‘Tales from the war: What life was like for those who were left at home’

May 20, 2021
Gay says it was difficult for families of servicemen and women in the wartime. Source: Getty Images

My father-in-law lived near Punt Road, Richmond in Melbourne. During the war, those who remained ‘at home’ had the anxiety of wondering if their men would be returning as well as fears about bombs and invasions. My father-in-law was already overseas when he heard about how distraught the women were becoming when they read the letters that were being sent home.

My mother-in-law told him how much more secure she felt when the Melbourne council brought out big excavators and dug trenches to shelter in in the park that lined Punt Road. The children, of course, saw nothing but a great play area and after a rainy day many a mum would be unhappy that their muddy children had been playing in those trenches.

Washing clothes was pretty hard work back then. Yet, there were many platoons of boys shouldering wooden rifles patrolling those trenches.

My grampa was a World War I veteran. He went around houses with a little cart collecting bits of iron to be taken back to a ‘Scrap for Victory’ centre.

I remember Mum telling me that on the days when the American troops were on R&R they’d come into Melbourne and all the girls would go weak at the knees. My mother and her sisters were married at the time, but they were asked to take a sailor home for tea. It didn’t go down very well with Grampa — he was Australian all the way.

Many of the town halls would be full to bursting with dancers and the Australian girls would be delighted at learning to dance the jive with those Yanks. My mother would dance with everyone, but she’d never go out with one of them. One of my aunts did though and there was always the story about how she brought home a pair of real nylon stockings — no more using eyebrow pencils to draw the line down the back of her legs. No questions were asked about how she got them though …

Because Grampa was so strict, no sailors ever came for tea. This upset the girls because the sailors would always have food that was hard to get.

My mother participated in the local beauty pageant and won. She had her photograph in the paper and it showed her wearing a huge hat and a long chiffon dress with frills at the hem. There were so few pretty things in those days, but my aunt took down and dyed my nan’s lace curtains to make the dress. Which leads me to a story about my nan, who was a wonderful woman and who I feel was well ahead of her time.

Not far from where she and Grampa lived was a discreet brothel. Each Monday night the girls would have a break and my nan would take a basket full of homemade cakes down to them. She spend time having a cuppa and a chat to those girls. Occasionally she would help ‘patch them up’ when things went awry.

I often wondered how my mother coped not knowing how Dad was. She told me her heart was in her mouth every time they saw the telegram boy on his bike. Some women would run as fast as they could in the opposite direction to avoid receiving what was always dreadful news. The ministers and church people eventually took on the job of delivering the news to the women at home.

My mother saved enough money in that time so that when the war was over and Dad was home, they could buy a bakery (my father was a baker before he was a soldier) and start their life over.

Does your family have any stories from the war?

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