We at Ninth Letter are pleased to present Ingrid Horrocks’s essay, “Days Bay,” which is filled with the joys and worries of family life. At a lively seaside gathering in New Zealand, Horrocks finds herself increasingly conscious of her place in her extended family: in the middle ground as a mother of young daughters who is also a daughter of older parents. The rich back-and-forth of family life here reminds us of a time when the company of loved ones was not fraught with fears of infection, and points us to a time, in the perhaps not too-distant future, when we can return with open arms to the welcome warmth and imperfect tussle of those we miss and love.
Her new book, Where We Swim, in which “Days Bay” appears, launches March 11.
Marvellous here. Come n swim.
Wellington Anniversary weekend, we drove the half hour from our house around the harbor to Days Bay, then up the road to my parents’ place on the edge of the hill, where in the quiet of stream and bush sounds it felt as though we were far from the city. Then it was a cup of tea (always), everyone talking at once, my parents with something to show Tim and me, the kids heading off to get the soft toys that lived there with their grandparents. The weather seemed perfect.
At a gathering a while ago, family friends had told me that my parents seemed decades younger than the rest of them. As we drove out, I was aware of the intensity with which I wanted this to be true.
Mum and I had been exchanging frequent texts over the past twenty-four hours.
Any worries will go A&E. BUT not expecting worse. Sleep well and see you all tomorrow.
Despite having thrown the term around, I had to look it up when she told me about Dad’s leg. DVT: Deep Vein Thrombosis. Thrombosis: blood clot. Deep vein: veins deep in the body. I read: Deep vein thrombosis can be serious because blood clots in your veins can break loose, travel through your bloodstream and lodge in your lungs, blocking blood flow (pulmonary embolism). I read: A pulmonary embolism can be life-threatening.
My father had a pulled muscle in his leg that wouldn’t heal and after a car trip from Auckland it had become red, hot, and painful. On Friday he’d had a blood test that came back positive for DVT, but he had to wait until after the long weekend for the decisive scan that would tell us how bad it was. His doctor had prescribed blood thinners to “hold” it.
While the rest of us put on togs, he sat at the desk in the living room looking at calendars.
“We’ll have to cancel that one, Gin,” he called out.
“What?” My mother was halfway down the stairs, tying a sarong over her swimsuit.
“The bike trip next month. Bloody pain.”
They had just got themselves electric bikes and were full of plans. Until now, car-free shopping missions had taken them around the windy harbor road on push bikes or on foot.
“Don’t cancel it yet,” my mother said, leaning against his shoulder and looking down at the days ahead. There was an ease to how they inhabited space together, a routine developed over the sequence of houses they’d lived in since we’d all moved away, leaving the two of them alone for the first time in thirty years.
Dad said something I didn’t hear, then stood and went to the other room, turning on the TV to the Australian Open. He had projects, he’d told us; there was an article about the policy implications of the popularity of SUVs in New Zealand, and jobs in the garden. He was also working on a novel, but he tended not to mention that. Right then, it was hard to settle to anything.
There wasn’t much for it but to head down to the sea without him, the girls on their scooters shooting way ahead of Tim, Mum, and me. Just before the Pavilion café in Days Bay, they dropped their scooters to climb up the bank and down the other side, emerging grubby with dirt. It was crowded down there by the beach. We paused in front of the new information panels with their photographs of Katherine Mansfield—she had spent her summers in the eastern bays, and set some of her stories here—and ghostly early twentieth-century black-and-white images of day-trippers, who used to come here by ferry. This was once Wellington’s answer to Coney Island, a seaside resort complete with Australasia’s largest water shoot. It was also Oruamatoro, a pā site and kāinga. According to the panels, remnants of the walls from Māori gardens had been found behind the tennis courts. The panels didn’t say how one place had become another.
Swimming had always been more Mum’s thing than Dad’s. It was her I’d followed in my determination not to become the kind of woman who worried about getting salt and chlorine in her hair. Perhaps Mum was reacting against her own mother’s advice that a married woman should put on her makeup before breakfast. Anyway, she was always in the water with us, while Dad’s swims were more intermittent.
As we crossed the road to the beach, though, I remembered Dad jumping off the ferry wharf with us earlier in the summer, a man of seventy-five claiming his turn among a bunch of shoving teenage boys and young men. And jumping with him, the rest of us—his daughter, now a woman in her forties, and his granddaughters, two nine-year-old girls.
