A biography of Caroline and John Nee
How do I begin to write about two incredible lives? I feel as though I need to write why I am doing this biography. I chose my grandmother, Caroline Nee, and grandfather, John Nee, because without their story, without their love for one another, I wouldn’t exist.
Sometimes in life it feels like real, honest-to-goodness love, doesn’t exist anymore. But it does. It exists in little things, in the little moments, like every time I go to my Papa’s house I am immediately given a cup of tea and the best biscuits, without even saying anything. It exists within a gaze, when I look at the wall in their house completely covered in photos of all of us. It exists.
The story is not always easy to piece together. When you come from a large family the logistics of doing a simple task becomes difficult. This is one of the joys of writing this biography for me. Finding out the stories, the memories, the different perspectives and how they all inter-connect is fascinating.
I remember when we did the journal exercise in class where we wrote “Today I feel…”, and then completed the sentence. I honestly thought ‘Well what relevance does that have to anything?’ But I suppose it has heaps of relevance. My writing is an extension of me, so how I feel is invariably going to be conveyed in the writing. Today I feel reflective. I feel like writing this assignment and not doing the others. I feel like being in bed instead of having to study and go to work.
Right before I left for a holiday to Canada in 2009 I went to my Nana and Papa’s house to drop off their new will. I remember saying to my Nana that it will be funny when I have children and there are even more people around the house. She said to me that she wouldn’t be here when that happened. A few weeks later when I was in Canada she passed away.
It’s a fact. One day I too won’t be here. I hope that maybe someone will keep this and know about my family and about my grandfather and grandmother. I want them to know this love story like I know it. I want them to understand the culture of my family and how it all began.
When Emma was 13, her mum passed on a vital piece of wisdom.
“When you grow up, it’s what’s in here that counts, not what’s out there,” said her mum.
Emma said that was how she knew that Nana played “hard-to-get” when she met Papa.
As the second oldest, Aunty Emma had a lot of responsibilities around looking after the children. Every night she had to bathe the children. First, she washed the boys and then the girls. Sometimes, she would get annoyed at the children because they were naughty and so she put soap in their eyes.
“Mum, Emma is putting soap in our eyes!” the children would say.
“No, I’m not! They are just playing up,” said Emma.
She always got away with it.
According to Aunty Emma, in Nana’s house, cleanliness was next to godliness. So Emma had to set the table every night and cut the bread along with other chores that had to be done daily.
Aunty Emma said it reminded her of a scene from Once Were Warriors. Sometimes she had to look after up to 16 kids when the adults went to the pub. Not just her brothers and sisters, but her cousins too. When they came back, they always had a party and in the morning it was Emma’s job to clean before the adults woke up.
She didn’t mind. Often she found coins while she was cleaning, coins that she kept for her pocket money. Sometimes she found wallets and handbags, one time she even found a pair of false teeth. They all knew they could rely on Emma to hold it for them.
Aunty Emma said that sometimes it was hard and very strict, but it was what you made of it. They were great parents.
Uncle Rob said that what he knows about how Nana and Papa met is limited. He said that they met through mutual friends.
Every week the children had to go to church. Always. There was no getting out of it.
“I would say to Nana, I’m going to church. But really I would go down Matipo road to the wharf and fish. I would go home exactly when Church finished and then ask if I could go fishing. Then I went and did something else and came home with the fish,” said Uncle Rob.
Uncle said he felt so much aroha from his aunties and uncles. They would call him “son” and make him feel special like that. The sense of family would be strong even in such a large family.
One story Uncle Rob told me was about his first job. He got his first job at Sparkle Drycleaners on Pitt Street in the city when he was about 12 years old. He had to press suits and help out my nana’s sister, Aunty Mene. He made about a dollar an hour but according to Uncle Rob this was quite a good wage at the time.
One of his jobs was to go around and get the orders for lunches, and then go get sandwiches and everything else for everyone. Aunty Mene would tell him to go upstairs and get the orders from the girls. Uncle Rob was only 12 and didn’t know why when he went to get the orders, the ladies would be in their pyjamas.
“They smelt beautiful. They were always very nice to me,” said Uncle Rob.
One day they offered me chocolate and things and after what seemed like 5 minutes aunty Mene came upstairs and took my hand and we left. It was after then that I knew. They were ladies of the night. I just wished I was older.
I learnt some things from my aunties and uncles. I learnt how to drink, smoke, and play poker and how to hide from your Nana. When she left the room they would fill up my glass and I would drink it all.
Uncle Alfred was adopted. When my Nana adopted him, she already had 3 children. She fought for him, and told her little sister that she was too young to have a child. So my Nana and Papa took him in. Uncle Alf didn’t know much about how Nana and Papa met.
