There are many different ways to honour the people who shape us. We present awards and bestow honours for remarkable achievements, adding letters at the end of names like “ONZ” or “QSM” or prefixing names with “Dame” or “Sir”.
But we can also honour someone simply by saying their name out loud. It’s how we show respect and keep someone’s memory alive. Round our place – and no doubt around yours – we make a habit of name-checking the good people we miss.
You won’t have heard of Kiritapu Wilson. Her name was never in a New Year’s honours list. She didn’t win an award. She wasn’t a writer, filmmaker, or business leader. She didn’t break through any glass ceilings or travel the world.
Mostly, what Kitty did was have babies. Eleven of them. Seven daughters and four sons. And fed, clothed and loved them, and welcomed them home whenever they needed to come back.
Born Kiritapu Borell 89 years ago, she lived her entire life in Te Puna in the Bay of Plenty, of Ngati Ranginui iwi and Pirirakau hapu. When she was little, she got the strap at school for speaking Maori. They called her Kitty because Kiritapu was too hard for Pakeha to say.
She married a Pakeha, Len Wilson, who embraced her whenua and the people in it and they raised their children surrounded by aunties and cousins. Kitty believed nothing was more important than whanau. When things were broken – hearts and bonds – she would find ways to put them back together.
She had a cheeky sense of humour but you would have been wrong to mistake her playfulness for weakness. A mother of eleven knows which tone of voice to use to get things done.
There were hard times, disappointments and regrets like there are in all families. But – and this bit is not true of all families – there was always forgiveness. You could always go home. Nanny Kitty kept her garden full of food, and the house filled with photos of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
When Kiritapu Wilson died on Sunday, all eleven of her children were in the room. The people she brought into the world were there to lovingly farewell her from it. Many of her 64 grandchildren and great-grandchildren had already gathered for the tangi. They are writers, filmmakers, travellers, business people and university graduates.
The granddaughter who shares her name is a lawyer. Pakeha have got better at saying “Kiritapu” now. The youngest granddaughter, Waiwhakata, goes to the school Kitty went to all those years ago. She won their Maori speech contest last year.
Kiritapu Wilson is my daughter’s grandmother, our Nanny Kitty. She was not one of those people who made headlines or who was publicly celebrated. She was, I guess, one of those ordinary women who have an extraordinary impact on our lives. You will know women like her, who have that place in your life. We should say their names to each other, out loud.
So here’s what I’m suggesting. That today we each tweet the name of a woman who has shaped us. Someone no longer with us, or someone still around. Just her name and a couple of hashtags so we can all find them: #strongwomen #kiritapu
And not just today. Any time we want to say out loud the name of an ordinary woman who does extraordinary things. I love the idea that, into the future, Nanny Kitty’s name will randomly appear in our Twitter feeds alongside the names of other women we are grateful for.