers – not little plastic ones) going bang, bang, bang on the outside woodwork table in the post-pincer grip hands of little 2-year-olds. There was mess, paint, spills, playdough, sticky fingers and snotty noses.
Yuck. It was wonderful.
Tidy up time had its own song, and the women would furiously vacuum, wipe, put away, scrub and tidy in a ballet of domesticity. It always amazed me how quickly we could turn the place from chaos to order with this collective, unspoken effort.
Sometimes we would decide that we’d like something additional to improve the place, like a shade sail over the sandpit. For this we would need to fundraise (emphasis on fun in fundraise). Our group whose children attended playcentre together were formidable party organisers and I’ve seen it repeated since with generations of mums afterward.
Spurred on by the excuse of a much-needed improvement ‘for the benefit of the kids’, and more truthfully the need of us mums to have a night away from the unrelenting routine of parenthood, we hosted at the Tairua Town Hall some of the funnest events ever.
Like the comically organised-disorganised ‘It’s in the Bag’ presented by bach owner-turned-local builder/celebrity Cocksy – with thousands of dollars in prizes and myself as his lovely assistant.
As our children grew slightly more independent and would tolerate free play without constant watch, we took them along to working bees and gave our precious extra hours away happily to organise these fundraisers...until a time for each of us, when either our kids left kindy or it began to feel like a chore.
For me, the age of work and parenthood had begun. Besides, life had become full again. There was friends, family, community. I was not lonely anymore. (Picture: Starring role in It's in the Bag with newfound friend Sophie left, and Mum, right, and below, the harakeke).
If you're spending a lot of your day in bare feet, then chances are you have found the kind of balance that Hook & Arrow writer Alison Smith has found in life.