Memories of Christchurch


Memories of Christchurch 

By H. Naomi March, M.A.



Memories have an important place in our lives – they hold the stories of who we are, where we came from, where we have been, and even where we want to go.

Some of these memories are coded into our DNA. Current testing and ancestor-hunting reveals similar habits, hobbies or passion to serve society through our chosen employment – and people exclaim, “Oh, that’s where I get it from”.  Some memories are socialized into us, and unknowingly – at least as children – we behave certain ways, from memory and habit. One Brain-Function Specialist calls it “cellular memory.”  The good news is we can choose to successfully change any of them, if we want to.

The skyline of Christchurch, New Zealand, before the 2011 earthquake…. (Richard Simmonds)

Other memories are of our “Home Town” – the place we were born and raised, or were moved on from, all too early.  Some of these childhood memories are beautiful, others are romanticized, and some are horrific.

Not all memories seem to serve us well, especially memories of trauma – in any and all forms – they haunt many survivors. When recognized for what they are, e.g., P.T.S.D., nightmares, “daymares” – nightmares while fully awake/flashbacks – sufferers can receive treatment that eases symptoms, empowering them to achieve a “new-normal” life. Life is never the same – it is different – yet it is life – to be cherished, lived and loved. Sadly, this is a big challenge for some, and a lot of hard work for most. Time alone doesn’t heal all wounds.

This month, we remember events from nine years ago here in Christchurch – assessing our “new-normal” city, and our “new-normal” lives. I share my personal memories with you, rather than the facts and figures that are readily available online and in libraries. I choose to make myself vulnerable by being authentic, because some among us are still very vulnerable.  These memories may cause sadness, of course, but if they are still raising the issues of grief-symptoms, we may need to visit a counselor trained in trauma-informed care, to help ease our pain. I recognize that I still have some incomplete grief myself, and have appointments in place to complete this important task.

Next month (March 2020) Conversation Corner will include H. Norma Wright’s “The Normal Crisis Pattern” and how we can support ourselves, and others, at such times – drawn from my recent M.A. research.

For those who have since joined us in Christchurch and Canterbury – many respectfully pause to remember our heartache over loved ones lost, lifestyles changed permanently, and historic buildings destroyed. Many of these new neighbors admire our resilience, our courage – and they stand beside us, supporting us as we live our “new-normal” lives. Sadly, some do not.

There is no room for judgment here, concerning how people are coping with their personal grief. There is, however, plenty of room for factual wisdom – not hearsay on how to heal – and there is always plenty of room for compassion and support.

Memories of Christchurch – Pre-Quake

I remember trips to the Botanical Gardens, while Mum took photos of my brother and me, on square black and white film, with her Box Brownie camera. That became a family generational tradition – with color photos, and now the digital age.

The author and her brother – Christchurch Botanical Gardens, c.late-1950s

Every Christmas, we went to the huge Cathedral in the Square, to donate some of our toys – in good condition – to learn to share with other children experiencing hard times, and admire the beautiful Nativity at the front.  Years later, I took my little niece – and handed on the incredible experience.

The opening concert of the Christchurch Town Hall, 30 Sept. 1972. The author sang with Royal Christchurch Musical Society (in white – right side). CAPcard Produced Exclusively by Offset House Ltd Christchurch

I also remember: concerts in the Town Hall – as part of the audience, or performing with the choir; dawdling along High Street – enjoying the 1880s architecture as much as the shopping; walking along the Cashel Street Mall to the bank; regularly shopping in Ballantyne’s Store – once favorite haunt of Grandma, and now my Mum’s and mine; the many visits – since childhood through to last year – to the Arts Centre quadrangle and Great Hall, and the Museum – especially the Antarctic display – and there was an old Art Gallery behind it, too, that I enjoyed visiting.

