• harveyvickie

Best Mum

Being born in 1952 I really didn’t get to know my mother until I was about four years old. Although I can frequently recall her holding my hand or lifting me off the double decker bus that took us into town. The one thing that does stick in my mind from all those years ago is how hard she worked. She was always the first to rise and always the last to bed, I can’t ever recall her sitting down and having a catnap or five minutes break. I do remember that she was always with child and I would have been fifth of six at that time, with the oldest being eight and the youngest 18 months.

I was born and raised in a council house, we were lucky, we had a three bedroomed modern house with an upstairs bathroom and an outside toilet as well!

My earliest recollections are of her shopping around the local area for our daily food, it was about a three- mile walk but was nearer than going into town. There was a baker for fresh bread, at least two Butchers shops for meat (although, during the week that was only for my Dad, our only source of meat was the roast on a Sunday) with numerous fruit and veg shops in the vicinity, add to this the Co-op, the main place for tinned stuff etc and you had a mini shopping complex within the community. There was also a local grocery store just around the corner from where we lived, but my cash strapped mother only used it in the middle of the week after the family allowance had gone, by then she would be so desperate that stuff would be bought on the slate or the tick, which would be paid back on Friday or Saturday whenever my dad saw fit to hand over the ‘housekeeping’. Money.

I am sure women like my mother coined the phrase ‘Convenience store’ as it really was just convenient when the money ran out.

She always had and needed a very large pram, it was probably a Silver Cross but it would have been bought second hand as money wouldn’t have stretched to a new one, if truth be known that pram was the best investment she could have made, it carried three small children plus one on each side and all the days groceries including a bag of potatoes beneath, so - as you can imagine – pushing that weight was no mean feat, it got a lot worse when we reached the bottom of a hill that even buses struggled to get up! But we always managed to reach the top.

As soon as we were home the first job was to put the kettle on, not one of those electric things but a kettle that went on the gas oven and whistled when it was boiled. This was one of the first things my mum taught me to do.. I quickly learned that It was always routine in those days to run the water for a time otherwise a vile taste would come from the brew, caused by the lead pipes that fed the house. No teabags either, it was loose tea that had to be put through a strainer before entering the cup. One per cup and one for the pot if memory serves, if it was a particularly cold day then the main gas oven would be turned up full, the kitchen was the only warm room in our house and even though it was only about nine by twelve it was the hub of the family.

To say that the life and the role of a fifties housewife was totally different from today’s women would be a gross understatement, In the mid-fifties mum would have been just under 30 years old with six young children and carrying her seventh, she worked so hard that even with all the children she kept her figure, she was always slim and always smart.

In her day as a youngster, she would have been prepared for her role in life whilst still at school. She would have learned the basics of cooking, sewing, darning, repairing and generally ‘making do’. Coming through the war years as a teenager would have taught her a lot more about life of course.

She left school at the age of 14 years. It would have been 1940 and one year into World War Two, when mum got a job at a local munition’s factory in Hartlebury, she worked there for the duration. During that time, she met an American GI, they had an affair, and she became pregnant at the age of 18, all sorts of promises were made but none kept, the little girl she had was brought up by her mother as her own, having a baby out of wedlock in those days would bring disgrace on any family be they rich or poor.

In those days, the majority of women met the man of their dreams (hopefully, but not very often) or at least a good man who would look after them in wedlock and through to death, Once wed it was rare for these women to go to work, the male was the breadwinner and expected his meals on the table, his clothes washed, cleaned, and ironed, and of course his conjugal rights! (not my words). In return he coughed up what he thought was adequate housekeeping on a Friday night, of course it never was enough, the rest of his wage would go down the pub over the weekend.

The National curriculum involved teaching the girls how to look after the husband, the children, and the home, and in that order.

The home in my childhood of the fifties was totally different from today. Like everyone else we had a ‘Best room’ which was kept for special visitors, special occasions, or Christmas. While that big room stood empty for most of the year, we were confined to a room that was twelve feet square and heated by a very small electric wall heater, but then, with all that body heat in there it wasn’t often switched on!

