Michele Hewitson interview: June Mariu

Dame June Mariu is not someone you interview but rather someone whose company you experience and enjoy. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Dame June Mariu is not someone you interview but rather someone whose company you experience and enjoy. Photo / Sarah Ivey

We can have a cup of tea, said Dame June Mariu. What a good idea. You'd think she could do with a cup of tea and a lie- down. She's had a busy two weeks. Two weeks! She's been busy her entire life.

Still, she turned 80 on June 1 and went to an enormous party thrown for her at Rutherford College, where she taught physical education and Maori from 1973 for many years (she can't remember how many) and where she bossed, in her impossible-to-resist way, the then headmaster into giving her two prefabs the PE teacher had his eye on for storage, so that she could start a marae.

I said I imagined she would be quite good at getting her own way. There were other people in the room. Somebody spluttered. She said: "Not with some people. Try your husband some time! But sometimes I can talk things through."

On Monday, she was made a Dame in the Queen's Birthday honours, which is the sort of thing anyone would be busting to tell, but you're not allowed to, of course.

Did she manage to keep it a secret? "Yes." From everyone? "Oh well, I told a couple of people here." She said to these couple of people: "Can you keep a secret? 'What's the secret?' I'm pregnant! But I didn't tell anyone else." I had this confirmed: "She didn't tell us who the father was!"

She said about her gong that many, many others have done the work she's done and helped her do the work she's done and she's going to make sure she thanks them all. "They made me what I am. Just know that this is for all of us."

"Here" is the Hoani Waititi Marae where we are meeting for our cup of tea - the lie-down is a foreign concept when you are Dame June. You don't get things done by having a lie-down, although, because she is 80, and has the flu, she did have a bit of shut-eye during a meeting on Wednesday. She said: "It was a very important meeting. What was the name of it?" Did she sleep through the whole thing? "I was awake every now and then." Somebody said: "She was asleep through all of it!" Was she really? She said: "It's been quite trying for an 80-year-old. All of this." She likes to pretend she's a bit dotty, but only a fool would be fooled. She's no push-over. The photographer asked her to take her sunglasses off and she said: "No."

Did she wear her sunglasses all night at her 80th? "Of course." (She did capitulate and take her glasses off for the picture but only on condition her eyes wouldn't look baggy, which she says they are but which is rot.)

I'll have to tell you some of the things she's done because it's no use asking her. She was, for one of many things, a very good netballer. I stupidly asked: "How good?" and she said, in Maori and then in English: "It is not for a person, like the kumara, to speak of their own sweetness. I just loved it."

She is a teacher and past president of the Maori Women's Welfare League, a former Silver Ferns captain, a tireless worker for te reo and kohanga reo and this marae and I believe she not-so-secretly runs Te Atatu, where she has lived and worked for most of her adult life. I don't know if being funny counts towards a gong, but it should. I asked if she was a feminist and she appeared to be contemplating this. Then she said: "I like boys! I used to like boys." I wasn't asking if she was a lesbian! She said, absolutely deadpan: "It's okay to be those things now, isn't it?"

We went to the whare nui to get the pictures and she said hello to her uncle, the revered scholar and community leader Hoani Waititi, who the marae is named after and whose picture hangs inside. She said: "Look at you sitting up there in a marae named after you and I used to wash your shirts!"

She works here at the marae. She said she had to ask permission to take time off to talk to me but somehow forgot. "I'll see you later, young lady," said Gail, who may or may not be the boss. "Call her my partner in crime," said Dame June. I thought she was the boss. She said, no, she was just a worker and lucky to have a job. Lucky! "I was jobless! I was broke!" She's 80! "So? I spent my money. I haven't saved any money."

She hasn't saved any money because she spends it all on other people, I was told. "No, I don't." A young man who'd wandered in said, "yes, you do. If she stops to buy herself a fried bread she walks out of the shop with this whole boxful. She says, 'well, I might as well feed the whole marae'." He showed me the box: It was the size of a large chilly bin. She said: "Well, I can't eat by myself." She said, about me, to the room at large: "She brought her own morning tea! Rude! I would have taken you to the mall."

