My great-great aunt Myra

When I was little, I thought my ancestry was Scottish, Irish, Maori, Spanish and Swedish. Later on my grandmother told us she had been adopted, and our ancestry on her side was Jewish – an East End London family who moved to New Zealand. So Grandma was in fact a Cohen.

Exploring this side of the family led me to great-great aunt Myra Cohen “Barber, dental assistant, entertainer, milliner”. Here are some excerpts from her entry in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, written by Fiona McKergow:

Her parents were central figures in local community organisations. From 1898 to around 1905 Myra attended Reefton School (upgraded to Reefton District High School in 1902). She won a scholarship for two years’ free tuition at Nelson College for Girls; however, being hampered by defective eyesight, she was obliged to forego this opportunity and her desire to become a journalist.

She was widely advertised by her employer as ‘the only lady barber in New Zealand’.

The Cohens’ financial circumstances eased in 1910 when Percival won a nationwide lottery for the famous ‘Honourable Roddy’ nugget (weighing 99 ounces and worth £450), found at the Ross Flats goldfields and named after the minister of mines, Roderick McKenzie. The nugget was purchased from Percival by the government and mounted as a coronation gift to King George V.

Cohen’s ambitions grew, and in 1914 she became a receptionist and nurse attendant for a well-regarded firm of Greymouth dentists. Here she gained further expertise in manufacturing dentures from vulcanite, turning out hundreds with skill and precision. Cohen lived in a guest-house and became actively involved in the social life of the town.

During the First World War she participated with enthusiasm in patriotic fund-raising activities organised by Tom Pollard. As a member of Pollard’s Pierrot and Pierrette Show, she was a performer in variety shows, comic operas and a highly successful marching team.

Myra Cohen was compelled to resign from her position as dental assistant when she contracted influenza during the epidemic of 1918. It is not known when she left the West Coast. By April 1919 both her parents had died and her sister Kate had taken charge of the family business, which now traded mainly in books.

In October 1928 she entertained Charles Kingsford Smith in her workroom, and later watched him depart from nearby Woodbourne aerodrome on his return flight across the Tasman, an event she considered the ‘most thrilling incident’ of her life. She remained in Blenheim until at least 1934.


Miss Myra Cohen with a hand loom at the Blind Institute. Reference Number: EP/1959/1432-F Display Dates: 28 Apr 1959
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

Myra compiled her reminiscences of life on the West Coast in the 1950s. They are entitled Westland Metal and are held at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Without these, little trace of her varied career would remain.


Me and my Mum

Happy Mother’s Day Mum.  I love you so much.
You are so dry and funny and self-deprecating. And you’ve never put any pressure on us kids to be anything other than ourselves, and have always been proud of what we do in life.

The Riley Elf


Donna and Grandad

With Grandad, shortly before hospital visit number one.

I’ve been a patient at a hospital five times.


I was four. Broke my leg running down a hill and coming a cropper. I was pretty lucky it didn’t hurt.

What did pain me was not getting crutches. I was too little, and instead was given a leather lace up boot to wear over my cast. There is a fetching photo of me then, wearing a skivvy, a crochet dress and my broken leg in that huckery boot, so less glamorous than swinging around on crutches.


I slid down a wooden seesaw and got an arse full of splinters. The doctor at A&E methodically tweezed them out. I toddled home, slightly sore but glad to have wood free buttocks.

If it happened a couple of years later, it would have been worse – the 13 year old pubescent me would have been ultra humiliated to bare her bum at a doctor. She would have probably keep the splintery bottom rather than expose herself.


Number three visit was when I slammed my thumb in the door of the Kingswood. The doctor did some weird thing to make the nail come right off. I remember the smell of burning nail.

That Kingswood was a beast of a thing. It fit all six of us in quite comfortably. My sister was embarrassed by its big green gormlessness but a few years later when she got her licence she was keen to drive it. The Southland boys all thought it was cool.


After a scan. They told me our baby wasn’t the size they expected. A couple of weeks too small. They said “Look, you are probably going to lose the baby. Just go home and be prepared, there’s nothing we can do”.

The next day I bled, and didn’t know what to do, or how bad it was supposed to be. It didn’t stop so my man took me to hospital entowelled and weak. They padded me up, put me in a gown and clean sheets. I woke up and went to the loo and fainted.

Had never been unconscious before. Lying on the floor I felt blackness. It was an oddly comforting, enveloping darkness – like falling asleep in the arms of warm God.


The fifth time at hospital I had a baby. I was in labour groaning like a nutter, with a guttural choir of other mother-labourers joining in. Was pretty useless at getting baby out, much pain for mere millimetre progress. My waters had broken hours before, so they wanted baby out. I got the epidural and it took away the pain except for a vestigial trace that told me when it was pushing time. Baby turned around, so they tried forceps than switched to caesarean.

The doctors are pulling and cutting at the business end. My man can see my purple innards, and then a squealing baby. They ask him to cut the cord and he wonders if the umbilical cord is an extension cord; because it is so long.

My baby girl is thrust into my arms. I smile, and am surprised to see she is wearing a knitted beanie. She goes straight for my boob, and I know instantly she is a toughie. This baby is not fazed that my tit is five times bigger than her darling little beanied head.

Gold Guitars and Big Bad John

Sometime in the 80s my sister and I entered the Gold Guitar Awards in Gore. We had been having guitar lessons from an old chap. We didn’t enjoy them much and tried to distract him by asking him to play his banjo. This ruse proved fairly successful. I blamed my tiny hands for my poor finger picking as I was ok on the ukulele.

My sister and I wore matching outfits – a not particularly Country & Western ensemble of red Levis sweatshirts, denim mini skirts, red tights and white Skellerup sneakers. My sister played the guitar and was good. I have no memory of what we sang, but I think it was something like Call of the Bellbird.

I think the Awards took place in the splendidly named James Cumming Wing.

The Gold Guitars were great – some yodelling, and I do remember a big Maori bloke doing an epic version of Ghost riders in the sky.

I like country music – Charlie Rich, Charlie Pride, Johnny Cash et al.

One of the tracks I remember best was this – Big Bad John by Jimmy Dean … and I associate it with our beloved uncle John who worked in mines in Coober Pedy and on the West Coast and drove trucks with wheels so big that I only came up halfway up them. He died in a trucking accident.

At the bottom of this mine lies a big big man. Big John.