Elsie was born in 1914, to a family in Bristol; there were six children. Her father lost his well paid job as a glass blower during the Depression so life became a struggle for the family.Food was scarce and she often went to bed hungry. Her mother was a dominant woman who somehow managed to keep her family together, but showed very little love. She was not a grandmother to revere or remember with affection.
“Come in you buggers,” she would roar. “And don’t mess my floors up!”
Grandad was special though, he made up for the hardness of Grandma, by reading to his grandchildren and singing Irish revolution songs to them.
At 14, Elsie started work in a tobacco factory, she rose to the exalted position of a cigar maker by the time she was 20, making good money. Then she met handsome, dark-haired Bertie. They went dancing, with Elsie hiding her dancing shoes in her pocket, so her Mother never knew.
Bert and Elsie married in 1938, with the full package; lilies, bridesmaids, family combat and cake. Their first child was born a few months before war broke out. Bertie was working on the docks as a carpenter. The turmoil of air raids just meant family life was sometimes disturbed.Rushing to the shelter in the middle of the night became normal. The house they had was small, but they were happy enough.
Elsie had a tongue that could wound though, for all the love she gave out was equalled by the measure of vitriol she also gave if things didn’t suit her. Bert was a quiet soul and he adored their kids. Bert was fond of a beer or two, and the odd bet; not to excess, but he was made to feel he was lower than a snake if Elsie thought he had given in to his weakness too often. Bertie didn’t fight back, just muttered quietly, “That’s enough my dear” as she raved and danced around him.
She was a brilliant cook, making amazing meals from simple ingredients. That was not enough though, being from a disadvantaged background made her even more determined she would show her superiority by being cleaner than anyone else. The poor had their pride.
Wash day took all day Monday. It actually started on Sunday when clothes were put in large baths to soak. The first job was to scrub clothes with yellow household soap, and then everything was boiled. Clothes were boiled until they surrendered, scrubbed until they submitted to her pounding; she often remarked on the grey look of other’s washing. That was obviously a crime deserving hanging! Everything was starched and blued of course, another process that took hours. When her teenage daughter bought pretty underwear it too was boiled until it no longer fit! Triangles of dainty net and lace became a tangle of exhausted threads. Wash day food was worth rushing home from school for, it was Irish stew with dumplings and spicy, fruit filled bread pudding.
After such a harsh childhood Elsie coddled her own children. Winter night bath time was in front of a crackling fire. Then they were encased in pure wool underwear, nothing less than the best would do. The meagre wage was stretched to include good leather sandals in summer and fine polished boots in winter.
Elsie wore huge aprons when she worked. The floors were attacked with a scrubbing brush and elbow grease. Polish was applied to every surface. Bert was doing well in business. As life improved and houses got larger she reached the dizzy heights of having someone to come in and clean the floors. An achievement indeed, she had almost become genteel.
Sadly, she lost her dark-haired mate in 1986, and became a shadow without him. Part of the sparring they did had kept her alive too. Her family had moved away and Elsie felt alone more than ever.
Elsie went to Australia in 1988. She saw her children and grandchildren, her nieces and nephews, they had parties, and picnics, and fun, she learned how to shop at Coles, and was finally settled in a small bungalow in Frankston.
Her visitors came every day, grandchildren to stop by on their return from the beach, her son after work, her daughter every day. The closeness they felt now the hub of the family was here radiated, it seemed like the last part of the jigsaw fell into place. Everything was right for the family, she was home.
Early in July,Elsie’s daughter was forced to give up work due to transport strikes, so they spent every day together, even when she went to the employment agency.
“Mum, you might have to sit for hours”
“I don’t mind,” Elsie replied. “I would rather be here with you.”
That was to become a poignant statement.
Elsie had a massive stroke only seven weeks after she arrived. Taken to hospital she was given only hours to live. As her daughter held her hand and tried to reassure her, she knew what was most important. Her mother couldn’t speak. So, she did it for her.
“Can you please change her?” she asked. “She has always been such a clean woman she will hate this.”
Elsie looked at her daughter and winked. It was her last conscious act.
Elsie was my mother, and in her memory I had to set the record straight, she was feisty, she was obsessed with cleanliness, but she was precious.