portrait of a young woman

Harriet Jennings - photo made in about 1886-87My sister, Gillian, recently sent me this picture of a young woman. She was the 5th child, born on the 5th day of the 5th month of 1875. The photo was taken in 1886 or 1887, probably in Nelson. Nelson, at that time, had a population of about 7,300 according to an e-document entitled ‘New Zealand’s Burning — The Settlers’ World in the Mid 1880s’ from Victoria University.

Harriet was destined to leave Nelson and travel north to Wanganui. She married in Wanganui, bore ten children, and lived the life of a pioneer woman. Today, the home would be quite distinctive – not as a cute pioneer cottage. It had no running water, it had a long drop toilet (strategically located a quick walk away), cooking was done over an open fire, and the walls of the house were corrugated iron, lined on the inside with native timber boards.

As for the home life – in our civilised context, it would be seen as dysfunctional and some government social worker would step in. Harriet’s husband was very hard working, but poverty, isolation, and desperation took its toll, and his depression showed in drunkenness, anger, and violence.

Despite this, Harriet retained a love of life, of reading, and she especially valued poetry throughout her life. She loved tinned herrings in tomato sauce. She used to say that she wished she was a cat so she could lick the last of the juice out of the tin, she loved it so much. Harriet adored oysters – which in those days also came in tins – and she would eat just one or two a day to eke the luxury out to the very last.

She saw her children grow and lead lives more filled with comfort than she experienced. The children carried on her values and the things she loved – they were gardeners – flower and fruit growers in particular – possibly hinting at memories of Harriet’s Nelson childhood. They were creative and innovative people, readers, with an interest in the wider world, and humble yet very skilled, hard workers. They made her proud.

The night Harriet died she had just returned to the little cottage that had been the family home for so many years. She had just seen on television the first photos from the moon. Not man landing on the moon, this was an earlier exploratory landing. She had seen the images at her son’s house – she had no television of her own – televisions in those days were still new and uncommon. Harriet had commented how she’d lived in a wonderful age – the Victorian times where people walked or rode a horse, and then bicycles came in and then the car. Sailing ships gave way to steamers. The telephone arrived. World War I and II, the Depression had been and gone. New Zealand was entering a phase of prosperity – and now man was closer than ever to landing on the moon. ‘I feel as though I’ve seen everything’, were the last words she spoke.

None of her children are alive now – it’s over to us – the grandchildren, our children, and our grandchildren, to carry the values and ideas forward. I think my grandmother would find our world as wonderful as she found hers – and I wish I could share some of my poetry with her.

‘…That is where our heredities come from – from experiences and needs and desires and habits long and long known to us and long and long met with our best efforts. Heredity is nothing but stored environments – the sum of all our past environments.’ Luther Burbank

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