Staring out at Rangitoto Island while on a blind date, marriage celebrant Lois Hawley-Simmonds couldn’t stop thinking about one woman. The only problem was, it wasn’t her date.
It was in this moment that she realised how smitten she was with the woman who is now her wife, Gaylene.
At the time, the pair worked together as teachers at the same school and had bonded over helping each other set up online dating profiles. Fearful of risking their friendship, Lois was hesitant. But having officiated at more than 40 weddings, she has been around love enough to know when you’ve found “the one”.
“I started practising writing my surname, the design of our wedding rings… I just knew,” says Lois, 55, who features in Aroha Nui: Say I Do, a new TV series following Māori celebrants as they guide happy couples to the altar.
But it was taking Gaylene home to her marae, Pikitu, in South Waikato, and seeing how quickly her whānau accepted her that really sealed the deal.
“I asked Gaylene, ‘Are you in this for the long-haul? Because I want to take you home and I don’t want to take someone there that’s not going to look after my heart,'” she recalls.
While many knew she was gay, it was a huge step for Lois to declare this openly to her wider family.
“With my siblings, Gaylene has been the bridge from myself to them and them to us. My whānau had never seen me in a relationship before and they could see that this was the beginning of my journey,” says Lois, who was delighted that sharing their relationship openly on the marae has been a catalyst for more of her LGBTQ+ family to feel comfortable doing the same.
Gaylene, meanwhile, says her upbringing was a “nuclear Pākehā family in the ’60s”, and meeting Lois’ family for the first time was a nerve-wracking experience.
“I had been on a marae before, but never in a whānau situation,” tells Gaylene, 61. “It was a huge deal. I really wanted to uphold the tikanga [customs] and I was worried about doing something wrong. But I just loved the manaakitanga [hospitality], the whole experience, and I’ve never looked back.”
The Auckland couple, who tied the knot in a civil union ceremony in 2012 and have two adult children, smile warmly as they share these treasured memories.
Lois knows how important a love story can be and says when marrying couples, it’s vital she understands this to create an authentic ceremony and vows.
“It’s a huge honour,” says Lois. “On the day, I’m the storyteller, so I want it to be a personalised journey for the couple.”
The assistant principal at Rowandale School also loves incorporating elements of te reo Māori. “It’s humbling because I can conduct service with karakia [prayer] and with an introduction in te reo Māori, and its cultural customs,” she says. “I’ve done terminal weddings, weddings on marae, in hospitals, non-binary, same sex and multicultural weddings.
Gaylene says she is more private than her wife, but loves the way they balance each other out. “It doesn’t surprise me that she’s good at her job because it’s her personality. She knows how to capture people. She’s very approachable, down to earth and puts people at ease.”
These days, Lois is in the classroom every day, but it was a different story in her earlier years when she failed at school. Her love of children, however, called her back to education and with almost 20 years of teaching under her belt, she’s even married some of her former pupils.
“It’s an honour for me to see my babies grow up, knowing that they can come back and see whaea [auntie].” With her infectious laugh and welcoming nature, it’s easy to see why couples choose Lois to be part of their big day.
But she shares this past year has brought great personal tragedy too. Her older sister Te Ana, who she was close to, passed away at just 57, following a battle with cancer.
Te Ana was particularly supportive of Lois’ work, both at school and as a celebrant, and she carries her sister’s advice close to her heart at all times.
“My tuakana [older sister] was a prophetic person of few words, but one of the things she was very strong on was not holding on to any conflict. I think about that all the time,” says Lois. “If there’s a legacy that my sister has left behind, it’s about treating others with kindness.”