Local Folk: June Pitman-Hayes

Whether she is writing a children’s book, organising a fundraising event or singing jazz with some of NZ’s top musicians, June Pitman-Hayes, of Red Beach, keeps herself busy. She is a passionate about the value of creativity in all walks of life, believing in its healing powers from first-hand experience. She is a woman who has lived an unconventional life, which has taught her tolerance, forgiveness and empathy, themes that she captures in her stories for children. She shared some of her own story with Jannette Thompson ....

I believe my creativity is rooted in my Māori heritage; for me, my culture is my anchor. When I was growing up, it wasn’t cool to be Māori, but thank goodness that has changed. My first book Tāwhirimatea: A Song for Matariki was written as a waiata. When it was published as a book, it became the best selling children’s book, for three to nine year olds, for two years running. My latest book, Kia Ora, You can be a Kiwi too recognises Aotearoa’s cultural diversity and is focused on welcoming the children of immigrants and refugees. Through touring with the literacy-based charitable programme Duffy Books in Homes I learned how schools are a real melting pot. They are where we need to teach tolerance and cultural understanding. I love writing for children – you get to tap into your inner child and let your imagination run wild. The secret is not to complicate the message and the songs have to be catchy so that children can grasp them quickly.

I was raised largely by my maternal grandmother Tiria (Matilda) Pitman in Tamaterau, a small coastal community on the road to Whāngārei Heads. Nana, who couldn’t read or write, had already raised 18 children of her own when my cousin, my older sister, and I turned up. There wasn’t a lot of money so we basically lived off the land. Despite being in her 70s, Nana had a magnificent vegetable and flower garden, and we’d collect pipi and watercress. The neighbours were also very good at dropping off kai moana like fish heads and crayfish. Nana cooked on a coal range – we didn’t get electricity until 1967 – and one of my fondest memories is of sharing afternoon teas of Round Wine biscuits and orange halves straight from the oven. Music was a big part of life in that house – lots of the aunts, uncles and cousins could play an instrument, and Mum played the ukulele and had an amazing singing voice.

At Whāngārei Girls High I gravitated toward anything creative and loved spending lunchtimes with my friends writing songs and playing guitar. I dreamed of finding a pathway in music, but then life took a different turn altogether. I married a boy off a Titoki farm when I was 17 and by 23, I was the mother of two daughters and a son, all timed nicely to arrive when the cows were dry. I had never imagined spending my life in gumboots, milking cows and worrying about bloat. When the Titoki farm was sold we went sharemilking at Tapora and then we bought a 120-acre farm at Tomarata, paying $1000 an acre. The farm went well, but not the marriage. I moved to the Hibiscus Coast, and it was soon after this that I decided it was time to meet my Dad. I knew he was living in Auckland so I simply looked him up in the telephone book. That phone call was the start of lovely father/daughter relationship.

When I eventually re-married, I moved to Wellsford where my husband and I established an agricultural drainage business. We also started manufacturing and wholesaling cane furniture, and one of our first customers was Stephen Tindall. Around this time, my daughter was performing on the country music circuit and one day she asked me to sing with her. We also did a few amateur musical theatre performances and then I joined a small jazz combo, which led to a big 21-piece big band. It fed my creative side and felt more like what I was meant to do. I’d always been a country music fan, but I love the clever way jazz can bend, shape and shift a song. Over the years I’ve performed at events and festivals in NZ and overseas.

But then, in 2010, everything utterly changed. I got that phone call no mother ever wants to receive – my 31-year-old son Hayden had been killed in a motorcycle accident in Perth. I’d only spoken to him a few days earlier – the shock was both intense and surreal. Even now, a lot of what happened at that time is a blur. My children have always been my proudest achievement so I felt like I’d lost a part of myself. After the funeral in Perth, my daughter suggested I catch the train back to Sydney so I could have some time to try and process what had happened. I bought a diary and spent three days writing about the whole experience. It was a way of trying to deal with my grief and it did help, as much as anything could. We bought my son’s spirit home in 2011 and held a service at my mother’s graveside, recognising that although he had a family in Australia, he also belonged to us. His totem was the tui and whenever I see one flittering around my home, I feel as if he is near and watching over us.

When I got back to NZ, the best you could say is that I functioned. I was working as the events manager at Massey University and coping with the end of another marriage – I buried myself in re-painting the interior of the house as a sort of therapy. Then, towards the end of that year, I saw an advertisement for a cheap trip to Britain and bought it. Before I left, I visited Russell where Hayden had holidayed not long before he died. I decided there and then that I would make an album of original music and launch it at the Duke of Marlborough in two years time. From January to March of that following year I took myself on a journey of healing through England, and also to France, Spain, Italy and Ireland, and wrote to Hayden every day. Sometimes the words flowed and sometimes all I could write was a sentence. When the money ran out, I was ready to return home and the result was a CD produced by Billy Karaitiana with every song on it, weighted with feelings and emotions from that time.

I began to think about how that creative process might help other people. To simplify my life I sold the house I was in, which cleared the mortgage, and rented a house at Manly. A chance meeting with the head of the Toi Ora Trust, which uses art, music and poetry to help people with mental health issues, lead me in a new direction. I developed a workshop for adults, aimed at identifying what weighs us down and how to get it off our minds. People were able to share in a respectful space and we made two compilation CDs of their music and spoken word. I realised I had the ability to encourage people on a pathway to healing through creativity because I came from a place of empathy. My life experiences resonated with the participants and it was hugely rewarding to think that I could make a difference in peoples lives in this way.

My latest project is the foundation of a charitable trust to raise money for the carers of people who are mentally unwell. This started with a Matariki Starlight Jazz Concert at the Holy Trinity Cathedral this year, which raised about $15,000. The idea is to encourage people to walk Aotearoa to raise awareness and money. Mental illness touches almost everyone at some time in their life, but the burden of caring for someone with mental illness often goes unnoticed. I know this from watching my own mother’s struggle. Life has taught me that reaching out to help others is so important for your own wellbeing. It is also important to live in the moment and be grateful for what we have, and I don’t mean that in the material sense. Reach out and have compassion for one another and embrace creativity in whatever forms feel right to you.

Book giveaway

Hibiscus Matters has a signed copy of June Pitman-Hayes book Kia Ora, You Can Be A kiwi Too to give away. To enter, email terry@localmatters.co.nz with the words Kia Ora in the subject line. Please include a daytime contact phone number.  The competition closes on October 11.


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