Monday, November 1, 2010

matchboxes & golliwogs

Golliwogs are not politically correct in today’s world, but they were a part of my life, and my Gran made some lovely ones as well as other fabric dolls. They were fabric dolls of colour, patterned after the minstrel shows as they were portrayed back then. The one Dan is holding in the photo had a green and white striped suit with pink polka-dotted swiss lapels and shirtfront – Gran sewed every curl of his hair by hand and his earring was a curtain ring. His bowtie was pink. Heaven only knows where he is now, but I would dearly love to have him. Once Gran made a nun, dressed entirely in a white habit complete with rosary. Grandad was the gardener for a convent – the details are fuzzy so I am not sure whether it was for his retirement or that of the Mother Superior - but the doll was made for whichever event it happened to be. Gran’s pride and joy was the sewing machine on the sideboard beside the dining table. You turned the wheel by hand (no pedals or electricity) – she made all the dolls and their clothes on it and many other things as well. Mum used it to make my first dresses … The china doll I am holding in the same photograph was a gift for my last birthday in England, my ninth – and the second doll and the last doll I was ever to possess. Dad sent the money from Canada – she had a china head, arms and legs and a cloth body. Much to my dismay I was to discover that her head had a seam from ear to ear which split open as I dropped her within the first hour. Fortunately, Grandad had glue.

We didn’t have a lot, but then no-one in the rows of council houses did, that’s why we were all there. Grandad, a gentle Irishman who had developed black lung from laboring below ground in the Welsh mines from his teens to his 30s, had moved his family with no lock, stock or barrel to Surrey in search of work. He bicycled from Coedely in South Wales to the English countryside despite his lungs – he had little or no choice if he wanted to feed everyone. Eventually he found work on the railroad and later was the gardener cum general factotum at a nearby convent. Their first home in England was a disused Quonset hut where dampness misted the walls when it rained, a not unusual event, especially in the winter.

When they secured the council house that was to be their home until Grandad passed away 30 years later, it must have been a huge relief for him. Not a grand house, but it served his family of five quite well – a sitting room with space for a table and chairs, a scullery with Gran’s stove and another table, bathroom with just that – a bath, since the toilet although in the house proper, was reached by an outside door – and upstairs, one big bedroom, one smaller and the “box room” made into a third bedroom. Heat came from Gran’s kitchen stove and a coal fireplace downstairs as well as a fireplace in the ‘big’ bedroom.

When one reaches the so-called golden years as I have, you often wonder if all your memories are really memories or simply events culled from stories told to you by others. Obviously I cannot claim to have been a witness to Gran & Grandad’s life in Wales or their move to England – I can however recall with great clarity each and every room in their council house and have memories, as well as stories, associated with almost all of them.

This is one of the ‘culled events’ – most of my (remembered) life I have been terrified of fire in any form. As a child and even a teenager I simply could not even light a match, including the big, wooden kitchen ones. A sound in the night became fire crackling; sirens were signals of fire engines coming to wherever I was living at the time; the smoke from a wood fire meant that the wooden bones of my house were smouldering. The grate in Gran’s sitting room almost always had a nice, warm coal fire going – I remember the dampness on your back when your front was toasty warm, the firemarks on the front of your legs, somebody or other with chilblains, visiting the defunct air raid shelter in the back garden to fill the coal scuttle – never alone because there were spiders. As was the case with pretty much everyone we knew, the sitting room fire was the only one regularly lit, anything else was used just before bedtime and only briefly –they never did ‘take the chill off the air’, which was the reason given for lighting them. We did have hot water bottles though. Before these memories, something happened to which Mum ascribed my irrational fear of fire, something I honestly do not recall. I was barely toddling, Dad & Grandad were sitting on either side of the fire when apparently I decided to try out my newly-found legs; were it not for Dad seizing the back of my dress at the last second, my wobblies would have launched me face-first into the hot coals. I know it was pretty close because Dad could never imagine why I was not singed. Well, perhaps my skin was not, but my psyche sure was. Over the years I have become less paranoid as one does what one has to do in order to live – but that does not include using the gas oven with the pilot light in my present apartment (I have managed the stove-top burners without too much cringing) – I use a counter top electric oven to roast & bake.

