How it was
I wish I had been older the year I was born, 1956, so I could have seen it all. IBM invents the hard disk drive, television broadcasting starts in Australia, and the videotape is first demonstrated. Norma Jean Mortenson legally changes her name to Marilyn Monroe, four months later she marries Arthur Miller. The fairy-tale marriage takes place between Grace Kelly and Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, and Doris Day sings Que Sera Sera. General Electric manufactures the first snooze alarm clock. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems is published. Our parents were waking to new sounds. Some could hear the soft indiscernible hum, as if the cosmos was gently rumbling under their feet. I’m sure my mother heard it.
In New Zealand there were 101.2 females for every 100 males. As husband and father, you held one and the same job for your entire working life. As wife and mother you boiled corned beef, took heed of the Plunket nurse and starched your husband’s collars. In your houses in the suburbs with the quarter acre backyards, your hearts pumped, hearts that harboured the same hopes and regrets, the dreams and memories of generations past. Longed-for giggles turned out to be muffled sobs, but you carried on for a while in your wholesome houses, occasionally glimpsing those on the new wave in the smoke-filled martini lounges. You remained, for a while, deaf to the hum. You really were supposed to behave.
Yes, you really were supposed to blend in in the fifties, to fit in and imitate. The whipped cream for your pavlova should be beaten to just the right consistency – over-beaten it would stand in peaks too rigid and stiff; under-beaten and it would slop, limply. Everything in moderation. But maybe, just maybe, this moderation, this middle ground, could feel unnatural – despite promising a comfort, despite offering less danger than the extremes, despite the kindness and safety, the calm and the thoughtfulness. Dear God, it could be dull. Droning dull. But it felt, for a while, that you didn’t have a choice. Like your houses, life wasn’t meant to be untidy and, for a while, you returned to the thoughts and conformity and the pin-prick aspirations of your neighbours. You needed to look like all those around you, to keep the linoleum mopped and the silver polished.
You would wait, sometimes, probably in vain, for some epic encounter where your imagination and courage would take flight in rebellion – in dreams where you would fall down drunk, inhibitions smothered, and whimsy could wrap around you. But in your awake moments, your awake days and weeks and months and years, you went on accepting, for a while, that you could remain behind your trimmed hedgerows and pruned roses. Your apron bows were tied tight and you carried on with the ironing. You went on pretending. Yes, for a while, you could convince yourself. You tried to live inside the lines where the ordinariness of everything would protect you if you strayed off course, if the grim reaper came knocking, knocking you to the edge of the known world.
My mother didn’t do behaving, that was the trouble. And conformity? To what? Other mothers were called Sheryl, or Carol, or Joyce. Other mothers didn’t have a strange look, or cast strange looks. Other mothers cooked saveloys for lunch, serving them at breakfast bars in their fashionable mint green kitchens. For me, eating saveloys meant you were a normal child who lived in a normal family. We never had saveloys. We were served smorgasbord for our lunches – toasted bread with an assortment of continental toppings; sardines, cheese, tomatoes, served in the dirty-round-the edges linoleumed kitchen with the pulley hanging from the ceiling for drying washing. I hoped when I went out that my clothes didn’t smell of fried schnitzel.
I don’t recall the times she would throw rubbish over the neighbours’ fence. There was no need for that. These were the days when rubbish men sprinted up the zig-zag to the backyard outside my bedroom window at seven in the morning and clanged the metal bin lids on to the ground before slinging the bag over their shoulders and running back out through the side gate and back down the zig zag to turn left into the neighbours to repeat the process. Big, burly, fit-as-prize-fighting boxers they were. So, yes, it was no wonder the neighbours hardly ever talked to us. These were the years when neighbours exchanged friendly banter over their fences. I do remember, before the real trash started, I babysat once or twice for the family at No. 13. Can’t tell you their names, don’t remember any children whatsoever, but I do remember the pantry with the chocolate biscuits which were like nuggets of gold, up there with saveloys. I’d take one (or four) from the jar and rearrange what was left to cover my tracks. I wonder what Freud would have said about the food thing, because there seems to be a theme here.
When the sixties arrived, I was four, my brother seven. We glimpsed the lives of our uncle, aunt and cousins, who lived what we thought was ‘the life’ on the other side of town, high up above Oriental Bay. Grass Street was alive with people – artists, musicians, writers, people in theatre – cello music, the clink of vodka and martini glasses and spirited conversation. It was arty, it was culture central. Us? We lived in a little flat on The Terrace. Dad went to the office every day, came home every evening and took up his newspaper or book. We didn’t have visitors, there were no parties, I didn’t know what a martini glass looked like. But there was the sherry decanter, the gin and whisky, maybe even Campari. Plenty of ashtrays. Our formative years were in this sense quiet. I was too young to feel the low hum, but I’m pretty sure my mother did, with every nerve in her body. For the time being we were the country mice, holed up inside four walls, and our cousins were the town mice.
The sixties weren’t much different to the fifties; our parents had come through the horrors of the war and out the other side, their cups should have been brimming over with gratitude.
But what happened to the sensibilities that pulsed deep through every vein, that beat inside, that ticked away like a time bomb? Put a lid on them? Turn the heat down, let them simmer. Lower your expectations, accept your lot, drink from the cup. My mother had a different kind of thirst, she knew there was more, she’d had more, in all its richness. The languages, the music, the cafés of Paris, the concert halls of London, the lecture theatres of Cambridge, the oak trees on Hampstead Heath. And the blood that ran through her was still warm from those who went before her in the old country. What happens to those sensibilities then? Tokhis oyfn tish. But my mother was not one to shut up.
For a while I thought that if we could only have saveloys everything would turn out alright. That my mother might join the local gardening club and the parent teachers association like Cheryl’s mother, join the mid-week ladies’ tennis club and sip tea after the game like Kate’s mother. Or she’d host coffee mornings, handing around scones with cream and jam like Martha’s mother, and my friends would visit and stay for dinner and stay the night and she’d make pancakes in the morning and smile sweetly and chat. That would work. Instead, it was Saturday synagogue and Friday night candles and no, you are not to leave the house on the Sabbath. The two plaited loaves of challah with the poppy seeds on the top lay side by side on the white tablecloth, between the two silver candlesticks. My brother and I sat at each end of the square oak dining table in the dining room and my mother stood between us. She turned the lights off, lit the candles and waved her hands over them, reciting the blessing. Baruch atah Adonai elohenu melech ha’olam … May the Lord bless you, and keep you. May the Lord make his light to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. I can still recite the blessing to this day, word for word – well, my word for word rather than accurate Hebrew. It’s etched as deeply into my memory bank as the ripples on the Anaglypta wallpaper in my bedroom. We’d pull chunks of the challah from the loaf, sip the Ribena, and wait for it all to be over.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Juliet Allnatt works in education and has just completed an MA at the IIML. This excerpt comes from Mizpah, A Story of My People, a memoir/biography which blends archived correspondence with historical and personal narrative to trace her family’s diaspora from Europe to New Zealand.