Name calling

Frankie slumped, breathless, with her back against the Douglas fir tree.  It had been an effort to get even this far up Queenstown Hill, but right now she needed to get up high, to be able to find a new perspective on the news she had just heard.  She was determined to reach the Basket of Dreams, a sculpture she had heard you could sit in, with a wide view down into the valley below and over towards the Remarkable mountains.

She felt a kick just to the right above her navel. Instinctively, her hand reached down to meet it.  Another kick, like a call and response, an unsung song between her and her unborn child.  Her breathing eased and her shoulders dropped.  She could see the sun, pressing between the trees.  She felt her whole body reach out towards its warmth.

Since she had known her mother had been adopted from New Zealand, Frankie had found herself wishing she could ask her so many questions.  The pain of never now being able to ask brought hot stinging tears to her eyes.  Was this why Frankie could never be a good enough daughter?  Because her mother could never know what it felt like to have her own birth mother to love, to be any kind of daughter to?  But this morning, she had discovered that her mother was Maori.  How could it be that a Maori kid ended up in the UK, in the 1930s, adopted by white Europeans?  Barbara was not even her real name, she now knew.  It was Ahurewa.  The irony only now struck her in its meaning – ‘sacred place’.

This morning, before the phone call from a newspaper journalist who had been helping them trace her New Zealand relatives, she had no idea that her mother was Maori, nor that she, Frankie, had Maori cousins right here in Queenstown.  In such a small town, there was a good chance she had already bumped into one or more of them, without knowing.  The news made her head spin, and even without the pregnancy it was enough to make her breathless.  Did she want to meet them?  How would they feel to find this Pākehā with a British accent at their door?

The past began to rearrange itself into a new order of meaning, and with it came new thoughts about her own identity – and that of her unborn child.  This new version of herself explained why Frankie was always so much darker than the other girls at school, a fact that had puzzled her all her life and during childhood had given her peers an excuse to call her despicable names.  Names that must not be called.  How had her mother felt, hearing about the name calling?  She never seemed to know what to do, whereas in all other things she was profoundly wise.  She could heal a grazed knee, discern Frankie’s deepest thoughts, and predict the weather.  But she was not dark like Frankie, and so had no coping strategies to pass on to her beloved little girl.

Frankie now knew for sure that her mother had a white father.  She had, mercifully for her in racist 1930s Britain, inherited her father’s blue eyes and fair skin.  But now that she knew her mother’s true identity Frankie understood that she must have hurt so deeply inside to see Frankie’s lovely Maori face to remind her of her own childhood and of her longing for the land she was born in.  She must also have been terrified til the day she died, that she might be found out to be who she really was; it would not have been comprehended in the Yorkshire she grew up in.

When Frankie had discovered a month ago that her mother was adopted from New Zealand, she used her contacts in the world of journalism to trace her heritage, and once she had narrowed the search she  booked a plane to Queenstown.  The news of the adoption had been a disappointment to both her and her partner, Rachel.  Rachel had not wanted a baby, being a career academic, but had been persuaded by Frankie to give it a try.  After one failed pregnancy, Rachel had been visibly relieved.  But after Barbara died, it was Rachel that decided to get into genealogy.  She meticulously plotted each of their family trees, and discovered that she and Rachel were third cousins, through the lines of Frankie’s Mum and Rachel’s Dad.  Each of them had come from large families and, while they had known some of their first cousins as kids they had not known any of their extended families beyond that.  The discovery was enough to motivate Rachel to support Frankie in a second round of AID.  The second pregnancy became a source of excitement for them both.  But then they discovered that Barbara had been adopted, and since then Rachel had seemed more detached.  Frankie felt very alone now, in this strange and upside-down world.

Frankie was struggling to take in so much information in the space of one month: her mother was adopted, the child she was carrying was not Rachel’s flesh and blood after all, and now she herself was half Maori.  Frankie looked at her watch.  It was now 1 pm.  The middle of the night in the UK.  The news would wait; she would tell Rachel tomorrow.  First, Frankie had to get her head round it all.

Time to move on.  To reach the basket of dreams.  Her centre of gravity tipped as she hauled herself up.  Such an easy thing to do just a few weeks ago, but now it felt as if she was an old woman, carrying hidden stories of the past in her cumbersome body.  Once on her feet though, the going was easier.  On the steep ascents, she could feel her womb tighten, but it was not an unpleasant feeling.  She was glad of the walking poles she had invested in.  One good feature of Queenstown was the plethora of walking shops.  That, and the stunning views all around.  She was glad now to be alone with her thoughts, to have time to absorb the news before sharing it with Rachel.  But she also felt unsettled in her bones.  Where did she belong?  She tried to picture Ahurewa’s face – to conjure her up.  What song would her mother sing to her daughter, now?  Would it call her to home?  Her mother had always sung to Frankie at bedtime, and told stories of far away places with names that Frankie did not understand.  Now she knew, her hand reaching instinctively down to protect her own baby, that her mother’s stories had linked to her own lost mother, to her land, her sacred place.  She had been six years old when she was taken away from her home.  Frankie remembered when she herself was six years old, losing her mother in a shop that had one way in and one way out.  Her mother had told her to wait outside, because the aisles were narrow and she did not intend to be long.  But to the six year old Frankie, a few minutes without her mother was more than she could bear and she went in to search for her mother.  Unbeknown to her, as she entered the shop her mother was paying near to the exit.  By the time Barbara emerged, her daughter had disappeared.  She began searching frantically, up and down the street.  In the meantime, Frankie was searching inside, the panic rising inside her as she bit her lip to quell the tears.  She ran out just as her mother went back in, and instead of now staying put she ran down the busy road, crying openly, lost and desperate.  Mother and daughter were eventually reunited in the police station, where Barbara found Frankie tucking into orange squash and chocolate donated by doting police officers.  Both wept with relief once they saw each other.

Now that she had remembered how terrified she had been to lose her mother for just an hour, Frankie felt she could touch the edges of how her mother felt, separated forever and sent out of her land and her culture.  Frankie felt a hot tear of compassion for her often difficult mother, burning into her cheek like an open wound.

Still lost in thought, Frankie emerged into a clearing.  There before her was a metal spiralic structure, shaped like a flattened basket.  The legend beside it told her she had found the basket of dreams.  She sat on the edge, untied her boots, then flung her coat onto the rails to make a soft mattress.  She lay down, and drank in the sky above her.  A bird floated high above, like a winged messenger carrying her dreams for her unborn child.  The sky was clear and as blue as the lake below.  Her breath came easy now.  The baby kicked.  She reached down with both hands and touched her belly.  If Barbara’s adoptive mother could love her enough to raise her, maybe Rachel could do the same with their baby.  After all, she and Rachel had already got past her initial misgivings about becoming parents.  Frankie whispered softly as she caressed her belly:  ‘Hello baby.  I’m here.  I am your mother.  And together, Rachel and I will give you your name.  We will choose a name that will sing on the winds to your ancestors, Maori and Pākehā.  A name that must be called.

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