My oration for Mum at her memorial gathering at the Thelma Easton Library, Hillmorten School, 11 December 2004.
Tena kotou katoa. Friends of my mother, and so friends of mine and of her family, welcome to this gathering to remember and honour Dorothy Thelma Easton. I’ll call her Mum, because that is what she was to me.
I want to begin by reading a passage from Ecclesiastics, from the Bible which Mum passed on to me:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”
Today is a time to mourn and, in that mourning, a time to renew.
Mum was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire in 1919, some 85 years ago, coming to New Zealand a year later with her father, William Cook, and mother, Maud. They were from the 19th century English working class: her Mother began working in a cotton mill at 12, and had to stand on a box to reach the machines. But both Mum’s parents loved reading. She once described how when her father could not accompany her to the Canterbury Public Library, he would lend her his large bicycle, complete with bar, and she would wobble her way there by herself. Her name, ‘Thelma’, comes from a title of a book her mother was reading. Mum would joke she was ‘glad she wasn’t reading Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’ or Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’.
She grew up in Christchurch, attending Normal Primary and Christchurch West High Schools. When she was about twelve her much loved Father died in a rail-road accident at the Styx crossing. I think of that bridge as his monument. The death almost meant she did not go to secondary school, but her somewhat older brother made sure she got the chance. I know Mum would want me to pay tribute to Uncle Colin and Aunty Jean, some of whose decedents are here today. She called him the ‘best brother in the world’ – only a slight exaggeration, because Keith is.
Her opportunities were even more diminished, when she left school for there was still the Depression. She should have been a teacher, but they had closed the Training Colleges. Instead she did secretarial and menial jobs. I wrote up a little of Mum’s public life in a recent Listener article, and was touched by a number of people who contacted me, seeing a similar story in their mother, of a woman of great ability whose life opportunities were severely limited by their times, and yet who overcame the limitations to achieve much in family and public life.
In 1940, Mum married Dad, Harold (Harry), who died 2000. They had three children, me (Brian), Keith and Jean. When State Houses were sold, she was quick to buy one. That involved a second mortgage, so still with young children – Jean was only three – she went out to work as a part-time secretary at Waltham School. Although common today, this was unusual for married women with children at the time. I dont ever recall her using the word ‘feminist’. But she did what had to be done, and set an example for other women. Mum was a pioneer in so many ways, a feminist.
The family and working didnt prevent here from contributing to public life. In the 1950s she was active promoting school children’s softball. Before my time she was a leader in the scouting and guiding movement.
Then in 1962 Mum became the library assistant at Hillmorten High School, in the library where we are gathered today. Others have talked of her achievements here – how the library has been a pioneer among secondary schools, and was considered one of the best among New Zealand secondary schools when she left. What she would want me to add is that it was a team effort led by headmasters Owen Lewis, Peter Murdoch and Ward Clarke, with their commitment to the library as the heart of the school, and the teachers, especially the teacher-librarians Helen Hogan, Kay Robertson, Murray Moffat, Liz Wright and Trevor Agnew. While in no way diminishing their contribution, their real skill was to give this woman her head, and a strong headed women Mum was. Thankyou too, for encouraging and supporting Mum to take the Certificate in Librarianship, the closest she ever go to that tertiary education she deserved, and which she helped pupils of the school to undertake.
For Mum should have been a teacher. Indeed her librarianship had a teaching component. She said ‘I was thrilled to have a pupil tell me that they had just read and enjoyed a book I had recommended’. As proud as she was of her books and building, she was even prouder of her pupil-readers and the school-librarians she worked with.
It was not untypical of her pioneering that she worked until after her 66 birthday, retiring after 23 years of service, although for the next few years she continued to help the school by developing its archives. She said that in retirement she was going to read more, recalling the 18th century writer, Richard Steel’s, view that ‘reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body’. Alas the body wore out: I recall her frustration in her last few years when her Parkinson’s reduced her ability to read. And then her body wore completely out, and she passed away a month ago leaving a legacy of a hard-working, strong-willed, independent, organized, loving Mother and friend.
Before finishing, I would like to, on behalf of the family, thankyou all for coming, and for the support and love you gave her. I would also like to mention Jean and Danni, who have twice lost close loved ones this year. My brother Keith must be praised for the ongoing support he has given Mum over the years, together with the enormous commitment over her last weeks – Jean helped too – and his ongoing commitment dealing with matters since. It cant have been easy being so close to Mum. And thankyou too Rose for your love and support. Mum would be absolutely thrilled to learn of your and Keith’s engagement. She’ll be at the wedding next year, in spirit. Her spirit is always with family things.
Some of you will know I was in Boston when Mum died, a bit like a cast sheep, unable to get back. We knew Mum would die soon, but we expected it would be in December or January after I returned. She didnt to make it, the only time in my life she let me down.
My daughter, Anita, sat by her bed with the others of you over that last week, and my son, Tama, attended the cremation service, both keeping me informed in detail as what was happening. Thankyou. Her remaining grandchildren: Danni, Andrew, and Anna could not be there at their Gran’s end, except in spirit, and they all saw Mum shortly before she died.
Mum finished one of her few public speeches quoting Richard Steel. I’ll finish with another 18th century writer, Dr Samuel Johnson, best known as our first significant dictionary maker, but also a distinguished writer. In one essay he writes how we know that everyone will die, but we all hope that the inevitable will be put off for a year – or in my case – even a month. And then, echoing John Donne, he reminds us how any one’s death diminishes those who are left, just as they enhanced us when they lived. His reflection followed the death of his mother: it captures what Mum’s death – and life – meant for me.
“Nothing is more evident than that the decays of age must terminate in death; yet there is no man who does not believe that he may yet live another year; and there is none who does not, upon the same principle, hope for another year for his parent or his friend: but the fallacy will be in time detected; the last year, the last day must come. It has come, and is passed. The life which made my own life pleasant is at an end, and the gates of death are shut upon my prospects.”*
* Johnson: Idler #41 (January 27, 1759)