Amidst the cuckoo clocks and china bowls he choreographed his memories.
The living room orbited around a picture on the corner table. It sat above shelves of porcelain bowls where the golden frame glistened against the maroon walls. Inside the frame, a woman stood smiling as the summer sun haloed her fuzzy hair. In the other corner, the exposed edge of the kitchen fridge was smathered with news clippings about a man, a younger version of the one in front of me. A basket of merino sat gathering dust on the piano bench whilst a small wiener dog lay wagging his tail underneath.
There used to be more dogs. There used to be a woman here who collected bowls and painted watercolor landscapes. Now, there were only relics of an aged man’s losses.
As if to fill a void, Tony opened up his house to wondering travelers in the mid 90’s and began a small retirement business on the far end of his former Central Otago farm. When you enter Tony’s house you do not just enter your evening’s accommodation, you enter Tony’s world. At 6:00 he put on tea and we gathered in front of the TV for the evening news. This was no coincidence. Upon arrival I was advised, “we will watch the news at 6:00 if you care to join.” It seemed more a statement than an offer, so I sat on his coral-red recliner with my tea while the dog warmed my toes.
Tony was a shrewd man. At first I figured him to be a quite type, but the evening news offered plenty of impetus for imparting his views. When the news finished, Tony attended to the fire and positioned himself at the piano. With his specs nestled slightly snootishly on his nose, he opened up a thick book of sheet music and plucked away in a detached fashion. Around the corner, I prepared dinner to the stilted chords of familiar odes. What passionate determination went into the piano seemed only to come out in a stale, haunting staccato.
Tony intrigued me in the way that people adhering to strict daily rituals always do – the morning paper with coffee, the evening news with tea, a pre-planed time to walk and ponder… It was obvious he had a thirst for knowledge and the homestay was a perfect outlet for bestowing his wisdom.
Tony could have been a professor. He had the knack for relating complex ideas in a coherent, cohesive manner. But, he was a farmer – and a proud one at that. After listening to his passionate rant on Kiwi agriculture, I can’t imagine that his son had any other choice than to become a prize-winning, newspaper cover-story-worthy Central Otago farmer.
The New Zealand wool industry has maneuvered its way through a finicky world market in Tony’s time. When he was a young child, the British stopped buying the country’s wool. Then, Iran picked up the demand (but that found its end after the revolution). The New Zealand Wool Boom of 1951 was the most surprising and greatest boom in the history of the country. A direct result of US policy in the Korean War, the price of wool tripled over night as the United States bought large quantities to compete it’s strategic stockpiles.
The wool market crashed in the mid ’60s, but has made a gradual increase ever since. At well over 47 million sheep in New Zealand, they outnumber humans 13 to 1. Tony’s former farm, relinquished to his son, is home to a large merino population. Wool’s bad reputation as an itchy, uncomfortable fabric lead many farmers like Tony to specialize in the merino sheep, whose wool is silky soft due to finer fibers and smaller scales. It’s sold at a premium for high-end sweaters and performance athletic wear. According to Tony, merino wool is not itchy, is excellent in providing warmth without overheating, wicks away sweat, regulates body temperature, and contains anti-bacterial properties that cause the fabric to resist body odor.
After the briefing on Kiwi agriculture, Tony tackled several other issues including the need to empower the Māori, New Zealand’s increasing crime rate, and the greatness of Prime Minister John Key (“he’s just like Obama”). It was almost midnight, and I had barely said a thing in two hours as I sat listening to Tony on the kitchen stool. My only words came in questions as I pried Tony for more of his astute insight into this country I had come to call home.
I excused myself and stepped outside to decompress. Beyond the front porch, a gravel road led to the highway, bisecting fields of Tony’s bushy merino sheep. The full moon spotlit the snow-capped foothills as they rolled north to Twizel. To the south, Tony’s former farm stretched all the way to the nearest town of Omarma, a small Mecca for glider pilots and home to an extensive collection of Xena Warrior Princess memorabilia.
Rolling the sliding glass door shut behind me, I heard Tony back at the piano. The cuckoo clocks rang a solitary note and I waved goodnight as I tiptoed past the assembled clutter upstairs towards my bed. The hallways were lined with photos of Tony and three dogs, Tony and a wife, Tony and a boy. I snuck downstairs to take my own photo: Tony and the piano, clanking the chords to the tempo of memory’s monsoon.