Before arriving in Gisborne, the only communication I’d ever had with the Sherratts had been over email. No Skype, no phone conversations. I know that you should always be careful about these type of things just in case, but there you go. Going into it, I had no idea what they were like except the mental image I had created based on Marg’s very friendly but not-so-carefully-spelled emails. I expected friendliness, good humor, generosity; a hard-working, down-to-earth, rural couple who were just nice enough to let me live in their house for three months without even having met me beforehand. And they were all of these things. But they were also much, much more.
When Marg picked me up from the bus station on the evening of October 20th, I could barely form sentences through the stomach-churning nervousness and anxiety that had been building in me for the past day and a half. What was I thinking, donig this? What would they be like? Would they even be there at all, now that my bus was 45 minutes late? I had no cell phone, no way of contacting them, not even a photo so I knew who to look for. I felt like I was waiting for a first date. Or an audition result. I stopped myself from looking out the bus window as we pulled up to the station, and when I didn’t see an older couple right away I made myself ignore the crowd until I could calmly collect my bag from the driver. When I looked up Marg was waiting for me, and the small, slight, bright-eyed older woman with close-cropped blonde hair and square-rimmed glasses – strikingly similar in appearance to my mother, of all people – was not like anything I had remotely imagined. If I could have gotten whiplash I would have (what was my mother doing in NZ?!), and that feeling stayed with me for the next day and a half as I was introduced to what would be my new home for the next three months.
The Sherratt farm lies 30 minutes outside of Gisborne in the middle of bright green New Zealand hill country. The paved, winding roads through the hills eventually turn into gravel, and the road increasingly diminishes in width so that you find yourself going around tight blind corners hoping that you’ll be able to swerve off to the side of the road quickly enough to avoid someone coming the opposite way. The entrance to Marg and Rob’s property is indicated by a humble mailbox, and only comes into view after a short drive up another gravel driveway. When I first arrived I could barely see anything in the quickly-darkening twilight, but even the first view of the inside of their home was enough to amaze me. Their renovated farmhouse is a huge, open-concept rural property with wide verandas, terraced gardens, a tennis court and even a swimming pool. Bookcases full of books, walls covered in framed family photos, and buckets overflowing with irises cut fresh from the garden framed their huge 12-seater wooden table in the main living area, and everywhere was a sense of family and wholeness. Marg led me into my bedroom – complete with a huge canopied bed and French doors – and I nearly died of happiness. That is until the next morning, when I actually got to see their property.
Waking up the morning of October 21st, I looked out onto a brilliantly sunny morning glinting off the swimming pool. I threw open the doors of my room and walked out into the backyard, where a bright green hill dotted with sheep rose straight up into the sky above me. The sky was bright blue, the birds were singing, the colors were brilliant, the air was crisp… I felt like I’d been dropped into Paradise overnight. Marg and Rob were gone for the morning, and in my alone time I took a quick tour of the gardens before the “terrors” (Marg and Rob’s granddaughters) arrived later that afternoon to stay for the weekend.
Tui (4), Sylvia (2ish), and Greta (1) arrived later that day and we promptly went outdoors to feed the ducks and chooks (chickens), where the girls proudly collected and counted all 13 eggs. Afterwards we hopped on the back of Rob’s bike, a rugged 4-wheeler with a board attached over the back to provide some makeshift seating (Marg and the girls rode in the back in a trailer), and headed up a steep path into the hills to tour their 650-acre property. We drove up towards the acres of pine forest they’d planted, past the blooming purple princess tree vibrating with bees, up into the high hills where cows and sheep stood behind wire fences and eyed us suspiciously. Zugar (pronounced “Zoogah”), their fox terrier, ran ahead of us the entire time, and in the back the girls screamed with laughter at the bumpy ride. I jumped off the bike as we came to each gate, unlatching and re-latching as we went along, and I started to feel like I was a “real” farm girl, even though I hadn’t done anything but gawk at the insane view stretching out around me. At the top of his property Rob pointed out the boundaries of his farm and showed me the perpetually-filled lake – even in drought. I had to brace my feet against the wheel wells to avoid going over the front of the bike as we descended back down the steep hills, and all I can remember saying is “wow, beautiful” over and over again.
Back at home we kept the girls entertained by blowing up the paddling pool and chasing the chooks, who they found slightly intimidating since they were barely as big as they were. We took a trip into town to grab some groceries and supplies (pink beads, pink cupcake toppers, and egg cups!) and even stopped to say hello to Kohe (pronounced “ko-hee”), Marg and Rob’s other daughter who also happens to have four sons under the age of 5 (!). Tui and Syl loved playing with the bright pink beads we bought to make bracelets, could barely contain themselves at the thought of frosting cupcakes, and demonstrated a particular interest in voraciously consuming sushi and chasing each other around the house to play hide and seek. Little Greta, on the other hand, was an eating machine – at one particularly memorable meal she ate an entire box of vegetarian sushi, a full-sized sandwich, and several spoonfuls of yogurt (and I’m probably forgetting the rest!). As the weekend progressed we all became fast friends and I grew increasingly more in awe of their mother Josie, who’s also pregnant with her fourth child! While I loved entertaining the girls for the weekend, I was humbly reminded that [good] parents are truly amazing – how do they survive on so little sleep, and where do children get all of that energy?!
When the girls eventually left on Sunday afternoon, Marg, Rob and I enjoyed a quiet few hours before gathering in the living room to watch the final game of the Rugby World Cup and eat the most delicious homemade macaroni and cheese I have ever had in my life (white cheese and sweet corn, mm!). I was especially lucky to be in the country when I was, since New Zealand’s beloved rugby team the All Blacks were playing France in the finals! While my first rugby viewing on Friday evening had been somewhat of a disappointment (the Aussies vs. the Wales in the Bronze Final), I can say that I am now a true convert – rugby is fast, athletic, and almost beautiful in a brutal kind of way. I still didn’t really understand some of the rules (like what’s the actual point of a scrum?), but it’s exciting enough that even an amateur can enjoy it. Even the beginning of the game was exciting, as the French team advanced on the All Blacks during their haka, a traditional Maori war dance meant to challenge one’s enemies. The game was very tense as the French played well and the All Blacks’ star kicker Piri Weepu missed several conversion kicks – midway through we even started to contemplate the unthinkable (the home team losing!) – but in the end the home boys came through and triumphed 8-7 over the French. We all quietly but fervently celebrated the win, and finally allowed ourselves to breathe!
Going to bed that night in preparation for work the next morning, all I could think about was how lucky I was to be exactly where I was, at exactly the right time. It seems that even when you don’t know what question you’re asking, the world has a way of answering you.