Lisa Bailey has travelled a very long way since she was born in 1972, and raised in Kaitaia. Her mother, Cheryl, the eldest of Lionel (Sim) and Ruby Gibb's four daughters, suffered ill health for most of her life, and she spent a great deal of time with her grandparents.
Lisa, who lives in Hagerstown, Maryland, USA, has done a great deal of family research, but is now hoping that those who knew Sim in particular will share their memories with her, to add to a family history she is compiling for her son.
"I am trying to put a history of his life together, if for no other reason than for my son to learn about his great-grandfather," she says. "If anyone has any memories or stories they would like to share, please email me, Sim.Gibb.Kaitaia@gmail.com
"As much as I remember, I'm sure I've forgotten a great deal too."
This is Lisa's story.
I stayed with my mother after my father left the country, but that became problematic rather quickly. She had been very ill from a wee age, and frequently was not able to take care of me. We did what we could, together, but I inevitably ended up staying with one of her sisters, and then her parents. This is where my family shone brightest.
Sim was well known to the community by the time I came along, as he had started his famous Aqualand, in Chester (now Oxford) St by then. It was sort of a mini-zoo that primarily had fish and birds. There were some reptiles and the oh-so-famous 30-pound eel. I would guess the most famous picture of Poppa was him in the tank, holding this strange creature up for a publicity shot.
Tours would come by Aqualand, plenty of school visits took place, and I dare say every person in the Far North knew exactly who Sim Gibb was. But he wasn't a celebrity (even locally) to me. He was simply my poppa.
Poppa was a quiet man, reserved. He didn't "own the room." He was someone who knew what he needed to do every day, and he did it without complaint. He loved his family and was devoted to them. He had obviously been a very hard worker for his whole life, and wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty. He got stuck into whatever needed doing.
I remember walking around Kaitaia with him, on an afternoon or early evening. I would look in the shop windows and marvel at all the shiny, pretty things. Nana's house was clean, neat, functional, but wasn't full of 'fancy things.' It was fun to imagine having all those things, though.
We would pass the (Princess) movie theatre, and I would read the posters and signs. The fish & chip place (Silver Grid) I remember best was right next to the theatre. That was a treat only on very special occasions.
He would visit with different shop owners, chat a bit, nothing formal or too intense. Just a quick 'How are ya?' and off we'd go.
Poppa never had any company over, not that I remember anyway. If people ever did show up at the house they would be offered a cup of tea, of course, but no one ever stayed long. Nana and Pop were very quiet, private people. Nothing personal was ever shared, but they would never deny anyone anything they could offer. They were generous to a fault.
The memory of Pop that I treasure most, that I hold most dear, seems to be at odds with the Sim Gibb that everyone else saw. He was a reserved man, not cuddly. He wasn't scary, he wasn't mean, or harsh, he simply kept a bubble around him, and people weren't invited in. But I remember eating breakfast one morning, a boiled egg, at about age three or four. I worked away at it with my spoon, eating all the egg I could see. Being so little, I didn't recognise that despite eating all the yolk there was a great deal of the white left inside the shell. Poppa carefully, gently, scooped out each bit and fed me himself. The man who wouldn't drink his tea until Nana put the sugar in it and stirred, who wouldn't do any of the cooking or washing up, sat with me silently, patiently, feeding me.
The times I sat at that kitchen table are the parts of my childhood I remember most fondly, and hold tremendous meaning for me.
The only person I ever saw come close to interrupting Poppa or taking over a conversation was his tiny older sister Doris (Dot). She was amazing, and I was in awe of her. She really was tiny, petite, but fierce. She would come and visit sometimes, and Poppa would never say a word the whole time. He was silent, and she did all the talking.
As I got a bit older I was allowed to help in Aqualand, and not just follow Poppa around. I fed the animals, visited with them, and even formed my own 'friendships' with them. I liked Quacky the duck, despite him going after me if I ever got close enough. I didn't like Cocky, the sulphur-crested cockatoo. If you approached her gently she would grab the side of the cage with her foot and bend her head down for a scratch. I did like that, but she would decide very suddenly she'd had enough and would jerk her head back up. She never bit me, but I didn't give her an opportunity.