Today, in the late afternoon heat, the beach was packed. Groups of boys in board shorts and picnicking families in long-sleeved togs were all crowded together, and as always lots of grandparents were on duty. Lena and Natasha, their goggles on before the rest of us reached the sand, were knee-deep in the water. That long curve of sea and sand was one of the places they belonged. It was far warmer than on our side of the city, protected in the layered embrace of hills.
While the girls dived and splashed, Mum, Tim, and I settled on towels, Tim into reading, and Mum and I into talk, as usual, about my brothers and cousins—so many cousins. She had had sixty of them, but fewer every year. I still had thirty. Our girls had three. It was like an exaggerated chart of the shift in family size over three generations.
“I’m worried about the leg,” she said.
His breath had been short that morning.
We talked about what could happen, but what was there to say about uncertainty?
As I often did around that time, I felt glad of my two brothers, neither of whom we’d yet told. They were both a long way away—Medellín and Perth—but I was still grateful we’d be in the next phase together.
Mum and I talked, instead, about the family Christmas we’d just had. Everyone seemed to have brought a beast from whatever piece of land they came from. “Who will support us farmers?” one uncle only half joked as we pushed our vegetarian sausages and corn onto one side of the barbecue.
I hadn’t mentioned that we were now also trying to cut down on dairy—I wasn’t up for that kind of confrontation at a family Christmas. Besides, what language would we have for it? Our talk was bred on a chatty jokiness through which we sometimes managed to pass affection over quite vast distances in imaginings of the world. My mother had been the butt of jokes about “you greenies” for years, although not so much from my own generation of cousins. I’d been due on election day 1975, when she was a candidate for the Values Party, predecessors to the Greens.
We talked about what was happening with the skate park she’d been trying to help get up and running as part of her role on the community board, and the opposition of some of the older locals. The intense and widely reported generational debate surrounding the park made it sound as though the people opposed to it thought the “youths” it might attract spent their time taking drugs and having sex, with a preference for public places.
And we talked about the proposed walking and cycling path to Petone, another of Mum’s concerns, and how it had finally been approved by the wider Council. The path was designed in part to help future-proof the road with a strengthened sea wall. When seas were high, storm surges could hurl water and rocks across the road and sometimes pull chunks of asphalt back in. Mum and Dad could get cut off out there. Many of the seaside houses could no longer get insurance; it wouldn’t take much sea rise to compromise them.
We stuck to the pitch of a family conversation. We didn’t talk about Trump. We’d talked enough about Trump. And Brexit. We didn’t even talk (much) about climate change. There was nothing we could do about my father but wait.
It hadn’t always been this easy with my parents—it wasn’t always, even now—but over the past few years, or since our children were born, a tension had fallen away.
My mother had started talking recently about my and my brothers’ childhoods, and about her own, swimming with her five siblings in the Hutt River not far away, and at Raumati on the coast, where I’d been recently. And of summers with her grandparents and cousins on their farm. Or perhaps I had only just started listening.
There on the beach, I was the first adult to get in. The kids and I had developed a ritual that summer in which they counted me down. Ten, nine, eight. I watched the waves. Seven, six, five, four. I was waist-deep now. This standing, watching, half in, half out is part of the pleasure of swimming. Three, two, one—and I was in, diving and staying under long enough for the cool to pass right through and become part of my body. The water of my body contained within the water of the sea. The water of a world beyond me.
The girls took my hands and led me to an undersea garden they were creating, diving down to place stones in a circle around a starfish. I blinked against the salty water, letting Lena guide my fingers to the sandpaper skin of the starfish floating gently just above the sand, rocking with each wave. Out there, treading water, I became aware of my mother on the beach watching. Conscious of her seeing me being a mother. Of her seeing these children we had all made. I felt almost painfully in the midst of life then, fully daughter and mother all at once, full of the stretch of a human life and the fierce pleasure of it. Of its beauty and its passing.
When my mother and Tim joined us, they each took a turn of the offered starfish, before returning it to sway down slowly to the sea floor.
Although it wasn’t unusual for my father not to be here in these swims, his absence moved with us, a tight pull like water roped around our legs.
Later, back up at the house and showered free of salt—Lena, Natasha, and me in pajamas—we ate Mum’s chickpea soup for dinner. I read to the girls, one daughter leaning into each side of me on the sofa, leaving Tim to talk and help with the dishes.
