Category Archives: family

my mum – superwoman in a cocktail dress

My mother is superwoman in a cocktail dress. Or at least that’s what my Chinese astrology book says, the one that I pull out at barbecues to make everyone groan. People may scoff but I think there’s a certain amount of truth to the little paragraphs in those pages, the tiny soundbites of peoples’ projected personalities.

It’s funny, when you grow up and your mother becomes a person to you. When you’re young she’s just your mother; finder of socks, maker of casseroles, midnight folder of washing. Just a steady, benign presence, always there, and it feels strange to find out that she has a name that isn’t ‘mum’. You don’t realise that once she rode in the back of someone’s car with the windows open and music blaring, looked confusedly at maps while travelling, had dreams of faraway places, big jobs and wore hilarious bell bottoms and funny glasses.

My mother was twenty-five when she had my oldest sister. In my teens that used to seem like a perfectly reasonable age to have a baby, but now that I am nearing twenty-nine it seems incredibly young and tender. Mum told me a story once about how she left Vanya crying herself to sleep for what felt like hours (they were Ferberizing), and how when she finally relented and went to check on her she found that the nappy pin was sticking into little Varnie’s side. I thought I was the worst mother in the world! she told me, her face still twisting with emotion at the memory, and my heart  squeezed with sympathy for that twenty-five year old new mother.

She must have got the hang of it though, because a couple of years later Gemma arrived too, then me, followed by Grace. A few more years later and our little brother Alex arrived. So there were five. Five children! The Bowen tribe in the house on the hill.

So it began. Parenthood, motherhood, raising an army, whatever you want to call it. Mountains of washing, hockey gear and Playstation games strewn everywhere. Teenage girl hormones and children’s television blaring in the morning. Roast dinners at six on the dot and church on Sundays, dressed and smiling like a perfect family unit. Biscuiting on the glassy Blue Lake with dad on summer evenings, swimming in the pool for hours on end and camping at Cooks Beach, aunties and uncles appearing from under every tent flap and every clapped out station wagon that arrived.


It’s hard, to try and see my childhood from her perspective. My experience is clouded by that childlike egotism, that idea that there is NOTHING else as important as your experience. Where was mum, while I played hockey on freezing Saturday mornings, the cold air burning my lungs and a mouth guard bulky against my teeth? There she is. Standing on the sidelines in Smallbone Park, stamping her feet to keep warm in the frost, a hat pulled down over her ears, pretending to laugh at some boring dad’s comments. Or ferrying someone else to some other sport, or out having coffee with friends, or back at home cleaning or cooking or folding, doing one of the myriad of other tasks that quietly keep a household together but so often go completely unnoticed.

As I’ve grown and the more I read and listen and watch and learn, the more I feel a supreme gratitude for the way mum raised us. She taught all five of us self-esteem and self-worth, that innate sense that who you are is absolutely fine, so just get on with it and be happy. She taught us bravery and gratitude and above all love for each other and everyone else. She and dad taught us to work hard when we were needed, stacking wood, mowing lawns and washing cars, but she also taught us to relax and watch Disney movies under a duvet when it rained.

Mum left us alone, as you would in the nineties with five children, so Grace and I learned to entertain ourselves, as children do. We were free to pull out every single pot from the kitchen and fill it with mud and sticks from the garden, singing witchy chants as we stirred the gluggy mess in the backyard. (Which we then left in the garden for days. Such brats!) We went on the farm with no shoes, crashed motorbikes, climbed trees and broke limbs, scratched ourselves raw in blackberry bushes and saved lambs that didn’t really need saving.

It was the days before gluten-free and organic, hashtags and paleo. It was a land of trim lattes and Tae Bo, teletubbies and Beauty and the Beast, before low-fat yoghurts became the devil. We had juice in the fridge and we ate roll-ups as part of our balanced lunches.

It was amazing.

She’s set the bar pretty high, and as I grow older I hope more and more that I will teach my children the same lessons about life and self and balance. But I know I’ll be a different mother. After all, we’re all different. But I’m really grateful that I got this mum.

Happy Birthday mum. And thank you. We all love you so much.



our house

My childhood home still seems such a huge part of my life. It has already shaped so many of my memories and I think in some small way it will stay with me forever, endless and omnipresent. We lived in the same house my whole life, a big red one on a hill, just like a storybook. So many births and breaths and parties and tears, all seen by these four unseeing walls.

