Hard Work by Carol Titmus
It’s your turn, would you just go and do the dishes please!
No one seems to know the meaning of the words “hard work” any more. It is no wonder then that my generation loses patience with their children and grandchildren who constantly cry “It’s too hard” and they are only washing the dishes! There is nothing now that is harder than it was in my mother’s time.
I see her now with the great wooden pot stick in her hands, wisps of damp hair clinging to her reddened face as she plunged up and down in the clothes trough. This was after she had rubbed the more grimy areas on the glass ribs of the washboard. The clothes bubbled and squeaked in the sudsy water made ever so hot by the burning coals that were underneath the gigantic copper urn. The sticks for this little fire had to be cut by our father who kept a running supply for the copper, the chip heater in the bathroom and the fuel stove as well as the open fire. He always seemed to be cutting sticks, they came and they went like the birds that perched on the back fence waiting for the chickens to turn their backs so they could swoop on the seeds of wheat scattered in arcs from my mother’s apron.
Back to the washing in the laundry, the clothes washed, my mother would proceed to put them through the hand wringer, and then the linen was dipped in a trough of clean water that had been turned a pale shade of blue by the use of the blue bag. Up and down again with the potstick and back through the wringer. Mother sang all the while and she sang in time to the sploshes of the clothes against the stick” Walter, Walter Lead me to the Altar.” Our mother was a Gracie Fields impersonator. And we knew all the words to all the songs that Gracie and our mother sang.
The clothes were then poured into the oval metal container with the handles on either end and taken out to the clothes line which was a good way down the garden, negotiated by a path among the weeds. The clothesline itself was a long string of heavy wire that wriggled and jumped, each end looped on a post and in the middle was a long piece of wood with a notch in the end, this braced the clothes line and lifted it up so that the clothing and linen could blow in the breeze.
Mum would stand hands on hips and survey her work, using the back of her hand to wipe the sweat from her brow, then wiping her hands on her apron, she would make her way back to the laundry for more of the same. Later in the day the clothes were brought inside and mother did an interesting thing called “damping down.” This was done via the use of an old glass cordial bottle that had a screw in top that had small holes in it. The bottle was filled with water and mother sprinkled the clean washing to be ironed with water and rolled up the item tightly and laid it in the washing basket, eventually there was a huge basket of rolls of clothing piled on top of the other– this was Monday, and this was hard work.
One day a week Miss Erb came to lunch. My mother provided a meal for the old spinster in return for her talents at mending and patching. While she mended, my mother ironed. The table was always the best place for this chore, over the end of the table she placed an old army blanket and some old folded and patched sheets and smoothed out the area ready for the garment. The flat iron was face down on the top of the burning fuel stove. She spat on the base of the iron to test its readiness to iron. She had two irons, the plan being as she used one, the other would be heating up. She would then wipe the base of the iron with an old cloth in case there was some blacking off the fuel stove and then after laying out the item, she would press and the iron would send steam into the atmosphere of the cosy kitchen, this was called pressing and mother hummed along to a Gracie Fields tune, because she did not want to interrupt the chatter from Miss Erb, that might be seen as being rude – it was Tuesday and it was hard work.
Meanwhile Miss Erb merrily chatted away, her fingers holding the needle went up and down, it didn’t look to be hard work, but when you came to mending overall pockets and seams, it could be difficult.
The following day my mother would clean the fuel stove. It would be allowed to become cold after the morning porridge had been made , the doors and vents opened to help cool it down. Later in the morning my mother would apply a blacking substance, rubbing it in hard. Then when it was dry she would polish it off and admire the gleaming finish (much better than Mrs, Kerkhams). She cleaned the front where the oven doors opened up at night to give a wonderful red and orange warmth and where you could see animals and birds in the shapes of the coals that sat there as you toasted your crumpets or stale bread. Mother did the flue and the vents and the legs and the sides, she was very proud of her fuel stove, and got a great deal of satisfaction out of its finish, she sang the whole time she was working and the stove got a good rendition of “Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye.” It was time to get dinner, mother stood back with hands on her hips and admired her work – this was Wednesday and it was hard work.
The following day was floor day. It was always held on a Thursday – one never new why in particular, but my mother was a creature of habit, certain things were done on certain days and no bones about it. The floors in the kitchen and dining room had linoleum on the floor I love that word “lin ol e um”. The kitchen floor was cream and green squares and the dining room was green and cream squares just to be different. Mother would sweep, mop and wash the floors getting down on her knees with a hard wooden scrubbing brush and velvet soap. Round and round in circles she would go making a design on the floor like dollops of marshmallow. When the floors were dry she would take the rubber mat she knelt on and with a tin of beeswax in one hand and an old pair of my fathers undies in the other, she would apply the polish with one cloth and polish it off with another. She sang as she worked “The Biggest Aspidastra in the World”, and her trills mingled with the lovely fresh smell of the creamy yellow polish. Then there was the lounge floor to do, this was made from polished boards and had a fancy mat in a Persian design that squiggled all over the floor and was perfect for running little cars on the self made tracks. The mat went out onto the line and my mother literally bashed it with the straw broom, sending the chickens squawking , the cat flying and dust rising into the still air, and when the sun caught it, it was like a thousand tiny stars rising to the heavens. Back inside mother would mop the floor of the best room, replace the mat, and stand back and admire her work – this was Thursday and it was hard work.
