The manuscript I have recently completed is partially set in 1961, in an inner-city house my great grandfather built in the 1880’s. It remained in my family until 1971 when we made the move to the suburbs. The three bedroom house is set on a block so small that it could fit on my new house block three and a half times. My parents paid £8,000 for it in 1957. Today it is valued at approximately $900,000. It doesn’t even have a driveway.
Writing this manuscript took me nearly two years – because I had to stop and actually learn how to write a novel somewhere in between the first and last chapter. So, for the last two years, a large part of my life existed in a time before I was even born. I relied on accounts from my mum and Aunty in relation to what life was like for women in 1961, and wow! What a comparison to my own life.
My mum didn’t know how to cook when she married. My grandmother told her that she made too much of a mess in the kitchen, so as a newly married nineteen year old, my mum was on her own. Dad left for church one Sunday morning, as she lovingly fried an egg for him. She was still frying that same egg, lovingly, over one hour later when he returned home. And, being the true gentlemen he was, he ate it and told her how delicious it was.
They were married for six months before he suggested that she use salt and pepper in her cooking. During my teen years my mum and I cleaned out our house and we came across her handwritten recipe book from 1963. This was her recipe for dessert:
1. Open tins of fruit
2. Buy ice-cream
Did my mum’s cooking improve? Yes, thankfully. Although she still got confused when it came to Cayenne pepper and Paprika, the evidence of which was clearly written all over our faces as we ran for another glass of water.
My mum did her clothes washing in a single tub machine – sans spinner. She had to wrangle soaking wet clothes out of a tub of dirty water , hose them off in the sink and then feed them through a hand wringer that resembled an ancient torture device. This wasn’t too bad on the twelve dozen nappies she washed per week, because they were small and relatively light. But my dad’s jeans and work overalls were so thick that they could stand up on their own. Her biceps would almost burst into flames from the struggle of lifting and feeding them through the wringer several times to get them dry enough to hang on the Hills hoist.
There wasn’t even an indoor toilet, or a phone, or a car. Wardrobes were small because people didn’t have many clothes. They polished their shoes, starched their collars, and wore hats. People looked after their belongings, because they couldn’t afford to replace them.
When it came time for Mum to give birth to my older brothers, my father dropped her and her suitcase off at the hospital, into the care of a short, bosomy, intimidating Matron. Husbands weren’t permitted to cross the threshold of the maternity ward for fear that they may require medical attention themselves. The biggest shock of all came when mum gave birth to twins because no one knew that she was carrying two babies.
But the part that I really fell in love with from 1961 was that everyone in their street cooked casseroles and knitted blankets and outfits for the extra baby. People, who had very little to begin with, gave freely. They helped each other with no benefit to themselves, other than the happiness of helping .
They didn’t go out to dinner; they cooked simple food and shared it with friends over a couple of glasses of cheap wine or homemade beer while the kids played outside, climbed trees or built cubbies.
They played cards, gambled with matchsticks, laughed long into the night and enjoyed the times they spent together. Family celebrations were huge as extended family members lived in the same street. Cousins grew up like siblings.
I love these memories, even though they aren’t mine. They are special to me because they belong to my family in a time that, despite being only fifty years ago, has long gone. What a shame.