What do you remember about life before you were six?
So much of it gets confused with what you have been told by your parents, big sisters, aunts and uncles. Are they really your own memories in the end?
I can clearly see a long veranda, about six steps high above a back garden behind a maternity hospital. The floor is red polished around the edges with inlaid fancy tiles, and I am sitting in a large Lloyd Loom basket chair with floral cushions and very unhappy.
We had come all the way, to see our Mommy and brand new baby sister, but were made to wait outside. I think I’m crying, because Daddy went in to see Mommy without me. We are told to play in the garden by a nurse, but I don’t want to go with Pat to the garden.
Huddled in that chair against the plaited woven cane, I touch the texture pushing my little fingers in and out of the holes trying to eradicate the voices from my ears. It is so clear now, but nearly 60 years have passed. My memory of that chair is unmistakable.
To put this all in perspective; I have been the baby for four years now and have had all the attention, so who needs a new sister anyway. Sorry Charlotte!
The Matron in charge gives Pat and I a sweet to suck while we wait, pandering to my sulks. Between the sobbing and then the excitement of seeing Mommy walking down the veranda, (at last!) to say hello, I promptly swallow the sweet and choke on it. But according to all those present, the Matron saved the day, by turning me upside down; dangling by the ankles she shook the sweet out of me.
I think later we did venture down the red polished steps to a lawn with rose bushes or flower beds. Six, I am sure it was six steps?
This was at the Salvation Army Nursing Home in Port Elizabeth in the Cape where my sister was born in 1952. All other memories of North Downs, Port Elizabeth where we lived are very blurred.
When we moved to Gumtree, 14 miles from Ficksburg, Orange Free State things became a lot clearer.
Dust. Road dust. That smell of an un-tarred dirt road which runs in front of our house, it is the only road between Ficksburg and Clocolan and runs quite close to the now, Lesotho border.
When the days are hot, dry and windy, huge whirlwinds lift the sand and grit high into the sky like mini tornados. Our garden is very big and we have fruit trees and a vegetable garden; right at the bottom of the property I remember a water tank on a metal stand and a chicken coop with laying hens. I am five when Granny Finlay comes to stay from Keighley, England.
Granny’s solution to healthy children, (although we were all healthy) was that they needed to have opening medicine once a week. Pat stood and took her’s but I always made a run for it. Round and round the vegetables she chased me with a bottle of Syrup of Figs and a spoon in hand, until I hid in the hen house! The lesser of two evils, hated the chicken poo too but hardly ever wore shoes….
One day I was joined in wedlock to Derek Ramsay under a peach tree on our lawn in the back garden. I didn’t have a choice really, as my sister wanted to perform a ceremony on someone! She remembered all the words from the service at a recent wedding that we had attended. I couldn’t wait for the ordeal to be over.
The Ramsay family had the village shop within walking distance, we lived almost in the shadow of the huge Mill, the tallest sandstone structure in South Africa, where Daddy worked. This mill still stands today but is now the home of pigeons, towering over an empty village, which was once a thriving hub. Sadly, no trains stop at the station, there is no longer any need. The sandstone sentinel waits for a reawakening.
It was in Gumtree where I turned six, started school and my brother was born. The very talk of African dirt roads brings back the smell of Gumtree, with tall gum trees swaying and a whirlwind hurtling down the road.
‘Living Doll’ by Cliff Richard and The Shadows, once known as The Drifters was made popular in 1959, when I was twelve. The absolute favourite in my eyes; and to my ears! This is the age when kids begin to need something new to cling to. I had bought a Cliff record. A seven single, my first ever!
How lucky we were, the 1960’s were just around the corner, the birth of a new stirring amongst the youth. A time to let your hair down, go with the flow! Pete Townsend, from ‘The Who’ said: “By and large, the past two generations have made such a colossal mess of the world, that they have had to step down and let us take over”
I played my Cliff record over and over whenever there was time and I was allowed to; mostly Saturdays.
When I hear that song now, I am transported back to that little sitting room with the 9 x 12 carpet square, an old tan three piece suite, and against one wall the radiogram had pride of place; and the heavenly smell of Mommy’s shortbread wafting into the room.