The next day mother attacked the bedrooms with zeal – under the beds she would go uncovering all our treasures, our uneaten school sandwiches, our lost socks and our hand me down toys. She sang as she worked and we got a great rendition of ‘I Took Me “arp to a Party’. She straightened the beds which were covered in patterned cotton bedspreads that had tufts missing pulled out by tiny fingers in the dark when it was scary and the blind flapped against the window, and there was no kerosene lamp to light – definitely not in the bedrooms!! She flicked the duster on the side tables and adjusted the blind that went up and down on a roller. Then she moved into the parent’s bedroom, that sacro sanc area wheret we children were never supposed to be without a jolly good reason. Here she patted the bed cover, ran her hands over dad’s old coat, kicked the boxes back under the bed, the boxes that held her special going out shoes, and things that belonged to her mother. On the top of the wardrobe she could see the dust on the top of the hat boxes that did not contain hats anymore but she couldn’t quite reach to dust, you see my mother was petite, 5’3” and 7stone wringing wet. She dabbed some polish on the doors of the wardrobes that had seen better days, and fingered the beautiful crystal dishes and clock that had been wedding gifts. She put her hands on her hips, stood back and admired her work then closed the door. This was Friday and it was hard work.
The next day was the start of the weekend. Mother always prepared for the following day. She went out to the jungle garden where we played and where my father grew every vegetable known to man or so it seemed, and various fruits which hung down like Christmas lights from the trees bordering it or popped out of bushes, fruits like gooseberries and raspberries. Mother selected vegetables for our roast dinner the following day. She would dig the potatoes, pick the peas, pull the carrots and parsnips, pick the silver beet, and pull the onions and wash them in the cold water from the coiled up hose that lay in circles like a spring at the edge of the garden. She sang as she worked and you could hear “Will you love me when I’m Mutton, now you do that I am lamb” rising into the clear air of the countryside where we lived. My mother was often called upon to entertain at the local concert or a party, so she practised all the time, just so she could be better – but she was already the best, so it didn’t really matter. Mother podded the peas, peeled the other vegetables and chopped the silver beet. She checked the leg of lamb which was sitting in the wire cooler in the pantry, it was very large because there were six of us including my old nan, and even though she ate like a bird, mother always wanted to have left overs for sandwiches, and a curry, and maybe a shepheards pie – yes it was a very large leg of lamb.
Mother had bought it the day before from our local butcher, he wore a white coat and had a navy blue apron with stripes and other things on it. Other things that clung to the surface, and he brushed them off and they fell into the sawdust that covered the butchery floor. A leg of lamb, some tripe, mince and sausages – and I mean the ones he made himself – all made their way into mother’s shopping basket – I don’t know how she ever carried it home, the leg of lamb must have weighed 10 pounds, and it was fresh and it didn’t have a bright pink stamp on it, and you knew it came from up the road. Mother would struggle home on foot with the wicker basket weighing her down so that she walked lop sided and hoisted it up onto the table when she got inside with a 1,2,3. The potatoes lay in the clear water, two each and extra for dad and my big brother, the peas were in the bowl and looked like pearls you could thread and wear around your neck. You could smell the onions ready for baking, and the carrots and parsnips lay together in a saucepan, rings of cream and orange, and I could stick my finger in the pot and try to arrange them so that an orange piece was next to a cream piece. Mother wiped her brow as she bent into the cupboard to bring out the big roasting pan, it weighed a ton and was nearly as heavy as the leg of lamb that went into it. This was Saturday and it was hard work.
The next day the church bells rang and we were up and dressed in our one best outfit and ready for Sunday School. We walked there and back and mother always made sure we had a penny each to put in the plate. We sang Hear The Pennies Dropping, Listen as they Fall, everyone for Jesus, He shall have them all. We thought Jesus must have been a very rich man. Our Sunday School teacher was Miss Pitchford, she is still Miss Pitchford and she played the organ beeyootifully. After Sunday School it was our job to clean the silver cutlery, it had to be cleaned before we could use the pieces to eat our Sunday roast that hissed and bubbled away in the fuel stove oven. My sister who is the eldest had the job of putting the silvo on an old rag and rubbing it on the knives, spoons and forks making sure that she got between the prongs. It was my older brother’s job to rub the Silvo off and also make sure he got between the prongs, and it was my job to wash them in a basin of sudsy water. The cutlery glistened and gleamed, it shone in the light and we made faces in the mirrors on the backs of the spoons, we sang a continuation of Hear the Pennies Dropping Listen As They Fall, and we stood back and admired the cutlery lined up like so many soldiers. This was Sunday, and it was hard work.
So stop moaning about it and go and do the dishes like you were asked!