By Ida Collett
The story of my first twenty years is a simple one – unlike a work of fiction it has no plot pattern, no heroes, no heroines, only `characters’. Its action is in the usual (and some unusual) everyday activities of ordinary people. The time is the period from the beginning of World War I to the eve of economic recovery in New Zealand, a time when women were still being exploited, when poverty was everywhere and there was little help for the needy.
The setting is a small township, landlocked in a deep valley, and inhabited by workers and their families. Above the township lived the upland farmers, the distance between the two groups causing more of a social problem than a geographical one. The villagers thought the hill people considered themselves a `cut above.’
Be that as it may, everyone, high or low, mixed at some time, with little apparent discord: at social functions, on the sports ground, in the classroom, in church, some, for better or worse, in holy matrimony. Finally, most would come to rest, side by side, in the cemetery on top of Coalpit Hill.
It was in the small settlement that I spent my childhood and my teenage years. Born on the first day of July 1914, I was but a scrap of a human being when my uncles visited us at the end of that year on their way to the Great War.
When I was four, we moved from the town to a small place called Queen’s Flat, a whistle stop on the way from Oamaru to the end of the line just a mile away. My memories begin at that time: sheltering with my mother under overhanging rocks in a thunderstorm; watching the train go by; being frightened by pigs and an angry bull.
In time I walked the mile to school with my brother and sister but getting there was hazardous – an older pupil who lived along Bobbin’ Creek Road waited out of sight until we had passed, then she would give chase on her large horse. Escape was through the wire fence into the long acre, but she could get in there through the gate where we took the cows in and out, so sometimes we had to go on to the railway line. She made our lives a misery and though her terrorising came to an end when we moved to the township, she was still someone it was wise to avoid.
The township was, for me at least, a place of enchant- ment. A creek ran along behind the flour mill and there were willow trees and a path with hemlock on either side. I was only a skinny little thing and I could walk through the tunnel made by hemlock meeting over my head. The path was soft with dust from the coal mine and I plomped my feet down just to feel the dust floof up between my toes.
And there were gorse hedges, yellow in the sun, with flowers that had a warm sweet smell when crushed in the palm. And thistledown days when feathery plumed seeds would swirl away from our eager hands, some to be captured by tall trees and by spider webs on houses and by spikes on barbed wire fences. Some would ride the high currents far across the land and when the wind died would drift down and settle and in time colonise new ground.
And there were trees to climb, pines and plum trees behind our house, and a macrocarpa hedge, thick and high and untrimmed where one could hide away for ever.
Our house had five rooms and a coal range and no cover on the kitchen floor which our mother scrubbed once a week, and we had a kerosene lamp, and candles to light our way to bed. Opposite the back door was the washhouse which was also the separator room and storehouse where hams were cured and where strings of onions and shallots were hung for drying. The house was one of smells: roast meat, scones and cakes; potato peelings stewing in the pigs’ pot on the range; eucalyptus taken with sugar for coughs; and sulphur, blown down our sore throats through a paper tube. The house is not there now and the section where it stood is part of an adjoining farm, and sheep graze there, walking over our memories and trampling out all signs of our life there: the imprint of the buildings and the paths that led to the road gate, to the garden, to the long-drop under the pear tree, and to the old sideboard in the hedge where food was stored to keep it cool.
When I was seven, my youngest brother, the sixth child, was born. I remember that day because my mother was in bed and there was a strange lady working in the house. We were all told to play outside. When I asked the lady what the red water was in the tin bath outside the washhouse she said, `Your mother has been dyeing clothes.’ But I knew that wasn’t right.
In time there were six of us trotting off to school along the road above the church, down the hill and around the corner by the saddlery and Granny White’s lolly shop where one could spend a penny on sweets (if one ever had a penny), and where the white parrot that sat on the counter would say, `Granny’s out the back’ or `Here’s the boys, Granny’. Then on past the general store which sold groceries and hardware and in the magic room called `the drapery’, pins and needles, lace, elastic, woollen vests, dresses and ladies’ bloomers. And as we went on up the road to the school we could smell the bakery bread and hear the noise of the flourmill’s big engine which went night and day and was so much a part of our lives that when it stopped for any reason the quietness was palpable.
Our father worked in the mill during the depression and I had sometimes to take him his tea in a tall blue enamel billy with a lid that served as a drinking cup. I dreaded going into the mill past the thumping engine; I moved along with my back to the wall watching the big wheel in case it tried to suck me in.
