Family

Gemma McCaw introduces the most important women in her life

"I feel fortunate that we talk on the phone every day and she comes to visit a lot," Gemma's mum says. "We still have a very strong bond."

By Sophie Neville

When it comes to inspirational women to look up to and learn from, Gemma McCaw is spoilt for choice. There's her mum Michelle Flynn, who she counts as her best friend, and nana Yvonne Ford Armstrong, whose love, values and resilience have shaped the entire family.

"I am so lucky to have such amazing women in my family," tells former Black Stick Gemma, and Woman's Day wellness columnist. "They're the kindest, most non-judgmental, supportive people I know. I can't imagine life without them."

And as they reunite for our special Mother's Day photo shoot, it's clear to see just how happy Michelle, 55, and Yvonne, 78, are to have their girl back home in Tauranga. The hockey star-turned-health coach has flown in from Christchurch, where she lives with her All Black legend husband Richie McCaw, and they're all excited about the long weekend of quality time ahead of them.

"I miss Gemma," admits Michelle, who is also mum to Jared, 34, and Isaac, 31, and nana to little Archie, 18 months.

"It would be so nice if she was just around the corner, but I feel fortunate that we talk on the phone every day and she comes to visit a lot. We still have a very strong bond."

Gemma's large, extended family is remarkably tight-knit, with Michelle and her three siblings all living within a 10-minute drive of each other. Yvonne and her husband Gary Armstrong are just down the road and four of Yvonne's nine grandchildren still live in Tauranga, so it's no surprise that life revolves around whanau. Birthdays are celebrated with pot-luck dinners, holidays are taken en masse and everyone always looks out for one another.

"My cousins and I all grew up together," tells Gemma. "We'd go between each other's houses and spend weekends at Nana's, where she'd take us down to the Citizens Club for sing-alongs. Everyone has always been totally supportive of each other, no matter what happens."

And while home is now the South Island, Gemma, 28, doesn't feel far away. She talks to her mum most days and regularly catches up with Yvonne. But despite giving emailing a go, they've decided to stick with phone calls.

"I'm not very good on the technology – I get all tangled up!" laughs Yvonne, who was sadly widowed at 38 when her beloved first husband Ron Ford died of a heart attack. Losing their father and husband was a terrible time for the young family, but Yvonne and Michelle agree the tragedy cemented their unbreakable bond.

"I'll never forget the awful shock of it all because he was only 42, so it was totally unexpected," says Yvonne.

"But my children became my entire world from that moment and I just felt so blessed to have them. They were young, but they were a huge support to me."

Yvonne remembers realising a few months after Ron's death that her children, aged between 17 and 23 at the time, were running a secret roster to make sure their mum was never by herself.

"Instead of going out on Friday nights, which is what they always used to do, one of them would stay home with me. I'd say, 'Why aren't you going out?' and they'd just say, 'Oh, I don't feel like it tonight.' That's when it dawned on me they were up to something. I thought that was pretty special and it really did help me cope."

And Michelle, the youngest of four children, says she'll never forget her mother's resilience.

"She's incredibly strong and she's proof that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Her ability to carry on and still find things to be positive in life was a great lesson for us. She's proof that we're all strong enough to face whatever comes along in life."

Yvonne's grit was called upon again in 2003, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery and radiotherapy, and fortunately came through it. But she and the family were shocked when the cancer returned in 2011.

"It was really scary," says Gemma. "But again, Nana was so brave and went through all the treatment and fortunately they got it in time. It was such a huge relief because she's the heart of the family – she's one of a kind."

While Gemma and her mother are in awe of their inspirational matriarch, Michelle and Yvonne are also deeply proud of Gemma. After two sons, Michelle was delighted to welcome a girl and their little blondie was "friendly, charismatic
and quite delightful". Yvonne insists her sporting prowess was evident very early on.

"She would pick up a ball and just seemed to know what to do with it," recalls Yvonne.

"She even got her dad to saw her brother's hockey stick in half when she was five and she barely put it down after that."

Above all, though, they remember just how sweet little Gemma was – she loved cuddles with Nana and racing around with her brothers and cousins. And while the teenage years saw the usual mother-daughter tension, Gemma and Michelle's closeness never wavered.

"She was a very social girl and did everything at 100 miles an hour, so we butted heads a bit over that and we had to remind her sometimes that we were the parents," laughs Michelle. "But there's something very special about a relationship with a daughter. We were always able to talk to each other about anything and we still can."

She and husband Rob watched on proudly as Gemma was selected for the Black Sticks at just 17 and could barely believe it when she was part of the squad to head off to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

"We booked our tickets as soon as we heard," tells Michelle, who was in the stands for the London and Rio de Janeiro campaigns too.

"It's an indescribable feeling to see your daughter standing up there in the black uniform singing the New Zealand national anthem at the Olympic Games. It brought a tear to the eye, that's for sure. We were incredibly proud because she'd worked so hard for it and made a lot of sacrifices."

But Gemma insists she wouldn't have made it nearly as far as she did without her parents' support – driving her to games and manning the sausage-sizzle fundraisers – and it was Michelle who helped her pick up the pieces after the devastation of missing out on a medal at both Olympics.

"I was crushed and there wasn't much she could say to make it better, but she was just always there for me," says Gemma.

"I'll always be grateful for that. I really mean it when I say Mum's my best friend. I'd be lost without her.

"She's the best person to talk to about things. She'll question me and challenge me, and really make me think. But at the same time, she always supports me, no matter what."

Like Gemma and her mum, Michelle and Yvonne have always been close, even running a wedding dress hire business together for 10 years.

"I loved working with Mum," tells Michelle, who went on to train as a teacher in her 30s. "Our business was called Affordable Weddings and the best thing was seeing Mum with the clients. She has this way with people – they just feel totally at ease with her. We had people from all walks of life come through the door, but she never judged – she was always welcoming and so kind to everyone."

Michelle was on the receiving end of this kindness when she and Rob started a family of their own. "Mum was amazing. She'd take the kids for weekends so we could still have a bit of a life. We were quite young, so her support made things so much easier."

Gemma can still remember the joy of sleepovers at Nana's and playing dress-ups with all the wedding outfits stored in the basement. But it was at Gemma's own wedding to Richie in Wanaka in January last year that brought Yvonne the greatest joy of all.

"It really was one of the proudest days of my life," says Yvonne. "Gemma looked so beautiful and I could see she only had eyes for Richie. She just never took her eyes off him – it was magic."

A longtime rugby fan, Yvonne couldn't be happier with Gemma's choice of husband.

"I'd always liked Richie but he's even better in real life. He's so warm and gentle, and really listens to what you have to say. He's slotted into our family so well. I couldn't have wished for a better person for Gemma."

And with such amazing role models, Gemma won't have to look far for inspiration when it comes to raising a family in the future.

"If I'm lucky enough to have a family one day, then I'll be happy if I can be even half the mother that my mum is," she smiles.

And Yvonne makes it quite clear she'd like a whole team of great-grandchildren. "I've told Gemma I don't want to wait much longer! Family is so precious to me."

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