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My First Eighty Years

Chapter 2 — Widowhood in The 'Eighties

page 30

Chapter 2
Widowhood in The 'Eighties

In Timaru I was as despondent and miserable as a healthy child of ten can be. I had been told impressively the awful fact that we were now to be poor. To me, ‘poor’ meant low-down, dirty, disreputable, a taker of other people's leavings. Moreover, I had seen my mother washing clothes, and, as things seen are mightier than things heard, the sight had shocked me where I lived. I may say that I never saw her do such a thing either before or afterwards. That once was enough to convince me that our case was indeed desperate. When we had come to town and had taken a very meagre little cottage, I was so impressed by our altered circumstances that I slunk along, hardly daring to take my share of the footpath. On one occasion I was sent to order the week's groceries. Sugar was on the list, quantity unstated. I thought it out. Sugar was, of course, a luxury. It would be dreadful if I should ruin the family prospects by ordering too much, so I ordered a quarter of a pound. The grocer gave it to me in a screw-bag of newspaper in my hand. I was so humiliated that I nearly wept on the spot. I have no doubt that a lesson on restricted means was necessary, for country children do not learn early that shops are full of desirable things that they may not have, but obviously I had been told too much or too little about this poverty.

Though my mother was very confident about the future, how to begin earning was a problem. She took an inventory of the items of her equipment and decided that the two things she could do better than the average were to dance and to make toffee. ‘She had been educated at one of Melbourne's ‘ladies'’ schools and despised what she learned page 31 there from the bottom of her heart. She could sing and play well enough for a small tea-party, she could do various kinds of fancywork superlatively; she could mark clothes with a complicated cross-stitch so that the mark was an ornament to the garment; she could write a letter, not only in perfect hand-writing but correct in details of spacing and margins such as no one bothers about to-day; she knew how to address every rank, from Royalty to the dustman; she was acquainted with the proper etiquette of the ball-room and knew who took precedence of whom; she could walk — or rather float — downstairs as only a film star does to-day; but what were all these things to a widow with her children's bread to earn? The world was a bleak place for women to work in. Few to-day know how bleak. Nursing-homes and private hospitals were unknown. People were nursed at home; public hospitals were charitable institutions for the indigent.

She considered starting a boarding-school with my father's life insurance as capital, but the Sacred Heart convent was already giving good education of the sort then demanded; the new High School was beginning to offer an academic teaching, and there were two good boarding-schools in Christchurch.

The most popular of these amongst the girls was kept by a Mrs Gibson, but parents who believed in strict discipline sent their daughters to a dragon called Miss Louzer. Her name alone was sufficient threat to quell rebellious or difficult girls. She was said to be a Prussian aristocrat and was a highly educated woman. Her pupils, when they left, had not merely been exposed to French and German, but spoke and wrote both fluently — were properly ‘finished’, to use the phrase of the hour. She never lacked pupils, were they never so unwilling.

My mother shrank from risking her small capital in competition with such schools. What, then, happened to a widow left penniless in those high and far-off times? Their page 32 friends, their church, or some charitable people made a compassionate collection, with which they usually bought the widow a house. She might then take in boarders or sewing until the children grew old enough to earn. My mother was determined that it should not come to that — the collection, not the boarders. Indeed, she tried boarders at one time, but her temperament was not suitable to the game. Painting was really her best gift, inherited from her father, but she had had no modern tuition, and, though she did manage to get a few painting pupils, dancing proved her most valuable asset. She took young people's classes and adult classes, private pupils and small children's classes. They became a vogue — a fashion — and Timaru people were slaves to fashion. One way and another she kept the pot boiling, and never touched the £1,000 that came from my father's life insurance. ‘That I shall use for education,’ she said, ‘and nothing else.’

No doubt we were hard up, and knew it, but, looking back, it seems to me that we were able to have most of the small things that our school-mates had. There was a fashion for tinographs, little photographs on tin the size of a penny stamp. They cost two shillings a dozen and you exchanged them with all your friends. To be in funds on the exchange, you needed about three dozen. Then there was also a fashion for silver jewellery. Gold suddenly became in our eyes common and vulgar. We desired, above all things, a large silver locket, on a thick silver chain. You put somebody's hair in it and made a great mystery of whose it was. Your friends peered and tried to guess which boy of your acquaintance had hair like that. It was probably your brother's or sister's and all the secrecy a silly little pretence.

