Yarns with Ma Series, 2 of 3
An honest, stereotype breaking, issue-raising, belly-laugh inspiring, and deeply-touching, slice of life interview series with my Mum about growing up in Aotearoa as a wahine of mixed heritage.
In part two of Ma’s story we talk about how she often stood out in a crowd and what that felt like. But before we hit the hard stuff, let’s settle into the family kitchen. Imagine the smell of boil up wafting in. Give or take a bit of muttonbird on the side. Kia rēri? Ready? Reheko, let’s go.
Boil up. Photo by Matyas Havel used under Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Listen to the audio as you read!
Click play on the left to hear the interview.
"So what did your whānau used to eat?"
"Ok, so Dad cooked. Dad cooked a lot.
He actually taught mum to cook. She couldn't even boil an egg when she met him, she'd never had to because she'd always lived in nursing homes but she learned and because they were both used to food from different countries they were both good at cooking curries and Italian and some German or Jewish food too. And they used garlic—NOT popular in NZ at the time.
Mum used to insist that every Friday night we go to town. Dad would pick me up from school because he just worked down the road and then we'd wait for her to catch a bus into town and then we HAD to go to this one delicatessen in Rotorua that had cheese, like big wheels of cheese with a wire cutter and we'd get kind-of European cheese and an Austrian Vienna loaf of bread—like uncut.
Oh my god, nobody in Rotorua had bread that wasn’t thick and thin sliced from a plastic bag. That was the most embarrassing thing—to grow up in Rotorua where they, you know, like, a really flash dish was a mince stew. All those foreign meals were seriously embarrassing.
And yeah, so we didn't typically eat what other people in the area ate, but dad used to do boil ups; pork—pork bones and puha, which mom loved, and every now and then he’d get sent up from his aunties down on the coast big bags of dried seaweed and muttonbird and things like that, that he’d cook up—fish heads too. Ugh, it stank."
"What did you think of the muttonbird?"
"Ergh I never ever ate it. It’s really greasy and incredibly smelly, but he loved it."
"I bet Nana stood out, at that time, in that corner of Rotorua, in quite a few ways. Did it feel like she was different in the community?"
"Yeah. Yeah, it definitely did. Well, she was white with blue eyes. There weren't a lot of white people—especially with blue eyes. I mean, there were other white people, but they'd kind of been raised as Māori."
Clockwise from top left; Elfriede Anaru (Shelley's mum) with an aunty, Elfriede Anaru with her daughter Judy Anaru, Elfriede Anaru with husband, Percy Anaru and daughters; Shelley, Judy, and Maggie.
"Do you think she felt different?"
"Well, she knew she was different but I don't think it worried her at all. Most people were really accepting and didn't mind but, you know, she obviously wasn't one of them because she didn’t have all that history of knowledge and didn’t know anything about the customs and stuff like that. And Dad wasn’t much help...
Mum cracks up.
So… she didn’t like going to the marae or things like that because… because I think she just felt like a fish out of water."
"Can you think of any other examples of how she was different from the rest of your friends and whānau?"
"When she first came from London, my cousin, Tiweka, often talks about how she had these amazing clothes and she used to dress up and do her hair and all the rest of it and they all thought she was soooo flash but she kind of had nowhere to go with all her nice clothes
What else… oh there was certain, like, very English manners, you know? She would never ever use words like ‘fart’ or… "
Mum and I struggle to keep a straight face.
"You had to say ‘blow off’."
Aaaaand we’ve lost it.
"And you had to say that in a whisper! And table manners and things like that were very English I think. You know like having to ask to leave the table and yeah, that kind of thing."
Huh… I’m realising some of this has been passed on. So thaaaaat’s why my friends’ families used to look at me funny when I would ask ‘May I please be excused from the table?’ after every meal from the age of about 4…
"And also because they didn't go to church, but everybody else did. So that was another kind of different thing."
"Did they not go to church because she was Jewish?"
"Yeah, I think so. Because dad had prior, you know, before he went to England."
"Did Nana pass on any knowledge to you about her Jewish faith or Austrian heritage?"
"No, she never… we didn't even know that she was Jewish until probably about… well, I had heard dad talk to his brother about it. Once there was a horrible thing on TV just showing all these people's bodies being thrown into a pit and Dad said ‘That's how Frieda’s parents died’. So I knew that but I just… I didn't know what it was.
It wasn't until Paul went to England and met the family—he was the first of us to go—and he um..."
Mum laughs and shakes her head.
"Typical Paul, he sent a letter back saying ‘Guess what? We're Jewish.’"
From left: Elfriede Anaru (Shelley's mum) as a child, Sam and Rose Rubin (Shelley's grandparents), Elfriede Anaru in London as a child.
"Wow. So Nana had obviously made a decision that she didn’t want to talk about it."
"Nah, she didn't want to talk about it. But that was not unusual. And you'll find a lot of that generation just won't, they won't discuss it."
"And did you want to learn about it?"
"Yeah. I do. I still do. I know the worst parts though. Well… they could be even worse."
