Friday, July 21, 2006

The Heart of the House

Lee-ann has posted a lovely story about the happy memories she recalls of life with her mother, grandmother, aunts and cousins. A time of love, support, warmth, fun and laughter - all the things that money can't buy.

I hope Lee-ann won't mind if I print one of the stories I wrote two years ago about a room which I fondly remember as being ...


If ever a room could be described as being the heart of the house, then our kitchen certainly deserved that title. One of four main rooms in a weatherboard house built for 200 pounds (about $400) during the Great Depression, it was the centre of most family activities for nearly 40 years. It served not only as kitchen but also dining room, family room, playroom, laundry, bathroom and sick bay at various times. Whilst it underwent a number of changes of paint, floor coverings, furniture and windows through the years, it nevertheless remained the heart of the house.

When we arrived at the 100 acre Victorian dairy farm in 1946, the house consisted of a kitchen and a lounge room, with a bedroom opening directly off each of them. The rooms were quite large by today’s standards with 10ft high ceilings. The bedrooms measured 14ft x 12ft.6in, and lounge and kitchen were also 12ft.6in wide, but even longer at 18ft. That extra six inches in width in all rooms was a source of annoyance whenever new linoleum was purchased as it came in rolls 6ft wide. This meant that the lino was laid with a join down the centre of the room and two 3inch strips down each side. These strips had a habit of lifting, catching furniture legs and the broom alike. Built onto the back of the house at one side was a small bedroom, known as a sleepout, and on the other side was a laundry-come-bathroom. In between was a concrete veranda, which opened directly into the kitchen. Across the front of the house ran a wooden veranda. The front door was never used by visitors and only rarely by the family. Indeed, there were no paths which led to the front door; everybody entered through the back door into the kitchen.

In the early days we had no electricity, no radio or television and no refrigeration, but we did have a telephone, connected to the manual exchange on the next farm. Our phone number was Heath Hill 9. Even the water was not connected to the house. The previous owner’s wife had to walk outside and draw water directly from one of several corrugated iron tanks. The first task Dad undertook was to run a pipe and tap through the kitchen wall so that Mum had water on hand.

The only furniture in the room was a cabinet, with leadlight glass sliding doors, in which the food was kept, and a dresser with shelves and cupboards underneath for crockery and other utensils. The plates stood on their side in grooves between the shelves and the cups hung from hooks along the front. In the centre of the room was a large wooden table which served as both working and eating area. Around the walls were a few mismatched wooden chairs and two long wooden benches, which was the easiest way to seat a growing family of nine people.

High above the wood stove in the corner was a mantelpiece on which stood the clock, boxes of matches and a tin of string, pot holders, the fly sprayer, and a number of white candles in chipped enamel holders, liberally coated in beads of solidified wax, ready to light the way to bed at night. The mantelpiece, which was adorned with a scalloped edging of baize, the same waterproof material that covered the table, also held a few ready-to-hand medicines like pink packets of Aspros, which were sealed in a strip of waxed paper, Rennies for indigestion, and blue packets of little chocolate squares – the dreaded Laxettes. There were bottles of Cod Liver oil, Dexsall, peroxide and eucalyptus, jars of Vicks Vaporub, green Zambuck ointment and sometimes a tin of Rawleighs ointment to rub on bruises.

After each meal the dishes were washed in a tin dish on the table. One Saturday, Mum asked Dad if he would buy a new washing up dish when he was in the local town that morning as the old one had sprung a leak. When he came home, she asked where was the dish. “Oh”, he replied, “I’m so sorry. I forgot all about it”. At 3 o’clock that afternoon a truck drove up to the house. On the back of the truck was a stainless steel sink on a set of three cupboards. Mum took one look at it and burst into tears, she was so happy.

The kitchen walls had been stained a dark brown colour, which was depressing all year round. It was dark and gloomy in the winter and hot and oppressive in the summer. After a few years Dad could stand it no longer and painted the kitchen yellow with brown trim. Two or three colour changes followed over the years.

The floor was covered in green and orange patterned linoleum, laid in 1936 judging by the newspapers we found underneath when we replaced it many years later. For some reason Mum always had a strip of coir matting running from the back door to the lounge room and another in the area of the sink and stove. I’m not sure why she persisted with these mats – perhaps she felt they cut down on noise and may have been warmer, although certainly rougher, to walk on than lino – but each day they had to be rolled up, taken outside and shaken and swept. This was one of my hated jobs when I was old enough to do it. However, as small children we made good use of the coloured patterns on the matting. Orange or red stripes became roads for toy cars, and green squares were paddocks for the stuffed animals or gardens for the dolls. The space under the big wooden table became anything that a child could imagine. Best of all was when it was a cubby house with a couple of sheets thrown over to reach the floor.

Originally the kitchen had a tall sash window with white net curtains caught back at each side. Through the window we could look out onto the orchard and beyond to the cowshed. I still remember the feeling of comfort and security as we watched through the window as the rain formed big puddles on the gravel paths or stormy winds tormented the fruit trees in the orchard and the tall gum trees in the bush beyond.