Nor do I recall the coal storage bin in its original incarnation as an air raid shelter yet I certainly spent time there along with the rest of the family. Since each house had an identical brick structure I am making a leap of faith in the assumption that the ubiquitous council provided this protection to those in proximity to London – rough concrete-roofed, solid brick – ours stood to the right as you went out the back kitchen door, Grandad’s shed was to the left, with the garden path between them. I bring this up because during the war years the little house that did so well for five was pushed to accommodate a few more – my uncle had married and there was a son John too; Mum & Dad were married & had produced moi – when Dad was off doing his Canadian Army duty & Uncle Den was doing the same in the RAF, his wife Big Peggy (big so as to distinguish from Mum’s little sister “our” Peggy), their son John & I swelled the family. Other sleeping arrangements elude me, but I am told that John & I were put to bed each night underneath the dining table where we could be easily grabbed & transported to the shelter when the air raid siren sounded – the table was also perceived as protection for the infants from an unannounced raid. I have often wondered how Auntie Peg at only ten years old felt about the ‘priority’ given to the babies – she did tell me once that what few toys she had became ours L. The dining table figured largely in childhood entertainment – our Gran espoused the philosophy that housework would always be there but children would not, so spend time with them while you can. Upended it became a pirate ship – we had cardboard swords & eyepatches with cocked hats fashioned from newspapers; with a sheet draped from leg to leg it was my faraway tree where sat on bed pillows and read when it was too wet outside (there was no heat in the bedrooms); it was a castle; it was what ever we children imagined.

This next sitting room memory is as clear as a bell. Our Peg, along with the young man who was to become our Uncle Brian, was looking after undeniably missish me and my young brother Danny who was ostensibly asleep upstairs. Gran had a kiddie table in front of the window – I don’t recall the exact task, but we were at that table when we heard Dan’s footsteps on the stairs. Being me, I leapt up before the adults could react and arms akimbo officiously confronted my little brother, who by virtue of the steps was now of a like height, only to receive a bloody nose as a reward. He turned and went backup without a word while Peg dealt with my nose.

A much much later sitting room memory occurred when I was on my first return to England – I had brought cigarettes for our Peg and was not aware that Grandad did not know that she smoked and handed her a package right in front of him.

The scullery was warm. Gran making small beer from dandelion leaves in the huge earthenware bowl, Welsh cakes on the griddle, thick bacon rashers with rind for Sunday tea, birthday cakes … on that same return visit, the neighbour lady arriving with a bowl of cherries from her tree so that I would not have to pick my own. Gran did the ironing in the scullery, with two castiron irons heated on the griddle. Off the scullery, the bathroom, where bath water was heated by paying the geezer (sp?) ie by putting money in the gas heater. During the war, bath water was rationed to five inches once a week so people shared the water. Until we left England, Dan & I always shared the Saturday night bath to save paying the geezer twice, a hangover from the wartime rationing & economics. The laundry was done in the bathroom – Gran had a washboard on which she scrubbed everything (on her hands & knees beside the tub) – before she had a mangle, she wrung everything by hand, even bed sheets, and hung them on the clothesline.

Soooooo, sooner or later I guess I should get into the rest of the tag line … memories have been at least partially covered, but what of the matchboxes? I began by stating that we did not have much. There are times when I think of my son’s and nephews’ birthdays and Christmases that I wonder how my generation was not overcome with boredom. So much STUFF! Now I am not going to claim that our Christmases resemble those of Mum and her siblings – they had stockings with an orange & a lump of coal – and the reason I am not venturing there is because I honestly have no memory of one blessed Christmas before we came to Canada – I don’t think much was made of them or surely I would remember?? Of course, nobody is left to ask either. I do remember having several lovely books, Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, Enid Blyton but am not sure how I got them. The Woolworths shop in our town carried a myriad of items as they did everywhere, and among those items were tiny, mini baby dolls not even as long as my little finger was at the time – these miniature dolls were within the realm of possible purchase and indeed I had quite a few, so did my friends. We collected matchboxes from our families and refurbished them up as wee beds and other furniture. A handmade pillow in a matchbox with the slip-on cover refinished in some scrap of fabric made a comfy baby cot. Gran used to put together entire sitting room sets, settees and armchairs, made from fabric and lace-covered match boxes – they were given as gifts and sometimes sold. It was Gran who supplied me with the scraps of material for mine.

Another source of amusement was faery dish gardens - faeries were after all a fact of life, they lived in the hedgerows and at the bottom of the garden, especially if the gardener let things run wild. We gathered moss, pretty coloured stones, tiny plants, berries and assorted items meant to make a comfortable habitat, then we cadged a dish and hopefully a bit of mirror or glass and spent hours arranging all our finds in the dish around a pond in a way we felt would please any faery. One of our neighbours had a derelict patio of sorts at the end of his garden where we could pick up small pale green tiles when occasionally allowed if we asked nicely. The fae loved them.