“I don’t know much, they didn’t talk about it much. All I know is that they met in a pub, in the city. But they only passed each other briefly. This was the 1950’s and your Papa was a handsome young man,” said Uncle Alf.
Uncle Alf said that his street in Te Atatu was filled with mostly family. Everyone would feed everyone else’s kids. Sometimes it was like “Coronation Street” and everyone would gossip about each other.
One day at primary school, two kids were pushing and shoving each other so Alfred jumped in to stop the fighting. The teacher, Mr Patterson, thought that Alfred had started the fight. Mr Patterson picked Alfred up, and threw him out the window and into the garden outside.
Alfred ran up the road and told his mum. Caroline was in the shower, but quickly came out once she heard what the teacher had done. Without a bra or any underwear on underneath her dress, she quickly went to the school.
Nana was furious. Nana said she was the only one who was allowed to touch her kids. By the end of the meeting with the principal and the teacher, Mr Patterson had cried and apologised. Uncle Alf said Nan was always sticking up for her kids.
Nana and Papa had 8 kids all together. Nana was always looking after someone. That’s the way she grew up, she ran the family. Uncle Alf said that’s what he admired about his parents. They always provided and looked after everyone, even when there was only one wage in the family.
“If we didn’t have pakeha bread to take to school, Nana always made takakau bread. Shame, we didn’t want to go to school with takakau bread so we would eat it before we got to school,” said Uncle Alf.
Uncle Alf wasn’t allowed to finish high school because he had to go to work.
They called us “Fred Mc Murray and my 3 sons”. Do you know what that is Tayla? YouTube it. There were always 3 sons working with Papa at the Power Board but none of us were as good as Papa. We all worked at the Power Board. And your Papa was the best at cable jointing. He was always meticulous. He was so good that he had offers of work overseas but he never went, he was a true family man,” said Uncle Alf.
When I was a child sometimes I felt like I didn’t fit anywhere. I went to my mum’s marae up north in the Hokianga, and I didn’t understand the Maori language. I went to a funeral, one of my dad’s relatives, and I didn’t understand the Samoan language. I felt like I didn’t fit anywhere except in my own family. But yet, I was ok with this.
Later on when I went to Samoa, I felt this connection to the place. I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t look like my family there, but I still felt like I was meant to be there. Growing up I always felt like I was more Maori than any other culture, but biologically I am more Samoan.
I have done a few of my interviews now. Some of them have been much easier than others. I guess that’s just the way that life is some of aunties and uncles were more open than others.
The more I write, the more I think that my intention for writing this piece is changing. From what I have found so far, many of my aunties and uncles don’t know much about how my Nana and Papa met. My story is still about my grandmother and grandfather, but it is also about the people that I interviewed, their children.
I love doing the interviews. There have been so many things I didn’t know that have been told to me already. It also makes me think about how lucky I have been in my life. I was never poor, not that they didn’t have what they needed, but I have just realised some of the privileges that I have become accustomed to.
I am very lucky to have such a close family. A very large and close family. I feel like I wouldn’t have this sense of family if it wasn’t for my grandparents.
I also feel like the more I learn about my Nana and Papa, the more I can see their behaviour in others. The constant cleaning, that reminds me of my Aunty Kath and my mum. The quiet intelligence of my papa reminds me of a few of my cousins. I even see within myself, the individuality of my grandfather, and the “tough love” values of my grandmother. This has been an assignment like no other.
From what uncle Vic knows Nana and Papa met because Papa worked at the Auckland Electric Power Board where Nana’s brothers and father worked. He was accepted by her family almost straight away. Nana’s brothers befriended my grandfather at a time when people weren’t very nice to Asian people, and my Papa, looked very Asian.
Uncle Vic said that papa was the best cable jointer in Auckland and he was “the shark.”
“What do you mean by “the shark”? I asked uncle.
“He was the “strongest fish”, the best at what he did, replied Uncle Victor. “He was smart, and only needed to be taught something once,” said uncle.
Something I wanted to know from my family was about my grandmother. I know her as I know her, only from my lifetime. My image of her is as she was after she was 60 years old and she had a few strokes so that is my vision of her. I asked Uncle what she was like.
“Nana was definitely the boss. Have you seen that movie, My big fat Greek wedding? In it the mother says something like, your father may be the head of the house, but I am the neck. And the neck can twist the head, any way she wants. To me that relates to Nana. She just had a way about her. She had the “eyes” that would force you to stop what you were doing straight away,” Uncle Vic said.
The funny thing is my mum inherited those “eyes.” All of my aunties did. When I was a child I knew “the look” so very well. It’s that stare that compels you to behave, whether you want to or not.
Uncle Vic said that nana was caring, loving and kind as a mum.
