Tainui Stephens, who becomes a superannuitant this month, reflects on getting old, and the memories that have become good friends.
Not so long ago, I transitioned between an adult and an old-ish fulla. People younger than me would call me “matua” and those who were older would call me “boy”. Now, even the old people call me matua. No one calls me “son” anymore. This month I receive a pension. When did I get old?
My father used to say that old age isn’t for the faint-hearted, and I sure see why.
Three basic necessities of human life are food, shelter and stories. Stories are the glue that binds us together. We need stories to know who we are and to know the nature of the worlds we inhabit. Stories teach us to explore, to be on guard, and to love. When we’re young, we learn the stories of others. When we’re adults, we create our own story. When we’re old, we tell our story.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to reach old age. Now that I’m closer to the end than the beginning, I’m grateful for the story of my life, so far. I’m especially grateful for memories that become good friends.
I remember learning about self-reliance when I was three. I’d walked up to the local dairy to buy a comic. I told the man behind the counter that my parents would pay for it. Before he had a chance to say a word, I shot off home.
My parents were sawing wood in the front yard. They asked me where I’d got hold of the comic. When I told them, Dad ran down to the shop, clearly in a hurry to pay the man. Mum was less stressed and calmly gave me my first lesson about needing money (preferably my own) to buy the things I wanted.
I remember learning about elitism and punishment at school. It was the era of academic streaming and the strap. At the beginning of my high school year, we were put into classes that separated the kids who were bright from those who weren’t.
I was in the so-called top stream and had to learn Latin. I was okay at it but I became way better when crusty old Mr Bennett was replaced by the gorgeous Mrs Scott. I developed a crush on her. She had great legs and a smile to die for. I worked hard and won a Latin speech competition to get that smile.
Some of the teachers would smile when they flaunted their power to punish us with the leather strap. They knew full well the reputation that some of them had to inflict extreme pain. Depending on the offence, you might receive one or two “cuts’’ or up to “six of the best”. That might be in class in front of your mates or alone in the master’s study. Or it might be in the staff room while the other teachers sipped on their morning tea.
The ritual was simple. The teacher would nominate which hand you had to hold out, and then you stood with your arm outstretched to the side. Palm up. Mr Hannah was a bog-standard strapper. In a wide arc, his strap would come thundering down on your palm (or fingers which was worse). Mr Adam had a reputation for drawing blood, although I never saw any. He was a flicker and, with economy of movement and speed, he wielded the strap like a whip. Crack! Waaaah!!
No teacher liked it if you pulled your hand away at the last moment. Nor if you cupped your palm to lessen the impact. Retribution was immediate. Despite the violence of it, I think of both chaps as being good men. They knew their subjects inside out and were often fun, although, when the mood took them, they taught with their straps draped over their shoulders — just so you knew.
I remember learning about work by being fired from my first job. I was 15 and had been hired as a waiter for an events caterer. After a few Saturday nights doing weddings, I was caught eating unused food that had come off the tables. It was immediate and unfair — but I learned not to piss off the boss.
Even though I was underage, I looked older and started working in hotels and pubs. Jobs in hospitality in New Zealand and Aussie helped get me through varsity. I loved it all: the challenge of pouring beer with the right amount of head, or mixing double shot Harvey Wallbangers, angling for tips when doing silver service at flash restaurants, and the late night games of poker with the bar staff after closing.
And always, there was the access to cheap food and alcohol. By the time I was legally allowed to drink, I’d seen it all and wasn’t really interested in booze anymore.
As an adult, I was determined to find a job that let me work with a Māori world that I wanted to define me. I’d embarked upon my language journey, and I was getting to know my Te Rarawa tribe.
After a few years in the Race Relations Office, I turned to broadcasting and film. In those days, you could fit all the Māori who worked in the industry into one room. Today you’d need a number of packed marae to contain all of us who work in screen storytelling.
As an adult, I watched the kōhanga reo generation of our children who, along with like- minded souls, grew their own families where te reo and tikanga is normal. Many of the best of this generation of leaders are now in their 30s and 40s and in positions of power. There are active change agents everywhere in Aotearoa and Te Wai Pounamu.
As an adult, I used my educated mind to soak up Māori stories. I learned that education never ends. In the Māori world, learning stuff is key to the way we function. Whether we’re learning new waiata, karakia or how to cook for several hundred manuwhiri, upskilling ourselves is part of what we do.
I soon discovered depths beyond the beauty of the language. All the tricky beats of birth, life and death are explained in a body of mātauranga Māori that is staggering in its breadth. The complexity of it all is made simple by codes of behaviour we call tikanga. It’s taken thousands of years to provide such a worthwhile guide to the grift of life.
As an adult, I put all that I then knew into my pursuit of love. I ended up a well married man, blessed with the love of wonderful wāhine, beautiful tamariki, and a big fat whānau. I learned in the process that love is both easy and tough. It’s easy to love anything you create, whether that’s a child, a work of art, or a perfect cake. It’s easy to love the idea of love until you realise that enduring love is a two-way street. It’s about what you bring to the party.
As an adult, I learned that relationships with your fellow human beings are the key to it all. The meaning of life isn’t in your wifi password. It’s in the strength of your connection to each other. Few have said it better than Maya Angelou, an American poet and writer: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Now that I’m older, I know that not everyone makes it here. I grieve for them. I give thanks for their stories of beauty and pain and striving. Moe mai rā e aku kahurangi.
Now that I’m older, I feel my body changing. When men my age are together, we joke about our ills and ailments as brave acts of indomitable survival. When I had a double hernia, I called myself Jake the Truss. After the operation, I rediscovered the simple pleasure of being able to pee and poo again — and it amused me that such simple functions were of so much interest to the nurses and doctors. But I sure get why.
Now that I’m older, I see a resurgent Māori people. I’ve never liked the word “renaissance” to describe our new vigour as a nation of iwi and hapū. We never died in order to be re-born. Our forebears had foresight. Despite centuries of repression, they kept the iwi stories alive. I’m proud to sometimes share the paepae with my own Ahipara whanaunga who still do exactly that.
Now that I’m older, I know that every single person lives an epic life that only they can understand. If you’ve lasted for several decades, you’ve endured all the highs and all the shite that a normal existence flings at you. If, after all of that, you’re still a sane and loving person, you’re worthy of respect.
Now that I’m older, I have new joy in seeing the spark in the eyes of our babies and young people as they discover who they are and what they need to do to grow and contribute to the greater narratives of us all.
Now that I’m older, I give thanks for the simple stuff. The safety of good kai. The warmth of my beloved at night. The sound of the wind and the roar of the sea as I awaken. The delicious anticipation of this new day. Rā ana. Hou mai anō, te kite ai.
Mōrena ki a tātou!
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