“You are the flower I wear,” may not translate well into English, but for Maori Cook Islanders it has a special meaning, something equivalent to “you are my everything, my heart”.
Family, church, friends and community were the reasons Essie lived. She was admired in her community for her many kindnesses, her friendly nature and her eternally cheerful personality.
Essie, or “Mumsie”, as she was known by her family, was laid to rest at the Catholic cemetery at Panama last Friday evening, August 10, after a requiem mass conducted by Father Freddie Kaina at Sacred Heart Catholic Church at Matavera. The numbers attending her funeral spilled out of the church and on to the verandah and lawn outside.
Essie was a former Miss Cook Islands. Crowned in 1984, she also represented the Cook Islands at Miss Universe the following year in Florida, USA.
Helen Hay, then a Miss Cook Islands pageant committee member, recalls that “Essie was a delight to work with”.
“She took her role seriously and she took on board all the things we taught her. She blossomed as Miss Cook Islands.”
Essie, a much-loved daughter, adored aunt, and loyal friend, was born in Aitutaki on July 31, 1964, in the village of Tautu.
One of twin girls, the other having died at birth during the home delivery, Essie was the last-born of Dr Koekoe and Moana Mokotupu’s five children.
Essie was named for her maternal grandmother, Essie Corrie, who was of Scottish, Tongan and Samoan descent, and had lived in Fiji since childhood.
Essie’s father Koekoe hails from Aitutaki and Rarotonga and is of Nuku Hiva (Marquesas) ancestry also. He has a famous ancestor, Tepaki, who was the first Cook Islander to accept Christianity when Rev John Williams called at Aitutaki and left two Tahitian missionaries in 1821.
Moana, Essie’s mother, was born at Suva, Fiji. She married Koekoe in Fiji where they had met while Koekoe was training to be a doctor.
Throughout her life Essie was dedicated as a parishioner of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church at Matavera and of her village of O’oa.
Ana Makara, one of the members of Sacred Heart, describes Essie as being “one of a kind – a tireless worker with a beautiful smile, who remained faithful to her church to the very end”.
With its small congregation, Matavera could always rely on Essie’s services during working bees. Her loss is keenly felt by the tight group of workers, numbering about five people, who frequently turned up to help around the church. “No matter how ill she was she continued to show up,” says Ana.
Essie was born in Aitutaki while Koekoe was the resident doctor. Essie’s maternal grandmother came from Fiji to live for about 11 years and helped to raise the children – Essie and her grandmother had a close and special bond.
In 1967, when Essie was three years old, the family moved to Pukapuka. Koekoe took ill in 1968 and had to be flown by Sunderland seaplane to Samoa, while his family returned to Rarotonga.
At age five Essie started school at Nikao Side School in 1969 – her many contemporaries include Allyson Gibbons, Margaret Numanga, Jean Mason, John Whitta, Gaye Whitta, Elizabeth Koteka, Jacqueline Puna-Teaukura, Andre Tutaka, Junior Tuatea, Richard Caffery, Angela Wind, Casper Mateariki and others. After Nikao Side School, Essie went to Nukutere College on Rarotonga.
Her schoolmates remember Essie as a quiet, sensitive, creative but determined child.
From 1969 to 1976, Koekoe went for further medical training in Dunedin, then Auckland and India, and was away for a total of almost seven years. Moana and the children remained on Rarotonga.
A school friend, Jean Mason, recollects: “I remember Essie coming to school covered in fancy Indian bracelets on both wrists. We kept admiring them, so she would give each of us girls in class one or two of the bracelets to keep, till eventually she only had a couple left.
“Throughout her life, Essie was always kind and giving. She volunteered her services for special events on many occasions at the Cook Islands Library & Museum Society, giving of her expert food and beverage management skills and helping to make each event a success.”
Growing up on Rarotonga, Essie readily learned to play musical instruments and learned to sing and dance from an early age, which was to hold her in good stead for a future as a Miss Cook Islands contestant.