“Poverty was around but we always had everything we needed. The best thing I ever got from my mum was a blanket from Farmers,” said Uncle Victor.
Uncle and I talked about culture. About how though we are both Maori and Samoan, we tend to identify more with our Maori heritage. Partly, this was because my grandfather’s family was mostly in Samoa, and partly this was just because the culture was more present.
“When Nana went to school, it was around the time when you weren’t allowed to speak Maori. If you did, you were beaten. In our house we never needed to speak Maori or Samoan, so most of us didn’t grow up bilingually,” said Uncle Vic.
“The love that they had for their children was grounded in them and passed on to my generation and the grandchildren. My parents were open-minded and I learnt from Papa that it was better to be a listener rather than a talker. Papa is a quietly intelligent man,” said Uncle Victor.
According to my mum, Nana and Papa both worked at Tattersfield. That’s how they met because they knew each other. Mum says Papa loved Nana a lot, even in the beginning. He drove all the way to Panguru in a taxi just to see her and ask for her hand in marriage. This was a 9 hour drive and would have cost him a lot of money.
Caroline was out when John had arrived to Panguru. But by the time she got back Caroline’s mum was laughing and talking with John. It was rare for this time for someone to be accepted straight away into a family, but my Papa was.
Mum said that Nana was one of the favourites of the old ladies in Panguru.
“Nana was the only one of her brothers and sisters born in a Nikau hut, with a mud floor,” said mum. “She grew up in a time when speaking Maori was not allowed at school, but she had to learn Latin because of her Catholic upbringing,” said mum.
Mum said one thing she noticed about Nana was that she was always doing something, cooking, cleaning, sewing or fixing something.
“Nana was pretty strict. But how else would you control so many kids? At church we had to look our best. White shirt, polished shoes and every night we would say the Rosary” said mum.
“Nana never ever swore. And even shut up would get you a smack,” said mum.
“That’s where you get it from,” I said.
“Get what?” said mum.
“Last week you growled me because I said the word “frickin” which is not even a swear word, you said I couldn’t say it because of my intention to use a swear word! You get it from Nana hahaha,” I said.
I asked mum if Nana and Papa ever held hands or anything like that. Mum said they held hands later on in life, but that their love was shown in other much deeper ways, not just with P.D.A. (Mum only knows what P.D.A means because I taught her!).
Uncle Bern didn’t know how Nana and Papa met. He told me a story about a day he spent with my Nana when he was around 7 or 8.
One day when he was in primary Nana took Bernard to town. To go on a bus was a big thing for him.
“I don’t think about my childhood often, but this memory sticks in my head. It was a big thing. I remember the Rendells next to the arcade and I remember this diner, which had this really nice smell. It wasn’t until years later that I realised the smell was just percolated coffee,” said Uncle Bern.
Uncle Bern remembers going to a Chinese restaurant off Pitt Street and having fried rice and omelette.
“I remember Nan sitting there and watching me after she had finished eating. I just ate and ate, I wanted to eat it all,” said uncle Bern.
One day Bernard played up outside of Rendells for a skateboard. To his surprise, Nana bought it for him. It was coloured with white wheels. But for three days it rained, and he couldn’t use his skateboard.
“Your Papa was not happy that Nan had spent some of their money on a skateboard but I looked after it for years until it fell to pieces,” said Uncle Bern.
He said that Nan was typical of the mothers of her generation in some ways. She was very much into discipline, but that’s just the way things were.
Just like all of his brothers, Bernard worked at the Power Board too. But he had a few years doing nothing before he started working, until Grandpa had enough, and got him a job at the Power Board. Uncle Bern said that one of the reasons why he did well in the Power Board was because there was so many of his family employed there and because of the expectation, was he going to be as good as his father?
“I suppose I have a lot to thank Papa for. I left school with no qualifications and he set me onto the path. I don’t know where I would have been without his influence,” said Uncle Bern.
Aunty Kath is the baby of the family, the youngest of her 8 siblings. Aunty didn’t know how Papa and Nana met. She remembers the story about Papa going all the way to the Hokianga in a taxi.
“It was papa Joseph Hauraki, who approved of Grandpa’s wedding proposal to Nan, because he knew how hard working he was and because he’d caught a cab all the way up north to propose. Plus he was impressed because Nan already had Aunty Leesh out of wedlock, but that didn’t put Grandpa off proposing,” said Aunty Kath.
“As a youngster up to 10yrs, I thought it was pretty cool having lots of extended whanau come and stay, guess it was a novelty. I remember always having to share a room, as there was not enough space in our house to have a room to myself. I also usually shared a bed with your mum. Living in a full household, meant little privacy and having to share limited space. It was not fun being the baby in a big family though, especially having four overprotective brothers. Being a lot younger than my siblings, having such a wide age gap, wasn't much fun because everyone had grown up, got on with their lives, and I was only just beginning,” said Aunty Kath.