Before the ubiquitous film became the sole entertainment, many little shows came round — glass-blowers, ventriloquists, jugglers, waxworks, and once a model of the Strasburg clock.

From the number of these small amusements to which page 33 we were taken I conclude that my mother was making a fair living. There was nearly always a maid of sorts in the house, and, if not, charwomen and washerwomen were pitifully cheap. My mother must have applied to herself Max Adler's advice — ‘My son, be a bright poker’— for I never remember seeing her do what was then considered menial work except the once I have mentioned.

Her friends were wonderfully good to her. They never allowed her to drop out entirely from the gay, the very gay, social life of Timaru. She wore black always, and very severe and meagre mourning it was, yet the lack of suitable attire never seemed to trouble either her or her hostesses. It was not so with me or with my sister. We allowed an inferiority complex to make us shy. We were invited to big parties given by her friends, but went reluctantly, and gradually dropped the small, every-day intimacies with most of her friends' children. Grasmere, the beautiful home of a very beautiful woman, was always open to us. I believe that there is not an orchard and garden in New Zealand to-day to compare with those of Grasmere. In the orchard was every fruit suited to the climate, and all grew in great profusion. I never remember that there were any restrictions or any forbidden trees. Perhaps it was just as well, for the Whites were a large and unruly family and I can't imagine that they would have respected such restrictions. It was a wonderful thing during those hard years to have the freedom of that home. Did I long for flowers for a school occasion? I had only to go to Grasmere and most choice ones were sure to be given me. I may mention that the flower-garden was not free to all, but Mrs White was particularly generous and thoughtful. ‘Would you like some flowers?’ came to her lips as naturally as a smile.

The Whites had a carriage, ‘the real Mackay’, the kind we associate with Queen Victoria and London processions — the last word in style. There were only three carriages in Timaru, and I was quite sure that the White's was the page 34 doyen of them all. Wasn't their coachman the handsomest, with his tall hat, cockade, and shining boots? I thought their horses looked the finest, and the low, open coach the most graceful. I was sometimes, and my mother was often, driven home from Grasmere in that carriage. I felt like Royalty, but, from to-day's viewpoint, what a cumbersome means of locomotion it was.

When the depression was sore in the land and there was desperate need of retrenchment, the Whites gave up the carriage, as well as most of the luxuries they had been used to, and thus, while the stately homes round Timaru were falling one by one into the hands of mortgagees, they were able to save theirs, with its beautiful grounds and garden.

I am sure the Ostlers must have been intolerable nuisances to the Whites. I was told some years later of an occasion when my small brother, aged six, had killed three of the Grasmere ducks, but with great consideration the thing was kept from my mother. Greater tact hath no man.

Over those six years of Timaru school life let me draw a curtain. I was not studious, diligent and helpful, but wild and ridiculous. Not all the time, certainly, but more often than not. At one stage, I longed to be thought mad, and went roaring round the school grounds in strange, flowing garments. My cup of happiness was full when my sister told me that the girls were asking, ‘Is your sister off her head?’ Such phases were mercifully short. I had not very good health, and you know when the Devil was ill how he changed.