What do I remember about the bedrooms ? Well to start with I have no idea where Danny & I slept. There were three rooms, Gran & Granddad had the front room with the fireplace except when Mum was giving birth – then she occupied the big bed – three times. Peg has said she slept in the box room, which leaves the third room for Mum, Dad, Dan & me – not sure how it worked. In addition to the births, there was another exception to bedroom number one and that was when I succumbed to the German measles. This was the only bedroom with heat and the doctor was apparently extremely worried – the measles had closed my eyes and he was not at all sure what the outcome would be. Mum & Gran bathed my eyes incessantly for days. One day, when Dad came home and made his nightly visit - I can hear Mum’s voice “look Daddy, she can open her eyes” - I blinked open long enough to see a candle on the mantelpiece (the room was kept dark) … When Danny was born, he almost immediately developed what was referred to then as bronchial pneumonia. This meant that his cot was moved into the sitting room near the fire to keep him warm. Mum said it was touch & go for about six weeks – he came out of that (obviously J ) but suffered from the croup for much of his early childhood. I recall being awfully affronted when he was in hospital in an oxygen tent and got a new lorry! (Well it wasn’t his birthday after all). He was in hospital aboard ship with an attack when we travelled to Canada ,and so far as I remember the last one was on our first New Year’s in Canada, Mum & Dad were going out and we had to have the Doctor because Danny could not breathe. I was terribly impressed by the Doctor who interrupted a phone call on the party line so he could call the pharmacy. I for one outgrew sibling jealousy, but for along time Danny got a gift on MY birthday so he would not fuss.

On to the funny, sorta. Each November in England, one celebrates (or celebrated??) Guy Fawkes day by burning the Guy and setting off fireworks. Sometimes it rains – hard. One year there was a downpour and we children were relegated to watch from the house while Dad and Grandad ventured into the back garden to set Guy alight (with some sort of flammable help) and attempt the fireworks. I am pretty sure that they only did this to stop the whining at the disappointment with rain on Guy Fawkes night – that being said they did get the Guy afire as I watched from the bed under the box room window. Then the fireworks – there were some that were in strings, sort of curved up together, that ‘walked’. Walk they did, only one turned around and headed straight for Dad who took off running. Already hyper from the whining I was hysterical with laughter, jumped up and down, managed to fall in between the bed and the window, smacking my nose on the sill – yet another bloody nose. Many years later I was to learn from Peg that Dad had run because whatever they had used to light the Guy was on his clothes – it could have been a very different story.

Now that we are in the back garden … Grandad grew vegetables, all kinds of them. Potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage stretched from the house to the laneway, unbroken except for a line of black currant bushes where the path ended halfway down. Dad was not a gardener but one spring Grandad enticed him into planting and caring for peas, which he did very well. He however did not think so because there was very little yield for the amount of plants in his estimation. Grandad listened to him then said that not much was sweeter than peas still in the pod (while nodding at Danny and me)… Dad never planted anything else. Two little children can wreak havoc in a garden. Grandad had to declare the black currant bushes verboten because we sat underneath them and ate the not quite ripe berries, making ourselves ill and limiting the crop. The previously mentioned neighbour lady with the bowl of cherries had a garden that was a child’s delight – apple, pear and cherry trees, blackberries, raspberries , black currants , gooseberries – the list goes on. We thought we were so smart! Down the garden we would go, past the shelter, crawling among Grandad’s veggies until we could cross into her garden sight unseen – uh huh. Why do you think she presented me with a bowl of cherries all those years later? Danny planted an apple seed and from it grew a tree. Gran used to periodically send pictures of the tree’s progress.

Oh gosh, we were not all bad and we were not alone in what we did – not that it makes it right – we were stealing. Idle minds and all that. This of course was before we found other things to do with our minds. Having the example of Gran, I was given a needle and thread when I was very young – I made the clothes and covers for the faeries and for a doll that was a precursor to Barbie. I watched Gran & Mum knit, begged needles and wool and taught myself how – to this day I knit with the wool in my left hand – I never did master the multi-tasking right hand. I read anything I could set my hand to – all of these things before I reached the age of four. Children are amazingly self-sufficient you know. The end of the garden path, halfway down the garden, was where I used to sit on sunny days to read, sew or knit – that is until I discovered my tree. At the very bottom of the garden was an unpaved laneway between us and the houses across the back and nestled in the lane, stunted and gnarled, was an ancient (to my mind) apple tree. Lord only knows whose it was to begin with. Its branches spread out horizontally as if it had been pruned that way and right in the center where the branches split, was a space just big enough and comfy enough to accommodate my four-year old bottom. So there I read.

Once more I have blathered on …. Hopefully someone will like it …….

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful stories Helen! Really enjoyed reading them. Its Michele by the way lol, had to choose anomynous