Retired teacher, psychotherapist and farmer’s wife Margaret Pullar reflects on life in a small town under lockdown when you’re older and alone.

In my 87th year and three weeks into self-isolation I find strong memories of World War II returning.

Rugs spread across the windows each night in my Northland home. Father as the Home Guard Blackout Warden riding his horse, checking that not a fraction of light escaped from the 16 homesteads around our country district.

Staying at home because of petrol rationing and endless punctures if the car was taken out. Felling logs to make tank traps on the roads. Fear of invasion. Knitting socks for soldiers and sending them overseas.

Recycled golden syrup tins full of preserved eggs in fat. Fruitcakes wrapped in paper and cloth, all sewn into flour bags for postage. Collecting ergot seeds, said to stop the soldiers’ haemorrhaging. Collecting wild rose hips to be sent away and made into concentrated vitamin C for babies.

And now, with Covid-19 among us, community care and connection fill our days.

Neighbours phoning to offer assistance. Family and friends phoning from far and wide. Out walking, carefully maintaining physical distance, there is always a warm greeting from strangers and friends alike. The delight of teddy bears in windows.

Gore, also known as Maruawai, is home to a large number of retirees. It’s one of New Zealand’s best kept secrets. Eastern Southland’s community spirit had already been shown this February, after the devastating floods from the Mataura river and local waterways.

Those of us living on the hill welcomed hundreds of evacuees from the town. Vehicles from private homes and car dealers packed our hill streets. The District Council used the cemetery roads to keep its vehicles and equipment safely high and dry. People out walking to view the floods from the hill greeted everyone they met. Not unlike now.

Living alone for some time you become used to managing. It is much tougher for the recently bereaved, and particularly for those who have had loved ones die since the lockdown. And those with loved ones in dementia care can’t visit. The phone is useless.

Those who live alone and are fit enough to be out in the community daily, often doing much appreciated voluntary work and attending evening meetings, are finding the isolation much more difficult. Used to being independent, they often don’t want to bother others. If they haven’t made arrangements for ordering and delivery from supermarkets or meals on wheels they’ve had difficulty getting what they need.

I miss two small groups that were really important to me and others. Friday lunch at the RSA, and on Sunday another small gathering for lunch at the Scenic Circle Hotel. Each group good friends, now living alone and without partners.

But I feel the greatest sadness walking past the Pakeke Lions’ recycling building. Most mornings for many years retired men, mostly farmers, have worked here – collecting, receiving, pressing and bailing the district’s cardboard, newspapers and plastic. Shipped overseas, the payment received has allowed Pakeke to donate thousands of dollars back into the community.

Last year the bottom fell out of this market. Now they are locked down, the fellowship is gone, the women’s scrumptious winter morning teas no longer enjoyed, the wives no longer valuing those hours to themselves. It’s likely the scheme will never reopen. The country must learn to process and make use of our own recycling when we come out of this.

On a brighter note, at long last farmers, vegetable and fruit growers are again being recognised for their value to New Zealand – necessary, needed and appreciated, in contrast to the ignorant and negative press they have received over the past few years. No recognition of how much they love their land, or how hard they work to care for it and their waterways.

I’d like to hope that one outcome of Covid-19 will be a halt to the obscene building over the country’s essential farm and market gardening land. Too late, maybe, but a recognition that if we need more buildings, we must go up, not continue to spread out like a greedy octopus.

But for now there is still the simple pleasure of walking.

The quiet, peace, restfulness, the increase in birds and their song. The beautiful views of the Hokonui hills. Autumn colours, rural land and distant snow-tipped ranges.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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