These Two Hands: A Memoir
Mākaro Press, $38.00,
These Two Hands is the memoir of a woman’s life which is simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary. Born in Napier in 1929, Renée has lived through tumultuous times, both in her private and public life. As she writes, “drama didn’t just follow me. It came out and met me with a big tah-dah.” Playwright, poet, mother, gardener, avid reader, daughter, working woman, pragmatist, director, sister, teacher, wife, novelist, feminist, lesbian, blogger, survivor, maker of “the best female gnomes in the entire world”, and the recent recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement – all these terms may be used to describe Renée, but do not necessarily do justice to her 88 years (so far).
A child of the Depression era, she weathered her father’s death by suicide, and her mother Rose’s pragmatic decision that, as the oldest child, she should leave school aged 12, and go to work to enable her younger siblings to continue their education. Despite what may seem the unfairness of the hand life often dealt her, Renée is a survivor, whose pragmatic view is to take things one step at a time: “just put a smile on your face and get on with it”. This is equally true of her creative life: “The truth is that writing is simply putting one word in front of the other. That’s all. Okay?”
The book reflects on a number of creative acts, divided fairly evenly between writing and gardening, which has been a lifelong passion. In Patch 39, she reflects on the drive that led her to write: “Perhaps [it] stemmed from the same sort of logic that made me jump in the river each spring and investigate where the river had changed.” Frequently, she describes in loving detail the hard work entailed in making a garden. Occasionally, the two overlap:
I spent a lot of time caring for plants, seeing they had the right situation for maximum growth and blooming, but how often did I put even a quarter of that time and concentration into my own growth and blooming?
The memoir is written as a series of 88 “patches” – one for each of her years, though this is by no means a chronological unfolding of Renée’s life. Quilting is an essentially domestic activity, as is the focus of many of her plays and stories, which defiantly place traditional woman’s work front and centre, as she did so compellingly in her best known and admired play Wednesday to Come (1984). It’s a play filled with the celebration of everyday drudgery – washing, folding, ironing, scone making, cleaning, making do, keeping going. As Iris says in her “coffin speech” to her husband who has committed suicide rather than face his problems during the Depression: “it takes a whole lot more to keep on living. […] We’re the ones they leave out when they write the history books. Still, no use going on, is it?” That pragmatic attitude sums up Renée’s philosophy of life. Oh, and she loves to swear.
As her initial definition of a quilt makes clear, these patches may be “small, some large, some oblong, square or round, but they all fit together.” Interspersed between memories of childhood, family, love, death, loss, politics or theatre (she devotes a patch to the power of amateur theatre, as well as to moments from her work as director or actor or playwright) are selections from some of her plays, poems, short stories and novels, which sit as partial comment or reflection on some of the incidents of her life, as well as showcasing her creative writing. In the case of leaving her husband, Laurie, when she was 51 and he was 60, she approaches it as a scene from an unwritten play. It is striking and even-handed, expressing both her own desire to strike out for independence (“I don’t want to just gradually grow old, be part of some background. I want my own ground”) and giving a sympathetic view of her uncomprehending husband: “He’s basically kind, he does his best, he’s faithful, he understands about good sex, he works hard, he loves her, but he doesn’t know how to say, Please don’t go, I can’t bear it if you go.”
I had not previously read any of Renée’s poetry, but the examples presented in the book are taut, direct and effective, like “Open Home”:
Tread slow around the old house
Let the bones of this moment stir, settle,
See the irises turn – the lavenders freeze,
See how the grey gate waits for the touch .…
She can also use her poet’s voice to reflect on life’s general silliness, as in “Rain” (Patch 36), where a mis-aimed watering sends a shower over a random passer-by:
From below I hear, “Fucking hell –
was that rain?”
I creep backwards through the space
over space and, tea towel over my giggly,
snorty, five-year-old response, reflect
on guilt and how rain falls on the just
and the unjust and, it seems, the just passing.
Or, as a final example, poetry provides a miniature portrait of her formidable mother Rose, a “little woman / dark hair and eyes that flashed” as she stands up to a bull encountered while she and her children are crossing a field:
You heard me, shouted Mum,
Now bugger off –
I won’t tell you again.
She waved her purse. Menacingly …
Sat down on the newly cut grass.
Jesusbloodychrist, she said.
She opened her purse,
Took out her tobacco and papers.
Her hand shook – bits of tobacco
Flew everywhere. (Patch 59)
The book is dedicated to Rose, and it is clear that Renée owes much of her own spirit to her mother.
One of my favourite patches (78) is devoted to writing Pass it On (1986), Renée’s play about the 1951 Waterfront Lockout. The play’s focus is on the role of working-class women as a political and sustaining force, and the scene which remains strongest in my mind is one in which personal history is intertwined with political event – the prime minister makes a speech on radio about emergency regulations while teenage Di experiences the milestone of her first period. In a talk Renée delivered in 2001, she recalls the difficulty of discovering just what the women were doing at the time, alongside their well-documented menfolk. As she researches, the ongoing refrain she hears is that “the women were marvellous, absolutely marvellous” – but no one will commit to what they actually did, while virtually every woman she talks to who was there modestly insists “I didn’t do much. … It was the other women mainly, they were marvellous”. Persistence in uncovering their contribution eventually pays off, and the anecdote speaks volumes about the need just to keep going on, which is a keynote in Renée’s own life:
I wanted to show how women’s involvement in political struggle is always being interrupted. Babies need clean nappies, there are worries over bills, you have to tell a son he can’t have that new cricket bat .… Food has to be queued for, prepared, cooked, put on the table. Children, husbands get sick and need looking after. Police raid your home one night and you hold your breath as they burst into the baby’s bedroom. Luckily they don’t look under the mattress.
Renée’s writing in These Two Hands is direct, pithy, no-nonsense, funny and often self-deprecating: “I see I used exclamation marks like a drunken sailor uses booze.” She quotes Hemingway’s approach: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know … then go on from there.” That approach serves her well here.
One of the most uplifting things in this memoir is Renée’s refusal to give up on life – despite the brief, dark moment, following the break-up of her 22-year relationship with partner Bernadette when she contemplated suicide (Patch 53). Despite the betrayals that ageing inflicts on her body and the humorous notes on occasional memory loss, nothing will shut down her indomitable spirit. She attributes the philosophy of Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” to a relative’s battle with mortality, but it seems equally fitting for her own story:
All this bitching and carping, fussing and fretting about being old is simply a waste of time. It’s all in the mind. If you don’t think you’re old then you won’t be. I have made up my mind. I’m never going to be old.
Lisa Warrington is a director and academic, and runs Theatre Aotearoa, the New Zealand theatre database: http://tadb.otago.ac.nz .