The annual family post-Christmas vacation to Whangamata was the event of the year. Five weeks of sunshine, endless hours of boogie boarding, fish and chips with the town’s entire seagull population for company and, after dinner, ice cream walks inevitably ending with an unbalanced Bubble-O-Bill falling off the stick. By Lauren Hitchin
This truly was the time of year our whole family looked forward to, and it has to be the setting for this article about my childhood with Beefy, my eldest brother, who has an intellectual disability.
I’ll start from the beginning, which happens to be the trickiest part of the whole holiday.
Our yearly rental house was completely gutted, so we took everything with us. And I mean everything, from the couches to the beds and the fridge to the dog kennel: literally everything but the kitchen sink. If burglars had broken into our Auckland home while we were away they would have been sorely disappointed!
The morning of our departure, Dad would spend hours packing the car and trailer, becoming increasingly stressed as he frantically rearranged the burgeoning load. I liken it to a live game of Tetris with a whole lot of bungy cords.
Once the trailer and roof racks were at full capacity, the family piled into the Pajero. To give you an idea of the finished product: had we each had a banjo, we could have been mistaken for the Beverly Hillbillies.
This all seems stressful enough right? Now add Beefy to the equation.
Andrew Francis Hitchin, aka Beefy, was far from the best behaved child. In fact, he made a concerted effort to avoid fooling people into thinking he was. And he knew exactly how to get a reaction out of me.
The drive to Whangamata was like sitting in close quarters with a hopped-up crab. He would pinch and pinch until I finally tattled to Mum.
Her classic response: “Lauren, he’s just wanting attention and you’re giving it to him. You’ve both lost your next barley sugar."
She may as well have said I would never see sunshine again.
Our Mum never gave us sweets. She even put fruit in our Christmas stockings (albeit the fancy kind like plums and cherries).
So she very wisely used barley sugars as a bargaining tool for good behaviour on the car ride. They were handed out at 20 minute intervals like little bits of gold. If you played up, you lost your barley sugar for those 20 minutes. It was devastating, but no amount of begging could get that barley sugar back.
Every year, by the time we reached the Coromandel turnoff 30 minutes from our driveway, Beef had lost most of his barley sugars for the trip and, in the process, mine too.
This is such a typical example of growing up with Beef. I always got punished for his misbehaviour. Mum’s no nonsense ‘equal behaviour expectations for all’ meant if one of us acted out, we all suffered the consequences: no TV, no dessert or, worst of all, no barley sugars.
My favourite tactic of Mum's was ‘run around the house until you’re tired’ when we argued too much. The neighbours must have thought we were mad.
By no mean feat, we would arrive in Whangamata and begin our five weeks of Amish-like living. There was no television, or access to Gameboys or Playstations. Just good old fashioned family fun. I guess it was this absence of entertainment that gave Beef time to tackle his flair for inventing.
Oh, his inventions!
As a child I thought he was so cool making zany contraptions, and they sure made the time pass. Then I turned 15.
I remember that year at Whangamata, when he invented a system for carrying boogie boards to the beach. He found a rusty old two-wheeler golf trundler at the tip, attached some bike wheels, laid the boogie boards on top, and bungy corded them into position.
He attached the golf trundler to the back of his bike, and ferried the boards to the beach. It would have been okay had Beef just dropped the boogie boards on the boardwalk and let me carry them down to the beach. But this is Beef. He had to drive across the sand, using his air horn to clear a path through sunbathers to deliver them to me.
And often it was a surprise I could be flicking my hair trying to impress a group of guys with my girlfriends, and the air horn would blast, announcing the arrival of Beef with my boogie board.
My friends thought it was fantastic; a right laugh, not to mention a handy service. But I would get so embarrassed. And I let Beefy know with a scowl and some harsh words about them being my friends, not his.
Looking back, I don’t know why it bothered me. He so desperately wanted friends, going out of his way to impress us.
It must have been hard for him when I grew up. He still wanted the little sister who thought he was cool and looked up to him. Imagine someone telling you the things you’ve always done are now super embarrassing.
This would crush Beef, so young at heart and desperate to please, and I knew that. I would spend the rest of the day feeling guilty and wishing I hadn’t snapped at him.
And you know the ironic thing? Beef helped me pick my best friends. Seeing people interact with Beef really showed their true colours. If Beef went quiet when I said a friend was coming over, that person was very likely a tosser who didn’t give him the time of day.
I had no time for those ‘friends’ who thought they were smart and had a cheap laugh at Beef's expense. I just never got the joke, I guess.
One Big Happy Family
I recently got engaged, and immediately told my three best friends. The one thing they all asked eagerly? "Was Beef thrilled?"
Their faces were full of excitement, ready for a great Beefy story.That made me smile, and I knew I had my bridesmaids sitting in front of me: genuine, warm, caring people who truly love my brother for who he is.
And my fella John? He’s been living with Beef and I for a year now and has stuck around. And Beef really tested him, staging a three month sit-in to protest John’s arrival at ‘his’ house.
John must really like me.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I had the best childhood with Beef, and I loved every minute of it. I may have told him off along the way, but I loved being a kid with him, and can still be one even now I’ve grown up. Beef always has kept things real and always will. No drama, no gossip, he just says it like it is.
Of course he got more attention, but darn did he work for it. I’ve never known someone to put so much effort into something!
Carers New Zealand is developing information for children and young people in caring situations, and for their teachers. In the meantime visit Young Carers.net (operated by the UK’s Princess royal Trust for Carers), and Carers Australia’s site … both of which have great resources for young carers.
Visit also the Facebook page of Young Carers NZ!