If the kitchen was the heart of the house, then the stove must have been the heart of the kitchen. All cooking and heating of water was done on the wood stove, which always had a glossy black shine to it from vigorous applications of Zebo stove polish and the hearth in front of the stove and surrounding fireplace was regularly ‘painted’ with a red-ochre mixture. Not only did the stove cook three meals a day, year in year out, but it toasted the bread, warmed the room, boiled the water, dried wet clothes, boots and shoes, heated the flat irons to press the clothes, and drew people like a magnet to its enveloping warmth. I read many books at night curled up on the end of the hearth leaning on the warm fireplace. After I had left school and was working on the farm, on cold winter mornings Mum and I would each pull a chair up to the stove after breakfast and sit with our feet in the oven reading the daily papers. The big wide oven not only cooked wonderful roasts, puddings and cakes, it also dried socks stuffed with newspaper, warmed boots and shoes, and even dried the next morning’s kindling wood during very wet weather. A big black kettle was constantly on the boil, and the sounds of the kettle whistling, accompanied by small wisps of escaping steam, and the steady ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece, was very relaxing in the mid-afternoon when the housework was finished and there was a lull before the late afternoon activities of preparing to milk the cows and cooking dinner.

As there was no electricity for many years, at night the room was lit by a kerosene pressure lantern, which gave a brilliant light in such a large room and made a gentle hissing sound. Dad always lit the lamp as Mum didn’t like having to pump it to the required pressure in case it exploded. If for some reason Dad was away from the farm at the end of the day, Mum would light another smaller lantern, which only lit up about half of the room. I always felt uncomfortable when she used that lantern, not only because it wasn’t as efficient as the larger one, but also emphasised the fact that Dad was away and home felt a little less secure as a result.

As the years passed changes were made in the kitchen. New windows, cupboards, and a gas fridge and stove were added, although it was only during the hot summer months that the wood stove was relieved of its duties. A radio and electricity gradually arrived, the coir matting disappeared and the children grew and no longer played under the table. But it was still the room where everyone gathered.

Long hours were spent around the dinner table at night as Dad talked about his childhood in England or his early days in Australia, including his time in the Army during the war. After dinner we would sit around and listen to radio programs like the Jack Davey quiz shows, The Amateur Hour, The Quiz Kids, or any of the BBC shows like Take It From Here, A Life of Bliss and Much Binding in the Marsh, and later on My Word and My Music, or the Sunday night plays. We would often work on jigsaw puzzles or play card games, Snakes and Ladders or Ludo, and of course, there was often homework to do. A large piece of masonite was sometimes laid over the table so that we could play table tennis or Bobs. Dad usually joined in these activities with us while Mum sat darning socks and jumpers, or replacing missing buttons from shirts and trousers. In later years Dad and I played Scrabble, often until the early hours of the morning while listening to the Test Cricket from England.

It was the room where all of the family gathered for tea on Christmas nights after we had all married and left home. Mum particularly looked forward to that night all year as she loved being surrounded by her children, sons/daughters-in-law and grandchildren. If the walls could speak they could tell many tales of family life, mostly happy, some sad, and even a few arguments. It saw birthdays, anniversaries and other celebrations, and it was where my husband asked Mum and Dad if we could get married.

Houses and lifestyles have changed over the years, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if every child could have such a room to remember with pleasure throughout their lives.


Motherkitty said...

What a lovely tale of your growing up in that little house on the farm. Your children are so fortunate that you have written it down. You must share more with us.

Kali said...

Alice ~ what a wonderful story this was...i have this image now of your childhood kitchen and surrounds, and I enjoyed every sentence and all the details you described...I love such stories.
Thanks for sharing and how wonderful for your family to remember as the years pass.

Suse said...

What a lyrical, evocative story. Thank you Alice.

Kerri said...

Thank you dear Alice, for sharing that story with us.
Yes, it would certainly be wonderful if every child could have such a room to remember fondly throughout their lives.
You have an amazing ability to recall small details and a wonderful writing style. Please share more stories!

Annie in Austin said...

That was really beautiful, Alice, and I'm also amazed by your ability to remember the details. My parents built their house after WW 2, and it was very plain and simple, but we always had water [from a well] and electricity. Like your family, mine never used the front door - for years the door sat high & unreachable on the outside wall - finally some concrete steps were made.

shellyC said...

Oh I remember that kitchen too and that "huge" kitchen was a fantastic room. Probably where my firm belief of the "kitchen is the heart of the house" stemmed from!!!

Sigrun said...

Alice, that is a wonderful story. I rember such a kitchen too!

susan said...

Your storytelling is amazing! I felt as if I was there with you! Thanks for sharing.

snappy said...

beautiful story telling.Can imagine listening to you tell it in a warm kitchen with the smell of baking bread in the air.Such memories are priceless, and now you have immortalised them in your blog.Thanks for sharing it with us.

HORIZON said...

It is so easy to go back in time with you Alice, just as if l myself had sat in that very kitchen. What wonderful memories. :)

Tammy said...

Wonderful post story...I love reading these!!

Val said...

Alice, I've said this before, but you make everything so real - I just felt like I had been there and then when reading that. "The heart of the house" , says it all. Thank you!

Calidore said...

I have just stepped back in time and feel like I have been looking through a lighted window into your childhood home. What a wonderful and secure world you had. I know life has its ups and downs, but you have just shown how family really is the bond that holds us all together and "home", where ever it is, is the sofely glowing candle in the window guiding us safely there. Thank you for sharing that precious gift of your past. I will add my plea to other, please more of those stories.

Hugs Catherine

Daisy Lupin said...

What a beautiful story that was. I was really charmed by it. When I was a child we also had a carpet with a pattern that made ideal paddocks and fields for my farm animal set. I think we should all thank Lee-ann for her story which has obviously inspired a few of us to tell family tales. Love