It was the autumn of ‘78 and the Matrimonial Property Act 1976, with its radical concept of equal sharing, had barely been in force for a year. Like many lawyers I was still struggling to come to grips with it.
Then out of the blue there came an invitation to address the Taihape division of the Country Women’s Institute on the implications of the new Act. My initial reaction was to decline it.
Apparently, they liked to invite someone from Massey University every year. Surely someone else could speak, albeit on a different topic.
‘Don’t be too hasty’, said a colleague. ‘They’re lovely ladies and you’ll come home with a boot full of food.’
Like “silly old Pooh Bear” my stomach won out and I accepted.
My recently-widowed mother accompanied me. She’d been born just ‘up the road’ in Raetihi. Travelling on the train from Ohakune to Taihape to play basketball had been one of the memorable aspects of her adolescence.
The weather was glorious – the Rangitikei at its sparking, late autumn best. We travelled up route 54 through beautiful farming country with its quaint settlements – Cheltenham, Waituna West, Rewa - before joining Highway 1 north of Hunterville.
My address was to take place at the Taihape Golf Club. Given the venue, I couldn’t help thinking of my late father.
Dad loved his golf. One his dreams was to do a ‘course-crawl’ around the rural golf courses of the Rangitikei-Manawatu. As the son with the most interest in the game – a “future Bob Charles” (a fellow “cack-hander”), complete with Bob’s action-gusset, short-sleeved shirts – Dad was keen for me to accompany him.
Finding a park at the Taihape links proved quite a challenge. I put that down to the balmy weather. The mid-week golfers were obviously out in force.
As I entered the club-house the sound of hearty women’s chatter greeted me. Feeling slightly ill-at-ease I entered a very large room. It was full to overflowing with ruddy-faced women of ample proportions.
Once my initial shock subsided I invited my mother to sit beside me. Together we faced a sea of warm smiles. If my speech failed to fire, her innate charm and sparkling wit could well be my ‘secret weapon’.
Slipping quickly into lecturer mode I fell back on a well-tested ‘refuge’ – a series of case studies. The women were remarkably attentive. No paper darts came my way. You could have heard a pin drop.
They clapped when I finished. I remember feeling a sense of quiet satisfaction.
The MC then asked if there were any questions. Fortunately they were not particularly challenging.
Then a tall, powerfully-built woman rose to her feet. I assumed she had been asked to give the vote of thanks.
“Mr McBride, we’ve really enjoyed your stimulating address. You’ve given us so much to think about.”
“However, there was just one small flaw in your case studies.”
Whatever could that be? I remember feeling that I just wanted the floor to open up and swallow me.
“In all your case studies it was the man with the farm whose marriage had subsequently failed. In this area it’s not uncommon for a woman to own a farm. Not coming from this area you wouldn’t have been aware of that.”
Raucous laughter filled the room. I’m sure I heard one of the women mutter, “Good on you, Martha.”
By this stage, I could feel that my face was bright crimson. My mother gave me one of those ‘how do I disown him’ looks.
My questioner continued, “When a woman owns a farm before getting married, what’s the best way to protect it should her marriage subsequently fail?”
There was a long silence. Eventually I rose to my feet like a battered boxer. I did my best to answer. The audience clapped again.
Sure enough my Massey colleague had been right. The car’s boot was filled with fine country fare – enough to keep a bachelor going for a couple of months.
Barely out of Taihape my mother leaned towards me. “Son, in future you should get me to vet your speeches”. The rest of the journey passed in silence.
Nearly 20 years later in Wellington on a fleeting visit I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen since the late 70s. We had a rapid-fire catch-up.
“You remember that speech you gave to the Taihape CWI.” (‘How could I forget’, I thought.)
“They were still talking about it months later.”
“Were they”, I replied, puffing my chest out a little.
“Not about you, silly man. They couldn’t stop talking about your mother.”
“Did you see her boots?” “Where did she get that dress?”
“She was the talk of the town for months.”