Once I had a lingering cough, by the exercise of which I could call up an appalling deep bark in the schoolroom. Very satisfactory! Perhaps less so to the mistress. We were exceedingly religious at that time. No! Having known the Grangers I should rather say that we all kept a pocket of religious sentiment tucked away in our make-up. A friend wrote me a note: ‘I hope, dear Nell, that you are prepared for the next world, for I know by your cough, which is just page 35 like my cousin's who died, that you are not long for this world!’ Fine! Splendid! I was greatly elated — a deathbed scene like little Eva's (everyone read Uncle Tom then), beautiful, touching farewells, precious last words. I arranged to distribute my small possessions, and every day I redistributed them among my favourites. I planned who was to be asked to the funeral and enlarged the list from time to time. I saw my friends gathered round my bed, weeping and wishing that they had seen my fine qualities earlier; my mother, somewhere in the background, also wondering why she had not recognised my virtues. Glorious! Nothing could be better. Was I morbid or finding life too bitter? Not a bit of it. I simply desired the glamour of a funeral over which I imagined myself floating, invisible, as a beautiful angel. But somehow I seemed to get no nearer my goal. Even the cough refused to make so much noise and took more effort to produce. I feared that the consumption, which was the right disease for good little girls to die of, was deserting me. I must do something drastic about it. I would open my bedroom window at night. That was equivalent to suicide. All windows, I knew, must be closed at four o'clock, to prevent the deadly night air from entering the house. I had often seen housewives rushing home in great anxiety in case the maids had forgotten to close the windows. I opened mine and dragged my bed under it. No result! In a final effort, I even sprinkled my sheets with water. It was cruelly uncomfortable, but all in vain. I grew steadily better, forgot about funerals, and have never had a chest complaint since, nor, after that experience, have I ever been afraid of draughts, damp clothes and wet grass. It is universally held that these things bring colds and rheumatism. I can only say that it is not so with me. I catch colds from time to time, like everybody else, but have never been able to trace a cold to anything but infection or perhaps disordered metabolism. The fact that in the Arctic regions a man may have his clothes frozen on to his skin, page 36 may almost die of exposure, and yet catch no cold is significant. Was it Hegel who said that, if the disorder we call ‘catching cold’ had been called ‘catching a heat’, there would have been less nonsense about it? But perhaps there would merely have been a different set of fetishes.

There was one incident that has been remembered by my friends as a wild escapade, and a sign of an unruly disposition, but to my own mind was a very natural experiment.

I suppose that every child has longed to fly, has looked at the ease of a bird's flight and wondered why its own body was so heavily chained to the earth. I was no exception, and also I was told a story the truth of which I had no reason to doubt. It was of two English boys who climbed to rob starlings' nests. They found that they could only get to the nests by putting a board out of a narrow slit in the belfry walls, one holding it straight while the other climbed out on it. The boy standing on the board secured seven half-grown starlings. Then they quarrelled over the division of the spoil. ‘If you don't share fair, I'll let you down,’ threatened the one inside. Finally, he did let the board go, and the boy on it fell. However, he was wearing a smock of tight-woven cotton. His hands were held high, and both full of fluttering birds. The smock spread like a parachute and he landed safely, saying, ‘Now you'll get nought.’

I believed the story. Why, then, should I not do the same with two umbrellas? I found two in the hall, put the catches of both out of action in case they should shut at a critical moment, climbed on the roof of a shed and, in sight of two disciples, whose turn was to come next, I hoisted the umbrellas and jumped off.

Nothing was broken but the umbrellas. The fall was painful, but things were more painful when the matter of the broken umbrellas was discovered. No! I was not a dutiful daughter, nor one to ease the conditions of a mother with three children to bring up by herself. I took her virtues page 37 for granted, and was critical — silently — of her foibles, for tolerance and humility and analogous qualities were alien to her. When she had occasion to come to school, she knocked like a postman, as if saying, ‘I'm here, with no time to waste’, and she would often enter hard upon the knock. Why, I asked myself, could she not give a polite little rat-tat-tat like the other girls' mothers and wait till the door was opened? She held certain beliefs which we should now call fads — such as homeopathy — which she spoke of with a superior air that implied contempt for those who failed to understand their truth. From small things I heard her say to selected friends, I am sure that religious faith was not a burning flame in her. She could not have swallowed the doctrines of the Church in their entirety, but she sternly suppressed signs of the like tendency in me. There was wisdom in it, for doubters were called atheists in those days and were social outcasts, treated with an ostracism that amounted to persecution. The smaller the community, the more unbearable the lot of the outcast.

I have noticed that the sons of widows have a tendency to turn out well. I suppose that a youth who is tempted to sow wild oats round, his first start may look to his father to give him a second, but the widow's sons have not only been brought up to feel protectors, which is good for a male's soul, but they know there is no possibility of a rescuing hand. But daughters of widows used not to be so conspicuously successful. A girl's duty in those times was to marry —to marry well. Frequently girls remained single. Look round to-day among the elderly spinsters. You will see that most of them are daughters of widows or of fathers who were failures.