I remember the Square in the 1950s-60s – cars and buses could drive right around it, in a circle, behind the “bodgies and widgies” with their motorbikes and ‘hotted-up’ cars. In the 1970s, I would listen to people in the Square, like the “violin lady” who would play and then talk about her new-found faith – and others who entertained or debated – while people listened or heckled. And so it continued.

Christchurch – memories of my Home Town – once thought of as the most English city outside of England, “The Garden City”.  It blossomed with daffodils in spring, and autumn leaves fell each year, to be crunched under-foot in the many parks that gave our city a genteel, English country-side feel.

The author with her brother – Hagley Park, Christchurch, c.early-1970s

2009-2010 formed the most amazing of my memories, as I visited CTV, to help set up and record the weekly “Toogood Today” show, for Sunday mornings. Every week I felt like I was going to visit family – the crew were incredible people, and generous with their time and talent. I worked hard behind the scenes during the week, and assisted on-camera, too – even acting as writer and host while Toogood was leading a Holy Lands Tour.

The CTV environment was so alive and exciting – the crew taught me many things – like Murray Wood sitting down and teaching me how to write out a running-sheet for each show – down to the second.  I’d never done anything like that in my life! The consummate professional, he even took the time to accompany me on the piano, for several songs I recorded for shows – born the same year – but so different in talent and accomplishments.

The author as guest host for one month – “Toogood Today” show, Sunday mornings on CTV – assistant producer, 2009-2010

One precious memory is that the CTV team was very respectful – to the extent that apparently one of the guys would run upstairs as we arrived, shouting, “no swearing for two hours, the Christians are in the building” – and if a swearword slipped out, they’d apologize. We used to smile because it was an “extra mile” we never expected them to take. We loved that they thought of us as people of living faith, not simply people of religion. When Toogood was called back to Australia, the four-year show finished in December 2010, and I missed that amazing weekly experience – visiting and working with the exceptional people at CTV.

Although I left Christchurch as a child, I returned, and then left, and returned, left, returned – a pattern that has continued into my senior years – leaving when needs be, and returning when possible. While living overseas for 30+ years, the memory of very little changing, still stays with me – sure, we could no longer drive around the Square, and “bogans” replaced “bodgies” – but this lovely city was a stable constant in my life, each time I visited my Mum.

Then everything changed, forever!

Memories of Christchurch – THE Quake – 22 February 2011

Having had six months of quakes after the M7.1 earthquake in September 2010, I remember thinking we had ducked the bullet. Globally, most high-magnitude quakes are followed by a M1-lower-quake – in most parts of the world, this phenomenon occurred about four to six weeks later. February’s quake was not only unwelcome – it was totally unexpected by most residents.

Do you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing, when the M6.3 earthquake tore into Christchurch?  A bit like the day Diana died – or J.F.K. – most people remember exactly what they were doing.

My mother and I had planned to have lunch in town before I went on to an appointment, but the weather was wet and cold, so we decided to stay home until I caught a later bus. We would have been in the thick of it.

If you were here, you remember the dreadful movement of the earth, not just horizontal shakes – that roared through like a freight train you can hear coming and then going – but also vertical shaking – no roar before arrival, but a punch that came up through the earth, throwing people and buildings to the ground.

Clock stopped after February 2011 earthquake
CREDIT: Ross Becker

I remember struggling to get to my feet – finally making it up the hall – meeting Mum in the middle. We secured the dog on his lead, and I put the phone stool under one doorway for Mum, while I sat on the floor, under the other doorway. To cope, we started singing silly songs. We were only 2.5km from the epicenter, and I thought we would surely die that day.

No water, no power, so we didn’t see the devastation to our dear city for many days, but battery radios kept us informed with what was happening, and provided company – along with the battery lamps – in the night. I remember the days that followed, vividly.

My memories of the “Farmy Army” – filled with courage and kindness – are based, firstly, on the man who brought artesian water in his cleaned-out milk tanker, to our local primary school grounds. He also supplied new two-litre bottles with green and blue lids, and instructed my parents to boil it, just in case. He filled the blue-tops they brought home, and once I’d boiled the water on our camping-sized gas-cooker, I left it to cool in casserole dishes with the lids on.  Hours later I filled up the green-tops – from which we poured drinking and cooking water.