We had a coal fire in the best room, which was rarely lit, coal cost money. It would be lit on a Sunday to heat the water for bath night, even during the Winter the only heating upstairs was a paraffin heater which flared up as soon as the front door was opened, the ceiling had a permanent black mark on it where the flames had ‘licked’ it. The heater of course caused condensation on the windows, so it was not unusual to wake next morning with the inside of the windows frosted up.

So, mum had to find other ways of keeping us warm on those bitterly cold nights. My dad was a weaver of carpets and worked a permanent night shift, every morning at 6.00am he would come home with a few bobbins in his rucksack, mum would sit every evening knitting this wool into squares about 300mm square, these would then be sewn together and used as top blankets on our beds, they were heavy and very warm in the Winter months.

Gas and electric was supplied by way of a shilling meter beneath the stairs, My mum, as I said, was always left struggling financially, but she had a knack of flattening metal milk bottle tops and slotting them in when times were hard, she would get the coal hammer and expertly flatten the metal tops into the thickness of a shilling, this was done on the back doorstep and away from prying eyes, luckily the man who emptied the meter was a friend. If there were too many tops mum would have to pay the excess. Our back doorstep was quite handy, it had a sort of dent in the step where she would sharpen the carving knife.

Mum had inherited the Monday wash day from her mother I suspect, and just like my Nan Mondays was a full day of washing, in our kitchen next to the sink was a slot for a copper boiler and a gas point which connected it, (My gran was still using a Dolly tub!) So, mum would boil the clothes pull them out with a set of wooden sprung tongs, set them in the sink and rinse them through with cold water, she would then ‘wring’ them with her hands by twisting, then they went through the mangle, they would then go out on the line, sometimes on a good day the wind would dry them quite quickly. So, like a well-oiled machine this went on until at least mid-afternoon. There was always a kitchen full of steam on Mondays.

While all this was happening a great saucepan full of stew would be simmering on the gas stove, I always thought we had stew every Monday to use the remnants of the Sunday joint, I know now that the real reason was because mum wouldn’t have had time to prepare anything else.

At that time there were no freezers, fridges were making their way into kitchens but only really for the better off, In the fifties you knew what day of the week it was by what you ate! I’m not sure whether she was a good cook, but we always ate well. We were all fit and healthy, she made sure of that.

She would have to shop daily for fresh foods, this of course meant that we had a set weekly menu, i.e., the same meal on the same day every week. I remember stew on Monday, egg and chips on Tuesday, corned beef stew on Wednesday and so on, all these meals were interspersed with bread pudding, rice pudding, and carnation milk poured over various tins of fruit. We didn’t have a milkman; sterilised milk was fetched daily from the local shop. But the most important thing was that I can never remember being hungry, sweets were a rarity and crisps only available on a Whitsun when we were taken to the pub after the parade.

The first two hours of most days saw mother dressing all the kids, getting the eldest off to school and then it was shopping, We went to school on a bowl of Scott’s Porridge oats which mum would mix in a big saucepan on the stove, we walked everywhere even though there was an excellent bus service which was always on time, but fares for five or six kids were just not sustainable, I can’t remember anyone having a car in our street until 1962.

Every day she would shop and after getting back home about eleven there were beds to make, rooms to tidy and hoovering to get done plus of course the tea to get ready, and there was always a baby to attend to, and at least one toddler running around. As for the food, if you didn’t like what was put in front of you then you went without, there was no other choice like there would be in most households today, then after tea she washed and dried and around 7.30 would finally sit down after a thirteen-hour day, even then she would get out the knitting needles to carry on knitting blankets.

