Family

Jo Seagar opens up about how she and her husband recovered from their recent tough few years

'I feel like the sun, the moon and the stars are aligning for us again.'

By Suzanne McFadden

Jo Seagar stands like a beacon of calm in the centre of a swirling dust cloud. This metaphorical cloud is kicked up by her "busy", but adorable grandsons, Leroy, who's six, and Lucas, five.

The two well-mannered, energetic blonde boys are on holiday in Auckland with Granny Jo and Poppa Ross.

"When the country boys come to town, it's all traffic lights and escalators," says Jo.

They've been treated to a hotel buffet breakfast – choosing Nutella-smothered bacon and croissants – have been to the top of the Sky Tower, and are now drinking fluffies with marshmallows in a sunny café.

The boys are quite comfortable in the presence of their doting grandparents, living just around the corner from them in the North Canterbury town of Oxford. They stay over at least one night a week.

When you ask Leroy, who's missing his two front teeth, what he loves most about staying with Granny, he quickly responds: "When we play police."

Jo has been known to put the boys in an old golf trundler – which doubles as a police car – and pull them along outside her cottage. They use her hairdryer as a speed camera.

They also like cooking with one of the greatest teachers they could have – one of the country's best-loved cooks. Jo recently took one of the boys' favourite books, The Giant Jam Sandwich – where four million wasps invade Itching Down, so the villagers make a giant jam sandwich to trap them – and attempted to re-enact it with Leroy and Lucas.

"We made the 'giant' loaf of bread, we made the strawberry jam, and then we set the trap. Unfortunately we only caught one mosquito," Jo laughs. "But it's fun to do the whole story, so the boys know where food comes from."

It's clear from the way she engages with the little boys that Jo loves being a grandparent. She also talks enthusiastically about her future trips to intriguing corners of the globe, a new book or two, her ongoing work with Hospice, and the prospect of moving to a new home somewhere in the South Island.

After "a tough few years", life looks good again for the Seagars.

"I feel very optimistic that something good is about to happen. That could be just 'Optimist Jo'," she says.

"But I feel like the sun, the moon and the stars are aligning for us again."

Jo and Ross in the 1980s
Jo and Ross in the 1980s

Three years ago, Jo and her husband Ross were heartbroken at losing their once-thriving business – the Seagars at Oxford cooking school, café and kitchenware store – in the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes. Jo had also broken her leg (she still walks with a limp), and lost her adored mum, Fay, who lived virtually next door to Jo and Ross.

"We've had a rough run," she says.

"But there are lots of great things in our life right now. Ross and I are healthy and well, our kids are well on their way in life, and we've got these wonderful grandkids. We are open to new opportunities. It's nice to be in a situation where you can say yes to lots of things.

"I strongly believe that it's how you rise from the fall. And I don't think you are given things in life without the skills to deal with them. That optimism has got us through."

Family has been central to Jo's recovery. It's been a blessing having daughter Kate, mum to the two boys, close by, so Jo and Ross can play an integral part in their lives.

"When my two kids were at that age, I was busy holding plates in the air, with my career. Ross was busy building 'the empire'. They kind of fitted in with us. Now, as grandparents, we stop everything and get involved," Jo says.

"I used to think when grannies would have their skite books, 'Yeah right'. But somehow – I don't know how – that grandmotherly love snuck in. I realise now how precious the boys are in our lives."

Jo as a TV cook
Jo as a TV cook

With Kate working full-time, Jo and Ross can help out by having the boys to stay a couple of nights a week. And although they are smitten with Leroy and Lucas, they've been mindful of enforcing certain rules at Granny and Poppa's house.

"They come through the door and they know the rules here. We're quite big on 'wash your hands, sit up at the table'," Jo says.

"The boys know about napkins and which fork to use. They like the ritual. We all sing grace at the table, to be thankful for what we have."

At this point in our conversation, the boys come bounding over to Jo at the café table, having spent some of their energy at the playground next door. "I would like a fluffy with…" says Leroy.

"I hope you remember that word," Jo cautions.

"Can I please have a fluffy with…"

"Marshmallows in it," pipes up Lucas. "Me too!"

The Seagars in 2000 with children Kate and Guy.
The Seagars in 2000 with children Kate and Guy.

Jo smiles and Ross orders the boys their foamy milk drinks.

"It's lovely to be able to do the things we can do, and have the time to do them," Jo continues.

"Reading books, playing games, helping them with their homework. Ross is a volunteer fireman – the best superhero the boys could have.

"Sometimes when there's a callout during the day, I've been that crazy lady following the fire engine, so the boys can see all the action – like a woolshed on fire."

Teaching the boys how to cook has many merits. It means that they can fill a tin of baking for Kate: "She's a busy working mother; I'll leave a good message tucked in there too."

It's also a great way to help the boys with maths. "I get them to measure out half a cup of this, three-quarters of that," Jo explains.

"Friends would say, 'Oh look, he's only 18 months old and he's got the sharp knife!' But I've always thought you should get your hands in from an early age."