My father loved talking with him, often saying, “Actually, this would interest Tim . . .”
His belief in what would interest the father of his grandchildren was endless—endless to the point where I sometimes wanted to say, it might interest your daughter too. It reminded me of his father, my grandfather, and how, when we went around to visit, he always had a news clipping or two that might “interest us.” Of course, inevitably, I wished I had paid more attention to that too.
After the girls were in bed and we were heading that way as well, my parents were briefly tempted again to the tennis. From our bedroom we could hear the grunts of the new young star taking on the veteran, the two men almost a generation apart. I heard Dad saying to my mother, “It has all the elements of a Greek drama.”
When I woke in the night to the sound of a ruru, and what I thought was the sea but was just a breeze in the trees, the house felt full, hot with pairs of sleepers: Lena and Natasha in their twin beds in the back room, Tim and me in the middle room that hangs as a loft out above the living area, and my parents in their bedroom, the only room with a view of the sea. I thought of that starfish, drifting in its garden on the sea floor, while around us the house itself became a kind of ark, floating us through a darkness as thick as blood. I wondered if Dad would be the first up as usual. Or if tomorrow would be the day that was different.
“Hello, you two little sillies. What time did you wake up?”
My mother. Still in bed. I could hear the sleepiness in her voice.
I thought that was Lena. My twins’ voices are the hardest thing to tell apart.
“I woke first. I woke at six twenty-five.”
That was definitely Natasha. Even more precise than her sister. We’d taught them not to disturb us until seven, and they were good at staying in bed and reading. This was no longer new, but it was still a pleasure, the fact they were capable of taking themselves silently off into their own stories.
“Pretty good,” said my mother. “Shall we let Mum and Dad sleep?”
They’d need a bigger house for that, but I appreciated the gesture. Tim was still managing to doze beside me, his breath regular and deep, the warmth of his body close in the small bed I had slept in alone for years as a teenager when we lived on the Wairarapa farm.
Mum again. “Are you going to snuggle in with me? Or go downstairs and help Grandpa with the porridge?”
So he was down there.
He didn’t sleep much anymore, often waking at five, as his father had.
I heard the girls creep noisily down the hallway, past our room and down the stairs, which they treated as a slide. Then I could no longer hear words, just their voices mingling with my father’s deeper tones, sounding as though he was being a monster for them, leaning over his cauldron of porridge, which they always say is better than the porridge I make. I lay there in the cocoon of the bed, picturing the three of them down there moving around in the morning kitchen, and my mother in the next room reading.
When we went for a bush walk around Lake Taupō at Christmas, Dad had claimed that the cold of the lake did wonders for his leg, which was already an issue. Now I wondered. At the time we were more worried about Mum’s arthritic hip, managed by a daily dose of 100mg of Voltaren. She’d told me a standard tablet is 12.5mg. In a few weeks she would have a blood test to see how her kidneys were handling this; we didn’t know it yet, but the answer would be, not well. Without this dose of pain relief and anti-inflammatories, it would be hard for her to walk from the house to the beach. It would take an operation to fix it. I’d not yet seen this and still didn’t fully believe it.
But at Christmas, as we picked our way around the slippery submerged rocks along the lakeshore, the girls leaping ahead with Tim, me hanging back with my parents, I was beginning to sense that I would eventually become more anxious about my parents than about my children. And that this would be a geological shift.
Then again, after Christmas, the two of them had gone for two weeks to Great Barrier Island, the original swimming place for me, where they stayed in the hut my father had built four decades earlier among ten acres of precipitous native bush. They bought the section, which had a clear cold stream running through it, when my mother was pregnant with me and she couldn’t get down the steep slope into the bush. Sure, there’s a flat area, my father had told her. Over the years they’d dug out enough of the slope to fit a tent, a small wooden table, stools, and two deck chairs so they could lie back and watch flights of kākā. On summer trips there as kids, the first job was digging the long-drop for the year. Recently, in a small concession to age, Dad constructed a proper long-drop on the site, with a seat and a roof, and put in a small rainwater tank so they didn’t have to go way down to the stream for drinking water or to do dishes and washing. This was still their idea of a perfect holiday. When I turned forty, and my mother seventy, we got matching pōhutukawa tattoos. I was thinking of Great Barrier when I proposed it, only afterwards seeing how close it came to a rose tattoo, or the classic I LOVE MUM.
