You Are My Darling Zita
Godwit, Auckland, 1991, $44.95
Glenn Busch has created an extraordinary book. Through the stories of six ‘ordinary people’ he has crafted a revealing and deeply moving account of the process of ageing. Hours of tape‑recorded interviews with people born around 1900 have been transformed into uninterrupted monologues which glow with insight and honesty. The result is as rich as any finely‑constructed work of literary fiction.
Busch found that his subjects, in describing their attitudes towards and perceptions of ageing, did not limit themselves to the present. As he states in his introduction, ‘In order to know a part, you need access to the whole. To understand a person’s perception of old age, it was necessary to place it in a context; that is what they seemed to be telling me’. And that is what they tell us. From each of the six stories strong images remain, many of them descriptions of the past, a woman ‘howling and swearing’ as she burns her dead husband’s belongings; a small child being told that her mother is dead; a husband and wife together experiencing the watershed of grief for their childlessness.
But while the past which shaped these people is central to their stories, there are images too of the present, of the frustrations brought with age. Of the loss of mobility, of a lack of vitality, a reliance on drugs, and for some a diminution of independence.
Common to all is the imminence of death. For each, in their time of reflection and reckoning, there is the uncertainty of when and how death will come, and what it will mean. For John and Muriel Morrison, in a marriage of remarkable closeness, the acceptance of John’s cancer begins the preparation for separation from each other. For others in the book, the promise of death has to be confronted in a more solitary fashion. For most there is a sense of resignation, an acceptance of the inevitable. But still a desire to linger is common. Several speak of continuing to plant things in their gardens, living with the hope of enough time to see them grow and flower for another season. And there are times of calmness and wonder, Glenys Lewis standing, late at night, on the concrete outside her house marvelling at the ‘blaze of stars’.
Throughout You Are My Darling Zita photographs and text strengthen each other. Glenn Busch, with consummate skill, has made sensitive and telling portraits of each participant. As well, there are earlier formal portraits and personal snap‑shots. Taken from the turn of the century through subsequent decades they are all potent accompaniments to the words of their owners.
The substance of this book is the substance of all our lives, and it is this which makes such compelling reading. It is possible to delight in the unpretentious ability of each of these people to articulate profound truths. Most powerful is the absolute honesty with which the individuals appraise their pasts. In their time of recollection, each reflects on the relationships with others which have been most important to them – parents, spouses, children. And in these reflections we are privy to some of the most intimate human emotions – guilt, pain, regret.
The printed page can be too permanent and powerful a record of such private reminiscences. Thus, the ethics of publishing oral history are obviously of concern, particularly when what has been said is edited and shaped. As a safeguard, Busch made a point of returning, where possible, to each of his subjects with the finished piece for their approval. However, two participants died before they could see their words on the page. One, West Coaster Alex Coutts, had discussed with Busch the possibility of their conversations becoming part of a book. He told Busch, ‘I trust you to put it down right’. It would seem that his trust and that of the five other subjects in this remarkable work could not have been better placed.
Alison Parr is a Wellington journalist.