I crossed an ocean when I was one year old. I don’t remember it; it was on a plane that took me 10,000 km from the country where I was born. That ocean was a boundary, a boundary between new and old between native and immigrant. A shoreline of my life, if you will. Often, when I walk along the shore with sand slipping between my toes I think of all the other beaches on which I have stood where my breath matches the crashing of the waves and I strain to see across the world.
My mother’s final resting place is a shore. It is a strip of sand and sea that she had never been to. She had always wanted to go and see the South Island but the timing had never been quite right. Then she was dead. My father and uncle took pity on her, poor woman, to have never done all the things she had wanted to in life, at the very least she should have the chance in death. So they packed her in an urn and took her, first on a plane and then in a rental car from Christchurch over the hills to Le Bons Bay.
I wasn’t present for this momentous occasion. I had school and finances were tight after my mother’s long illness, Cancer is expensive. We couldn’t all be there, as much as we wanted to. It was just my father and my uncle and an urn of rubble that had once been a woman. Hopes, dreams, wishes reduced to ashes. I suspect that they were solemn on this trip down the country. My uncle was the one who had chosen the spot, he was the only one of us who had been there before and knew the shape of the place. He said that she deserved to be somewhere beautiful.
It was about six years before I could cobble together the time and money to go there myself. The thing about Le Bons Bay, is that it might be beautiful but it is also very far away from Auckland, the city that is my home. You have to cross a strait to get there and ocean crossings don’t come cheap either.
My boyfriend and I drove down from Auckland. We spent the night in our car under an overpass in Wellington so that we could save money and catch the first ferry across Cook Strait the next day .I remember eating steak and cheese pies that had soggy bottoms and being cold and uncomfortable that night. Trucks never seemed to stop rattling across the overpass. The next morning the sky was clear and blue. The water was fairly calm but that didn’t stop my boyfriend from feeling the waves in his stomach. He spent the whole journey concentrating fiercely on not spewing. That is when I learned that trying to distract him when he is feeling motion sick does the opposite of help.
We stopped at other places along the way; Picton, Kaikoura, Christchurch, this was our great southern road trip after all, but always looming in my mind was that our true destination was Le Bons Bay. We did the brakes of the car in coming over the hills to Akaroa from Christchurch so we spent a day and a night there pottering around the town trying to let the brakes cool down so that we could make it over the next set of hills. I was worried that we had come all this way only to not be able to make it because there was another steep drive and the car might cark it. In the end we did it anyway using the brakes as little as possible, putting our automatic car in low gear to take the downhill slopes.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when we got there. Le Bons Bay is an isolated place. The road gets narrower and narrower the closer you get till it resembles a bike path more than a road. Driving on that little lane everything became a bit surreal. There were children riding dappled grey horses and Russian hatted chickens roaming free around tussocky native grass. The landscape was all babbling brooks and rolling green hills. It was so much like stepping into a fairy tale that it was starting to feel ridiculous.
Then we arrived at the actual bay. It was charming enough. There were grassy dunes and a stream emptying itself into the ocean at one end. The view of the sea was framed by two headlands, one on each side. I stood on that little beach, practically in the middle of nowhere looking upon the vast Pacific Ocean and I felt empty. There was no opening or closing, no emptying or filling. There was just me, standing on a beach with my boyfriend, taking photos trying to make meaning in this place.
I couldn’t imagine my mother here, in this place that she had never been. She wasn’t rooted here just because her earthly remains had been placed here to mingle with sea and sand. It was sobering and made me feel her loss more keenly than ever. That’s the problem with ascribing meaning to a place that you have never been. For a place to be special it has to have memories. You have to build it up over time, layer by layer, till every time you go there it is thick with remembered laughter and tears.
I wish that they had laid my mother to rest somewhere I could imagine her, like Bethells or Orewa or even the Huka falls. Somewhere where I could go and remember eating ice cream, or dipping our toes in the water or making silly faces for a camera. Not this beach that seemed like any other beach, lonely, hanging off the edge of the South Island.