Images from our past


Barbara Nicholls

Your Experience and involvement with Social Work

Frances Wright is my grandmother, who passed away in September 2005 at the age of 91. The last time I saw her was in February 2005 when I visited NZ from the UK where I have lived since 1997. When she died she had 4 daughters, 14 grandchildren and some 20 great grandchildren. The photo (object) was in the local Dunedin paper in September 2019, which my cousin sent me, and it bought back a flood of wonderful memories and an utter sadness that she is gone.

As a child I thought she would live forever. My grandfather (her husband) died when I was 4 weeks old, and she moved in with my parents and helped them with my first year of life. I of course don’t remember this time, but the strength of the bond between us is impossible still to put words to and was ever present throughout my childhood, adolescence and adulthood until she died. My grandmother was the greatest object of my love and affection that I have known in my lifetime. It was and is a totally different kind of love to that of my parents and family, and my partner and the children in my life. She lived her life with selflessness, grace and humility – something I see somewhat rarely these days – devoting herself to family and friends, but also to a range of organisations that supported people, either charities or organisations, such as the Otago branch of NZ’s Country Women’s Institute.

Write briefly why you chose this object and what it means to you

I chose this object, i.e. the newspaper living memory photo, for the torrent of memories it bought that came completely out of the blue (some 14 years after her death). The 40 year old photo jolted me back through a lifetime of memories of people and experience where my grandmother was and is omnipresent, which in no small part, led me to social work and public service.

My grandmother’s life was not without tragedy and family conflict that was at times utterly heartbreaking for her. But I think looking back, I constantly absorbed from her from a young age to see beyond the circumstance to the person at the centre – and learned from her the art of looking past people’s anger and cruelty, to their humanity and ‘person’.

In another time, I think my grandmother would have been social worker, such was her kindness, empathy and humanity. She did not suffer fools, but somehow instinctively knew how to connect to people and see life through the lens of their experiences and how these led to where they found themselves in life. I spent hours and hours of my childhood talking to her about her life and experiences. And through my adolescence I also probably bored her with my ‘end-of-my-world’ problems, to which she always listened, invariably saying very little. She never tried to solve my problems, but her few words (particularly when I was a teenager!) more often than not led me to some kind of resolution and forgiveness for all the ‘great wrongs’ done to me and the world! Perhaps my grandmother’s greatest gift of all was her instinct for always learning from her life experiences both good and bad, and never thinking she now knew it all – right throughout her life, including my formative years through the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s.

As a social worker now for some 25 years or so, I often hear my grandmother’s wisdom in the words I say and the way I deal with things – both in my personal and especially in professional life. Social work is such a rewarding profession but it can also be a hard and thankless profession. And it can go wrong, something I am feeling very acutely at the moment, as I am faced with tragedy at end of my department’s decisions and case management as we look back through the lens of hindsight and learning. I draw strength from a number of places both from now and in the past. From ‘the now’, I am leading a department devastated by tragedy, but that wants to learn and grow from the experience, and improve our practice from the learning and introspection. From ‘the past’, I am a Director that is reflecting as I think my grandmother would have, trying to learn with humility and being grounded by the good and bad experiences in my professional life not least of all for the want of getting it right next time.

After 25 years, I still love what I do, and am proud to be a public servant. And I have learned that we should always be grounded by the unique stories of the people behind our assessments and decisions. I hope my grandmother would have been proud of me.