"How do you think it affected you—having a Jewish Mum with that background in a small mainly Māori community?"
"I was always really protective of her because… ummm, but also... see I was different as well so…"
Mum shrugs and I’m starting to realise just how starkly different the life experiences of each generation of my family have been. Nana being European was one thing. Mum being of mixed heritage was another thing completely.
"That must have been… confusing—being Māori and Austrian/Jewish. How did that show up for you?"
"So when I started school and, because we were so isolated and I didn't go to kindy or anything like that, I had a British accent from just being at home with mum all the time."
"Yeah I used to say British words like ‘mac’, ‘mackintosh’ instead of ‘raincoat’ and ‘Wellingtons’ instead of ‘gumboots’. And when I got to school I got laughed the hell out of there for my accent and for saying funny words. ‘Sofa’ instead of ‘couch’, ‘lounge’ instead of ‘living room’.
So that was when I kind of realised that I was a bit different. And then some of the older cuzzies used to give me a little bit of grief. But it wasn't… it wasn't too… like within my tight whānau, it was fine, I didn't feel that much like I was any different. I did sometimes when their cousins —like from the other partner would come, and then they would say like, I'm not… I'm not like them. That I'm not really Māori.
So that was… after a while… it was just like the worst thing to be in Rotorua was ‘not really Maori’, which I 'wasn't really Maori'. And I really, really wanted to be.
But then I got to Auckland and it was just like, ‘Oh, you’re Māori and that's not good’. And so it was like the totally opposite thing. It was quite confusing."
"So after going through both sides of that, where did you end up personally in your thoughts about it?"
"Um.. I suppose that’s why I am like I am now. Like the ‘citizen of the world’ thing. I like being different. I don’t want to be the same as everyone else and I don’t want to be put in a box as anything—I don’t care what it is.
I just decided I was just going to be me and I didn't give a shit what I was supposed to be for anybody else.
So I mean, nobody had the right to take away the fact that I was Māori because I am. Whether or not I was Māori enough for them or not, I don't care.
And it was the same with the Pākehā side, you know, they weren't gonna put me down for being Māori because I had no shame about it. I definitely had no shame about that."
"Did anyone try to put you down for it? I suppose when you moved to Auckland you were ‘too Māori’. Can you remember any particularly hard times facing racism then?"
"Yeah, I can remember getting on a bus and a woman screaming at me and moving seat—like when I was a child, like.. I was a kid."
Mum is pretty stoic. Deeply loving, open-hearted, sentimental, and stoic (not a common combo but she told you she doesn’t like fitting into boxes, nē?). So I’ve never really heard her talking about things like this because of course, she doesn’t see the point in dwelling. She’s talking in a very matter of fact way, but I’m pretty shocked.
"Yeah, when I first went to school up here in Mount Roskill, that was quite a white area at the time, and I can remember the teacher had REALLY low expectations of me, almost to the point of speaking slowly to me.
And I got a few things wrong. I had been taught a different handwriting style in Rotorua and up in Auckland they did this weird kind of triangular style and I can remember just going home and practicing and practicing and practicing till I could get it right because I thought she was looking down on me because I couldn't do my writing properly."
Shelley studying hard at primary school.
This brings back a memory of a time in highschool where a teacher accused me of plagiarism because my essay 'sounded like it didn’t come from me’. It did come from me by the way, but I didn’t really care. Mum however, was PISSED—like unbelievably so. I remember her muttering something about me being the only brown kid in the class (which stood out to me because I’m not very brown) and I’m pretty sure she actually went to school to have it out with the kaiako. Suddenly it’s all making sense.
She’s smart by the way. When she was quite young she was earmarked as a genius child by some researchers. She jokes about the fact that they later revoked it, but let’s just say when she returned to university as an adult to study Law and Languages she’d be disappointed if she got a grade below A+.
"Yeah, I mean, there were a lot of things. There still are. There’s a lot that's ongoing. There is racism. There's no… you can't say that there isn't. It happens all the time. But you know, it goes both ways as well. So probably I had it more from the Māori side than the other to be honest."
Shelley with a friend at Epsom Girls Grammar. Shelley graduating as a teacher.
"Seems like it coming from the Māori side kind of hurt the most as well..."
"Um. Yeah, yeah. Well, yes it does. But it just makes me really mad.
It was just a different time and a really small town. There really wasn't a lot of difference between things being Pākehā and Māori really—unless you were part something.
If you were totally white you were completely accepted, but—and not so much in Rotorua but definitely up here (in Auckland)—if you were part, then that was… well you weren’t really accepted by either side.
I mean I just grew up never being anything, not by my choice—it was just that I never was either one or the other and… um… in the end I just got to like it really."
Thanks for teaching me to like it too Māmā.
E koekoe te tūī, e ketekete te kākā, e kūkū te kererū. // The tūī squawks, the kākā chatters, the kererū coos.
Keen for more? Check out part 3; Wetback fireplaces, two cars one night, and a camping cat where we take a nostalgic trip down the coast.