A refined conversation

0000534There were six of us sitting at the dining table. The only husband was ‘a former naval person’, in the words of Winston Churchill signing off his telegrams to President Roosevelt. My husband wasn’t well enough to join us, so the rest of us were what some people would call old ladies, but I don’t think it had occurred to any of us.

There was the magnificent matriarch, well into her eighties, now a great grandmother, still jetting around the globe to various children and grand-children, still walking her dogs every day, still wiping the floor with everyone at bowls and golf, still giving lectures on arcane subjects to U3A, the university of the old, still beautiful, slim and elegantly dressed. She was entertaining two of the other ladies in her sea-side house, so I’d suggested they come for lunch.

One of her friends was a gardening devotee, fresh from a tour of the gardens in Melbourne …  sitting beside her, she and I discussed great Australian gardeners like Andrew Pfeiffer and Edna Walling. Magnificent matriarch’s other friend was the titled widow of a distinguished sailor, and a painter, while my other friend, who also painted and had spent her life in France, also sported a title. So you might think that we would generate a decorous and refined level of conversation. I’m not sure what triggered the subject of washing nappies, but this generated more energy, heat, and hysterical laughter than many other subjects before or since around that dining table.

We explored the horrors of scraping and rinsing, the wringing out and pegging on the line outside in freezing cold with frozen fingers. I described my primitive electric boiler on wheels, into which I placed a hose for the water. In it I put the horrid wet smelly nappies and soap powder, and boiled it up, steam filling the kitchen while a particular smell of boiling clothes would penetrate the place. When they’d boiled sufficiently, the heavy boiler had to be rolled to the kitchen sink, the nappies fished out one at a time and swung from the boiler into the sink for rinsing. We all agreed that we used a wooden spoon for this rather than the tongs. By now the kitchen was filled with steam and all the windows misted up.

The sailor’s widow claimed that her lot was worse than the rest of us. She didn’t even have a boiler, but had to fill a bucket and lug it across to boil it on the top of her stove, which then entailed heaving the boiling bucket with stewing nappies back across the kitchen to the sink. The magnificent matriarch reminded us of how the fingers used to swell with all this rubbing and wringing, and I remembered how I’d stopped wearing my wedding and engagement rings as my fingers had swelled so much.

French lady complained about the horror of having a baby sitting on your lap, and the sudden realisation that the bottom of the baby was sodden. Sailor’s widow and I swapped notes on the anguish of getting them dry in a cold climate. Her husband was stationed in Canada then, and mine in England. We carried stiff , square, frozen nappies in from outside, and draped them over a clothes horse or chair in front of the fire to thaw them and dry them. With two babies under two, I was often only one nappy ahead of each baby. No such thing as a dryer back then – a clothes horse in those days was made of wood, with hinges of heavy-duty linen.

We discussed the fine cotton inner nappy and the bulky outer terry towelling nappy, and the great day when plastic outer pants were invented, thus saving us from the trauma of the wet nappy sitting in the lap. Former naval person sitting at the end of the table sat riveted with horror at this refined lunch-time conversation, and rolling his eyes and groaning at intervals, just to remind us he was there.

We happily ploughed on eating our chicken vol- au- vent, and alcoholic dried fruit compote for pudding, his revulsion just giving an added edge to our enjoyment – maybe even revenge for the trials we had all endured. We envied flower expert’s possession of a high-ceilinged old fashioned kitchen which had meant she had room for an airing rack on a pulley to dry everything in the warm air up on the ceiling. French lady boasted that by the time she had her last child, she could order a nappy service in Paris to collect and deliver. We practically jeered at this decadence, sailor’s wife claiming with determination that she had had the worst experience with nappies, and who could argue… buckets, frozen nappies, an’all ?

Our children had it easy, we all agreed, and we had all noticed that our grandchildren never had any problems with nappy rash from their easy disposables. Threat though they are to the environment, this, we agreed was a huge plus, freeing  mothers from the guilt which we experienced if any of our babies  displayed that bright red rash, for which we blamed ourselves for not rinsing the nappies well enough, or not changing them often enough.

This burning subject and un-savoury occupation which kept five intelligent, well-educated  women from prosperous backgrounds fully occupied for years of their lives, would seem utterly trivial to today’s mothers, who not only enjoy disposable nappies, but washing machines and dryers which do the job at the touch of a button.