Bathing was just as convoluted – I was surprised how time- and energy-consuming it all was, every day, day-after-day.  How much I had taken ‘turn-on-the-water-tap’ for granted.  You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Secondly, on one occasion, a couple of ladies came door-knocking to offer their support, and giving us bottles of the sweetest drinking water I’ve tasted from anywhere in the world.  These compassionate country folks took the risk of coming into our heaving area, and helped us with what they had. I don’t even know their names, to say thank you. I hope they read this, nine years later – I am still grateful for your compassion, courage and kindness, dear Farmy Army.

A corner of the author’s small home office – piled high with books – the office supplies and filing boxes on the floor are not shown in the photo. February 2011.

The “Student Volunteer Army” just got stuck in and helped with the City cleanup. An international engineering professor and some of his students came and helped me with the piles of books, files and office supplies tipped all over my small, home-office desk and floor. I couldn’t walk into the room. It didn’t take them long to carry it out onto the lawn, so I could sort it and put it back into the shelves.  Amazing how such a small thing would seem so overwhelming, but it was actually the last straw, after days of picking up and sorting for my parents and nights of continual aftershocks interrupting my edgy efforts to sleep. Yet these young men didn’t judge – they took practical action – making my life manageable again, in my time of need. Weeks later, other volunteers helped me sort through the garage, throwing out papers, books and 12 boxes of a lifetime of photos – saturated with liquefaction. We had to shovel out the dried muck – it took all day. Thank you, Student Volunteer Army – I will always appreciate your commitment to our community – and wonder where you all are, and who you have gone on to become.

I remember hearing on the radio that CTV was gone! Not knowing for weeks who had survived and who hadn’t! The existential question and survivor-guilt kicked in – “Why? Why them? Why not me, instead? They had families to care for.” It took some years to get answers that made sense – but there has yet to be justice for those who lost their loved ones /or wonderful friends and colleagues. I missed every funeral, not knowing until too late when the first one occurred, and being back in Australia not long after that. More guilt at having to leave!

Memories of Christchurch – Post-Quake

“Christ Church Cathedral in New Zealand remains severely damaged from the powerful 2011 earthquake.”

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The “Christchurch Cathedral” still hangs in the balance. On my way home from shopping, I spontaneously popped in to hear the choir – the Sunday night before the quake – honestly, the singing sounded angelic.  Even though it’s not my church, I still have feelings of frustration at its present state, and I have sadness, because the “Heart of the City” is still broken, and many City residents are still broken-hearted. Once we can return to the Cathedral, at least we won’t be as distressed, because we didn’t lose anyone in that building.

The first time I heard John Bevan play jazz again at the Distinction Hotel – my favorite bolt-hole – felt like I’d come full circle. John used to play Friday nights before the quakes, and to find him there again, last year, was very comforting – not just his fabulous, expressive piano performances, with support musicians – but also the sense of things being “normal” again. The staff – wonderful young people, greet me like an old friend – thus, this lovely space creates a sense of belonging, any time, day or evening.

As I’ve searched through Google images – I remember how much the city had looked like a bombed-out war zone. My brave nephew requested a transfer to join the military cordon around the Red Zone, to be near his Granny. Once the eastern-end of Cashel Mall was re-opened – the bank was gone, the shops were gone – the place looked like pictures I’d seen of WWII-London. Then the weirdest thing happened – I suddenly felt as if I was walking inside one of those WWII news-reels, but in color. It only happened once – which was enough – but I remember the experience clearly. Needless to say, my friend and I found another venue for our weekly cuppa and chat.

