He’s talking about his dog Fane, the one he had as a young boy while living in Fuipu’a, near the old police station in Apia, Samoa during World War II. I stop recording and ask my father Ielusalema (or John as he’s known) to wait a moment; the tail end of the Tāmaki redevelopment in Glen Innes where he has lived for more than 50 years is crammed with contractors and machinery. Three contractors across the street are talking at the top of their voices, very loudly.
The wooden fence out the front of the home he shares with my brother’s family separates us. It also neatly illustrates dad’s parenting style, not untypical for the Silent Generation whose parents came through the Great Depression… only, those who know my father will understand he’s anything but.
I press up against the railings on the other side of the fence trying to catch his words, no easy feat while we’re both masked up. His 85-year-old face for once is radiant, and even the sun has come out briefly. Suffering chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lockdown for my father has been a blessing, particularly with his captive audience. “There’s so many people around me, I’m not lonely,” acknowledging my mother Rita, who died almost 30 years ago.
But back to the American troops stationed in Upolu. His mother, my grandmother, like most of Samoa benefitted from the instant cash injection of a visiting super power. The story goes that my grandparents threw parties, my grandmother making her famous home brew and entertaining their visitors with performances. “She was a beautiful dancer,” he says right on cue every time this story is told, holding back tears before getting to the part about the army tank parked outside his home. The same house (now abandoned) that I visited more than a decade ago, with its fresh spring pool and deep well; my grandfather’s grave out the front of the house as is the custom, and next door a graveyard. It always sounded far-fetched until I saw it for myself.
He continues; Fane the dog gets carried away while they’re playing and bites his hand, the US soldiers are worried about rabies and convince my grandparents to seek medical attention. My father is whisked away to the waiting tank and driven to Moto’otua hospital… although I wonder about the reliability of an 8-year-old’s account from way back then. He’s chuckling, having already moved onto the next story, but I drag him back to the present asking him how living through wartime compares with this Covid-19 pandemic.
“I wasn’t scared. The GIs were there, you see.” They had numbered a little more than 14,000 at the time, representing one out of every nine people. “There was plenty going on, but I knew they would protect the people of Samoa.”
With the Delta variant raging around the world and steadily spreading throughout Auckland, I have to ask… are you scared now?
“Since I’ve had my jabs, so far I’m pretty good.” He dreams frequently, recalling these with vivid detail. His subconscious like the unwanted boxes stored under his house… important memories attached to items no longer in use. He’s getting ready to die but not any time soon. “Only thing is, I dream I’m just about to go to the other world, I feel sorry for the people I’ll be leaving behind because they’ll be missing me for my big mouth!” he laughs, before reeling off programmes he likes to watch from the UKTV channel, then changes tack to his children and grandchildren. He becomes emotional, recounting how fortunate these later years have been.
The contractors start up again, a courier arrives and a random worker from one of the numerous building sites gets a filthy look when he interrupts us mid-conversation. By now dad’s eyes are teary, trying to tell me what I already know, that he wasn’t a very good parent. But you can’t miss what you never had, so I try steering him back to my Covid question. He’s undeterred and maintains course. “I’m so proud of you people, of everything you’ve done for me.” Since praise has so sparingly been heaped on my siblings and me, I leave dad to, well, praise us.
Except my father has unknowingly played one of his most important roles. His mere presence has galvanised my siblings to rally around him. We’ve probably spent more time in Zoom meetings competing in family quizzes and sharing works in our “arts festivals” over the past 22 months, than we have in the past two decades.
We tell ourselves these activities are solely for dad’s benefit, because we’d make ourselves too vulnerable to admit the truth: that just quietly we do this for one another during a time in history when there’s no army tank standing outside our house ready to whisk us to safety; that the one thing we still have power over is ensuring our connections are strong; that as a family we face this new era, together.