My dad worked permanent nights, so he would leave at 6.00pm and return at 6.00am, one night as soon as he was gone mum started to strip the paper off the walls in the best room, we would all be given a knife to assist, I have known her stay up all night re-decorating the room, then she would have to carry on as normal the following day having had no sleep. The sad thing was that It may have been months before dad even noticed that the room had been papered

Weekends were the same, except on Saturdays when the Corona man would call followed closely by the Davenports man. My Dad would get off to the pub at about ten thirty, returning at 2.30, He would then get ready about 6.00pm and back down the pub expecting mother to join him about eight o clock. On Sundays most of the morning was used for preparing lunch ready for when my Dad came home from the pub, my sisters were encouraged from about the age of seven to don a duster and help out, from about the age of ten they positively had no choice but to help out with polishing, cleaning and general chores, mum was preparing them for married life. Meanwhile us boys were encouraged to get out from under their feet and play, we all ate at different times and it was very rare for us to sit at a table together not even at Christmas.

That was mums working week – with no pay!

My memories of my mother were a hard-working lady who really did lead a life of drudgery and slavery, but no matter how hard she worked she always had time for her children which would eventually be ten in all!

In 1956 we got our first television and things were going to change dramatically in our house.

But not for poor mum – that would take a further ten years!

In the Easter of 1956 I started St Mary’s Infants school, I was four years and 3 months old, You joined school in those days at the start of any new term, mother made a real fuss of me, pulling my oversize shirt down by putting her hand up my overlong short trousers, then the famous handkerchief made its appearance, a quick lick of her tongue, a quick wipe of my face and the mark that had been there for almost two days -despite washing – miraculously disappeared, I remember holding her hand, while my little brother held her other, we stepped off the big red double decker bus and her dress was blowing in my face as we walked, in those days dresses were of a typical 50’s fashion with lots of petticoats beneath a plain or floral dress, Mum must have been going somewhere else because it was rare for her to be dressed up on a week day. Anyway, this dress was buffeting in my face as we walked along on my first day at school, it also obscured my view, so I hung on following the clickety click of her high heels. She was also heavily pregnant with her seventh child which was due any time. It was a warm Spring day and as we stood at the school gates there was none of the paraphernalia of weeping and holding on for grim life – well not with me anyway – but I’m sure I saw a glistening tear on her cheek as she turned away.

The first girl I met had red hair and a face full of freckles, I said Hello to her, and she told me to ‘eff off’, I knew a lot of words already, but this was new to me.

“What does that mean?” I asked,

“I don’t effin know,” she said, “But me mam and dad use it all the time.”

At 3.00pm it was home time, my older sister was there to meet me and we trudged home but I had suddenly become very tired, we waked down the entry to the back door the smell of freshly baked bread pudding wafted up my nostrils, not only was I tired but I was also very hungry, as I entered the kitchen my mum bombarded me with questions and as I stuffed my mouth full of warm bread pudding mum said something and I casually, calmly and proudly, told her to ‘eff off’. I was pulled up stairs by my ear, she swirled some of dad’s shaving stick in a cup of water and told me to wash my dirty mouth out! I never swore again in front of her and I have abhorred swearing ever since.

My dad was violent in drink and bad tempered without it, he made our lives a misery. Although life at home was hard there was always lots of love available from my mum, no matter what we wanted or needed she did her best by us, I would often see her searching through her purse counting the pennies, she would then write a note for ‘tick’ for one of us to take round to the shop, even then I saw her feed every last one of us and go without food herself many a time.

She had given birth to her seventh child – another brother for me – and was pregnant yet again with another baby due later in the year.

It never rained in those days, according to mum it was ‘just spitting’ and therefore ok to go out, of course, if you came back wringing wet, she would say ‘Why on earth didn’t you come in earlier?’ as she dried your hair with a towel that was as rough as a pan scourer.

But the problem was of course that if you went back home too many times she would say.

“The next time you come in, you can stay in,” this was no idle threat, if you had to stay in then it meant hours of sitting there in total silence, because dad was in bed, sitting perhaps with a comic you hadn’t read yet, I was even reduced to reading the girls Bunty or Judy on some desperate occasions.

A lot of women in those days didn’t have much in the way of careers and most -once married – stayed at home to cook and generally look after the family, so radio targeted women like my mother with programmes like ‘Housewives Choice’ Music while You Work’ and the very first known soap opera ‘Mrs Dales Diary’ (can’t remember her listening to that though).

