The above exhibit has recently been donated to the Usmeum by one of my oldest friends, whose baby daughter received it as a gift from me. Just like the baby Roo that once lived in this Kanga’s pouch, that baby has now grown up and left home. My friend thought I might like to have the kangaroo back for the Usmeum, because it was made by my Mum.
Mum lived with her mother until she married my Dad in 1952, aged 29, and always claimed that she had no home-making skills at all until then. She attended classes to learn how to be a housewife: cooking, needlework, dressmaking, etc. She had worked at various jobs since the age of 14, and had started evening classes in psychology with a view to training as a social worker (like her best friend Margaret Press). She gave all this up to become a wife and mother, as people did in the 1950s. Mum seems to have embraced the role of housewife with enthusiasm, taking great pleasure in helping to furnish and decorate the family home. As us 3 children grew up, she made many of our clothes herself, and nothing worn was ever thrown away if it could be darned or repaired or let in or out or up or down and used again. Later on, she would even design clothes based on our ideas, and she became very skilled at making soft furnishings and stuffed toys.
At this time of year, our house was always a hive of activity as we prepared for the annual Morning Star Bazaar, a fete held to raise funds for the Communist newspaper that was (and still is) funded largely by its readers. I would get sore fingers from slicing up old nylons for stuffing Mum’s creations, or cutting up old Christmas cards to make gift tags. Dad would be in his shed making wooden jigsaw puzzles and other toys with the foot-treadled fretsaw he had owned since his youth (now owned by Brother 1). The day itself was a big event in our family, as we all went along and helped out taking money on the stalls or cake sales (yes, Mum would bake cakes as well). I suppose it was our family’s equivalent of the Church Christmas fete. I loved it, and bought many Christmas presents and “ordiments” for my collection there.
Although I believe that Mum enjoyed being a housewife for those years when we were small, I doubt she would always have been content with that life. Financially, however, she didn’t have the choice: having taken on the whole house when the couple with whom they had originally shared it moved out, my parents had twice the mortgage to pay. For many years they let half of the house to help pay for it, and when I started school, Mum started working part-time as secretary in a local architects practice. When I went to secondary school, she went back to work full-time, becoming PA to the head of Social Services at Wandsworth Council. She stayed there until her retirement 10 years later, in partial fulfilment of her ambitions in social work.
Looking back, I am astonished at my mother’s capacity for work, for endless, selfless activity. In the 1970s she was in her 50s, with a full-time, stressful and demanding job, yet still prided herself on cooking a proper meal for her family every night (2 meals, in fact, after I turned vegetarian in 1973). As if this wasn’t enough, she served on numerous committees: there was the Party, of course, but also CND, the Association for the Advancement of State Education, the local Community Association (of which she and my Dad were founder members), being secretary of my school’s PTA and governor of a special school. On top of all this she still found time to ferry us about to our various extra curricular activities (Guides, music lessons, band practice), and to sew our clothes and make perfect toys (like this one) for the Morning Star Bazaar. She also took up Hungarian classes for a while, but unsurprisingly, had to drop them. I don’t know how she did it all, but at least now I appreciate why she was always so cross with this typically lazy, selfish and resentful teenager. She must have been exhausted.
In her well-earned retirement, Mum still couldn’t bring herself to be idle, adding more skills such as upholstery to her repertoire. My parents no longer supported the Morning Star, having broken away from the Party in the split of the 1980s. However, Mum carried on making clothes and toys for whoever needed them, and was always happy to take commissions. So the children of my friends always received beautifully-made cuddly toys, courtesy of my Mum. It’s nice to see this one again, which has clearly been much loved.
Much like my Mum.