A HELPING HAND
In recent years much has been done to alleviate the hardships of the elderly. If household chores become too strenuous home help is available and under qualifying circumstances “meals on wheels” can be arranged. Telephones have been installed in many homes so that, if necessary, they can quickly call for help. Some are accommodated in sheltered housing, where at the press of a button or pull of a switch a warden may be summoned day or night. Having joined the category of the elderly I find it comforting to know that such benefits exist should I need to take advantage of them.
In days gone by the elderly were less fortunate and any help they got was from family, friends or kindly neighbours, many of whom were similarly in strained circumstances. Large families and small incomes meant they could spare little time or money on further liabilities. Should an elderly person have no such caring relative or friend when they become unable to look after themselves there was only one other solution, The Poorhouse. Old folk dreaded the indignity of ending their days in such a place, however, if circumstances dictated it, they had to submit to the inevitable. Such unfortunates were usually taken away in a state of resignation and complete disillusionment.
It was the custom at that time for the parents to send their children to the aid of aged and ailing kith and kin. Thus it came about that from an early age I was sent to my granny’s every weekday after school and on Saturday mornings to do the shopping and help her with the household chores. Granny was by no means inactive and was still able to support herself, however the help and support provided went a long way to ensuring that she lived as full and as happy a life as possible.
To my childish mind granny’s house appeared almost palatial when compared with my own small home. It had a fine porch, the only one on the street at that time and it looked very grand. I always liked this porch and didn’t mind pottering about in it, though it was in the kitchen that my tasks usually began. Some tasks I really disliked, black-leading the big range for instance. It was always far too hot and as the brushes were singed, my fingers sometimes suffered the same fate. After that there were the brass knobs to polish and to this very day I dislike having to use Brasso or other metal polishes. Next on the list came the lamp-glasses, a whole assortment of them. While Granny refilled the lamps and trimmed the wicks it was my job to remove the brown smoking film from their glasses. The tall funnel-shaped ones were the most difficult. My hand couldn’t get right inside so a duster had to be wrapped round a stick as I puffed and blew into them hoping that the dampness of my breath would remove the obstinate brown stains. Other tasks were less tiresome. All the rugs had to be taken outside and hoisted on the garden fence where they were well beaten and brushed. After the floors were swept the rugs were returned to their appropriate places.
From the kitchen a long passage led to the front rooms, on one side of the passage was the pantry. The pantry resembled a fairy grotto with its many crocks, some containing sugar (white, brown or crystallised) and a host of other good things. On the shelves there was crystallised ginger to add to rhubarb jam, lots of jellies, currants, raisins and so on. My small brain tried to calculate how many sweets would equal one handful of those square crystals but I didn’t yield to temptation. I think Granny bought sugar in quarter or half stones, not pounds or kilos as we have today.
The next task was the stair carpet. Granny insisted on damp bran being scattered on each tread to lay the dust. A bit daft I thought when I had to brush it all off again. It could have been my vigorous brushing that caused a white covering on the lovely banister with its curved upright props. That banister looked very inviting but it was rather steep and had a sharp bend near the bottom. I must have decided that discretion was the better part of valour because I never dared to slide down it. Whilst attempting to do the next best thing I came a cropper, trying to get from the top to the bottom holding on to the banister, feet barely touching the props, I tripped at the bend and in the process of hurtling downwards received a nasty gash under the chin.
I seldom had much to do in the upstairs bedrooms but Granny occasionally let me help when we turned out the cupboards or kists. Her store of books, pictures and other interesting items never failed to amaze me and in the kists she had beautiful articles of clothing and household linen. I wonder, to use the local expression, “who fell heir” to the lovely velvet garment wrapped in a white cotton nightdress? A pretty fire-screen in one of the rooms had “Home sweet home” embroidered on it.
Downstairs again! The east room was the one where most callers were entertained and where, on festive occasions, the family gatherings were held. Granny must have had a mania for ornaments because in that room stood a dresser laden with nice things. There were glass vases with chandelier-like pieces dangling from them, two china parrots, china dogs, cows, boots, shoes, plates given as presents and all sorts of other fascinating objects. I was almost afraid to handle them! The walls were hung with large portraits, all very imposing.
Lastly there was the west room where one felt privileged just to get a look inside, “The Holy of Holies” older members of the family called it. I think Granny stored her best furniture and most valuable possessions there. The windows were draped with long white lace curtains tied with ribbons half way down and the chair backs were also made of lace, yet again tied with ribbon. No one had fully fitted carpets back then, indeed many homes in the village still had clay floors while others had a covering of linoleum. In the west room there was a square carpet surrounded by dark brown varnished wood. Right in the centre stood a large square mahogany table which had a wine coloured chenille cover with dangling tassels at each side. Every inch of the table was covered with photographs, some in frames and others lying flat. Family portraits graced the walls and there was the most exquisite clock with inlaid work which really caught the eye. The mantelpiece was high and it too had many ornaments. In one corner stood a beautiful tall chest of drawers, much nicer than the dark one we had at home. Up on top were three high glass domes, two rounded and one oval dome in the centre. Each contained stuffed birds and china flowers with fern-like leaves. Even standing on a chair I couldn’t reach up that far so someone else had to dust them. I still possess a pair of similar domes which belonged to my mother. Every time my sister would see them she would want to know if and when I intended to get rid of “those cemeteries”!
There was a very posh suite in that room too, well padded with horse hair, quite unlike the soft cushions we’ve become used to today. The covering was a dark, almost black, glossy canvas-like material and the woodwork shone so that you could see your face in it. The sofa had a raised bit at one end, once I thought it would be nice to lie down full length and see what it felt like.
When ladies with long skirts and many layers of petticoats or gentlemen in thick trousers sat down, the protruding bristles would hardly be felt, but when those bristles came in contact with my bare legs and thin pants it was quite different. Each bristle was as sharp as a needle and I was literally stung. With a shriek I leapt almost to the ceiling and had Granny been in earshot she might have thought that Old Nick himself was after me. My bottom tingled for days. If such grand furniture was for the use of the visiting gentry then they were welcome to it. In future I steered well clear of the sofa and chairs.
One other piece of furniture from that room, certainly in my opinion excelled all the rest, the organ. I’d wait for Granny to go down to the bottom of the garden where she fed the hens and I would almost furtively play a few notes with one finger. How I wished we had an organ at home!
Not all chores at Granny’s were irksome. Indeed some outdoor tasks were quite enjoyable. It wasn’t a case of all work and no play for me, my brothers, my sisters and our cousins, we spent many happy hours there. Watching children at play nowadays, I am glad they are spared the drudgery of those long gone days. Little do they, or we older folk realise just how much we owe to electricity and the inventors of those wonderful labour saving appliances like washing machines and vacuum cleaners.