Lying in bed, I thought of last summer, when Tim and I took the kids to the Barrier for a week, the four of us sleeping at the tent site just up from the hut where my parents slept, and how stupid it seemed not to have found the time to make it over this year.
After another day at the beach, all of us there except Dad, Tim drove back home around the harbor so he could go to work the next day and I stayed on. None of us could quite imagine how it would work if I left the girls with them and Dad needed to go to the hospital in the night. My father, of course, told us not to be so ridiculous. I was staying not to look after my parents, but in case they couldn’t look after my children. I felt like a lynchpin between generations, holding the whole thing together.
Besides, it was still sometimes easier, more restful, to spend time with my parents without Tim, even after seventeen years—still that different ease with one’s birth family. Or perhaps it was just that I still took a child’s pleasure in getting my parents’ attention to myself.
In the evening Fat Freddy’s Drop was playing in the park by the beach, and the bass reached us on the still air. Tim and I had seen them in Berlin once, in the mid-2000s, at one of the trendy beach bars along the river. Now one of the band members was a bus-stop parent like us. We sometimes saw him, a handsome, quiet presence, standing off to the side of the cluster of chatting mothers in brightly colored skirts, of which I was sometimes one, our days structured by our children’s arrival home from school.
We walked up to a friend’s house, where the view from the deck was like stadium seating for the gig. Lena and Natasha quickly formed a children’s republic with the other kids, rampaging loudly off into the garden. My father, not seeming quite on for company, took me on a walk further up the road. We stood looking out over the body of the bay, the bush, the deep blue of the water with the wharf strung out into it, music drifting.
“God, it’s beautiful here,” my father said.
They’d lived in this place longer than they had anywhere else. Before this, it was always a move every six years or so. Here, it seemed they had found a harbor.
When we got back to the gathering, however, there had been a drama. The four children had been caught slashing the tops off agapanthus and using them as guns. The other mother had gone to sort them out and I didn’t think much of it, reasoning comfortably that my girls were unlikely to have been the instigators.
Half an hour later I went into the house to find everyone standing around awkwardly, Lena, in particular, stiff and strained.
She moved over to me quickly and took my hand. “Can we go?”
I realized I hadn’t got it. I hadn’t understood.
I’d been digging up agapanthus at home the day before. Lena and Natasha were chatting to me while I hacked at the plants with the spade and pulled at their thick, tuber-like roots. A kererū had dive-bombed past on its way to the pūriri while we worked. The girls had helped me load the deep blue star flowers into a skip. Why wouldn’t they have followed suit here, hacking off the heads, already imagining something new in their place?
“We’re so sorry,” I said to the other mother. “I’m sorry.”
This was a beloved garden, the house up for sale next week so that the friends, the same age as my parents, could downsize, something my parents talked about doing too. Everything was in full, final bloom.
I took the hands of my now quiet daughters and we picked our way back along the path.
When one of the other girls came up with her parents to leave, and to apologize to her grandmother on the way, she was crying so much she could hardly breathe. Something had pulled loose.
I watched the grandmother leaning into the car, hugging the girl and saying, ‘It’s okay, it’s okay love, I know you’re sorry. I know you didn’t mean it.’
There seemed to be no anger in her, only sadness, the desire of an adult to comfort a child. Also a yearning of deep separation, of hurt she wanted to stop but couldn’t. These children would remember things that would outlast us all.
On the walk home, Lena pulled at me and dissolved into tears. Her guilt tended to be at a higher pitch than her sister’s, who wasn’t so susceptible to feeling “bad.”
“She loves her garden,” my father said.
“We didn’t know,” Natasha responded quietly, almost stubbornly, dropping back slightly to walk beside my mother.
We all felt the shock of it, the child’s shame at having got it wrong.
But what my father said was, “Come on, Lena, it’s not so terrible. Toughen up, girl.”
It was a joking effort to displace sadness, a familiar one to me. It didn’t always leave much room to maneuver.
But he also put his arm awkwardly around her. He’s a tall man. It contained the ghosting of an arm around me too as I continued to hold my daughter’s hand.
“We didn’t know where you were, Mum. We didn’t know what to do.”
The following morning, while we waited for my father’s hospital appointment and scan, he and I walked down the road for a coffee. I consciously adjusted my pace.