But today’s women also juggle jobs with housework, children and commuting. I don’t envy them. Though fifties women are considered a joke by most people now-a-days, we actually had time to spend with our children and ourselves. And our trials were very character-forming!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Dried fruit compote is one of the easiest luxurious puddings I know. Roughly chop about three cups of dried peaches, prunes, figs and apricots into three cups of cold tea and add rum to taste, plus a cup of brown sugar. Add a stick of cinnamon, six cloves, and two or three star anise and at least a teasp of vanilla essence. Gently heat and simmer until soft, and serve hot or cold with crème fraiche or whipped cream, and maybe a little shortbread biscuit. Peeled sliced apple and tamarilloes are also good in the mix. Add more liquid is needed.

Food for Thought

In Islam, especially among the Sufi orders, siyahat or ‘errance’ – the action or rhythm of walking – was used as a technique for dissolving the attachments of the world and allowing men to lose themselves in God.

Bruce Chatwin,  1940 – 1989  Traveller and writer

 

 

 

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58 Comments

Filed under babies, cookery/recipes, family, great days, humour, life/style, sustainability, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life, womens issues

58 responses to “A refined conversation

  1. Diaper pails, cloth diapers, big big pins…. I remember all of those from my early years of baby sitting. When my first son was born, in the 70’s, Pampers were just starting to be used as the primary diaper … and I used them! 🙂

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    • Oh yes, the nappy pins – always disappearing just as you groped for the second one with your arm wedged firmly across baby’s stomach to stop her wriggling over onto her side!.
      I still have one, I keep it in my jewel box !!!

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  2. two engaging goldens

    I came here from a link at The Kitchens Gardens after seeing your beautiful view from the back door. Well, a few posts later I am still here and enjoying reading your blog. The first story about washing in the kitchen in the “olden” days brought back the smell of that kitchen whilst my grandma did the weekly sheets and towels – always on Monday. Then out to the air raid shelter where the big old mangle was kept (my job). I could see that old gentleman getting frustrated by such conversation he would know nothing about. Half his luck. Thank you. Joy

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    • Joy, great to hear from you, and so glad you stopped to add your experiences,
      Oh yes – the mangle !
      I remember my grandmother’s mangle. It must have mangled the clothes something dreadful… maybe they just did towels and sheets !!
      And you’re right – Monday it always was!
      Nappies, though, for us girls ( a metaphor) a generation later was everyday !

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  3. Wonderful Valerie! I think women’s talk is always much more ‘earthy’ than men’s, and I loved the way you wrote that although you may have been called by others a gathering of ‘old ladies’, it certainly hadn’t occurred to you. And I hope it never does!

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  4. Juliet

    I had a good chuckle reading this, and memories flooded in of washing nappies on the kitchen bench in our converted garage in Paris, using a manual plastic washing bubble to turn the nappies, but having to wring, fill and refill by hand also. I used cold water because Napisan had come on the market, thank goodness. When I brought them in from the line they were frozen solid. What hard work, but it was all part of the delightful days with my beautiful baby.

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    • Just how I feel, Juliet, I loved every minute of those tough times with the babies… and often wish I could do it again with what I know now !!!
      You too had the frozen nappies ! – but Paris must have made them worth while !!!!

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  5. Oh, what a wonderful post! It was as if I were there with you. I came late to motherhood – 35 years old when I had my son. I did try the cloth diapers, but alas, did not have your stamina and went back to disposable. The enjoyment of an afternoon with kindred spirits sharing experiences is a precious gift.

    “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
    ― Gwendolyn Brooks

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  6. Eha

    Well, you just have to blame Celi for my being here too [:) !] – and somehow immediately ‘fitting in’! Sugar, my two sure wore cloth nappies and yes, we had problems with shared hi-rise laundries and ‘complaints’ about stuff going into washing machines not being suitable to do so. . . I DO wish there had been ‘disposables’ . . . 😀 !

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    • Well, isn’t Celi great, not just sharing all our back porches, but putting us in touch with each other ! So glad you came… nappies are an inexhaustible subject for mothers, it seems !!!
      I will now have to find your blog !

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    • How do I get to your blog????

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      • Eha

        Oops, so sorry! I just happen to be one of those wretched cuckoos who [for practical reasons] does not have a blog but flies from one to the other hoping that I may be welcome 🙂 !

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      • I think that’s wonderful ! Lovely to know you’re flying from blog to blog, but on the other hand we can just enjoy you, and not worry about adding another blog to be loyal to, to our already far too long reading lists!!! You are always welcome here !!!!

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  7. Interesting . . . About the Sufi walking thing. There is a Tibetan Buddhist exercise called walking without walking where you take steps but are barely moving. Surprisingly difficult to do for any length of time..