Come with me if you like, I’ll show you around.

HomeSee here? These are the old couches that we pushed back together, four little girls, Vanya, Gemma, Grace and I, and played a game called hey-boomfa, which involved launching ourselves across the room and into each other, padded by eight or nine cushions.

This carpet is where we danced maniacally to Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album, or mum’s Jesus Christ Superstar CD. We set up a stage, just here under the stairs, and charged mum and dad fifty cents each to endure our terrible stage shows. We strung a swing up around that beam once too, and sang loudly to our Lion King CD as we took turns swinging, kicking our feet higher and higher into the air.

And over here, this is where Santa crept in each Christmas, sliding down the floo and emerging from the fireplace, to where the cookies and milk sat waiting for him, above five limp stockings, ready to be full and crackling with secrets and wrapping paper the next morning. And just here, this is where Grace and I lay mesmerised one night, staring up at the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, having crept back down the stairs well after bedtime.

Handmade Christmas stockings - Vanya's and mineThrough here is where we had to hide while the Easter Bunny was in the garden, peeking through gaps in the curtains and fizzing with excitement, waiting for a glimpse of a big white rabbit with a basket, hiding fat chocolate eggs in amongst the dewy garden.

This is the house in which I reread countless Harry Potters, lying upstairs in a sun-strewn bedroom, a half empty pack of chocolate Girl Guides at my side. Where I read aloud to Grace on the bunk above me most nights, only to find out that she had fallen asleep several painstaking chapters earlier.

And out here, this is the garden where Witchy-Poo chased us. She always arrived in a heightened mess of confusion, Witchy-Poo, with nobody quite sure where she would appear from. Then suddenly one of us would spot her, all in black, creeping around the side of the wooden fence across the lawn. And then the chase would begin, children screeching with terror and delight around the garden, running as fast as we could. Witchy-Poo’s visits always coincided uncannily with our Aunty Rhonda’s, and it was some years before I figured it out.

Foxgloves and fencesOver there, that’s the driveway that we walked everyday from the bus, shivering and hunched when it rained, and strolling happily when the sun shone, picking tart apples from our trees to eat along the way. We caught blue butterflies with mum’s sieve in the bright garden, and trapped birds in lunchboxes rigged with a string-tied chopstick. See that huge gum tree? That’s the tree that Gemma fell from when she was just little, climbing higher and higher and falling, flailing through the branches, landing flat on her back and screaming for mum.

From the haybarnGracey and I sat on top of that old concrete water tank when we took our first drag of a badly rolled cigarette, coughing and spluttering as the harsh smoke tore down our throats, and exclaiming incredulously at each other afterwards. Down the hill there, you can see from over here, that’s the kiwifruit orchard that we pruned, pollinated and picked, year after year, season after season. And lining the driveway is the olive grove that we spent one whole holiday planting, dad hammering in each post with the rammer, his shoulders heaving and sweat running down his face.

Our viewInside are the stairs that Grace used to climb each night with her glass of water and ice, the tingle of the ice against the glass becoming synonymous with her footsteps, and bedtime. And at the bottom of the stairs, in this room here, this is where mum and dad sat us down to tell us that they loved us, and that they were separating. Through there is the kitchen where dad and I tried fruitlessly to learn to cook, and ate pork chops and bacon each night, and cried while we did the dishes.

And through here, this was Alex’s room, always shrouded in warm yellow light from the pulled curtains, and full of the milky, apple-sweet smell of a sleeping baby. This is the bath where Grace and I tried to shave our legs as children, pushing the razor the wrong way and jumping guiltily when mum caught us.

There’s the pool that we spent every day of summer in, and where we jumped in at midnight on each New Years Eve. I found out when I was 23 that ‘midnight’ was actually only 10pm, and that everyone present at the party would do a fake countdown just so the children would finally go to bed. It’s the pool that dad broke his nose in playing ‘sharky’, smashed clean into the wall whilst trying to catch our slippery legs.

And out there are the paddocks where I learnt to drive, hiccupping along in an old Subaru named Betty and feeling as though I owned the world.

This house has been part of the family for as long as I’ve been alive, almost a living, breathing thing, the eighth member, now the twelfth member.