It was very cold in the winter with the wind blowing down the valley from the mountains right into our faces on our way to school. We went home each day for lunch and it was wonderful in the warm kitchen having a hot meal of meat and gravy and mashed potatoes and swedes and cabbage, and there was always a pudding – lemon sago, baked jam roll, spotted dog, topped off with cream. And if we were quick about it, we could be home and back to school in thirty minutes in time to play games: bar-the-door, basketball, football, hop scotch, Conjo, marbles in season. But if Dunlop’s pond was frozen over we would stop off and skate for a while, and on a summer’s day have a quick try in the clay bank at catching a `penny doctor’ lying in wait in his burrow.
There were three teachers in the school, two in the Little Room (infants) and one, the Headmaster, in the Big Room with some sixty pupils. Some school memories are very clear: getting a gold star in the Little Room at regular intervals for spelling, and the strap, also at regular intervals, for talking in class; slates, cleaned with a wet rag or a sleeve and a little spit; iodine pills; having the end of my plait put into the inkwell by boys in the row above; and the enormous pleasure of drawing and writing. And I remember the children’s nicknames, given in a kindly way, some for obvious reasons, others for no obvious reasons, and a few, unkind, which pointed up prejudices against race, religion, and physical or mental imperfection.
The senior room was constructed on the tier system, like a grandstand, and pupils could progress, according to their performance, along and up the rows of wooden forms to the highest point of achievement, the top left-hand seat which I reached eventually receiving a gold Dux Medal for that honour.
The aim of students was to gain a Proficiency Certificate in Standard VI – failure could mean coming back and trying again. Girls, especially the older ones in a family, seldom came back. They stayed at home to help or went to work as domestics. They didn’t need an education just to get married. Everyone knew that! Girls might complain but they complied.
Our life outside school was very full. Before all else, there were the jobs to be done at home: washing up; bringing the cows home from the paddocks and taking them back (I liked doing that); turning the separator (sixty turns a minute); churning the butter (reading a book at the same time); feeding the hens and pigs; carrying water from the creek and cow pats from the football paddock for the garden; getting potatoes out of the storage pit when the frost lay thick on top; and cutting up crisp frozen mangolds with a sharp spade. And to boil up for the Saturday bath we filled the outside copper with water from the tank and gathered gorse sticks from along the hedges and, from our plantation, bluegum bark, dry and brittle and curled into funnels.
There was one chore, however, that we were never allowed to be part of and that was milking the cows. Our mother claimed it as her special job; it was the only time in the day, she said, when she could be alone and could think.
Our mother worked harder than any one in the family including our father, whose day had definite boundaries. For him the evenings were for recreation, for mother they were for mending, ironing, fine embroidery, and when needed, helping children with homework. She had many skills but gardening was perhaps the most important. She loved gardening. `I get strength from the soil’, she would say, forgetting the amount of effort she put into tilling, feeding and watering that soil. This interchange of energy ensured for us an almost continuous supply of vegetables: beans; cauliflowers; swedes; red cabbages for pickling; carrots as long as the leg of a chair; and, for Christmas, pink-eyed potatoes and sweet green peas to go with the cooked goose our Aunt Violet railed through from Central Otago. When we had a surplus of vegetables we gave them away and would often receive a leg of lamb in return.
We children made our own small contribution to the family income. We collected and sold birds’ eggs to the grocer; cut cocksfoot, thrashed out the seed (with a flail made by our father) and sold it for about tenpence a pound; and we trapped rabbits, sold the skins and sometimes provided meat for the table – rabbit was good eating, especially when cooked in a casserole with onions and bacon.
Sometimes, early in the morning when there was a wispy Autumn mist around the hills, we were made to get out of bed to gather mushrooms. Scrambling over the top gate, we raced across the paddock, past the pond, then down the slope above the windmill. We forgot about our cold hands and the wet grass in our eagerness to be the first to pick a mushroom from a `fairy ring’. Tiny mushrooms, new-born, were left for another day. With basins full of the very best we could find we would trudge back up the hill and were soon home again to a breakfast of porridge and cream and home-cured bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms. `You must always start the day with a good breakfast,’ our mother said.
When our jobs were finished (and sometimes when they weren’t) we played sports, had paper-chases, made a cave in the hillside, or walked long distances with our mother on picnics to places such as Paradise Bush – a pretentious name for a small patch of native trees. My mother taught me the names of those trees and though I didn’t know it then, it was the beginning of my life-long interest in New Zealand flora.
The village was a busy place – the train went into town and back every day and brought the paper and letters and parcels. Over at the mill, old Nugget, everybody’s friend, strained in the harness as he hauled railway trucks laden with bags of flour across to the turntable on the main line. And farmers arrived with grain in wagons drawn by horses or by traction engines – in time lorries would be used for this work and for carting gravel from the quarry for the roads and coal to houses in the village. All this went on around us as we played our games in the grassy lane between the mill and the church.