Sunday, October 30, 2016

Finders, Keepers

As readers of my Facebook page will know, last weekend the results of the New Zealand Heritage writing competition, run by the Canterbury Society of Authors and Christchurch City Council, were announced. The theme for the Short Prose section was "hidden histories", and the piece I wrote, "Finders, Keepers", was the winning entry.
            I've had a lot of queries about where to find it. The organisers have told me that they hope to get the winning entries up on the NZSA Canterbury website soon, but in the meantime I can go ahead and post mine on my blog. So here you are.

Finders, Keepers

My mother tells me what she knows

Each time my mother tells me what she knows about the family I came from, she speaks in her story-telling voice.  I learn these fragments by heart, word for word.

The lady who had you was so plump that at first no one noticed she was pregnant. When her mother found out, she took her to the home in Auckland run by Doctor Smale. He was the doctor seeing me because I couldn’t have children.

Some of this sounds wrong for telling a child. Perhaps she adds details as I get older.

He’d promised he would find me a lovely little girl. That’s how we got you. We brought you home when you were only two weeks old.

This isn’t quite the same as the story I used to ask for so often at bedtime, about Mum and Dad going to the hospital to look at all the babies and choosing me. I knew it was true because when I was five, they went back to the hospital and came home with my baby sister. But I don’t want to say anything to stop Mum talking.

The doctor’s nurse saw the name on the card. It was a family she had known in Christchurch.

Your grandmother was a very clever woman who wrote books.


I was named Frances after my mother and her grandmother. Mum is always called by her second name, Ryda, and I’m always called by mine, Anne. She calls me Frances only when she’s cross because I’m reading and don’t hear her.


My sister is having problems with her first pregnancy. Mum and Dad hand over her adoption papers, in case knowing her original surname can help. Because they always treat us exactly the same, I get mine too.

I have a surname, but no first name: I am ‘unnamed female H.’

When I phone Social Welfare I have my story ready.

I have two boys, but my sister’s just had a baby girl. She’s promised that if you can tell me my birth mother’s first name, she’ll give it to her daughter as her second name.

The helpful woman I speak to probably doesn’t believe a word of this. But we both know she’s allowed to pass on any non-identifying information. A week later she phones me back.

There’s almost nothing on your file, but your mother’s name was Mary, and her middle initial was R.


Marie Rose H. of Christchurch turns out not to be my mother, though when she writes back she says she wishes she was. So I take a new tack, and hunt for the clever grandmother who wrote books.

A friend finds her in the Alexander Turnbull Library. In 1939 and 1943, the Bay of Plenty Times published collections of poems to raise money for soldiers’ parcels. The author was Kathleen H.

In the 1943 electoral roll, a new entry appears at the same address as Kathleen: Mary Rylana. Her foreign-sounding middle name echoes my mother’s: Frances Ryda.

By 1954 she’s gone, but I find a marriage certificate. She has married a man with an unusual surname, and her new address is in the same electorate. At Christmas I send a letter and a photo, and she replies.

Seven years after my birth, Mary had a daughter (another daughter) and named her Ann. Ann named her own daughter Ana, and she named her son Patrick.

Now Ann’s Patrick is at school and my Patrick has moved to Sydney. The next year he turns eighteen, and in October he dies there. My mother isn’t able to come down for the funeral. Mary asks me if I would like her to come and I say yes, so she does.

What Kathleen knew

Kathleen is the only child of a prosperous Tewkesbury brewer and his wife Jane.  She’s thirty when the first world war begins. It’s still going when George H., a tea plantation manager in Ceylon who’s close to forty, reads one of her poems and begins writing to her.

After the war he comes to England to meet her, then she sails to Colombo and marries him on the dock. A photo shows her sitting up on a dais with him, wearing a wreath of marigolds and a confident memsahib’s half-smile.. She looks intelligent and strong-minded, used to running things the right way.


Although the man’s social credentials are impeccable, it’s much too late for a hasty marriage.  And of course it’s completely out of the question for Mary to keep me.

The rule is that she must never know my new name – it has to be a complete break. Kathleen has other ideas.

Somehow she persuades the doctor, or maybe the lawyer, to tell her who is adopting me. Perhaps she feels she must know, in order to be sure she has made the right decision. However she manages it, she finds out my new name.

For seventeen years she never once speaks of me to her daughter, but she reads the Herald. In December 1962 she comes to Mary with the paper.

You’d better see this. The girl’s come dux.

Maker unknown

I’m staying in Mary’s spare room. She opens the wardrobe and shows me two carefully shrouded Victorian cotton dresses. They come from Kathleen’s mother Jane’s family in Tewkesbury. Kathleen carried them with her on the ship to Ceylon and then on to Tauranga. Now Mary doesn’t know what to do with them. They’re rare survivals, I say. Would she like to give them to Te Papa?

The curator lays them out and explains how she can date them back to the early 1800s. The checked one has an unusual waist: you can let it out to allow discreetly for a pregnant stomach. She thinks they would almost certainly have been made by a local dressmaker.

They go off to join the crowded racks of dresses, running up to the 1960s, listed in the catalogue as Maker: Unknown.


My mother sews all her own clothes, as well as mine and my sister’s, on the ornate Singer treadle machine my grandmother gave her when she got married. Though she  never uses dressmakers, I know about them because down the road in the Mount Eden shops, not far from our flat above the grocer’s shop on the corner of Valley Road, two large and imposing women run a drapery and dressmaking business. Mum sends me there to buy Sylko thread and what I hear as Cruel needles. Every few weeks, if I pick a time when the dressmakers aren’t too busy and ask nicely, they give me leftover scraps of cotton, wool and satin to make dolls’ clothes.

I don’t make my first proper dress until I’m fifteen, struggling stubbornly with a striped cotton shirtwaister. Two years later, with the school ball looming up, I fearlessly tackle the mandatory bell-skirted brocade dress. Sandra Coney and I stand out for choosing the same deep crimson, instead of the usual wishy-washy pastels.

After I turn eighteen and get engaged, my mother comes tentatively into my room with the Woman’s Weekly. She’s used to me turning up my teenage nose at her ideas,  but she wants to show me a photo of a simply cut wedding dress with a draped obi sash at the back, made from a Vogue pattern. She’s so happy when I say I love it, then buy yards of white linen and spend weeks making it.

A year after the wedding, I cut it up to make a shirt, but I keep the short lace mantilla I made to go with it.


Between us my mother and I sewed hundreds of clothes. All of them have disappeared.

I wear the bedjacket and shawl she knitted for me; the ecru lace cloth she crocheted to go in my villa lives in a box, along with the lace edging she tatted for her mother’s nightdress when she was seven, and my mantilla, decayed into holes. On top are the loose delicate folds of Kathleen’s blue dress.


  1. This is beautiful, Anne. Thank you for sharing it.

    And congratulations!

  2. This is wonderful, Anne. I'm so glad you posted it here for us to read. Thank you!

  3. Beautiful writing, with so much evoked through those sensuous descriptions of clothes and sewing materials. Thank you Anne. I remember the 'cruel' needles too.