Rona, Elizabeth and Ruth don’t think of themselves as anything other than ordinary, but as the first set of triplets born on Rakiura/Stewart Island, they have always attracted attention – all the more so now that they are the country’s oldest Māori triplets.
The sisters, now known by their married names – Ruth Brandon, Rona Larsen and Elizabeth (Bessie) Porima – live in different parts of the country, but they are never far from each other’s thoughts. Their birthday party on February 27 was a chance to get together and reminisce.
The triplets were born to parents, Tom and Ruth Ryan, who went on to have 16 children in all, including twins.
The sisters agree that although they were special in the eyes of others, being triplets was nothing unusual for them.
“We’ve all led really ordinary lives. Because we were triplets we’ve sort of been made a fuss of, but really I never felt all that special. We’re just three girls in a big family being brought up,” says Ruth.
“We didn’t like the fuss,” says Rona.
Ruth says she and her sisters had a lovely childhood despite the relatively troubled times.
“We were born during the Depression in 1931, and we started school in 1937. Then the war came along. We had a pretty good life. We didn’t have lots of material things, but our father gardened. We had our own cow; and our mother was a great cook,” says Ruth.
“The year we were born, the first airplane landed in Stewart Island – the float plane, it was,” says Bessie. “It ran out on the beach and Oscar Garden was the pilot. Mother was going to call one of us Oscarina after him,” Bessie says with a laugh.
“Supposedly Mum was going to call one of us Oscarina or Gardenia or some such,” corrects Rona, “but Mum didn’t even know the plane had landed.”
The sisters say the fact their mum, Ruth, didn’t know she was carrying three little babies added drama and excitement to the day of their birth.
“In those days there were no such things as scans and things like that,” Bessie explains. “I was born three hours before Rona and Ruth and the doctor couldn’t come over because of the weather.”
So Sister Casey the district nurse delivered Bess,” continues Rona. “But our grandmother, who was a midwife, delivered us because the nurse panicked when she realised Mum was going to have triplets.”
Having escaped being named Oscarina or Gardenia, the triplets are thankful their parents looked to significant family members and friends as inspiration for their names, as Bessie explains.
“I was named after my godmother Elizabeth Thompson. Tiraroa, my Māori name, comes from one of the chieftainesses, or from my aunt’s family. I love my name Elizabeth, but I get called Bessie. People say to me: ‘Why do they call you Bessie when you’ve got a beautiful name, Elizabeth?’ I just say ‘it’s how it is’.”
Rona continues the story. “My name is Rona Jane Marewa. And from what I hear my first name came from the Braggs – the Rona. The Jane came from my paternal grandmother, and Marewa came from up in Otago, the Te Roi.”
“Because these two were born first and had to be taken to Karitane Hospital in Invercargill, they got named straight away,” says Ruth.
“Mother’s eldest sister said to mum: ‘What are we going to call this one?’ So my name’s Ruth after my mother, and Hawea, my Māori name, is after one of the ladies up in Otago.”
Having moved to Bluff as children, Bessie talks of a normal childhood in a small town. “Really, we were just three girls in a large family, going to school and playing outside. We went to school just across the road from our family home and we would come home for lunch – we never had lunch at school. We always had really good meals made by our mother.”
The triplets were the second eldest in their family and being the eldest girls still living with the family (an older sister lived with their grandparents), they had specific responsibilities. Rona says they were always there to help their mother.
“We were never idle,” adds Ruth. “We were in charge of the younger kids. We practically brought them up.”
Birthdays were not a priority.
“We didn’t have birthdays but our mum was a great baker and she always had lovely cakes. We just had little family celebrations. There were no parties as such,” says Bess.
“And not many presents – actually, no presents at all,” says Rona.
“Our first birthday party was when we were 50 and we had it in Rotorua,” continues Bess.
“Our mother was so looking forward to coming up to that but she died in the March. From then on… well we didn’t have a 60th but we had a 65th, we had a 70th, we had a 75th and now we have an 80th.”
Their 80th was all about welcoming and reconnecting with family and friends, and celebrating with singing and dancing. Speeches were made and jokes were told. There was laughter and tears, reminiscing and, of course, the birthday greetings; all fuelled by the wonderful kai Bluff is famous for.
For the triplets, getting together with family was the most important part.
“It’s like a reunion because it brings all our family together,” says Ruth. “We live in the North Island, some of our families and grandchildren live in Australia and five of our brothers live here in Bluff, so it brings us all together.”
“It was just wonderful to see all the people,” adds Bessie. “A lot of our family members hadn’t been here before so it was lovely to see cousins dancing and having a wonderful time together.”
It was particularly special, as this is their first birthday celebration in Bluff as adults and the first time for some of their family members to visit their hometown.
“My eldest daughter and her children were here and they’d never been here before,” says Rona. They all agree that Bluff will always be home, no matter where they live.
As talk turns to the next birthday celebration (their 85th), the triplets also talk about sharing the years as sisters.
“As well as being sisters, we’ve always been friends,” says Bessie.
“When we get together we talk, talk, talk,” adds Ruth.
“We’re blessed. We keep good health although we have a few aches and pains, you know. But I always think we’re young at heart,” concludes Rona.