I asked aunty Kath whether she affiliated more with the Maori or Samoan culture.
“I affiliate more with my Maori culture because of the way we were brought up. We saw more of Nan's family, spent a lot of time on marae for tangihanga, weddings, unveilings etc. Nan used her reo with us sometimes, usually to growl or discipline us. However, with Grandpa he did not use Samoan with us and we didn't learn much about fa'a Samoa, a part from having his family come stay sometimes, and us sending money over to the islands for some family affair,” said Aunty Kath.
During my interview I asked about how my Nana reacted to her husband, Willy, when she first met him. I am also the youngest, so I know what it is like to be treated as the baby girl.
“Nana already had her suspicions, she pretty much stared Uncle Willy down when she first met him at the Duke. This was when she came to visit you and mum, when you were first born. Uncle was the security guard on duty at the time. I remember Nana giving him those 'Nee-daggered-eyes' and we'd only just started dating. No one in the family knew except your mum and dad. So Nana's intuition told her, Uncle Willy was hanging around her baby girl. Once she'd met Uncle Willy, and we made our relationship official, she was actually really nice to him and pulled out all my baby photos and shamed me. As for Grandpa, he was silent for weeks. Took him a while to warm to Uncle Willy. It was not easy at all being the baby, in fact it sucked. But now we can laugh about it,” said Aunty Kath.
I saved my interview with my grandfather for last part of this biography because I feel like what my grandfather has to say is perhaps the most important and most truthful.
“Papa, do you remember how you met Nana?” I said.
He took a few moments to think about it.
“I met her in a factory where we were working. I was cheeky. I just went up to her and said ‘Can I take you to the pictures?’ She was shocked. But she said ok,” said Papa.
Papa said that this was around the time of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, and he remembered this because in the factory they were printing the Queen’s face on tin panels.
I asked Papa if Nana’s family liked him, he said they did, but didn’t elaborate much beyond this. Papas face changes as he talks about his wedding, and in his eyes I can see all of the joy and love from his past.
“I had to catch the train from Auckland up to Moerewa, and then catch a bus and the ferry from Rawene to get to Panguru. Before the wedding I had lots of luggage and a wedding cake and a birthday cake because it was my 21st birthday that weekend. Nana’s uncle Bill Leef had a truck that was used to deliver cream so I hopped on the back of that to get to Panguru,” said my papa.
He remembers talking to my nana’s mum about the wedding arrangement but sadly, she passed away after she gave birth to a still born baby.
“Nana’s mum passed, after she was told that she gave birth to a dead baby. I think it was the shock, the sadness,” says Papa.
I want to ask Papa more about what he loved about Nan, but I don’t want to stop him as he is opening up to me.
He said he was the first islander they had seen in Panguru. He met all of the old people, nana’s relatives, and they were protective of her.
“They said, you can marry her, but don’t take her to the islands,” said Papa.
This made me laugh. One story Papa tells me about is when he was working at the Auckland Electric Power board.
One day he was working in Newmarket with my Uncle Alf who had just left school and started working with him at the Power Board.
“There was a button and I said ‘don’t touch it.’ I went to do some work in the back and there was a huge bang. It was Alfred, he had touched the button. He was a skinny bugger then. All of the trucks turned up and said did you do something and I said ‘No, I was in the back,’” said Papa.
He worked there for around 37 years and would have stayed longer up until his retirement, but Nana got sick and had a stroke, so he had to stop working.
I want to know more, I want to know why he loved Nan, but I don’t press him for more. I know my Papa is a quiet man, and I am appreciative of all that he has told me.
In the years that I have lived, I have known Papa to be the strong one, the one who looked after Nana. I know now, that Nana was also strong, if not stronger than Papa. I can only tell part of their story. I know that it wasn’t always easy for them, that having so many children was hard but they did the best they could. Their values of family and their love and dedication have taught me so much. It goes beyond words.
- Note: The eldest sibling, my Aunty Alicia, was not able to be contacted in time for this project as she is now living abroad.
Imagine them smile
A field of memories, presented on display
Overwhelmed with emotion, beyond yesterday
Imagine the laughter of the children playing
Running through fields soaked, it’s raining
Imagine their bright eyes, youthful smiles and then
Close your eyes draw a breath and start to
Your father or mother, even nanny or papa
With a smile on their face unmatched by another
Raising your hope that there is no pain
Know it in your heart, you will meet again
It’s their body that’s ended, their spirit is strong
It’s only through our lives, their memory lives on
Protected from feelings of abandonment or hate
Papa Hauraki showed them love and it’s never too late
To come back together, for stories and laughter
The hope of happiness is all they were after.