It was March 27, 1920, when Emily Patience Mii Metua Akapi Russell was born. She came into the world in Ruatonga, in an English-style bungalow surrounded by an enclosed veranda, with a fishpond and fountain in the front yard.
“She remembers this house with fondness, it was where she was born, and she has often spoken of many happy hours spent there,” says her daughter, Emona Russell-Numanga.
Russell was the second child of Akapi and his wife Te Ara Marokainga. Her brothers and sisters were William, Albert, Harries, Akapi and Tungane.
Her father Akapi was the son a German naval officer Gustav von Fuhrmann, who came to Rarotonga in the late 1800s.
Von Fuhrmann met Tepaeru a Ito, married her, and then departed with his ship – leaving behind his young wife and unborn son.
Tepaeru married again to Welsh seafarer Captain Thomas Harries; they had a daughter Maryann. She, in turn, had two daughters Mary Harvey and Tepaeru Whitta., and a son who went on to be Prime Minister Sir Thomas Davis.
But Akapi was adopted by his mother’s sister Ngapoko and her husband named Akapi.
Emily Russell attended St Joseph’s school where she was taught by the nuns who were from Ireland and France.
As well as lessons of reading and writing, they were taught embroidery, crocheting, tatting, lace making, sewing, to read music and to play the piano – which led to her life-long love for music.
In later years she taught many people to play the piano and played at churches, services and weddings.
At the age of 17, she met her first husband, Tamarua Joseph Browne; they wed at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland.
She gave birth to their daughter Elizabeth, when she was 22 years old.
Elizabeth was not quite a year old when Russell decided to bring her home to Rarotonga – before Emily returned to Auckland to work at the Post Office in Symonds Street.
That’s where she met her second husband, Frank Russell.
They married and moved to live in Taumarunui, in the central North Island, but she again felt the call home and she returned to Rarotonga to be with and care for her aging parents.
Frank secured a job in Niue; it was several years before they met again in Rarotonga. Eight years later, their daughter Emona was born.
The Russells started up the first block printing, and then screen printing business in the Cook Islands. They would create blocks and screens, print the designs on fabric and sew garments that were sold locally.
“Each piece was a work of art and the process of creating it gave her much pleasure; she would say, the day it becomes a job it loses its joy.”
“Memories of my mother are of enormous love, generosity and music,” says Russell Numanga. “She played the piano constantly – all kinds of music from classical to modern and she loved to play and sing Pokarekare Ana.
“Mum would get frustrated listening to songs on the radio – three notes, she would say, that’s all they sing, three notes.”
Russell was generous, and would give everything away to anyone who either needed it or liked the look of it, “much to my dismay at times when I saw my toys go out the door,” said Russell-Numanga.
“If anyone needed help, while I can do it, I will, she would say, when I can’t, I won’t.”
The Russells got involved in local politics when the Cook Islands became self-governing.
They joined with Makea Nui and others in calling her cousin Tom Davis back to the Cook Islands to run the Democratic Party in opposition to the Cook Islands Party.
In the mid-1970s they moved to Auckland where she became involved in the church.
After nearly 20 years in New Zealand they returned to Rarotonga, Frank passed away in 1992.
Russell passionately loves her home and her people.
“She learned her values from her parents and the example they set.
“Ngutuare o te aro’a was a phrase I heard often as a child,” said Russell- Numanga.
“Mum has always been happiest in Rarotonga, nowhere else was ever good enough and the longing to return home never left her when she went away.”
“Today after 100 years of life, I guess my mother will say, love each other, be kind to each other, not to value money above people – “ka taka ua” – money rolls away, but your family, your land and your heritage will always be with you.”
“And don’t worry about things that are not worth worrying about.
“One of my favourite sayings of hers is, if it makes you happy to do that (or be that way) you go right ahead.”
Russell has a deep unwavering faith in God, who she believes is the same God for everyone.
When she was able, every morning she would rise early and walk to mass to the catholic cathedral in Avarua.
People would offer her a ride, but she would decline.
“No thank you, she would say, it’s good exercise.”
A Catholic convert from her days at St Joseph’s school, she has remained true to this faith tradition throughout her life.
Her parents were members of the Cook Islands Christian Church where her father was a pastor, and she always had great respect and love for the faith of her parents and her ancestors.
“This respect extended to all the different faith traditions, so that even though she aligned herself with one, she did not dismiss the others.
“We must’ve gone to every church on the island over the years.
“It doesn’t matter, she would say, it’s all the same God – she was so right.”