From relying on the hospitality of strangers in a foreign land to jumping off a truck with a dodgy driver and being stranded north of the Arctic Circle – Jennifer Beck has lived life at full throttle as a 21-year-old. FARIDA MASTER talks to the celebrated author of over 50 children’s books on tying in myriad life experiences in a memoir titled Bits of String Too Short to Use.
With parents that encouraged an innate sense of wonder, a footloose Jennifer with her friend Diane happily waved from the deck of P & O liner Arcadia as they set sail on a six-week voyage to England. They couldn’t wait to hitchhike all over Europe and travel overseas for a year.
On hindsight, the award-winning author, wonders if she was too naïve or reckless to board a rattling school bus from England to Sri Lanka with an inexperienced driver and his wife.
The OE could have easily ended badly, going from the avid account of endless breakdowns and accidents; losing their way in the mountainous regions of Turkey; and listening to bridges crack after the bus drove over.
The challenge of writing a memoir is acknowledging and processing the changes that life brings about personally, professionally, spiritually, and the storyteller explores it very skilfully in her memoir Bits of String too Short to Use, published by Mary Egan Publishing.
Interestingly, the kaleidoscopic collection of episodes when joined together form a pattern which is both thought provoking and serendipitous.
Of young love, hope and loss
A late starter
A former teacher and psychologist who was awarded Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to Literature in 2015, Jennifer’s writing career started in her forties.
“Having two more children when in our forties was the best decision,” says the mother-of-four. “Peter and I were far more mature by then. We had just two children in the 60s because in those days, world population explosion was a big threat. But later, we decided to have more babies when my son and daughter were teenagers.”
It was while Jennifer got involved with the Cockle Bay playcentre that she started writing children’s story books. She remembers receiving several rejection slips at the beginning of her creative career, but that didn’t deter her from pursuing her love for writing.
Proof of it is a tiny notebook tucked in a faded Queen Ann chocolate box, she recently discovered whilst sorting things out. Titled The Orchestra Book of Songs, the preface read: ‘The writer of this book, a New Zealander Miss Jennifer Gates, aged nine years is a promising young poetess. This is her first attempt at publishing a book so we hope you will appreciate the trouble she has put into it. So wish her good luck for now’. Signed Editor.
The first kiss
The seasoned writer beautifully encapsulates her relationship and the passage of time with her childhood sweetheart and soulmate, her husband Peter, in a chapter titled Two Incidents.
She clearly recollects the exact moment when Peter and her eight-year-old self were hiding under a bed. They were waiting to surprise their parents (they were friends) who were walking home after a matinee movie.
‘Possibly getting bored lying there in the dark among the kapot dust, Peter decided to give me a kiss. This was so unexpected, I scrambled out from our hiding place and ruined the homecoming surprise,’ she writes.
Cut to 70 years later, a good friend of Jennifer was woken up at midnight by a knock on the door. Two uniformed policemen showed her a missing person report with a photograph of her friend. They said her friend’s husband was extremely anxious when he found his wife was not in bed. He called her mobile, rung Middlemore Hospital and finally informed the police.
Much to everyone’s relief, the friend assured them that Jennifer was with her daughter in Wellington attending the WOW show.
“Later when I learnt of this incident, I knew that my husband Peter’s memory lapses and my partial hearing loss could no longer be ignored. He had tried to phone me, but I had missed a call,” she says of the age-related challenges they face.
60 years of togetherness
The moving account of Peter’s near-death motorbike accident, and his subsequent journey to recovery after being diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, tugs at the heartstrings. Equally heart-breaking is the passing away of their 29 year old daughter, Rosamund Beck.
“Peter is my ears, and I am his memory. Our parents were friends, and we were born in the same hospital. We just celebrated 60 years of marriage,” she says.
What singles out this memoir is that every person who reads it can identify with anecdotes or chapters of her life. Bits of String too Short to Use is about navigating the trails and triumphs, capturing the significant moments, finding wisdom, serendipity and expressing deep gratitude… as you join the dots to see the bigger picture of a riveting life.