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Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Golden Years of Childhood

     In a corner of our lounge stands a box of toys, and five minutes after the grandchildren arrive, they are strewn all over the floor. And they are only toddlers! Things were somewhat different a hundred years ago.
     My mother had a doll, but little brother Charlie broke it when she was about twelve, and it was never replaced. Well, at that age, what would have been the point? But when she was very young, she had a teddy bear. How young? Maybe three or four - she couldn't say for sure. I suspect she might have been a bit older, because most of us have only fragmentary memories of that period. But certainly it was one of her earliest memories that she had that teddy bear, and it must have been well loved, for it was worn out and falling to pieces. Then one day, her mother was washing clothes in a copper, and heating the water on a wood fire, and she suggested to Mum that the teddy bear should be added to the fire. My mother clung tight to the teddy, but her mother's pressure, despite her kind words, was firm. Eventually, she gave it up, but with extreme reluctance. Not only was it heart breaking, but her two older brothers laughed at her, and her parents would continually bring it up about how she didn't want to give up that wornout teddy. I've since discovered that quite a few people recall similar childhood tragedies about the loss of a beloved toy. (And don't get me talking about my own teddy!)
     The story of the feather hat also belongs to a pre-school memory. She possessed an enormous hat which, in hindsight, she believes was probably worn out. At any rate, she decided its appearance would be improved by the addition of a large number of white feathers collected from the fowl pen. It must have been of straw, or some similar woven material, and into the interstices between the weave the little girl painstakingly inserted the shafts of the feathers vertically. So now she had a marvellous, wide brimmed hat decorated with concentric crowns of feathers. To childish eyes it must have looked delightful, as she paraded around the house. Mr Hughes, the next door neighbour, was present, and sat down at the table, presumably for tea or a meal, and my mother came over, wearing the hat. Her father, very kindly, told him: "Mr Hughes, Girl has this nice hat, and she doesn't want to take it off."
     Toys? Forgetaboutit! No-one had toys in those days. You had to improvise. She found three sticks, one half-dark, another lighter, and a third piebald, so she called them her "horses", and set them up in their stable ie leaned them against the fence. Much to her dismay, her father walked up to the fence and disturbed them. Couldn't he see they were horses?
     Otherwise, they could be pretend to be horses themselves. In summertime, the paddocks were littered with the tough, dry stalks of thistles, as I very well remember. They would cut two of them to act as forelegs, then make a tail out of grass or, if they were inclined to take the extra effort, unravel some binder twine to produce a more realistic appendage, after which they would camper and gallop about as the spirit took them. The game apparently developed a long tradition, because my Aunt Hilda, 16 years younger, remembers it as well.
     Or else they would make mud pies, and dry them in the sun.
     I regret that I never thought to ask my mother how Christmas was celebrated. Nevertheless, my Aunt Hilda (16 years younger, remember) was able to provide a few details. When she was very young - probably pre-school - a doll's pram and some doll's paraphernalia turned up for her. She believes they originated from her mother and her Aunt Ada respectively, but her brother, Halley, 12 years her senior, assured her he had heard Santa Claus and his reindeer. However, she suspects that Santa wasn't a frequent visitor when the older children were small. A tree? Forgetaboutit! But they did get the occasional Christmas treat. Aunt Hilda remembers receiving a special type of biscuit - probably something very common on the supermarket shelves these days - and walking around the pepper trees in front of the house thinking what sheer delight it was to have such a biscuit. Not only that, but Christmas was the one time their father relaxed his ban on alcohol in the house. He would even purchase a small barrel of beer. Once my mother and her mother found themselves saddled with all the housework at Christmas, so Grandma put aside a bottle of beer for them to enjoy afterwards. When the work was finished, she was outraged to discover that somebody else had consumed it. It probably wasn't even cold.
     The games played at school could be adapted to the smaller team at home, but the farm had other attractions. For example, when my grandparents were first married, the bride planted those two pepper trees beside the front gate. (These were common ornamental trees then, but are now classed as pests.) As boys, my brother and I used to climb and play in them. So did the Dennis children before us. Their father even constructed a roofless log cubby house, with more than one room, and set it in one of the trees. "No-one disturbed them," said Mum. "They knew better than to disturb our cubby house." But Mum herself was disturbed when she was a teenager, and one of her tasks was to sweep the dirt path leading from the gate to the house, because her younger brothers used to climb up on the pepper trees and knock down twigs and leaves.
     As noted before, the fact that all nine survived to maturity had nothing to do with natural caution. There was a corrugated iron shed whose sides, I suppose, stood on a certain angle, because the children used to run up and down the sides until their parents put a stop to it because of the damage to the corrugated iron. Potential damage to the children would also have been on the cards. Once Halley, aged three or thereabouts, attempted to emulate his older siblings, but fell while running up the side. Only the fact that his clothes caught on a nail, and left him hanging, prevented him from serious injury, if not death.
     "Didn't you kids have any serious accidents?" I asked Mum.
     "No," she replied. "We did not. We were lucky."
     Climbing up on haystacks was also a commandment honoured as much in the breach as in the obedience. Sparrows used to make their nests them, and the children would insert their hands and pull out little hatchlings.
     They were also not supposed to frequent the place where the seed wheat was stacked, but Mum and her older brother Alf went anyway. They definitely weren't supposed to climb up on the stacks, but that's what Mum was doing while Alf, for some reason, had his hand between two bags of wheat. As we learnt in school, a bushel of wheat weighs 60 pounds (about 27¼ kg), so when Mum accidentally dislodged a bag, Alf could easily have been killed, except that it merely glanced his arm.
     Now, large families have an inviolate rule: what happens in the playground stays in the playground. The worst offence of childhood is to snitch to the grown ups. The mafia code of omertà has nothing on the code of honour of a large family of kids. So when they got home, Alf merely told his parents he'd hurt his arm, but their father wasn't deceived. "You've been up on that stack of wheat, haven't you?" he said.

    There was a sort of ladder in the hen roost, and Mum and her sister, Olga used to hang from it, head first. The fowl manure didn't bother them.
     The same two girls saw nothing strange about sharing the livestock's food - such as licking the rock salt used for the cattle and horses. Also, the milk cows used to slurp with gusto the mixture of chaff and molasses provided by their owner. This molasses came in 4 gallon (18.2 litres) tins, and after Grandpa had opened a second tin, a hole was left in the top. This gave Mum and Olga an opportunity. They acquired a couple of straws, and sucked up the molasses, day after day, until it had been lowered maybe six inches. "It was really horrible stuff," she told me. "If we'd been told to take molasses, we wouldn't have had it. That's the terrible things kids do."

     On daytime rambles, they would search for, examine, and sometimes collect, grubs, processionary caterpillars, and grasshoppers. The latter would have their legs pulled off. And there were the spiders. Trapdoor spiders could be found on the lane leading to the well. It was great fun poking a stick into the hole and watching the angry occupant scurry up to the entrance and pull the lid down with its front legs.
     "Of course, we took no notice of the red-backed spiders," she said. "They were always around. We used to watch their little web cocoons hatch out into hundreds or even thousands of pinhead sized spiders - a mass of tiny little spiders as big as pinheads." (She got very excited while describing the scene.)
     "Didn't your parents ever warn you about this?" I asked.
     "Oh yes, we weren't supposed to do it."

      But, of course, the golden years of childhood always have a shadow. They had to go to school.

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