By Rosemary Bunker
My mother barely noticed when, not yet three, I took off for the one-teacher school next door. She had cooked breakfast and, depending on the day of the week, would then light the copper for washing, dampen the clothes for ironing, mop and polish the floors. All this done, my mother too took off for school. She was her husband’s teacher’s aide.
The family lynch pin, my mother was, before her marriage, a renaissance woman: a science graduate, a pianist, a trained soprano, student of drawing. She knew the social niceties – the correct table setting, the approved introduction rituals, the value of religion. She knew her place and that was by her husband’s side.
So it was, my mother left the house for part of the day to teach eighteen children from farms, fettler and road work gangs.
‘Like this’ she’d say, holding up a blue crayon, then a yellow. ‘Blue and green don’t go.’ And we’d draw on plain paper. She made each child’s drawing a recognisable flower, a daisy or a bird. We’d stand by her side as she demonstrated a run and fell seam, then help our awkward fingers to manage scissors or thread a needle. Knitting and crochet were slow processes of handing over the work and picking up the stitch. She guided the boys’ hands folding blue and orange paper to create an origami bird. Sheets of newspaper became pirates’ hats. When it was time for music out came the tuning fork and we sang ‘doh’ after her. Then, reading the words written large on the blackboard, we sang ‘Hush little baby’ until we knew the tune and the words. She listened to us reciting ballads we learnt by heart. Making up our own plays, putting on a red shawl or a sword was to give unruly boys too much licence! Control was man’s work. In that, my father, cane sitting across the table, was supreme. Mother and I were sent home for father’s control sessions.
I returned home often through the day to help skim the milk and beat the cream by hand to make yellow butter. Bought butter was a treat I longed for. We staked the tomatoes, cut newspaper with pinking shears for the lavatory, a deep hole with two wooden seats, or plucked a fowl. The smell of hot, wet feathers was unbearable. Because we were poor and idleness was a sin, mum made everything we wore and used. She turned her talents to making pot holders and peg bags of hessian, hemmed flour bags for tea towels and aprons on the treadle Singer sewing machine. Best dresses for Sunday, aprons, tough cesarine pinafores, knitted dresses with hats, gloves and bags for best or town sprang from her hands with pyjamas, nighties and bedsox. Once mother made a georgette dress for herself, dark wine in colour, in case we were invited out. She wore it once when, by invitation, women were invited to provide supper for the Lodge men. As mother worked at home, so did I, I learnt to make scones, plan and cook a baked rabbit dinner, make a mandatory sponge cake for the minister’s pastoral visit, preserve eggs with keypeg for the winter, stack the pantry shelves with bottles of dark red tomato sauce, fill jars with melon and lemon jam and sterilise Fowler jars for fruit – plums and peaches. How I longed for ice cream instead of boring fruit every night. Now and then mum played the piano and made me practise Czerny exercises or a Chopin Prelude. Home or school did not matter – mother could not stop working or teaching.
The war changed her life. We moved to the city. A teaching appointment meant paid work outside the home. Her domestic duties became mine after school. Looking back, I see a rational woman who embraced what she knew was best for her. I wonder if she regretted her choice. Did she marry at twenty-nine to escape spinsterhood with, she told me once, ‘a good man’ two years younger? Did my father, with a weak heart, one eye and minimal training, marry her to survive? That they melded is all I know now.