Kimiora and Maria.

We bought every bouquet of flowers in the little Taumarunui dairy. They weren’t the flashest. “I wish I’d thought to buy a beautiful garland in Auckland,” sighed Jess. Me, too. But then flowers weren’t something I’d ever associated with Maria.

When my son Kimiora (Hiku) was little, he was spoilt rotten by the woman my friends and whānau nicknamed “Kimiora’s Maria”.

Maria Thompson became a part of the Jackson household after my son’s grandmother, June, found her on the streets and took her home. That was back in 1987. A heavy drinker, smoker, fighter and gambler, it was only ever going to be for a couple of nights. But Maria stayed for over three decades.

She would clean, cook, and look after June. In return, June sorted her out with a lovely room, driver’s licence and a car. Maria would speed around Māngere in her little car, country music blasting up a storm, giving everyone the death stare through a cloud of cigarette smoke.

June also gave Maria a computer. The woman whose conversation consisted of a series of grunts, created a whole new world for herself on the internet. Gifts would arrive from American friends she would never meet but whose friendship she treasured. And it was mutual, according to June’s son Vaughan, who would sneak a look at their correspondence.

“Yeah, boss,” she would say, as she fetched yet another cuppa for June.

The two women barked at each other, but they always had each other’s back. Even as June battled with her own medical conditions, Maria moved with her into a Taumarunui nursing facility to keep her company. She was a constant in June’s life.

Maria was tough as guts. Vaughan would shake his head at the thought of her driving herself home straight after chemotherapy treatment. She dressed like a bloke. I suspect she shaved the stubble on her chin. No one remembers seeing her in a skirt.

Legend has it that after a burglar once broke into the house and leapt on to her bed, Maria grabbed him by his private parts and pulled hard. I can just imagine him hobbling down the driveway on Coronation Road in the dead of night, howling his head off. Built like the proverbial brickhouse, I’d have backed Maria in a fight against any man.

And then something happened. My son was born. Maria melted. She transformed. She would often look after the boy. She cuddled him, fed him, played with him. Spoiled him rotten.

We’d have little competitions for his affection. Maria, his koro Bob, and me. The father and grandmother didn’t get a look in. We’d place the toddler in the centre of the room, station ourselves evenly around him and call out.

“Haere mai, tama,” I’d beckon, wearing my biggest smile.

“Haere mai, moko,” called Bob, arms outstretched.

“Come here, darling,” Maria would softly whisper.

Nine times out of 10, the gurgling child would lurch towards Maria.

“Jeez,” Bob would laugh, as he threw his hands up in the air. We didn’t stand a chance.

After Bob died in 1994, Maria became even more embedded in whānau life. Once The Kid hit that know-it-all age, he and Maria had some humdinger rows. But they always hugged and made up.

The Kid’s mates were initially terrified of Maria. She wasn’t that fussed about them, either. Her bottom lip would quiver like a Rottweiler ready to strike. They reckoned she was giving them “the evils”, but that was just her natural resting face.

Maria didn’t do finesse. “Sit,” she’d bark. “Eat.”

Then she’d plonk a bowl of mince or boil-up in front of the kids, followed by piles of chocolate and coke. No limits. No wonder my son and his cousins loved her.

She’d make them all sit through the news. But then they could watch whatever they liked on television for however long they liked. Maria was every kid’s dream babysitter. If they fell asleep on the couch, no worries. She’d wake the lot of them up in the morning by crashing around in the kitchen at 6 o’clock on the dot, making a hell of a noise with all the pots and pans. She taught them how to swear, too.

I last saw Maria at Christmas when mum and I visited June in Taumarunui. Took her some chocolates. Maria was always so happy to see me. Her face would light up. She would lean in for a cuddle, nuzzle her head into my neck, and in a soft voice say: “Hey, Mo.” Or squeeze the breath out of me with a bear hug: “Bye, babe.”

Over the last year, I’d thought about writing a story on Maria, this woman who I knew little about, but who I absolutely trusted. She was always there. Hovering. Watching over the whānau. Making cuppas.

We were looking forward to her returning to Auckland last week. Kimiora’s dad, Willie, had gone down the line on Monday to pick her up. Maria had been living with June’s sister Christine, but she’d had a fall and wasn’t up to a long drive that particular day.

The plan was for Maria to move in with Kimiora’s Uncle Vaughan and his wife Denise. And then, after a while, Maria would live with my son, his partner Jess, and his cousin Turanga. The kids wanted to look after Maria in her last years. “And boost her broadband,” laughed Kimiora, who gave her 40 cans of coke for Christmas.

Both June and Maria were heavy smokers. After two years of treatment for lung cancer, Maria celebrated the all-clear by doubling her smoking.

Maria Thompson died on April 4. She was 72.

Turns out our Maria was actually Marie. We didn’t know that until my son found her driver’s licence the day after. In over 30 years, she had never corrected us.

There were about 40 of us gathered around her coffin as it was closed. Elvis was playing softly through the sound system in the funeral home. None of us were blood relatives, but we were her whānau. The Jacksons and Batleys, in-laws and outlaws (both me and Toi Iti had divorced out of the family), and whānau from Ngā Whare Waatea. Maria was part of all of us.

At the service, Turanga said he never realised Maria wasn’t a biological member of the Jackson whānau until he was 15. She was always just Aunty Maria to his generation.

In his eulogy, Willie (or “Mini-boss”, as Maria called him) reflected on how, sometimes, people who aren’t actually blood relatives become such vital members of a family. Willie thanked Maria for looking after his children, but especially his mother. My voice broke as I sang a verse of Black Pearl.

You’ve been working so hard, your whole life through

Tending other people’s houses, raising up their children too.

I headed back to Auckland after the service, yelling out my final goodbye as I drove past the hearse. Maria was buried alongside June’s parents in the beautiful cemetery in Mokau, overlooking the sea, just as she’d always wanted.

Maria never talked about her past life. I was curious if she had ever given birth herself. We knew she had links to Taranaki, but that was about it. So it was a big surprise, my son said, when three siblings turned up at the burial. Turns out Maria was one of 11 children.

Her sister described a tough upbringing full of heavy drinking, fighting, and abuse. When both girls were young, one went to the East Coast and the other moved to Auckland. They never saw each other again.

Maria’s last trip to Taranaki was for her niece April’s 21st over 20 years ago. But April says Maria kept in contact with some members of her whānau through Facebook. They were loving messages, too.

We’re sad that my son didn’t get the chance to take care of his Maria. It would have been such a perfect arc. But he’s comforted by the fact that she was excited at the idea.

Thoughts of the chain-smoking, big cussing, coke-drinking, grunting 72-year-old flatting with the hip, young millennials will always make me smile.

“We were over 40 years apart,” reflected my son, “but hung out like the best of friends.” Theirs was a rare and special kind of love story.

E moe e te whaea. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart.


© E-Tangata, 2019

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