When I got several messages that Renee had died, I was camped by the ocean. I’d had my phone off for days. It had been a wild old night. The little camper trailer was buffeted by wind gusts and the noise of the sea was almost painful in its intensity.
The news wasn’t a surprise, but that didn’t reduce the dull stab of anguish and sadness. As I walked the dog along the rocky shoreline, I thought of Renee’s spirit making its way to Te Rerenga Wairua, the leaping place of spirits at Cape Reinga. The waves were coming in rough and loud. Alive, so alive. I thought of the way Renee did everything, with such verve and fullness of spirit and energy. So evident even in the way she walked. Near-blindness or no, walking stick or otherwise, she always looked like she was on a mission, and you’d best stand aside.
I didn’t meet Renee until about 2013. I didn’t know who she was, having lived across the ditch for nearly twenty-five years. I’d left in 1981, that decade of so much political upheaval and social justice protests in Aotearoa. Renee was in the thick of that stuff. While she was here writing her amazing plays, putting women and working-class folk centre stage, I was fighting slightly different battles in Australia; Land Rights, Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, AIDS treatments that excluded women and resulted in the deaths of several of my women friends, along with the dozens of male friends we lost. Anyway, I think Renee would have approved of my efforts.
I met her when she responded to an ad for a gardener. We bonded over roses and the like and she loved that I was a supposedly “gun” rose pruner. Many people seem to approach the pruning task with hesitant, fearful snips here and there. A disaster for the vigour of the plants. When people gazed adoringly over Renee’s fence, wondering what her secret was she’d tell them, “I treat them like weeds.”
For a long time, I never let on to Renee that I was a writer, despite our regular cups of tea when I worked in her garden. That simple act, insisting that I have a cup of tea with her, meant so much to me. I’ve worked in the building trades much of my life. She treated me like a human and with kindness. Simple but sadly rare qualities. No one exemplified ‘walking the talk’ like she did. She absolutely lived her politics. In the decade that I knew Renee, she mentored three of my novels. She never charged me a cent, saying that she mentored on a sliding scale and always did one freebie each year. When my latest second-hand computer crashed, she wanted to buy me a replacement. She knew I lived on very little and had no savings, just getting by week-to-week. I was dumbstruck at her offer. I literally couldn’t make words for a moment and of course, because she couldn’t see, she probably wondered what this eejit was doing. Knowing the background of extreme hardship that she came from, I couldn’t accept it, I just couldn’t. But she was utterly genuine. I will never forget that. It was one of many, many acts of generosity and open-handedness from her. (In the event, another caring friend, of much greater means, came to my rescue with a refurbed desktop. Where would creatives be without the consideration of others?)
I called Renee Boss. She was Boss in the garden despite my training in Horticulture and years at Wellington Parks and Reserves. Like so many “amateur” gardeners, she had a deep knowledge and understanding of growing and I was happy to be deputised. Eventually she trusted me and deferred, mostly. She would sometimes refer to me as Kid, which I loved.
Like Renee, I’m from a working-class background. I will miss her sensibility around such things. Our voices are still a tiny minority in print. She called herself a lesbian or queer and a feminist. I’m a non-binary queer. How lucky I was to share the friendship of such a mentor.
I tried to have a quiet day when I got the news that she’d died. I was reading a book near the ocean, reminded of that fabulous quote from Rose, her mum. “Better get your nose out of that book my girl or you’ll end up on Queer Street.” How right she was.
Just before Renee went into hospital recently, I took down the proof copy of my latest novel. It was the only copy of the book that I had. It was one of the books she worked on with me. She held it in her hands and that big smile split her face. I’m sure she couldn’t see the bloody cover, but it didn’t matter. She beamed. Despite being bedridden, she was insisting on a book launch “We’ll get a few bottles of wine, I’ll do a speech if you like…” The woman was crocked, and getting so near the end, and still she was wanting to support me. It broke my fucking heart. It’s doing my head in as I write this.
How many writers did she help? Numerous that I know of and many, many more I have no doubt.
As my partner Biz said, “Otaki just didn’t feel right today. It seemed off-kilter.” Life goes on, but Renee’s great absence has sent a wobble through our universe.
Boss, I love you and I miss you. You’re a bloody legend.