On Home

Rich mem­o­ries of a child­hood filled with books, warm hugs and fa­mil­iar scents out­weigh the fru­gal­ity of this writer’s post­war years.

Australian House & Garden - - News - By Robin Barker

Beloved childrais­ing ex­pert Robin Barker rec­ol­lects her own child­hood in post­war Syd­ney.

I was never con­scious of the small­ness of our home, the plain­ness of our fur­ni­ture, or the ab­sence of a car and a phone.

Af­ter World War II ended and my fa­ther, a teacher, came home from New Guinea, he was posted to a Syd­ney high school. I was 18 months old at the time of his dis­charge from the 3rd New Guinea In­fantry Bat­tal­ion in 1946 and Syd­ney was the last place my par­ents wanted to set up their first home. They weren’t city peo­ple, they were very short of money and, as Syd­ney was flooded with re­turn­ing ser­vice­men and their fam­i­lies, there was a chronic short­age of hous­ing.

The first year in Syd­ney we shared a small, rented house with an­other fam­ily. Mirac­u­lously, de­spite the cramped space, reg­u­lar black­outs, house­keep­ing dis­agree­ments and two fight­ing tod­dlers, the adult friend­ship sur­vived. I have no memory of that year, but the child and I never did get along and our bat­tle raged on ev­ery time our fam­i­lies met up.

My par­ents even­tu­ally found a va­cant block in Banksia, on the Illawarra line. The house was built on a hand­shake; no money passed hands un­til it was ready for us to take pos­ses­sion. Un­able to get a bank loan, my par­ents bor­rowed most of the money from my ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther on the un­der­stand­ing they paid it back, bank in­ter­est in­cluded, within a stip­u­lated time. Af­ter mov­ing in, there was only a few bob over to last un­til my fa­ther’s next pay­day.

Our new home was a tiny fi­bro box on a gen­er­ous block. The back­yard was a tan­gled mess of lan­tana and scrub an­chored in dirt, the front gar­den a sand­pit. The floor boards were raw tim­ber and the in­te­rior needed paint­ing.

Around the back, three se­vere ce­ment steps led up to a small veran­dah en­closed by clunky Cooper Lou­vres. On one side of the veran­dah there was a laun­dry with two leaden sinks and an old cop­per boiler.

In­side, there was an eat-in kitchen, a lounge room, two bed­rooms, a hall and a small bath­room. Off the bed­room my sis­ter and I shared, there was a small en­closed front veran­dah, where my mother’s youngest brother lived for sev­eral years. He was at the univer­sity study­ing to be a vet and of­ten brought home bits of stinky dead an­i­mals that he sketched and wrote notes about.

Apart from the ten­sion that sur­faced from time to time (many years later I re­alised these bouts of air-thick­en­ing ten­sion that made my chest feel heavy were down to my fa­ther’s post­war mood­i­ness and the sheer re­lent­less strain of my par­ents hav­ing to count ev­ery penny), I have no memory of any hard­ship or de­pri­va­tion. I was never con­scious of the small­ness of our home, the lack of pic­tures on the walls, the plain­ness of our ba­sic fur­ni­ture or the ab­sence of a car and a phone. Here’s what I do re­mem­ber:

Be­ing bathed ev­ery night by my mother, tow­elled dry and helped into my py­ja­mas. Of snug­gling up in coarse cot­ton sheets still smelling of the sun. Of be­ing read and sung to be­fore I went to sleep. My mother teach­ing me to knit. And help­ing me learn to read. And mak­ing sure there were one or two new books wait­ing for me ev­ery birth­day and Christ­mas.

I re­mem­ber my fa­ther oblig­ingly bang­ing to­gether the old wooden pack­ing case that I needed to turn into Robin Hood’s grave. On the out­side in big cap­i­tal let­ters I painted: BE­NEATH THIS GRAVE LIES ROBIN HOOD. NO ARCHER EVER WAS SO GOOD. And my par­ents re­frain­ing from vis­i­bly laugh­ing when I’d take my­self off and lie in­side the case and pre­tend to be the dead Robin Hood ly­ing un­der the old oak tree in Sher­wood For­est.

Then there is the day we gave up on the ice­box and bought a fridge – the only item my par­ents ever ac­quired on the never-never – af­ter my fa­ther spot­ted a dog pid­dling on the blocks of ice lined up on the street wait­ing for the ice­man to lug them in­side.

Par­tic­u­larly vivid, even now, is a memory of com­ing home one win­try evening af­ter an elo­cu­tion les­son. Racing up the hill from the train sta­tion un­der a shiny moon and a sky full of stars, high on be­ing 11 years old, in­de­pen­dent and unafraid to be out af­ter dark. Paus­ing to pat the big wide head of the an­cient red set­ter guard­ing her gate, run­ning on past my best friend’s house, past the house where the kind lady some­times in­vited me in for a mous­tache-mak­ing glass of rasp­berry cor­dial, past the Blan­chards’ house where the old cou­ple kept a mag­pie called Jacko in a cage, swoop­ing around the cor­ner and coast­ing down the hill to our front gate and home.

Home to my mother’s fa­mil­iar scrunchy hug, a lounge room warmed by a funny coke heater with a crackly trans­par­ent win­dow, my own book­case by my bed and – just pos­si­bly – lamb cut­lets for tea.

Racing up the hill from the train sta­tion, [I was] high on be­ing 11 years old and unafraid to be out af­ter dark.

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