As a family, we lived in Bon Accord outside Pretoria, Transvaal, before we moved into town to our Gezina home. This was so far outside of ‘known civilization’ that we had no post delivery, no proper bus service and no telephone. (and no inside loo!)
We didn’t allow this to influence our lives. Dad’s three year old mill was within our view, our home was functional, we attended school on a school bus and drove 10 miles to attend Sunday School and church every week.
We played in the church garden at St Mary’s in Pretoria North after Sunday school , waiting for Mommy and Daddy to come out of church, listening to the lilting sound of the closing hymn, ‘Fight the Good, fight’, one that was pleasing to my ears and I hummed along too.
Yesterday we shopped at a farm stall in Esssex, England and amongst the vegetables,and other unusual purchases, there was a pot of jam. Not my choice.
At breakfast this morning, I was asked to sample the black current jam. Not a jam fan, reluctantly I spread a little on one half of my toast. What a short memory one has sometimes.
With the first taste I was transported back to a dining table in Pretoria, sitting opposite my mother. The way we used to sit and talk long after breakfast was over on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Oh,the gossip! With another slice of toast … and another slice of toast…. Black current jam was one of her favourites.
The suburb of Gezina, Pretoria, it was our home from home.
A house with love in it, hey! and black current jam, and chocolate cake, ginger bread, fridge tarts and fluffy jelly.
A place for the best Sunday roasts in the world, with long languid afternoons spent out in the back garden in the shade before teatime. Any of the brood who were not there that day, well, they were missed.
It was a place too, that grandchildren felt at home and grew up a little spoilt.
After we had left the family home in Ninth Ave, Gezina, it was still the same. ‘Just come’, Daddy would say, ‘you don’t have to ask!’
Now, if you can believe it! All this happened to me in a split second, just because of the taste of a slice of toast and jam! That’s taste.
This has to be the obvious one. It was a special time for us as it is in most homes.
Christmas, with the table set and awaiting guests, brings a lump to my throat. Well, it is also a time when most people drink to absent friends and family, once around the table.
I see her now, my Mom, trying to prioritise between the kitchen, hovering around the meat in the oven; the gossip she didn’t want to miss in the lounge; her presents which she had never finished wrapping in the bedroom; and the laying of the table which she knew I was getting all wrong in the dining room.
So now, as I lay the table each year, with whatever my brand new colour scheme happens to be; can I ever forget the precision and positioning of each and every knife and fork.
Back then, the table cloth was adjusted more than once for me, the best crockery had to be brought out; often needed washing, because it hadn’t been used since last year. The ‘good’ cutlery, remember, and instructions as to where each person had to sit. Oh, ‘and don’t you do the glasses, now, leave those for me, they’ll need a shine up’ (I hadn’t upgraded to glasses yet) There was a lot of oohh-ing, sighing and perspiration! It was hot at Christmas in South Africa, but roast it had to be.
Around the table in 2009, where we were visiting my daughter and son in law’s home in Ireland, sat three little boys. Little boys, who that morning, were continuously getting in the way and wanting something, as my daughter tried to prioritise between, the roast in the oven; what else had to be done;the background music she wanted to play; coats on and coats off as the boys kept wanting to test skateboards outside; as well as trying to change into her own special outfit she had chosen for the day.
I laid the table.
And secretly hoped as we sat down to our meal that day in Kildare, that my Mom and Dad could see how our family had grown and what handsome great grandson’s they had. We toasted absent friends and family and the boys clinked glasses, without any idea where their smiling faces around the table had taken me back to.
The following Christmas was equally as busy; three families in one household, mostly adults, who eventually managed to prioritise themselves and get sitting down around the table. (It took a while!) It does when everyone has their own agenda, there are only two bathrooms and a few conflicting lists of priorities.
But we got there in the end and the feeling was just the same for me- emotional.
We were at our home and entertaining two daughters, our son in laws and my gorgeous grown up, helpful granddaughter, who had earlier tried to lay the table for me, but didn’t get it quite right.
Am I changing into my mother?
Footnote: Only kiddin’. You all did a great job; Mel, Bon and Tam!!!