Bread, Swimming and Cats.
There are three things I particularly liked when I was a kid, and somehow I’ve managed to pick them all.
I loved white bread; warm and fresh from the Baker’s. Square loaves. Not Tank Top. If I could resist the terrible temptation to dig my grubby small fingers into a corner of the crust and pull bits out, to roll them hard in my palms so they looked a bit like Holy Communion, if a bit grey, I would use our bread cutter to cut off thick slices – never thin frail transparent ones “Water cress any one?” Bolshoi! Hunks lavishly covered with real butter and peanut butter. Now that was heaven, if a cheapie heaven at that.
Mum was never terribly pleased if I ripped out little hidden holes in the bread. It played havoc when she needed to cut slices for lunches and for Tea. But you know what they say about forbidden fruit, and sometimes the flesh is very weak.
After swimming all day in summer - no coming home for lunch in those days, I would arrive home, starving, exhausted and sunburnt, there was nothing I liked more than a thick slice of fresh white bread (no brown in those days) butter and peanut butter…crunchy peanut butter, with the oil floating on top. No emulsufyers in the peanut butter then. No preservatives nor sugar in the bread either. That lovely fresh bread would be very stale the next day and was only good for one day, and then it was toast. How much things have changed.
I loved swimming. I loved swimming. I loved swimming. It only took me a few days to learn. Eyes open, I mastered the Dead Man’s Float, then Dog Paddle, then Breast Stroke, Freestyle, Side Stroke and Breast Stroke in that first season. Not all that keen on Butterfly…I mean what would you need to learn that for?
I was like a bloody fish that first summer. Water was my element and I was never afraid of it. But then I am an Aquarian.
My sisters Veronica and June, could both run swiftly something I was never great at doing, but I could swim. I was totally confused that they not only couldn’t swim straight, but had their eyes shut and would come up for air whilst swimming rather than swimming and breathing at the same time. It seemed incomprehensible that they could not do it.
The nuns had a swimming pool, which was donated by the parents of the Boarders. I think it was about a third the size of the Olympic pools that every country town had in the 1960’s and was proud to have.
During the long summer holidays it was intensely hot and the Hunter River sometimes hardly ran at all and then so shallow that you couldn’t really swim in it. The nuns allowed us day pupils to swim all day in the pool as long as we did about fifteen minutes of sweeping or cleaning for them. This was a great practice and a good deal because no one of our parents had the money to pay out threepence or sixpence daily for all their kids to go swimming, and the nuns got the dormitories and verandahs cleaned, by all of us eager beavers who worked faster so we could go for a swim.
By February, I was dark brown, my scruffy hair bleached blonde by the sun and the copious amounts of Chlorine needed to combat the dirty little bastards who wee’d in the pool. Mostly boys of course. We girls never did that. Noooo!
At about nine am I would get in that pool and swim lap after lap after lap. I would feel like I could go forever, and felt invincible, and sometimes had to be stopped. Then we would play games we organised ourselves. No one really supervised. No one ever drowned or was injured and we had great fun.
But every single season by about February I would develop dreadful ear infections from the water and bugs I guess. I would wake up wailing with the pain which was incredible and spend the time till Mum could organise a doctor’s visit with my head under a pillow which I would wrap around my head and hold firm in a vain attempt to ease the agony.
No more swimming for me that season always seemed to be the verdict. The swimming carnivals would be held and so often I would just have to watch from the sidelines. A good friend at school Margo Hudson always beat me. It was a friendly thing and good to have someone a bit better than me as it kept me striving to improve. I never did beat her. Margo has since died and I am happy for her for all her victories, as she well deserved them. She had such a good nature it was always a pleasure to be second.
Her dad was one of the most generous men we knew. He was the publican in the bottom hotel and every morning in the summer holidays for some years he would drive a whole car load of us up to the big Olympic pool in Scone so we could all practice in the pool in set lanes. Her dad didn’t have to do this, he did it because he was an open hearted person who knew how limited we all were financially.
I had one bout with sunstroke from spending so long outside in the summer sun and I have never forgotten the blinding headache it bought. I lay there shivering for hours cold as death with the top of my head feeling ready to blow off. I drifted into a kind of sleep which was more like unconsciousness and delirium, and that’s about all I recall apart from violent bouts of vomiting.
Not even that had any effect on my love of the water and sun.