Buffet tables and photosNow when I visit, the floors are bare and hardwood, a huge buffet table sits astride the lounge and historical family photos line the walls, with shearing handpieces and dried hydrangeas in tasteful vases. It is strange, to come here now and open doors and cupboards, finding only stacked chairs and the musty smell of uninhabited rooms.

It’s almost as though I expect to find a seven year old Grace in the linen cupboard, asleep behind a pile of towels in a long forgotten game of hide and seek. She always seemed to win, somehow.

Three Generations - That's us kids on the right!

Hardwood floors and historyShearing Exhibition - Historical poster for Garba's shearing Bowen Technique


I felt the miles between us then. Felt the acres and acres of sea and sand and grass, the mountains stretching out across the globe, just one tiny thread, this phone call, binding us. I missed her now. It was good to talk about new friends, funny stories, silly American girls who snap their fingers at bugs, happy to laugh together and smile at each others frozen photos on the screen. It was only afterwards, when the phone call had stopped, the soft crackle of the speaker abruptly silenced that I felt it. My little sister is so far away, and I miss her. We are so close in every other way, we see each others photos and light hearted comments and share stupid YouTube videos within seconds, but if I wanted to see her, actually hug her and laugh wetly through the tears, she is hours and days and thousands of kilometres across the oceans, brave and happy with new friends.

a chat with Gran

I’m just waiting for my eggs to boil. Eight minutes, rapid boiling mind, as I want them for my lunch tomorrow. Did I tell you about tomorrow? I’m sure I did, you must have forgotten. The Probus group are all going out to Matamata for Shirley Henderson’s roses. Beautiful white ones she has, I’ve never been able to get them bushy like she does. Not worth a thirty minute drive mind, but very nice they are. Her peonies are a dag though, they wilt like anything! Nothing like mine. Did you see them when you arrived? In the driveway? You haven’t said anything yet. How are the potatoes? They’re from the garden too. Nice waxy new potatoes, they’re good boiled like this. Don’t you think? Come on, eat up. You’re looking very thin, what have you been eating? Well do you know what Liam said to me the other day? That he’s never had new potatoes like mine! What do you think of that? Your old gran, best new potatoes in town. And from him too, the grocer! Oh goodness the eggs are boiling over, why didn’t you tell me?

underwater baby

I love photos taken from half in, half out of the water. That in between world where nobody knows what to breathe in and the laws of gravity are turned upside down. I have always been a water baby. As a child I spent more of the summer in the water than out. My sister Grace and I would spend entire days in the pool, from sun up to long past sun down. Only when our mother enforced it would we finally get out of the water, only to quickly wolf our lunch down standing up, dripping all over the balcony. Then, when the last crumb was licked from the sandwich, we would hurl ourselves back into the blue water, delighting in the feel of its cool wetness swallowing at our skin to welcome us back.

It was another world down there, one that I loved, one I felt so at home in. I know every curve and dip of that pool as well as I know my own body. It amazes me now how small it is, how I can stand up in every part, even the deepest point.

We used to practice holding our breath, lying weightless just beneath the surface. That feeling is one of my favourite in the world. It is as though all sound is gone, quiet, yet somehow amplified, reverberating through the metres of dense, clear weight. I can hear my thoughts under there, hear my lungs steadily holding on to their last breath.

The beach is somewhat the same, although the water is more alive. There, when I lie breathlessly beneath the surface my body moves with the ocean, the swell undulating with me. I float easily in the salt, and the waves are white as they break, rolling just above me.

When I come up for breath I break through the barrier with a crash, and all the noise comes flooding in. Seagulls and the surf, sounds of people calling to each other batter my ears, the blinding sun squints my eyes. I take a salty gulp of air, enough to last me a few more moments, and dive back under. Everything is cut off once more. The world is green and mottled down here, compared to the blinding blue of the world above. The sunlight is dappled, falling through the ever-moving water to reach the sand below. It is two metres of paradise, gravity free and clear, the edges of sight blurring into a blue green haze. I lift my eyes and look through the water, up to the sky outside. There is a foot or so of sea between my face and the surface, the light shimmers and reflects down, tricking my vision, so that I can’t quite see what lies up there.

