For the Maori characters of Potiki, awareness of ancestors and connection with them is a fundamental aspect of life; knowing the stories of one’s predecessors and living in their shadow empowers the living. This idea of ties with countless generations of nameless ancestors seemed unfamiliar to my Western mind as I read Patricia Grace’s novel. While I appreciated the conviction that the characters had about their ancestral lands, I struggled to draw any parallel to my own understanding of home. My experience as a twenty-first century American has focused primarily on the nuclear family and personal autonomy, leaving me only vaguely aware of more distant relatives and history. The individuals in my extended family have never been a part of my daily life so, living or dead, they remain a distant presence instead of a force that roots me. At first I attributed this difference in attachment to the ancestors to cultural distinctions between the Maori and my own heritage.
In reading Grace’s description of the wharenui, however, I began to understand: one can remain connected to ancestors by staying in the place they lived and died. The physical space of generations binds people together. I witnessed this last summer, when I traveled with my parents to a small house in Delaware that had sheltered our family for three quarters of a century. When my great-great-grandparents arrived from Poland, they settled in that small house near a tanning factory in the Polish neighborhood of Wilmington. My great-grandmother and grandmother grew up in that house, speaking only Polish and attending Polish Catholic parochial schools. My mother’s earliest memories include visits to her maternal clan, eating warm chleb in the dingy kitchen. Now it was time to sell the house, and the whole family gathered to clean and say goodbye. My cousins, aunts, and uncles drove their modern cars into the dilapidated section of town to pay homage to our ancestors. The place is a relic—not much to look at, only three small bedrooms with wall-paper yellowed from years of tobacco use. At first I was disgusted by the squalor and disrepair. As I walked through the rooms with my mother and grandmother, however, the house became alive again with their stories. I removed an old rusty crucifix from above a bed: the very bed she was born on and her mother died on. My mother shuddered as we walked across the creaky floorboards; pointing to a corner, she said “That’s where my Uncle Tommy’s wooden leg used to sit. As a girl, I always tried to sneak past to avoid touching it.” As I moved to help my grandmother down the rickety stairs, she stopped. Her eyes misted over and in them I could see her memory, as vividly as when she was sixteen years old and the police came in the front door to take her father to jail. We gazed at that door from the top of the stairs, the pain as fresh in my grandmother’s chest and in mine as on that day she stood helplessly watching. My ancestors came alive for me that day as I stood in their house—my house—and breathed their air so laden with their memories. The stories were not new to me, though I did not remember hearing them before. As they spilled forth from my mother and grandmother they resonated deep within me and I knew they had shaped my very core.
Grace describes a similar phenomenon within her characters and their society. Stories connect the young with their ancestors and remind of how the current generation has been shaped by its predecessors. Roimata says that the Maori helped with the reconstruction of the wharenui because “they knew what it meant to the spirit and upliftment of people to be housed in a house which expressed and defined them” (151-152). The wharenui is a house of stories, which articulate and shape the present in light of the past. This keen awareness of the ancestors cannot be divorced from the physical space of the family lands. The people emphasize this point when the Mr. Dolman offers them the relocation of their house with no damage or cost: “we’ll never let this house be moved. Never…That is a sacred sight, as we’ve said in our letters. Our dead lie there” (91). This insistence frustrates Mr. Dolman, who cannot understand that physical proximity to the location of their ancestors is integral to this community’s culture. The stories connect individuals with their identity, but it is the land that evokes those stories, just as my family’s house did for me. The spirit of a people, developed over generations, remains intimately tied with place in Maori culture—and, perhaps, in my own as well.