But television was inevitably going to come to our house and did so in 1956 after some neighbours made remarks about there being no aerial on the roof. This embarrassed mum, so she went straight down to Radio Rentals and we had a TV set on hire purchase, to fund the repayments a one shilling slot meter was fixed to the back – very frustrating when you got to the crucial part of a programme and it went off especially if you hadn’t got a ‘bob’ to hand!

The pride on her face was there for all to see as the rather obese fellow struggled up the bendy ladder with the ‘H’ shaped aerial over his shoulder heading toward the roof, but it was nothing compared to the excitement in our little room as the skinny chap prepared the television, suddenly, with a shout from above and a twist of a brown knob, there was a crackle and a hiss and then a snowy effect, six or seven little faces were not impressed! Then miracle of miracles, a young girl appeared and seemed to be writing on a blackboard, but dismay ensued as she just sat there, the skinny chap seeing our disappointment smirked and explained “It doesn’t start till later kids”. In those early day’s TV programmes closed down between six and seven, this became known as the ‘Toddlers Truce’ and was designed to fool all children into thinking that television was finished for the day and it was time for bed lol.

As I said previously, my mum - like millions of others in the fifties – was a wonder woman, the ability to make ends meet on the paltry wage my Dad gave her on a Friday night proved it! I think she would have made what he spent in the pub over the weekend go a very long way, the Family allowance was a Godsend for most struggling families on Tuesday as it bridged the gap between pay days.

In the fifties you knew what day of the week it was by what you ate! I’m not sure whether my mum was a good cook, but we always ate well. We were all fit and healthy, mum made sure of that.

In 1960 she was having her tenth and final baby, for the first time she had to be taken to hospital, it was then that we discovered she had diabetes, the result (I discovered later) of having too many children too quickly. My sister Carol - who was only 12 at the time – had to learn to give mum twice daily injection into the top of her leg, she used an orange to practise on, one week later when mum came home Carol was ready and I don’t ever remember hearing any complaints from either of them. In fact, life went on as normal for mum, yet I realise now that she must have got very tired very quickly, but she was still expected to carry on and make sure the family were fed, that there were clean and pressed clothes, and the shopping was done. The only saving grace was that two of my elder sisters were now old enough to help with the more mundane chores - like cleaning.

The only thing I wished I could change from my childhood was her smoking. She was very dependant on cigarettes, my dad had turned her into a nervous wreck, she couldn’t open the front door to anyone or answer the phone to anyone without lighting up a cigarette, she had no self-confidence whatsoever, yet she was so strong in so many other ways. She was the glue that held our family together.

By 1968 she and dad were running a Public house, well she was running the pub while dad drank the profits, he was still being abusive to her and one night he almost broke her back during one of his drunken rages. I was sixteen years old at the time, I walked in as he had got his hands around her throat her back was against the bar and her screams were horrific. I ran across the room and pulled him off her, I am not proud to say that I gave my dad a beating, but he never laid a finger on her again, and he and I got on like a house on fire after that.

He started to respect her at last, they had to leave the pub in 1974 because of mum’s poor health.

In 1978 she underwent an operation at a hospital in Coventry to improve her mobility, but it went wrong, she went into a coma and we travelled up the M42 every night for weeks in the hope that she would come out of it.

After about 4 weeks we walked into the ward and she was sat up in bed, apart from a croaky voice you wouldn’t have known that anything was wrong. We travelled back down the M42 that night and the atmosphere was brilliant on the journey.

That same night I was awoken at 3.00am by the phone ringing, it was the hospital, mum had just passed away, she was just 62 years old.

I was devastated, she had taught me everything I needed to know in order to lead a normal life, she taught me to wallpaper, she taught me to care for and respect others, she taught me never to lay a finger on a woman or a child, but most of all she taught me to be grateful for what I had.

I was always grateful for her, for the love she gave me and for the short time she was on this earth, but mostly, I am grateful for the way I am today – the way she made me.

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