She arrived resplendent in purple, (when she's not wearing black, she favours purple), many glittering necklaces, pearly mauve nail polish, her ever-present sunglasses ("they're bi-focals!") and clutching a large takeaway cup of what might once have been a flat white. She had this put in the microwave. "I got it yesterday. I didn't have time to drink it. So I thought, 'I'll take it to the marae.' I think it's all right. Don't write that down!"

If I didn't write down all that she told me not to write down I'd have nothing to write down so she'll have to wear having met somebody almost as bossy as she is. Almost.

I gave up, early on, trying to interview her and just enjoyed her, and the frequent interruptions from the audience which turned the process into a comedy set on a marae.

I was attempting some questions about her husband Joe, who died of cancer in 1986, when her old friend Dennis arrived. She was saying: "Oh, he was the most handsome guy in the place! No, he was lovely. He was from a lovely family ..." Then: "Where have you come from? This is Dennis. Dennis knew Joe well."

Dennis: "He told me to F off! I went to the engagement and I came in the door all smiles and he said: 'F off!"'

Dame June: "Trust you! I was just telling them how beautiful he was! What do you have to come in here for?"

There was an explanation for the story and it is that Joe had thought Dennis was a rival for June's affections then realised he was just her "darling friend" and so apologised. Dennis left shortly afterwards but not before thumping a macaroon from my rude morning tea and surreptitiously transferring the crumbs to his pocket. (All right, it was a bit dry and next time I'll know to bring fried bread.) Nobody except us seemed to find any of this out of the ordinary so presumably it isn't. He did make one further contribution to the interview, which was that he thought Dame June should wear trousers to her investiture. "Wear long pants. You've dominated the scene long enough!"

Anyway, Joe sounds like a darling and she plainly adores him still. They must have had an interesting life together. He knew his own mind, she said, which really made me laugh because that would make two of them. He once gave away their car (they were getting a new one, but as she points out, the sale of the old one would have gone towards paying for the new one.) Did she yell at him? "I said: 'Do you think we're made of money?"' The family he gave the car to had named a child after him. "He said, 'if it was somebody named after you, you'd want to give them the car too. So shut up!"' He was right, wasn't he? "Possibly!"

She is never lonely, although of course she still misses him, because her two daughters and their children all live on her property and: "I'm too busy to be lonely."

Like her parents before her, who took in foster kids, about 30, probably,over the years, she has taken in waifs and strays. She remembers taking in two kids whose family was in trouble and the first week seeing one of the boys "at the fridge, stealthily stealing some luncheon sausage and I said, 'my God!' and, I would have got into trouble now, I kicked him in the backside. I said, 'hey! Just eat it, or ask. You don't steal.' This is the first time I really saw what we were up against."

She married a kind man and is from a family of kind people. The story about the car made her remember a story about her grandfather and his "beautiful watermelon". She was raised, for the first seven years, by her grandparents, and her grandfather had a "beautiful garden and he used to give food away. And dad had a melon, a beautiful melon and this elderly couple, there were just the two of them who ran the Post Office, he was taking this huge melon to them. And my mum says: 'That melon's too big for them and we could do with some at home,' and he looked at her and just walked straight past and said: 'You don't halve your watermelon. If you're going to give it, give all of it."'

She has a strong Anglican faith and she likes to say: "God moves in mysterious ways." One of His mysterious ways was to arrange the delivery, by courier, of the shawl she's wearing in the picture. "Now, which of you is doing my shawl? I want the designs to show. Have I done that arty-like?" It is a gift from a friend and arrived the morning of her party and was just what she needed because it was purple and went with her outfit.

I'd asked what her God was like, a question I've asked many Christians. Hers is by far the best answer: "Someone out there that makes good things happen. I believe that you know. I got this [the shawl]. Just when I needed it, it turned up in a courier package!" Does she really think God sends things by courier? "Oh, God moves in mysterious ways!"

And you find yourself thinking: Well, why not? Perhaps her greatest talent is to get people to believe that the almost impossible can be done if you work hard enough and care enough not to halve your watermelon, and to give the odd kick in the backside where it's needed. She is the very sweetest of kumara, and I can get away with that only because I'm safely out of range from her silver-slipper-clad foot as I write it.

- NZ Herald

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