I didn't like the bittern in the 'Big Pen.' He would just stare at you, and that was unsettling. Blue Boy was the rainbow lorikeet that lived inside the main building, and he was, without question, my favourite. He was a lovely bird, and would give kisses.
In the evening, after Aqualand was closed to the public, Blue Boy had his daily exercise. Poppa would let him out of the cage and he would fly, fly, fly around the place. He was just brilliant, in both colour and personality. He would sometimes even land on my shoulder, and what an honour that was! It was exciting to hear him call out to me when I was nearby. I always went when he summoned me.
It never occurred to me that being around actual kiwi was something unusual. Poppa had several, including Cranky, back in the darkest corner of the main building, but that he seldom showed himself. There were others, on and off, through the years, including a pair of eggs that had been uncovered by a crew clear-cutting bush. He set up a nest for them and a healthy pair of birds, Romeo and Juliet, hatched out. When visitors asked he would go and carefully pick up one of the birds, holding it firmly but safely. Their legs are deceptively powerful and their claws can do some real damage.
He also knew they could become quite stressed, but he cuddled them in close, and they would tuck their little heads into his armpit for security. This left the side of their body free for gentle touching. I remember vividly the awe on the face of every person who got to actually touch a real kiwi. It was magical. And yet, somehow, the mystery of that ready access to the birds never really landed on me. I recognised how amazing the experience was for all those visitors, and what a gift Poppa had given them, but it didn't seem like anything but a typical day for me.
It's remarkable now, how 'normal' it was to feed kiwi every day.
Nana prepped a huge amount of food for all those animals every morning, bowls upon bowls of fruit and vegies cut up, meat sliced into 'worms' for all the kiwi. It was a lot of work, a huge expense, and took lots of time every day. We then had to carry all the containers over to Aqualand from the house, and every creature was carefully fed. There were supplements, and seed, and pellets…. records were kept, food meticulously measured and calculated. Nothing was done by chance or halfway. Those animals were highly valued;, every last one was precious to him.
Someone once brought in a massive turtle. It must have come up on 90 Mile Beach. I don't know what was wrong with it, but Poppa and the man who brought it in were discussing how nothing could be done. The turtle would be returned to the beach so it could at least be in a familiar environment when it passed away.
Poppa stood there, shoulders down, just watching this poor turtle try to move around. There was absolutely a sense of defeat, that he couldn't help. And yet I have this impression not that simply Poppa didn't have the skill to heal her, but that this turtle was beyond all help. No one could have saved her. It was somehow OK, there was nothing else to be done. It was reality that at times some sad things would happen. It was a quiet but profound lesson.
I was often was sent to play at the (Jaycee) park, next to the Museum. I remember the two slides that were there, one much taller than the other. It took me a very long time to be brave enough to take the longer slide, and once I did, I didn't do it again. loved the railway engine, and often imagined I was driving it away.
I was known to bring a new found friend home, and Nana would give us a snack then firmly direct us to return to the park. Someone would surely be looking for that new friend!
I also visited the museum a lot. There was a lovely woman who worked there, and I'm sad I don't remember her name now. I think she had a limp. She was incredibly patient with me, answered all my questions, would show me around or just let me look at the exhibits.
My mother told me that once upon a time Nana and Poppa were persuaded to take a holiday. My parents took care of Aqualand for them. I was apparently not quite two, and clearly I had been left unsupervised.
Mum said I had found myself a little net and a stepladder. There were a number of goldfish tanks, and I had gone from tank to tank to tank, scooping up every last fish and putting them all in the same tank. They were different varieties and were supposed to be separated. Apparently I said they had looked lonely. I can imagine the panic as my parents tried to figure out which fish belonged in which tank.