Both boys are sporty, and last summer Jo and Ross took them to the local pool to learn to swim.

"Ross' father was a geography teacher, so he asks them questions like, 'What is New Zealand's highest mountain, or the longest river?' It's all about grandparents sharing the knowledge," Jo says.

And sharing old family jokes. "Whenever Ross' dad saw the sign 'Honey for Sale' at someone's farm gate, he'd say, 'Oh, look, someone's selling their wife.' Of course, Ross says it, and now the boys say it! It's just one of those silly family sayings, passed down to the next generation."

The Seagers' son, Guy, may live overseas, but he's in regular contact with his parents. His work as a diesel mechanic has taken him to Western Australia, but he'll soon be moving to Canada.

"He'll be home for Christmas," Jo says.

"Home" may be on the move too. It's 12 years since the Seagars sold their farm in Clevedon, south of Auckland, and moved to the little town of Oxford to realise Jo's dream of a cooking school. But now, Jo feels, they are "open to a new adventure".

"We'll certainly stay in the South Island," she says. "We might move to a modern apartment in Christchurch."

Ross works for the Church Property Trustees, which oversees Anglican assets in Canterbury. He's been involved in the resurrection projects of more than 200 churches after the earthquakes, including the vexed ChristChurch Cathedral.

"Ross is only 56, so he has a few years of working yet," says Jo, who's 63.

"And I can work from wherever. We stayed in Oxford after the demise of the business, because Ross was in the fire brigade and I was involved in various community things. It was our little base, and Christchurch was still very much starting over again. Now there are new buildings and houses. It would be nice to have a new, warm home with double glazing."

Jo with then Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae after she was invested as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2015.
Jo with then Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae after she was invested as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2015.

Jo and Ross' business was brought down by the Christchurch earthquakes. After trying to sell Seagars at Oxford, and faced with a crushing tax bill, they were forced into liquidation. "We had so relied on people coming to us. We were a destination. We were booked out until the earthquakes," Jo says.

"But Christchurch lost two million tourists and it's only really coming right now. A lot of our business came from cruise ships, but they now go to Akaroa. An awful lot of businesses were affected."

Jo admits she misses her cooking school, but as the volunteer ambassador for Hospice, a role the former nurse has held since 1999, she travels the country putting on cooking classes for the benefit of local hospices.

"I haven't given away teaching. I still love doing it," she says.

Where the cooking school stood is now a pie shop.

"It's great," Jo says. "We had a wonderful time there, but it had its season. No one planned earthquakes in Canterbury. Everyone's lives changed so dramatically."

Thank goodness, Jo says, that she's never been short of a new idea. She had her writing to carry on with – her columns for The Australian Women's Weekly, and a couple of new books. She's even trying her hand at writing a novel.

Her latest book, Better Than a Bought One, will be on the shelves in October. In this one, she shows how to host great celebrations with minimum effort and maximum effect.

"It came about because so often I'd be talking to young ones, who'd just got engaged and were showing off the ring. And the first thing I'd ask was: 'When's the big day?' And too often I heard: 'We can't afford to get married, we're going to be engaged for 10 years.' And I'd think, surely you can have a chicken sandwich and a glass of bubbles at the beach at your wedding? That's a divine thing. If there's no budget for flowers, weeds from the roadside are perfectly lovely. It's about not breaking the budget to put on a wedding, a 21st, Granny's 90th, or even a funeral. It's about tips to have those celebrations at home, with fabulous recipes. The important thing is that you're gathering family."

This is a book Jo knows she could not have written when she was 21.

She simply didn't have the catering experience, nor the everyday knowledge that life brings.

"I make a really good Christmas cake now, because I've worked out I've made over 1000 Christmas cakes," she says.

Jo's breaking new ground, though, as she "has a go" at writing her first novel. Without giving the plot away, it involves a transglobal romance. Her wealth of travel experience is no doubt proving valuable. Jo continues to love hosting overseas tours for "foodie-interested people".

Almost every year, she takes a small group of around 14 people to Umbria, Italy's rich green heart. It has become like a second home to her. She's just led a group through Italy, France and Croatia – visiting markets, restaurants, vineyards and cooking schools. Her next trip is to Morocco.

Next year, she has plans to lead odysseys into rural northern Japan; then Iceland, Russia and Scandinavia; as well as a "palette to palate" trip from San Francisco up the United States' west coast, for art and food lovers. "It may sound like a holiday, but I am working," she says.

"When I fill in the travel forms at the airport, and they ask for my occupation, I write 'food travel writer'. And I realise, 'Oh my goodness, that's what I've been working all my life for.' That's my dream job. To sit around tables in different parts of the world, and share my love of food, and the understanding that food is more than just fuel. It's wonderful."

Jo may have finally arrived at her dream job, but it hasn't always been a smooth journey to get there.

"Ross and I often ask ourselves, 'Is this how we planned our lives?'" she says. "Financially we are a lot less well off than we were, but we have the ability to earn. We have our health, we have our family and our friends. That's our way forward."

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