That layer divides these two worlds, one where everything is touched, in tune, completely immersed in something so much denser than air or wind. The other, all is dry and separate, where things exist in complete solitude. Every part of my body is touched by the water, every hair on my head surrounded by its unwavering wet. I wish to stay down here, but my traitorous lungs lift me up every time, the thin bones of my ribcage and the meagre weight of my body not enough to separate the air within them from uniting back with its great body above.

I must be content, grateful for those short visits to that other world underneath, hidden under the innocently still barrier of the vast surface.

memory keeper

When I was little I had so many books to read. Every Christmas and birthday I would receive at least four new books. It was an easy present to get me; I was always the nerd, the girl with her head in a book, the one who walked down the stairs reading.

I remember how I used to pick a book off my shelf, so full of hand me downs and borrowed books long left behind. I would turn them over in my hands, the cover art and font evoking vague memories – a funny scene, what cookies I ate while I first read it, where I was. I would choose a book to read with no less thought than choosing a movie, ignorant of the fact that whichever book I chose would influence my life for the next week. I still do that now; choose a book to read at a whim. Psychologists tell us that when we make a decision fast, we tend to regret it less and be happier with our choice than if we had agonized over it. If only I could do the same with ice cream flavours.

I love the way that the covers still evoke such memories. Even now, every time I see the metallic silver gleam of the Artemis Fowl books, I still think of lying on the bed in my tiny upstairs room, the afternoon sun streaming through the small window and eating an entire packet of Girl Guide’s. My favourite book when I was 13, Firebringer, always transports me to the grassy area around Room 9 from my intermediate school. I still have no idea why, but it happens every time. Tomorrow When The War Began, always of the shady clearing sheltering the shallow stream down at the back of our farm.

I love sand in books. It reminds me of where I was, the hot sun beating on my back while my head is in another world, where not only plot and characters, but also physics and even generally unquestioned laws of the universe are dictated by the author. I suspect The Help will always remind me of the sombrillas, the white sand and azure water of Formentor, Spain, despite the fact that it is a American book set in the hot dust of Mississippi cotton fields, written from the perspective of the black maids working in white-owned southern plantation houses.

But this doesn’t just happen through books. It happens through everything around us, every sense that we have, every pore of our body – just like skin remembers touch, we remember situations and imprint them onto substances.

L’Oreal Happyderm, a girly foaming pink cleanser, will always and forever remind me of living with my mother, when I was 18 and had just discovered the mysterious world of make up. Every day when I wasn’t commuting to the big smoke, I was excitedly driving the three minutes down the road to Raglan’s only miniscule pharmacy, to browse the L’Oreal, Mabelline and Rimmel stands hungrily, roving back and forth between them, torn between the two products in my hands. I remember the excitement that swelled in my stomach during that short drive, so huge I had to grin, knowing that I could buy another lip gloss, or bronzer, or foundation, to add to my small but growing collection. I remember the exact shape and colour of my first foundation, slightly orangey but so, so glamorous to my young inexperienced hands. And so began my obsession with cosmetics. I should have known then that it was the start of something special.

The Body Shop’s seaweed cleanser takes me back to my second year flat in the freezing, burnt-coffee aroma of North Dunedin, each and every time I smooth it on. I happily remember the stress, the inconvenience of having to return to my awkward, abandoned Castle street room, always clean and tidy but ultimately unloved, rejected and cold. I hated being there, but I looked forward eagerly to returning to Oli’s warm flat, always full of people and heat pumped air, a bag of clean clothes and toiletries in tow.

I wonder how I can remember this time happily all because of a cleanser, and recently I found out why. Nostalgia is always positive. It is a happy emotion, no matter what the context. Maybe that’s why we all love those old L&P ads so much.

These memories follow me around throughout my life, almost as though I had bottled them myself, to take from place to place as a sentimental keepsake.

Strawberries are another one that gets me every time. One taste, one smell, reminds me unconditionally of Christmas in Raglan. I imagine chopping them in half, the knife slicing through the seedy red flesh to meet my thumb, the fizz and bubbling of the champagne as the fruit hits the bottom of the glass. They remind me perfectly of a New Zealand Christmas with the family, happily raising our glasses, smiling faces freshly made up and shining with love, wine, and Mum’s inevitable camera flashes.