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    • I find that fascinating, Bruce… and can imagine how hard that would be… it seems there’s a similar tradition in so many cultures, I practised doing a Buddhist walking meditation which I used to love, and even the Christian tradition of walking the labyrinth has echoes of the same… I must say I’ve always longed to do the whirling dervish Sufi meditation too …

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  8. I read your post with interest and a smile. However, I don’t think fifties-women are considered a joke by most people now-a-days. I see a longing in (career/working) women to get some ingredients of the fifties back into their lives: having time for their children, having time for gardening, doing interior design (although it had a less glamorous name i.e. ‘housekeeping’), and a revival of handicraft, like crochet. Pantry cabinets with self made jam are fashion again, as well as self made mittens ans shawls. I could go on, but I’m sure you will write a lovely post about this soon. 🙂
    Best wishes from the Netherlands!

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    • Paula, lovely hear from you – I suppose I was basing my remark about fifties women on various jokes I’ve seen around based on the ads of those days, and weighty articles saying they’d never have had time to do all the things they’re supposed to have done. The short answer being, of course, that we did do all those things, as well as all the lovely things you list… and best wishes to you, from the Antipodes !

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      • Valerie, a decade from now we might be reading jokes about women who suffer mounting stress pursuing their career.
        Joking or not, it is a good thing when women are allowed to make their own choice and find their own balance between family and work. Meanwhile we all need days of 28 hours, don’t we? 🙂

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      • Yes, Paula, twenty eight hours would make a huge difference ! Seriously though – I sometimes feel that women have less choice now than we did – the pressure to work, and the rising costs of living means that many / most women have to work… It saddens me both for women and for children…

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  9. What a brilliant post!! I opened my emails this morning and thought “I have so many blogs I follow – no wonder I am so behind on my own blogging. I am only going to read the headline catchers…” I am so grateful I read your blog. It was so funny (and true) and brought a smile to my face. This post should get WordPressed! Well done!!

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    • Oh Tersia, thank you so much, I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and found it funny… I know that feeling of grappling with too many irresistible blogs to read !!! But I usually get to yours !

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  10. Oh, Valerie, your post brought back so many memories. I didn’t find the nappy situation very funny at the time but, today, I was creeing with laughter, and remembering the nappy ‘stew’ boiling away in the big pot on the stove top. I didn’t have to contend with a frozen nappy problem but I do recall, in one place that we lived, all the nappies, indeed all washing, had to be well ironed because of the putzi fly. They would lay eggs in the washing and….well, you can imagine the rest…if the eggs weren’t killed by a hot iron.

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  11. Tears are streaming down my face I am laughing so hard thinking of this lone wolf among the beautiful women, lunching and discussing nappies. Gad, what an eye opener for him. I can picture him actually, periodically holding his head in his hands, squeezing his eyes shut in.

    I think the women of my family had it much easier most of the year coming from the heat of Texas and before that Louisianna.

    As always you paint pictures with your words and give windows into the world we might not otherwise see.

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    • Oh I love it when I know you’ve had a good laugh! You got the picture of the retired naval person perfectly !!
      Thank you as ever for your kind words,
      So glad you enjoyed it Val

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  12. 😀 Would have loved to be a fly on the wall if only to obverse the Naval man. (quickly joined by many others here)
    You must write more about your Salons !!

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  13. lucewriter

    What a fun post! I was lucky that by the time I had babies disposables were in wide usage. But I remember the days of my brother’s babyhood as he was much younger. I remember trying to unpin a completely saturated diaper and having difficulty even getting the pin out of the wet cloth. But I didn’t have to wash them . . . . My mother had diaper service.

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    • Glad you enjoyed it! Those were the days ! The art of fitting a nappy developed with a new way of folding it, which was much more practical than the old in-efficient triangle way ! So even fitting a nappy is an art !!!!

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  14. You are a wonderful story teller my friend Violet. I thought nappies were short sleepies for babies. Live and learn.. um.. live and learn. Ralph xox 😀

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    • That’s a great way to look at the whole subject Ralph… I’m learning too !… just off to have a short sleepie, or do I mean nappie, myself, from your drowsy friend Varina

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  15. I just love this refined discussion. What better topic for a group of educated women, except of course the art of breast feeding. The naval man might have turned red at that discussion. Yes, I remember the nappie days.Never used disposable. I agree, the working mother today has to juggle her time just as we did, except she has more conveniences at her disposal.

