Once, my little granddaughter asked me what darning was. Does anyone remember darning socks? I can see my Ma now, sitting in front of an open coal fire, a wooden mushroom in her hand, a basket full of balls of wool in all colours and another, full of the offending foot covers. It was a labour of true love, that darning ritual, now long since abandoned. It took patience and skill. Did anyone appreciate it? No. It was just something that was carried out in millions of homes of a Friday night, or any other evening, because there was no EastEnders, no Wii and life was quiet, except for the comforting drone of the Home Service on the radio.
The actual exercise began with the search for the bodkin. What is that, I hear my younger readers ask? Well, it is an instrument of torture or redemption, depending on your age and place in the family. If you were a child, you could use the bodkin to poke your enemy. It was a dangerous weapon. If you were my Ma, you would thread it and darn with it – it is in fact, dear reader, a needle. But, and this is important, no ordinary needle. In the eyes of a watching child, me, it was a thin silver metal man with no arms and a hole for a head. It was a flash of quicksilver flowing in and out of each sock, closing the holes and making life comfortable for the wearer. It was the ultimate utilitarian invention.
The trouble was, it often got lost. Ma would open her sewing box, ready for the evenings’ hard labour, to find the little darner missing. She would utter cusses under her breath and the search would begin. All members of the household were pulled in; it was a serious business. Cushions were thrown onto the floor, the floor itself was hand-checked by a small child on all fours, the windowsills were scrutinised, the cupboards peered into. Eventually, the precious bodkin, without which no sock could be redeemed, was usually discovered at the bottom of the sewing box, under that fly’s leg, as my Ma would say, sighing with relief.
These small rituals of family life in my childhood have all but disappeared. Darning and Mrs. Dale’s Diary – the fifties radio version of EastEnders, but with upper middle class characters who all had large plums in their throats and worried about their elderly relatives, who were ingratiatingly polite to each other and never farted – all gone forever. The wholesome radio comedy shows – Workers Playtime and Take It From Here, full of double entendre and sad jokes about the mother-in-law – gone forever. Darning? Gone forever. Socks come with a throw away label these days.
Of course, all this is remembered through rose-tinted glasses. In reality, darning was a pain and the socks still slowly disintegrated because, in them days, we didn’t wash so much. You took one bath a week, preferable on a Saturday night and if you were the youngest, five other people might have bathed in the same water before you. It was not a pleasant experience.
I lived in a family of smokers. My mother was the exception. She hated cigarettes, but no matter how much she complained, my father and much older brother and sister, would puff away in every room. Going to the toilet after these three needed a torch, the tiny room was so fogged up. Packets of Capstan Full Strength or Du Maurier were always on the shopping list thrust into my hand on a Saturday morning, when it was my job to run down the London street to Buxtons, the grocer and hand over the scrap of paper to Mr. Buxton himself, a man whose name perfectly described his stature in a Dickensian manner – protruding oval stomach, puffed out pink cheeks above a full mouth hiding a solid set of false teeth. He was a man of wealth; he owned the only grocer’s shop in the area. You were obliged to go to his emporium for all your comestibles or go without. Tesco was as yet, unborn.
He would stare at my list for a moment and then, set-to. In large brown barrels standing in neat rows against the counter, were flour, sugar, tea and tapioca. Mr. Buxton would produce a small metal scoop and proceed to fill brown paper bags with a pound of each. Metric wasn’t even a twinkle in its father’s eye. These would be closed with a twist of his fingers that never failed to amaze me. Somehow, those bags would be sealed without cellotape, or glue, or anything other than the magic that escaped from Mr. Buxton’s fat little fingers. Those bags stayed that way until I carried them home to Ma when she would also use magic, opening them in a trice and pouring the contents into the jars and tins that sat on the dresser.
When the good grocer came to the cigarette order, the packets would be handed to me, a nine-year old, with no concern; a packet of Capstan, its bright cover picture – a tea clipper, her sails unfurled, the words Navy Cut emblazoned across the front, the promise of clean sea breezes and freedom for my father and brother; Du Maurier, with its salmon pink slim box showing a sophisticated woman, cigarette in hand, smoke rising like a tom-tom message to the nearest rich man, saying a woman who smoked this brand was a catch. I carried my precious cargo in the family shopping bag, dark brown canvas with handles that chaffed my palms, back to the house, the change from the five-pound note wrapped in the shopping list by Mr. Buxton, stuffed into my dress pocket. That was my chore done for the day.
These memories of childhood come into sharp relief as the years pass. The good and the bad times mingle into one hazy film playing in your head, the voice-over rewritten every time the pictures appear in your thoughts, every time you try to connect the past with the present, or try to describe to your children how it was. Of course, they are disinterested. They are making their own memories and that is how it should be. But small grandchildren will listen. I’ll always treasure the memory of three of our grandchildren listening to their grandfather describing his trip to England from his home in Chile, in a ship that took him, aged eight, and his parents through the Panama Canal; the look of complete absorption on their faces, the questions that tumbled out when he had finished.
Memories of the past inform the future and where grandchildren are concerned, give them a compass for life, a reference point and an understanding of family history that is invaluable. Memories are the ashes out of which imagination can be fired and burn bright in their lives. Memories are full of romance and creativity, passion and compassion.