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