One of her Miss Cook Islands obligations was to promote Cook Islands in New Zealand, which she did with aplomb. Her chaperones were Sonya Kamana and the late Dorice Reid.
Kamana describes Essie as a “terrific girl, who carried on in spite of injury – a heavy object holding down a poster above her had fallen on her head just as she was about to start her promotional show”.
“Essie’s job was to come out singing while playing an ukulele, then she’d dance afterwards, all of which she did with skill and grace”.
In the early 1980s, Essie started working at Jetsave Travel when it was headed by the late Melynda Morrissette, a local personality. The two became firm friends.
Essie loved to dance. She was a dancer in a specially created troupe selected to represent the Cook Islands at the 1988 World Expo held in Brisbane, Australia, which is when she resigned from Jetsave and moved to Australia permanently.
Her fellow dancers included Georgina Keenan, Kaka Ama, Lorna Sawtell, Steven Kavana, Linda Pureau, the late Nooroa Takairangi and others.
The dancers lived on site, danced to a timetable to promote the Cook Islands, and manned the Cook Islands pavilion.
When the Expo finished after six months, Essie went to work on Hayman Island, off the Queensland coast, along with a number of other Cook Islanders, including Lafala Keenan, John Lindsay, Kat Keil and Vicky Henderson.
Essie trained in food and beverage work and eventually became a manager. Her colleagues remember her as hard-working, cheerful and always professional in her work.
Essie worked for 10 years on Hayman Island and then she moved to Cairns, where she continued to work in food and beverage as well as wedding planning in major hotels the Oasis and Shangri-La. Essie resided in Australia for 20 years.
In 2005 she suffered her first bout of cancer which she fought off successfully with a combination of chemo, surgery and a plant food-based diet.
When she recovered she returned home to the Cook Islands to take care of her parents and to help them with their expanding honey business, the only one in the Cook Islands. This she did in 2009 and very quickly she learned to take care of the beehives and helped her parents to sell the honey, which they called Coconut Palm Honey. The brand quickly became established and popular locally.
For a short time Essie also worked at the Spaghetti House at Edgewater Hotel as a restaurant manager.
Essie’s cancer was in remission for 10 years. Unfortunately it returned a couple of years ago.
Once again, Essie gave it all she had to fight it, but the cancer had already spread to her bones.
She learned to administer her own morphine injections for the pain. Through it all she retained her sense of humour, her patience, and her kind and gentle nature.
In spite of the pain of her illness, Essie continued to help with fundraising and maintenance at her beloved Sacred Heart church at Matavera. In fact, right up until a few days before she left for her last trip to New Zealand for medical treatment, in April this year, she was helping at the church to restore its grotto.
As Fr Freddie Kaina proudly proclaimed during Essie’s requiem mass, “Although she was small in stature, she was a giant in her relationships”.
This sentiment was echoed by her eldest niece, Moana Samson, when delivering the eulogy: “When some people come to the end of their lives, they will check their bank accounts and total up their assets to determine how rich they are, but if you ask me, I like to look at a person and count their friends. Essie was one of the richest people I know.”
Essie had many friends. Indeed, she had friendships with many living creatures: bees, the chickens at O’oa, and many assorted dogs through the years. Her remaining pet, a cat called Kitty, was a skeletal, nondescript creature when it first showed up and was adopted by Essie. It’s now a plump, pretty, marmalade-and-grey moggy.
Essie passed away at Middlemore Hospital on August 3, 2018, in Auckland, New Zealand, and her body was returned to Rarotonga on Thursday, August 9.
She is survived by her parents Koekoe and Moana, and siblings Mike, John, Keith and Agnes, as well as five nieces and two nephews.
E moe ra e te purotu o Araura, tei roto koe i nga rima o Iesu.
Rest in the arms of Jesus, beauty of Aitutaki.
- JM/Mokotupu Family