My whāngai family

My grandad grew bananas. I never got to eat one — the garden was off-limits to us kids. But the palms of that exotic tree swayed gently in the breeze above the garden walls, tempting us with its forbidden treats.

A cousin bragged once that he’d snuck into the garden when no one was looking, and got away with a banana. A whole banana!

It was green, and made him sick, and when Grandad found out, he got a boot up the backside.

Growing bananas as far south of the equator as Auckland is no mean feat. But, if anyone was up for it, it was Hughie Douglas.

He was born in 1928 (Ngāti Raukawa, Te Arawa and Ngāti Tangata), and grew up in Opoutere. He was the pōtiki, the youngest of the whānau, and the only son.

On the 28th Māori Battalion website, where Grandad’s service in the J Force is documented, his occupation is listed simply as “farmer”. It seems such an inadequate word to describe the talent that lay within him.

In those days, everybody lived off the land. Potatoes, marrow, pumpkin, silverbeet, rhubarb — all of it came from your own garden. But, for Grandad, turning the soil and knowing how to read the seasons wasn’t just about sustaining life.

It was about nurturing the beauty of nature for its own sake. He loved flowers. The more colourful and unusual the better. And cactus. He cultivated more varieties of cactus in his lifetime than you’d find in an encyclopedia.

Grandad inherited the green eyes of his Scottish grandfather. They were like a magnet, those eyes, but there was only one girl for him. That was Iritana Kairau, my nan.

She was one of 14 children from Dargaville, of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Hine whakapapa. They met at a dance in Mangakino after the war. When she smiled, she lit up the whole room. Continue reading

  • Nadine Millar writes for E-Tangata, a Maori and Pasifika Sunday magazine.
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