Rita Macdonald is a local treasure; a custodian of treasures, a teller of tales; she is both a survivor and a saviour for others. As she nears her seventieth birthday people often ask her when she is going to slow down. But for Rita, bright blue eyes sparkling with the pleasure of it all, her playtime has just begun.
Seven years ago Rita retired from 19 years as the Health and Housing officer at Housing New Zealand. Last weekend she opened her home and garden ‘Rita’s Rusty Rake’ to the public for the first of what she hopes will be many Sunday afternoons; afternoons in which she looks forward to sharing the fruits of her playtime with those who care to come by.
“Everything is very old” Rita warns her visitors upon entry. As a lover of old things, I received this warning warmly, however describing just what awaits inside the gates of the Rusty Rake is not at all a straightforward affair..
To say it is filled with nostalgic objects or is an homage to the past suggests some kind of a museum display; staid, still and behind glass perhaps. No, that’s not it at all. Rather I would describe it as a collection of treasures; artful assemblages in every nook and cranny of every room, every corner of the garden, that act as a series of prompts for memories and myriad stories; some of them Rita’s own, some passed on, and some imagined.
Rita grew up on Argyle Street, a street occupied entirely by Scots in the 1950’s. A rack of Tartan stands in the front hallway, her grandfather’s Highland Band hat sits atop a table and a photograph of the Gisborne Highland Pipe band circa 1975 adorns the wall. Her father stands in the middle row as the Band’s Pipe Major. Rita remembers him giving her his spats to clean, which she would scrub with sunlight soap and hot water before visiting Mrs Melville, a Sister at the Cook Hospital to ask for a little whitening to finish them off.
When there was a wedding or some other celebration and her father wanted his pipes to sound even more sweetly, he would soak the pipes’ bag in a bath with golden syrup and wrap the reeds with strands of his daughters’ hair.
Rita says she has always liked the old, faded and broken. “In rust I trust” she asserts, “because you can see it, it’s never hidden.” Over time she has collected and been given treasures to care for, friends asking ‘I don’t know what to do with mother’s cottons, are they any use to you?’ Rita with no other reply in her than “I will care for Mother’s cottons.”
She has a simple appreciation for the work and care that went into making things before we started using machines for everything, and she extends that same philosophy to her own life and the objects in her care. She shows me her ‘engine room’, a sunny room to which she retires, when the events of the world become too much. Here she stitches wise and calming words that she might have heard or found in a book onto cloth with a needle and coloured thread.
Rita nurtures her ageing chickens, Mrs White, Mrs Black and Mrs Fortesque Brown with cooked porridge every morning for breakfast and Chinese noodles on Friday nights. They roam resplendent amongst the garden, wild with rambling old roses, wandering nasturtiums, soft pink geraniums and cats. The vegetables valiantly hold onto their claim amongst the poppies and violets. A fairy house patiently awaits Rita’s attention after suffering some wind damage (or was it a particularly well-attended party?) and baskets of cacti drip from the trees. Vast fruit trees hold bucketloads of promise for the coming summer.
To my fresh eyes the garden is a magical wonderland, for Rita it is full of memories. Over the almost forty years she has been there, people have given her “this and that”, often when they’re about to move into a rest home, knowing that she will save a cherished plant passed down through the generations from the green waste pile.
Out the back of the garden is 'Anne’s Room', a garage converted to the little museum that her sister Anne had always dreamed of but didn’t live to see to fruition. It houses a collection of all the dolls Rita ever wanted as a child, as well as all of those that have come since.
Not all of the stories I hear from Rita are happy ones, but as she explains it, Rita’s Rusty Rake is her response to the sadness she has experienced in her life. Rita talks about angels, certain “wonderful people” that had faith in her abilities and opened doors for her at the times in her life when she needed it most. In turn Rita put that faith to good use; stepping in and helping out where she could when the chips were down for others.
And now, Rita the Resident Scarecrow, as she refers to herself with her sparkling eyes, is opening the door on her home and garden, a bricolage of friendships and memories, stories connecting objects to place and time, a little bit higgledy, with the odd bit of rust, a place that she hopes “people will love to come”. I know that I will love to visit, time and again. Thank you Rita for having me.
What: Rita’s Rusty Rake is a cottage garden and collectables for viewing
Where & When: 18 Clifford Street, Sunday afternoons, 2pm- 5pm.
Cost: $5 per person or $15 per family. Proceeds go towards Rita’s homeless & prescriptions funds for local people.
Story & photos by Sarah Cleave