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  16. Since we were poor and needed to stretch my grocery money I never used Pampers…although my first child was born in 1969. By the time my fourth child arrived we were somewhat better, but buying our farm and the seeds and paying taxes and you know— still just getting by — so no lovely Pampers for my last child. I also didn’t have a washer and a dryer, So I had to hand wash the diapers until I could get a goodly amount of clothes and go to the laundry mat. The joy of my first clothes washer was untold!!! No dryer for years and years …I even frost bit my feet hanging out clothes in January. Still I think what you and your friends went through was much harder so I applaud you!

    Linda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com

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    • Linda, I’m so ignorant that I don’t even know what Pampers are – are they a form of disposable nappy? It sounds as though you had plenty of character building challenges too!!

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  17. Briefly I would have been able to hold my own in that conversation, while reminiscing happily about the few weeks I spent as a mommy while the actual one recovered. The first medical examination, for example: on instructions of our family-friend doctor I removed nappy – and baby let fly all over clothes and everything else. ‘Call me when you’ve sorted it out,’ doctor said, and fled the scene.

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  18. Amy

    Just a few months ago, I asked my daughter how she did it all — working in a high tech company, business travel… with two young kids (2 and 5). She simply said to me, “Mom, you did it…” Maybe, Internet that offers shopping convenience, online payments, medical information, etc. helps a little.
    Wonderful post, Valerie!

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    • Hello Sunni,
      Great to hear from you.. I’ve been reading you, but just haven;’t mastered how to reply to you… I always get that slap over the wrist from the god of technology telling me this is not my name… if not what is my name !!!
      Hope you and the pussy cats are good, and enjoying summer … we are having a very unusual cold spell this early in the winter
      So glad you enjoyed the post, dear Sunni… I love to know people have had a giggle !!!

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  19. I’m the mother of a six and a half month old girl, and with the number of disposables she goes through every day, I shudder to think what having to use cloth would have been like! I thought about doing cloth to save the environment and all that, but decided I couldn’t afford the send out service, and could’t stomach cleaning them on my own. I tip my imaginary hat to all the moms who had no choice in the matter! 🙂

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    • I actually think it’s never been resolved which is worst for the environment… disposable that don’t dispose, or cloth nappies that use masses of energy to wash them !!!!

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    • I grew up on a cotton farm in south Texas USA. There were seven of us kids and we were only nine years apart, hence there were several in diapers at the same time. We had no washer so my mom had to do all the cloth diapers by hand. I don’t know how she did it. This was in the 1950’s. Moms today have life so much easier.

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      • In some ways…but we also have life harder in other ways. We are expected to be perfect mothers and perfect career women. To be successful at home and at work, and to find time to participate in other activities as well, to be social, and to balance everything easily. At least most women in the ’50’s were only expected to be mothers and housewives. 😛

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      • I love the stories you tell of your farming childhood Sunni.. your mother must have been quite something to cope with seven of you in the tough conditions you describe!!!

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  20. I loved that and wish I could have joined all you lovely ladies in your laughter.

    I remember the frozen nappies and being only a nappy or two ahead of need! Then….when No1 was 4 (and out of nappies) and No 2 was 20 months, I had my twins! Three in nappies! However, I had said from the off that I was expecting twins though the Drs rubbished my idea until 37 weeks! (No scans in the 70’s) My Mum believed me (of course) and paid for a Multiple Births Insurance policy which paid up and with the money we bought a drier! We only gave it away when we moved 5 years ago and it was still working after 30 years of very hard work!

    I also kept a nappy pin! Mine’s in my sewing kit.

    Love your boozy, fruity pud! Love Clanmother’s quotation. Love visiting your blog! 🙂

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    • Oh Sally , what a delight to read your comment. It does my heart good to know you enjoy the blog, as you know I love yours. Wow, you did have your hands full… but how surprising that the Drs didn’t hear a second heart-beat… mid-wives usually know when you say you’re not sleeping well, because the baby is so busy !!!! No wonder you’re so busy knitting for grand children these days !!! Those old dryers were so good weren’t they. I got one when my youngest was ten, but it lasted until a couple of years ago… Your need must have been greater than mine with three in nappies ! Hope you get round to enjoying the boozy pudding !!!

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  21. Being the youngest in the family, having had no children, and fully respecting those mothers who were “homemakers” (I call them “lifemakers”), I enjoyed this lunchtime scenario very much. Including the description of ‘a former naval person’! Well done, you women of substance! And look at the foundation it gave to your fitness – and fiddle! 😀

    Oh, how I appreciate those mystical magicians… those Sufis.

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    • Hell Amy… it was needs must, for us all !!! I know how you feel about the Sufis Amy… it’s the one thing I have against Ataturk – that he suppressed them when he was modernising Turkey !

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