very fine lace knitting

very fine lace knitting

By Michele Leggott

this is a picture of my house
wallpaper silvery with birch trees
covering the workbook
the stories and the pictures
red and yellow blue and blue-green
the smiling suns
jack in the box on the window sill
see Sweetie run
the high shelf in the toyshop
I want to be a ship
the umbrella poem
the oak tree and its acorns
the blue eyes that wouldn’t
the bar of chocolate and our mother at a high window
angelic openings in the calendar
circus elephants on the road at Waitara
hot black sand and the donkey rides at Ngāmotu

but we came ashore after the others
Mama still pale and no baby sister
though we begged her to tell us
when we might see her again
hush darlings she said
look at the tents and the lovely black sand
we will camp out until there is a house for us
but that house burned down right away
and Papa had no watch
or any instruments to make drawings with
and all of us felt sad
because the ship had gone
perhaps with our baby sister hidden somewhere inside
crying to us but we couldn’t hear
now Papa must cut the Sugar Loaf line
now Mama must tell us a new story
and when the earth shakes and the rats run across our blankets
we will not think of her
our sister outside in the dark
beside the rivers and wells
that wait to drown children less wary than us

when my mother was a girl
she thought all grown men had to go to jail
and feared to find her father one day
among the figures working in the prison gardens across the river
under the watchful eye of Marsland Hill
how did she know
afternoon sun slanting through eucalypts
stream curving or carving the valley that divides
here from there, us from them
now from then
or not at all
how did she know
that her grandfather was locked up
for three months pending trial
for the attempted murder of his wife and child
on the farm at the top of Maude Road
and that she, our great grandmother
would drop the charges, needing him
at home and claiming he would often shoot at her
going down the road, for target practice
he was cautioned against excessive drinking and released
to lose the farm and start over
as a teacher in country schools
how did my mother know
that her father, a young man in a country town
was put in the lock-up for two weeks in the year before the war
for sending indecent literature to the girl who jilted him
two postcards and a photograph
he is named but she is not
in the police report that went to the local paper
he was in the second draft
leaving for Palmerston North
dark hair brown eyes five foot seven
oblique scar on left forearm
August 1914

We were too small to remember
the trouble that took Papa to prison
for losing all his money
were we there too we ask Mama
did you take us did we all live in prison for a while
she will tell us only
that it wasn’t so bad
that everyone helped out and soon
he was home again I cannot now recall
how long we were away
but I was glad enough to leave that place
though I was not in favour of the long voyage
to the other side of the world
and dreaded confinement at sea
Well that is another story
now your father ties off his lines
for the company and remembers Cornish hills
Somerset hills and Devon hills under his pencil
he sees the nature path in the valley of the Huatoki
and knows it will take him to slopes covered in red and white pine
rimu and kahikatea
where a house may be built or brought
on land bought with remittances from England

the small child in the big photo
dark hair dark eyes pixie face
is my mother’s sister
they share a middle name
the child in the photo could be a year old
she is holding onto a stool with baby fingers
her feet are bare and she wears a dress
of soft white wool knitted by my grandmother
in whose bedroom the photo hangs
above the treadle sewing machine we are pumping hard
for the noise it makes up and down up and down
up and down and we are never told to stop or be quiet
we know the child in the photo died long ago
before she had time to become my mother’s sister
but we never ask our grandmother
about the very fine lace knitting
of the photo that hangs in her room

when at last we go looking for
the child who would have been our aunt
the trail is cold the dates stones or tears
Date of death: 20 September 1923
Place of death: Stewart Karitane Home Wanganui
Cause or causes of death: Gastroenteritis 2 1/2 Months, Exhaustion
Age and date of birth: 19 Months, Not Recorded
Place of birth: Stratford
Date of burial or cremation: 21 September 1923
Place of burial or cremation: Kopuatama Cemetery

we see our grandfather thrashing the Dodge
between Stratford and Whanganui
and the journey home with the little daughter
he will bury next day at Kopuatama
was our grandmother there
in the car at the Karitane Home at the graveside
the two and a half months of sickness
the birth of a second child
our Uncle Jack
8 July 1923

up and down up and down up and down
noise to cover a heartbeat under soft white wool

I look upon these letters and do not like to destroy them
they are a house of memory and when I read
I am my mother on deck at last
searching for a ripple on the flat Pacific Ocean
I am my father making delicate waves
around each of the Sugar Loaves on the map going to London
I am my brother in a choir of breakers
that bring his body to the landing place
I am my sister in the boat
outside the orbit of the moon and the orbit of the sun
I am my sister a bell-shaped skirt
between ship and shore
I am my sister painting a rock arch
that became fill for the breakwater
I am my sister exhausted
by travelling and the house to clear
I am my sister writing poems
that lie between the thin pages of letters
I am my sister singing
ship to shore choir of breakers alpine meadow
I am myself on the other side of nowhere
waiting for a knock on the door

my mother is taking a photo
of herself and our baby sister
in the mirror on the wall of silvery grey birches
it’s summer and she has propped the baby
between pillows in the armchair
holds the Box Brownie still
leans over the back of the chair smiling
into the mirror
she and her baby by themselves
reflected in silvery light
not for a moment aware of the child
whose passing long ago
mirrors to the day
the arrival of our sister
whose middle name my mother took
from the light of Clair de Lune

and so the daughter library
remakes itself and is not lost
though great libraries burn and cities fall
always there is someone
making copies or packing boxes
writing on the back of a painting or a photo
always there is someone
awake in the frosty dark
hearing the trains roll through and imagining
lying under the stars at Whakaahurangi
face to the sky on the shoulder of the mountain
between worlds and mirror light

You can read more about this piece in ‘Speaking back to Emily Harris (2021).’