Memories sometimes come to mind, with gratitude – which actually helps build resilience, of course – e.g., in the days after the quake, I fell onto the street in Merivale – tripping over uneven cobblestones – running the last meter to catch the bus – and broke my arm.  I’m certainly not grateful for that! Nor am I grateful for the stress waiting to see if I needed surgery to prevent the nerve-damage that was numbing half my hand. It could cause me to lose my typing skill and piano playing pleasures. No – I’m grateful that it healed, that the swelling went down, the pain finally subsided, and I made it through many difficult weeks. Without surgery, I’m able to type and play the piano again. But I’m also mindful that not everyone has a story with a happy ending.

I’m also very grateful when I remember the brave first-responders – many in shock from suffering loss and grief themselves – plus overseas teams who joined us as quickly as they did.

Mostly, I’m remembering those we lost – with special thoughts of their loved ones, who survived. Have they thrived in the last nine years? Have you? Have I? What have we learned about ourselves? What do we know now, about how to respond to such traumatic events in our lives? What valuable lessons have we learned? Have we applied that knowledge, to improve our lives?

Memories – Thoughts to Ponder

Our memories make up part of who we are – some memories have made us strong; some have left us still struggling. We remember that we need to understand that P.T.S.D. is accumulative, if other traumas have been present before or after the earthquakes. Although I have worked hard to clear a lot of traumatic grief, I have found that my body has automatically responded to what my mind has been remembering, as I’ve written this article. The stress-hormone, cortisol has kicked in – something to talk over with my trauma-trained counselor – that, and keep walking it out.

I’m trusting you with the telling of my story – and at least I can’t see you if you give me “the look” – the one we get from people who weren’t here and don’t care, or if they were here, they don’t want to talk about it. Therefore, it’s important that we choose carefully who we honor with telling our stories to, but tell our stories, we must – which might mean writing them down, or recording them in some way. We need to be aware that not everyone can listen, and we can’t judge other people’s level of grief.  Some residents are excited by the progress of the new build; some are still processing a lot of memories and the aftermath; others are still grieving and seeking justice.

During my studies I came across the following comments by a man who survived the car crash – with a drunk driver – that killed his mother, his wife, and their four-year-old daughter. I’m pondering anew, this point of view.

“Catastrophic loss … will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same.  There is no going back to the past … It is not therefore true that we become less through loss – unless we allow the loss to make us less, grinding our soul down until there is nothing left. Loss can also make us more. I didn’t get over losing my loved ones; rather I absorbed the loss into my life until it became part of who I am.…The soul is elastic, like a balloon. It can grow larger through suffering. One learns the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain…” – Jerry Sittser, “A Grace Disguised.”

Over the next 12 months – approaching the 10th Anniversary of THE earthquake – we have time to reflect on where we were, how much we’ve come through, and where we are now – individually and collectively. Let’s acknowledge our suffering, our survival, our resilience, our achievements, our giving of and receiving compassion and practical assistance, and allow our weaknesses to draw strength from spiritual beliefs. Let’s grieve honestly and openly – when necessary and safe to do so – and meet here again next month, to remember all those who survive unthinkable events.

Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial (Māori: Oi Manawa) – beside the Avon River, near the Montreal Street bridge, Christchurch




If this article has raised issues of trauma or grief for you, please contact:

  • Your local doctor – for referral to a few, free sessions of “Brief Intervention Counseling”
  • Your Workplace EAP (Employee Assistance Programs)
  • Lifeline Helpline – Call 0800 LIFELINE (0800 543 354) or text HELP (4357) for free, 24/7, confidential support
  • District Health Board – for emergency – call 0800 CRISIS RESOLUTION
  • Check with WINZ for available support if you are on low income or a pension
  • OR – watch – The three secrets of resilient people | Dr Lucy Hone | TEDxChristchurch 2019 |

About the Author

  1. Naomi March, M.A. (2016) has a bachelor’s degree in teaching, and a Master of Arts degree in Pastoral Leadership, with special emphasis on pastoral care to women – in the workplace, society, and the home. Her studies included Crisis Intervention, and Grief Recovery.