I have a friend who lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, and, after the earthquake there last week, I sent an email asking him to let me know that he was okay.
This was his response:
Bloody miracle really but still vertical.
I met Judith and Malcolm Tait my first year as an Assistant Professor at Georgia Southwestern State University. He was our Interim Vice President and she was on the adjunct faculty there. I’d never met New Zealanders before and I don’t believe I’ve run into any since, but that’s okay because I had the chance to get to know the Taits. To first look at them, they seemed an oddly-matched set. Malcolm looked important; Judith looked like she seldom thought about how she looked. Together, they were a lovely couple, still interested in each other after more than forty years of marriage.
The Taits had spent much of their adult lives in the US, following Malcolm’s professional path. Along the way, they’d lived in New York, where he did his graduate work at Columbia, and then Hawaii, Ohio, and North Carolina, welcoming three sons born in various places. Americus, Georgia was to be their last stop before going back home to retire in New Zealand.
Judith and I bonded over books. She was the first to tell me about Harry Potter and Augustine Burroughs, with his crazy book, Running with Scissors. We also shared a love for liberal politics and cats. Malcolm and Judith had some of us over to their charming rented Victorian-era home on several occasions during the time we worked together and I was always struck by how much like them their rented house was, down to the baby grand in the music room. I remember when Judith cried after one of her cats was hit by a car and died. I also remember her giving me her other cat, Sheba, when they moved back to New Zealand some time around 2001.
Over the years I would hear from Malcolm and Judith. Because all three of their boys lived in the US, they would come over to visit them and their grandkids. We got together one time in Americus when they drove through. After that, Judith would send letters and notes with that New Zealand airmail stamp; and, at least once a year, I would get a phone call from some strange number, a call I wouldn't answer until around the third time it showed up on my phone and I picked it up out of pure curiosity. Then I would hear, "Mahsha, is that you, Mahsha? It's Judith Tait calling from New Zealand." And off we would go with everything from family doings to international news. It was as if we were back in the faculty lounge and not on opposite sides of the world.
At some point, I knew that Judith wasn't well, something about a hospital stay in the US in the midst of a trip to see the kids. Then there was a while when I didn't hear; then a phone call from a strange number and "Mahsha, is that you, Mahsha? and it was Judith and she sounded good.
Ultimately, an email came to me from Malcolm in December of 2009 with the news that Judith had passed away.
Judith Tait gave me many gifts, including friendship, book recommendations, copious amounts of wine, and her cat. But although I loved Sheba, the greatest gift Judith ever gave me arrived all wrapped up in her memories of growing up in New Zealand. Before her death, she gathered those memories together in A Pretty Gumboot Show, a book she dictated with great courage and effort to her cousin, Ruth Alley.
Those memories include:
I was born in a nursing home in a suburb of Christchurch, New Zealand. I was the first born child of Geoffrey Thomas Alley, and Euphan Margaret Alley. I was born in the latter hours of the day in the middle of the New Zealand summer and on the longest day of the year - the 22nd December 1931.
I have always been told that I inherited my Grandmother's complexion and her family, the Buckingham's build. I had big broad bones and this was attributed to the Southland Buckinghams, who lived at Waikawa and who bred cattle of vast dimensions. Thus, as a toddler, I was frequently described as 'one of those big Waikawa things'.
We moved back to 'Westcote' (outside of Christchurch) when my Grandfather died so that my father could help my Grandmother, Nanna. We lived in The Jung. This was a little cottage a short way away from the main house. There was no water and no loo and it had three rooms. It was called The Jung because a visiting family called it a bungalow and somehow this got mixed up with the jungle and then the Jungalow was invented and shortened to The Jung.
I have many, many vivid memories of my grandmother Nanna and she was an important influence in my life until after her death..... I was a little girl during The Depression when many people were out of work, homeless and poor. Unemployed people would travel the country looking for work and some of them turned up at 'Westcote'. Nanna would never turn them away and always made sure they were fed and had shelter for the night or even a little work about the place. There were often strange people tucking into a bowl of porridge at the kitchen table and these people came to be known as 'Nanna's lame ducks'. I remember Nanna's favourite black cat was called Paul after the American bass singer Paul Robeson.
Any time I think it's not worth the trouble to get my thoughts and memories down to share with my children and others, I need to think of Judith Tait and her gift. Through her, I know something of a time and place I could have never known otherwise, and, because of her, I have a better understanding of people who live a world away from me, and that understanding is something I believe we all could use.
Judith died over a year ago, but Malcolm is still vertical, thank God. Although I'm sure he's glad she hasn't been privy to the recent troubles in their beloved homeland, I know he misses having her on this earth with him, offering a pithy comment or laughing at some absurdity.
I certainly do.