Hazel, wife of Dick Japp, the Wenela official, coined this phrase in one of her letters, from which I quote: “From a woman’s point of view, life in the bush soon showed up any short-comings, and one learned to make, make do or do without. One memorable occasion was a visit by the Provincial Commissioner and an invitation to an official cocktail party. Our usual dress was very casual, cotton and sandals, but this required something much smarter and more formal. The Livestock Officer’s wife was pregnant and had nothing suitable so a plan had to be made. Nylon had just appeared on the scene and one of us had a very glamorous pleated black satin nightdress, pristine and unworn, and Moira had a black satin petticoat into which she could still squeeze so the nightdress, minus lace trims and dressed up with a pearl necklace became a stunning maternity cocktail dress. Luckily Moira had a tall slender figure and the aplomb to carry it off!”
How I would have loved to remember Mother in the black satin nightdress, but this is one occasion I cannot recall. The ladies of the Fifties dressed beautifully, though casually, as Hazel mentioned, always in dresses or skirts; trousers or shorts being worn only when on tour or for trips on the river; Mother was known for her large sun hats. Dressing for dinner was a well known colonial custom, though by the Fifties dress had become more informal, certainly in remote bush stations; however, a dinner party meant dressing for the occasion and the Senanga ladies did not disappoint us. We would want to know exactly what the ladies were wearing; the colour and style of the dresses, earrings and shoes; high heels were common for evening wear, despite having to brave sandy driveways. How had Mavis Morgan and Pearl Conradie styled their hair?
Mother had to give us every detail, and the routine was that after the guests had arrived she would come to our bedroom, not only say goodnight but to describe the evening attire; only then would we settle down to sleep.
I remember hearing the guests arrive, the greetings and exclamations, the laughter, the whoosh of the soda syphon, the clink of glasses; and the soft glow of lamplight filtering through from the lounge. That soda syphon did heavy duty and lasted for years, kept as a memento until it eventually fell apart, and reluctantly, had to be discarded.
In another letter from Hazel, the following comment:
“I’m glad that you liked the nightdress story, and of course you may use it. I copied it from a talk I gave. People who have not lived that life just cannot imagine not having shops, telephones and all that, and the idea of sending your grocery order off one week and receiving it ten days later, after a five day road and barge trip for the order to get there, the parcel to be packed, and another five days back, is quite beyond their comprehension!” This applied to the postal service as well, though once the air service commenced, letters arrived once or twice a week on the little Beaver aeroplane.
River transport was vital in those years. All our household goods and tinned groceries came up-river on barges; fresh meat was obtained from the local Lozi butcher. All other items such as birthday and Christmas presents were ordered from the eagerly awaited catalogues sent out regularly by Miekles and Haddon & Sly, two large department stores in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia. When on holiday every two and a half years, we would visit these wondrous places.
Woman’s Weekly and Handsome Heroes.
Birthday and Christmas presents, materials, knitting wool and patterns had to be ordered weeks ahead; “Woman’s Weekly” arrived regularly, with its knitting patterns and romantic stories of gentle heroines with hearts set aflutter by tall, handsome heroes who spoke few words; eventually, these idyllic specimens of manhood would notice the existence of the gentle heroines; they would fall into one another’s arms and live happily ever after; the stories followed a pattern, all ending the same way, like the knitting pattern in the magazine, with a neatly cast-off row!
Knitting was popular, and knitting bags were a household item; Mother and Granny Rhoda produced our knitwear, which included pretty lacey-patterned socks and cardigans; the knee-length socks worn by the menfolk were hand-knitted. I remember Mother teaching us how to knit and how to darn socks; to this day I find darning therapeutic, holding the darning mushroom and stitching in and out, admiring the weft and warp; not that I darn much anymore, but occasionally one finds a wool jersey with little holes that need darning.
“Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man, bake me a cake as fast as you can.”
Making of cakes was done by hand, with a hand-held egg beater and a wooden spoon; when old enough to hold a beater, I sometimes helped with the baking, for although Bones routinely did the baking, Mother loved making sponge and butter cakes; her specialities were lemon meringue pie when she could get lemons, and meringues; Mother taught me how to beat the eggs, adding the sugar slowly so that the mixture became light and fluffy, and finally stood in high peaks; surely, this activity made up for the bio-kinetics of today; it must have kept that flab off our mothers’ arms.
Beating and folding in the flour, we made a good team. We worked on the back verandah as the kitchen was too small for more than two people; Vivienne and I shared the remnants of the cake mixture, which was the best part of baking. Weevils were found in the large bags of flour, which had to be painstakingly sieved and thereafter stored in tins with tight-fitting lids.
“Home is where the sewing machine is.”
The Singer sewing machine stood on the verandah, the heart of our home; as with many mothers of the Fifties, Mother spent hours making clothes for herself and for us. She was helped in this by Granny Rhoda; dresses with colourful buttons, collars and zig-zag or ribbon trims; flared party dresses with large frills and bows, with special fabric for gathered petticoats; all sorts of colours and prints in various designs, on cotton, gingham and voile, were cut out, stitched and hemmed, and proudly worn by the children of the Fifties. A treat for all children in those days was a party dress bought at a glamorous store in some far away city, and a pair of pretty white shoes.
One year, Bunty Robey, wife of Arthur Robey, the Veterinary Officer in Livingstone, came for a week to help Mother on a clothes sewing project, bringing her Singer with her. Mother and Granny dressed Vivienne and me in matching clothes; we were quite happy with that. However, in recognition of our independence, as we entered our teens, we were given the privilege of choosing our own styles and materials.
Beauty begins at home.
As there were no hairdressers or beauty salons in Senanga, mothers became the family hairdressers; clippers and hair scissors were standard items in the home. Of course, there were hairdressers in the towns along the line of rail, and a visit to Livingstone often included a treat at a hairdresser. Mother used witch hazel as an astringent, and jars of “Ponds” face cream were found on the dressing table; those were the basics of the beauty box. Mother used “Blue Grass” perfume for as long as I remember, and Father always had “Old Spice” aftershave lotion in the bathroom cupboard.
When Father was away on tour, my mother would do her hair treatment, which was as follows; after parting her hair into neat sections, she applied raw paraffin to her scalp with a cotton wool ball; then she wrapped a towel around her head for the night and in the morning she shampooed and set her hair. Mother had glossy, healthy hair all her life. No doubt, women today would hold up their hands in horror at the thought of paraffin. Maybe this was a therapy used by women in the war years, and maybe even before that, due to lack of supplies and exorbitant costs of hair products; I do not know, for if Mother told me, I do not remember.
On that glamorous note, I close my chapter. Mothers certainly kept themselves busy in the remote bush stations and made the most of their time, and ensured that life, though lonely at times, was fun.
This is an excerpt from Lions in our Garden. Wonders of an African Childhood. Find more of these stories at https://medium.com/@lynetteclements