Dad looked tired, but he was still straight into it, into what he’d been reading. This time it was A Stranger in the House. He’d been thinking about his own family and about the war. He hadn’t known his father, who was married in uniform, until he was two. He told me again the story of his first memory, of a stranger rolling a carpet-bag toward him and his mother at the train station. This was now seventy-three years ago. The book, he told me, was about the effects of war on the families and children of soldiers, and on how war impacts subsequent generations. All those men coming home with such experiences, most of which they didn’t talk about. The other men in my grandfather’s wedding party died—brother, new brother-in-law, best friends. My father had been thinking about his relationship with his father and how hard it had sometimes been to be close.
I ended up talking, in return, about what I was trying to write, and the sometimes troubling way it pulled other people in. This felt connected in some way not only to how we create characters from real people in nonfiction, but also to how we imagine the people in our lives. Especially family. “We use our parents like recurring dreams,” Doris Lessing wrote in a piece about her father, “to be entered into when needed.” We do so much work on the people around us, even after they are gone. Family is so much a part of how I measured my place in the world.
I wished we could have talked forever. It was becoming clear we could have new conversations at every stage.
When we walked back up to the house, I noticed my parents’ latest bumper sticker. They’ve always had bumper stickers. Our 1970s red station wagon, in which as kids we sometimes shared the boot with the CNG tank, was festooned with them: Friends of the Earth, Save Aramoana, Nuke Free, Values. They’ve had Stop the Tour, Support the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, and Go Green. But their new bumper sticker was in support of End-of-Life Choice (Fewer will Suffer).
My father was big on this bill, although he hadn’t talked about it much. It was my mother who insisted I read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, which helped me understand that no one is really “young” in their seventies. The story of aging, Gawande writes, is the story of our parts. Things fall apart. Perhaps the bumper sticker was a claim on dignity, a claim to wanting to approach that last thing on their own terms. But there was a confronting baldness to it.
When Mum got back, she and Dad drove away to the hospital for the scan. The girls and I walked to the sea to swim again, which I needed now perhaps more than my children. It was breezy down there, the water churned up, green with roiling sand.
Afterwards, the house felt empty and quiet. I noticed the whirr of the late summer cicadas, humming in the heat while the three of us lay on the concrete in our togs trying to warm up.
On the grass in the back garden, we ate a lunch of sweet corn and boiled eggs and carrots, crunching lettuce from Dad’s vege patch.
I’m not sure the girls knew we were waiting.
While I tried to catch up on work, rewriting a syllabus for the coming teaching semester, they created a café menu. The café games had intensified and become more sophisticated since they’d come to understand that their uncle ran a real restaurant in Colombia. Their café was called The Healthy Carrot; I chose the tomato salad from the formally presented menu and received a whole tomato served on a small plastic plate with a miniature plastic knife and fork. It made me feel like an awkward, oversized child, playing at being the oldest in the place. My heart creaked at the thought I would be.
Finally, the phone rang.
“It’s fine,” my mother said. “He’s fine. There’s nothing there.”
The breath caught in my lungs.
Only when my parents arrived back half an hour later did I realize fully how strained they’d been, how anxious. Their faces had changed color as though blood was moving freely again, pumping through reopened veins.
With a returned lightness, free to leave my parents and children together again, I hugged everyone goodbye and caught the next ferry into the city and home. Before I left, Dad said that when they came to drop the kids off he could bring his chainsaw over and chop up a fallen tree for firewood. They were back.
In the evening, Mum texted to say she’d been reading the girls versions of Shakespeare stories she read me as a kid.
Have read Shrew in Seraillier version. Tasha very keen for more so had Lear (eye gouging left out) tonight. Both feeling new life!
And the next day.
Happy day. Picnic in park, now to swim in wind.
I imagined them out there together, my father in the water this time too, wind flicking froth off the waves high into the air, slick silver kahawai slipping across the ocean floor.
Ingrid Horrocks is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand. She earned a PhD at Princeton, was a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of York, and is now Associate Professor in Creative Writing at Massey University, Wellington. Part memoir, part travel and nature writing, her new nonfiction book, Where We Swim, is about being a daughter, sister, partner, mother, and above all a human being living among other animals on this watery planet. Her previous publications include two poetry collections and a book on women wanderers published by Cambridge UP. She is a member of the NonfictioNOW International Board and co-organizer of NFN2021. Where We Swim will be published in New Zealand and Australian editions in early 2021.