Mum also told me that I had gone into the interconnected cages outside and left the shared doors open, allowing all the birds to mix. My parents, who didn't know at a glance who was who, like Poppa knew, panicked, and tried very carefully to figure out which birds went where. Eventually they realised that if they simply waited until dusk, every bird would simply return to its own roost. Again, I told them that the birds were lonely and needed to be together.
Eventually I was allowed to handle the money during the day. I greeted visitors and offered some pointers, depending on their questions. At the end of each day I was trusted to count up the day's takings.
Aqualand was never a 'going proposition.' It was clear that it lost money. Poppa may well have done with some aggressive advertising or starting different programmes, but for him it was never about the money. That made it difficult at times, I'm sure, especially for Nana, but for Pop it was about the animals and his community.
I think I always knew there was a depth to Sim Gibb that he never talked about. He would look off sometimes, and just... disappear. As a little one, I couldn't access that place with him, but I knew he went somewhere. I always just sat with him, and we didn't talk.
The room I slept in was attached to theirs, so I had to walk past them to get to the kitchen. That became a problem when I woke up in the morning starving, and they were still sleeping. It's no surprise that my 'silent' creeping through their room to find something to eat was terribly loud. Nana found a solution we could both enjoy: she sent me to bed each night with a little plate of biscuits. I was allowed to eat them only before breakfast in the morning, in an effort to keep me in my room until she started the daily routine.
My metabolism was very high, and I was so hungry as a kid that I ate a full bowl of porridge mixed with buttered toast, so she had no worries about spoiling my appetite. I would come home from school - my teachers were my mum's cousins, Olive and Ngaire (Wright) - ravenous. I was too embarrassed to tell Nana that I was hungry again, so I would simply say "I'm H, Nana, I'm H."
Nana and Pop had an Alsatian, Rex, who lived outside between their house and Aqualand. He was a big dog, that I remember anyway, and wasn't terribly friendly-looking. I never had any trouble with him but, wow, could he bark at people approaching the house. I would sit under the pine tree, on top of his house, and feel absolutely invincible. No one could see me, and even if they could, no one could ever get near me because of my guard 'dragon.'
My father left my mother with a puppy, an Alsatian-Doberman, Shalom. Mum left her with Nana, and she also had a doghouse outside. Poppa's rule was, ahem, no dogs in the house. But, predictably, Shalom was mine - at least, that's what I thought. She would lie quietly under the table when I was inside, and then follow me outside. Where I went, so did she.
Poppa never said a word about her being right at his feet, and there's no way he didn't notice. After he died, and then Rex, Shalom became Nana's companion. I'm glad she had her. Shalom had a formidable reputation, despite being a sweet, sweet girl. I was comforted by the fact that Nana wasn't alone at night for those first few years after she lost Pop.
Poppa built their house, and it is still a unique building. I can look at a picture and still smell food cooking in the kitchen, or the warm blankets after Nana put a hot water bottle between the sheets before I went to bed. I can remember Nana making a phone call by picking up the receiver and turning the little handle to get
the operator. Kaitaia 73 was their phone number, and I don't think I'll ever forget it.
I love that house, and even now I would love to own it. If it ever goes up for sale again, someone let me know!
My grandfather was never a selfish man. If he saw that someone needed help, he was right there. If he saw a creature that needed help, he did all he could. If someone showed an interest in him, or Aqualand, or birds or fish or whatever, he would talk to that person until they were satisfied. He would never begrudge anyone his time or help.
He was also an exquisite judge of character. It was like he could hear what someone wasn't saying, and could tell a faker from someone making a real effort. I'm not sure there was ever anyone who got one over on him.
He valued integrity and authenticity, and always did what he said he would. He didn't let anyone down, even at great cost to himself. If he said he would do something, you knew he would do it. My mother was like that, and I try to be like that as well.
I find values such as these to be the real meaning of 'inheritance.' Leaving behind a legacy as he has, knowing this is where I came from, being Sim and Ruby's granddaughter and Cheryl's daughter, is what makes me proud to be part of this family, and nothing else comes close. I am proud to say he was my grandfather, and Kaitaia was my home.