One day I came home from the river shivering. It had been an exceptionally hot day and we all headed for the river at the bottom end of town. Then an abrupt change blew in with cold winds and rain. I arrived home feeling delirious and hot, and spent the afternoon on the lounge room floor covered in blankets and on some other planet. I developed Pneumonia, although I believed it was caused at the time by the change, Mum also developed Pneumonia at the same time and we were both ill together in Hospital, so I think it might have been a virus.
That summer was spent in Hospital.
With all of that it was a golden time for me. I realise now that it was a time before I became, was made, allowed myself to be made aware of my female body, and all the flaws that seemed to bring which were so often and freely pointed out by older women mainly.
Forgive me if I gag the next time I hear some vicious, vacuous painted and perfumed old diddy skite about her tiny waist when she was eighteen. Please excuse my need to be violent towards such faded old bits of flotsam when they prattle on about their dainty femininity, preening; stupidly unaware that their rude comments like “Oh! But aren’t you becoming a nice big plump girl then” or from rude to crude, these delicate wilting flowers declare, “You’re putting on the beef my girl” and going on to make some useless comparison to how little the women were in their family and how come you have such big feet.
Or “No one had such big breasts in our family...I know you’re only twelve but don’t you think you should be wearing a bra?”
As the years ten to fifteen pass, what little self esteem and confidence and naturalness you have managed to hang on to is fragile and only needs some ugly, dirty, stupid teenage boy’s dubious observations to have you donning big cardigans and jumpers well into summer to hide what must be ugly, so ugly that its grotesque.
Yes, there was a golden time when you were praised for your swimming only and not criticised because you overfilled your cossies and they grew too small. That was the time before you grew breasts and hips. That was the time when you looked like a pretty boy and not a woman. Once you began to look like a woman, people seemed to take it upon themselves to make comments about your shape, size, and clothing. You seemed to become public property for fools.
“Oh! Mrs Spencer” mum was told loudly by Sister Borgia “her swimmers are way too small. Are you sure you can’t buy her a new pair?” I would have swum in a Hessian sack if they let me, not to see mum so embarrassed. I knew we couldn’t afford any extras, there were too many of us for that…swimmers were what you were given as a gift at Christmas…not just dished out because they were a bit snug in places. “
Did it all really matter you old bitch of a nun?”
I think I’ve hit that golden time again as I drift into my fifties.
I just am. Take it or leave it. I recognise the damage done, but overcome for me but sadly not for others and still being done by silly old twits who’ve left what little brain they still possess on their pillows.
Sometimes, now, I feel invisible, but not in a pathetic self pitying way. When you walk down the street with two pretty adult daughters you are invisible and aware of it but you also see so much more because you begin to learn to cease to see yourself physically…and that’s a good thing. You become like the ten year old girl before the world hits her up with all its destructive sexist crap.
And that is for sure a good thing. One of the best of things.
I think it is good to get to this place.
And I forgot the third thing I like which I wanted to explain and that was the Cat.
I love and have always loved cats.
In many of the old photos of mum’s people the Flanagans and McGoldricks from the 1920’s- 1930’s there are cats. There are cats on chairs; cats on boxes; cats behind feet; cats nuzzling in for a stroke.
They just are.
Sometimes haughty and often alien and always beautiful in a slightly reptilian way.
For me the nature of the cat is slightly feminine. Forgetting for this moment the devastation on wildlife…a cat is a cat is a cat.
They do not know, they just are and yet I feel that they do know…they know some things. Sometimes our cat Archimedes, now fifteen will regard me, eyes to eyes in a most knowing and understanding manner and right when I think something is going on she will abruptly turn around and put her behind, tail up in the air, right in my face.
I like that. It makes me laugh.
There are a few politicians and councillors I’d like to do that to.
The cat is elegant, beautiful, delicate but strong. Fat or thin; kittenish or snaggle toothed with old age; pregnant or scrubby old randy male alley cat the cat is always self-assured.
We could all take pointers from this. I rather doubt that a cat would ever wallow in self pity; would have morbid thoughts droop into melancholia or stand sideways in a mirror saying “Fat, fat, fat”.
The cat is always beautiful just like all of us…even if we like the cat may be a little funny looking at times.
Somewhere in all of this is something which might forestall damage to healthy young girls. I feel for me that my own understanding of those times, those golden times has its worth, and if it only causes a bit of a laugh of recognition of some shared thought or feeling, I will be happy.