My name is Merritt and I will admit: I am a kiwiphile. Since I was a young girl I have been enamored by all things related to New Zealand—books, music, poetry, Maori mythology and people.
In my early twenties, my friends and I hung out at a local Irish pub in Dallas called the Blarney Stone. The pub hosted a large population of NZ rugby players and transplants. I was smitten. Thanks to a sporty friend of mine, we befriended some of the gents, but there was only so much I could chat about with them. There was a girl around my age, but I thought it probably too strange to just walk up to her and say, “You’re from New Zealand? That’s awesome! Let’s be friends!” So I waited.
Then I ran right into Xena: Warrior Princess and decided there was no longer any reason to be shy. Estelle was decked out head-to-toe for Halloween, bringing NZ to TX via Lucy Lawless. The witch and the Warrior Princess became fast friends.
Now, it seems like two young girls becoming friends at a bar doesn’t bode well for good conversation or meaningful sharing, but fortunately, we were committed to more than just drinks on Lower Greenville Avenue.
Estelle and I would run random errands to the grocery store, sit transferring each others CDs to cassettes (back when people still listened to those), watch bad TV shows, go to see bands play and music shop. But during that time we also talked. And once I got better at understanding her accent, we talked a lot. Apparently, I am one of those people who takes on other people’s accents, and it was even a running joke amongst my friends that whenever Estelle was around, I sounded like a faint version of her.
Speaking of my friends, every single one of them (and they were a tough lot) loved Estelle immediately. They took to her as if she’d been there all along. My flatmate Jen would sass her in her patented way and E would return it like a pro. Suzy was thankful someone else was around that was as tall and as silly as she was. Matty attempted to start a campaign to get Estelle to record stories and books on tape so he could listen to them for bedtime stories (he also thought it was a no-fail business plan) because her voice was so melodic and lovely.
When it came time for her to go back to New Zealand, I was so upset. Through all my silly boy drama and our fun times, Stelly had truly taught me a different way of approaching things. Kia kaha, she’d taught me. She was realistic, but ever positive. She was philosophical, but completely humble and relatable. She was a beautiful person already at such a young age. And, she had in a few months, changed my way of thinking from sourpuss twenty-something to optimistic young woman.
Upon leaving, Stell gave me a greenstone and it became one of my most prized possessions. She said someday it would take me to New Zealand so it could visit its home. She wanted to help me along with my dream of traveling there…and she, of course, was making a tough day more positive.
We emailed and wrote for years. She returned to visit, and each time I saw her—even if it was just for a dinner—I felt like I was seeing a long-lost sister. I felt a connection to her that made me feel like I had support across the world. If I thought of Estelle—which I did often over the 12 years I’ve known her and will continue to do always—I felt like perhaps she was also thinking of me.
She’d send me amazing pieces of jewelry—even one piece she made—and oh, her great style. I wear all of it so often. I’ve always cherished it but now, it means so much more in that I feel like I’m wearing her energy.
She supported me through breaks-ups with humor—the BEST sense of humor. Stories of flatmate Genevieve and never-ending boxes of chocolate. Strange Korean ladies who tossed Dentyne chewing gum to her favorite NZers on their hikes. Listening to Bob Dylan’s greatest on repeat in a South Korean bar called Woodstock.
She uplifted me after my witnessing my mother’s heart attack with an insight that now, rings both heartbreaking and comforting: She wrote, “It’s occurrences like that that make you realise how precious life is, and it reinforces my philosophy of if I died tomorrow, would I be happy? I am a huge believer of that train of thought…”
And I know she was so very happy. If anyone conveyed that in life—even as she worked to achieve her degree or work abroad—it was Estelle. She could be in a down mood, but she always had something she could look at or think on to find happiness in. And a wish for others to do the same.
Unfortunately, Stelly and I hadn’t been in touch recently. We’d lost track of addresses in various relocations and just life, I think. I had been thinking, “I need to email Estelle. But I’ll wait until tonight/tomorrow when I can have a chunk of time to tell her everything.” For far too long. It’s silly really. I should have taken a cue from Stell-Bell herself and just said, “Hello, lady!” to get the ball rolling again. I think it always just seemed—as it does with the best memories—like our times were only yesterday, and we had all the time in the world to recapture them. But now, I think again and hope it’s certain that when I thought of her, she might have thought of me…knowing (somehow, some way) that over the course of being out of touch, we had both (at what I can estimate to actually be around the same time) found and fell in love with wonderful men named Jacob.
Yes, we even found soul mates with the same name, same blonde-brown hair and kind eyes. It almost seems like all the times she closed her letters with wishes “love & sunshine!” worked for Estelle and me both. I don’t doubt that really. She was that powerful a positive force. The sun is shining more beautifully than it has all year right now as I write this, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
In fact, I feel so strongly that she’s still very much a part of me, a part of the air, a part of the world I live in. It may sound strange or silly to some, but I don’t mind. In reading our letters I was reminded of sending her a care package with some chimes in it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, either, that after I heard of the earthquake, I noticed our chimes banging loudly outside and immediately googled her when I couldn’t find her on Facebook to see if I could track down where she worked…and oh, how my heart sank when I found the address, hoping my urgent emails would be answered. Or that after I observed the two-minute silence here, the bells at a nearby church rang earlier and for longer than their typical hour-marker called for. Or that just now, a bell rang yet again outside. She’s our Stell-Bell and I’m more than happy to have her ringing strong in my life as long as possible.
Estelle brought people together, and staying true to fashion, it’s because of her that I now have contact with new and old friends (thank you, Facebook, for making that easier!). I’ve been able to reconnect with her sis Hayley and some great Blarney folk. I’ve met online her best friends from life, her awesome flatmate G, her beloved Jake. I’ve made friends that knew our girl and I’m honored, welcoming any and all others. I think that’s another way she is still with me. To all of you missing and loving her, I will continue to send love your way. As she taught me, kia kaha. Please don’t be strangers. (That goes for you too, Stelly.)
“Lovely” is defined as something delightful due to its possessing beauty, harmony or grace. Another lesser-known definition of the word: Estelle Cullen.
Lovely, beautiful and amazing are words often over-used or misused in popular culture describing things like cars, dresses and celebrity, but when referring to Estelle, such words couldn’t possibly ring truer.
If anyone has a plan to toast Estelle but isn’t sure what with, this is a cocktail the Blarney Stone in Dallas, TX named after her and served as “The Estelle” circa 1999-2002:
Splash of orange juice
Serve in a tall glass with a straw. Enjoy and think of Estelle.