“Oh mother, they are so beautiful” I chirruped, clasping my hands together in disbelief. She had just pulled on a pair of smooth, silk stockings. They made her legs look gorgeous and I wished I was big enough to have a pair.
“Violet darling aren’t they magnificent?” she twirled in the mirror in her underwear and I had never seen her look so happy. My mother was beautiful with rich, auburn hair and long, shapely legs. She looked like an angel.
“Where did you get them?” I asked. “Ssshhhhhh” she put her finger to her lips and twirled again.
The 2nd World War was in full swing and for weeks we had suffered shortages. Silk was used in the manufacturing of parachutes and powder bags for naval guns. The British Government seized all stock of raw silk available. Any silk stockings still available in the shops were sold out within hours. Foodwise, bacon, sugar, tea, butter and meat were rationed first and many more products later. No bananas were available at all – so many young children didn’t even see a banana until after the war.
But stockings, stockings were the hardest to accept. No self-respecting lady would be caught outside the house without her hosiery. It was like leaving the house without underwear. This was one shortage that ladies tried desperately to avoid.
My father was away during the war and things were hard. Every single bean, potato peel and piece of onion skin was used if it could be. Nothing was wasted. My mother tried hard not to let us go hungry. Initially we had enough to eat, but as supplies declined and became harder to source, we struggled. My grandparents moved in with us, as we no longer could afford the rent alone. This changed our home into more chaos and as mom said “we were squished,” but I loved it. My sister and I would sit at my grandpa’s feet for hours listening to his stories, it was bliss and helped us to forget our growling bellies.
One night my mother came home crying. She had stood for hours in the line to get a small bag of potatoes and 2 onions. The supply ran out just as she got there. Returning home empty handed, she was devastated. We ran to her and cuddled her, telling her we weren’t hungry. This made her cry more and she went straight up to bed. Granny made us a nice hot cup of watery tea with a tiny sprinkle of sugar for supper.
The next day mother left early, dressing herself warmly against the chilly wind. We had a long, hungry day trying to stay warm huddled around the little fireplace. We drank a lot of water to keep the pangs away and silently prayed that mother would get some food. She returned empty handed and we had tea for supper again. It was hard to sleep with my belly growling like a lion.
The next day we were all listless. My mother left early again and we were desperate for food. 5 o’ clock came, 6 o’ clock came. Fear grew. It was dark and misty before we heard her at the door.
“Mother, mother” we cried so relieved that she was fine. I could see the fear on grandmothers face and knew that she was also starving. To our astonishment mother had 3 bags with her.
“Food” she cried, tears in her eyes.
“Come mother, lets cook!” I could see the relief on my grandmother’s face.
“Where? How?…” my grandmother looked at her questioningly. My mother cast her eyes down and turned away.
“I got lucky” she mumbled. My grandmother looked away, she knew our mother’s desperation to feed her family.
We could barely wait and stood salivating in the kitchen while the food cooked. That night we ate like kings, the simple meal of chicken, tomatoes and mashed potato with a little salt and butter, tasted like heaven. It was like a party. Mother had brought food, a bar of wash soap and the packet of silk stockings. We chatted excitedly around the table, not noticing the sad looks being exchanged by my mother and grandmother.
Every morning my mother would dress nicely, put on her silk stockings and go and wait in line. Her lucky streak with the food continued for months. Coming home every few nights with bags of goodies that we knew our neighbours didn’t have, neither did any of my friends and it made me so grateful for her good luck. Every night I prayed that it stayed that way. Even though we had food, you never really forget how you feel when you have been that hungry.
About 5 months after our luck changed my mother got sick. I heard her in the bathroom in the mornings, being sick. I was too little to know that she was probably pregnant and wouldn’t have understood the implications anyway. Her pale face at breakfast terrified me. With my dad away fighting in the war, my mother was the centre of my universe. I understood that she was the only thing standing between me, my sister and grandparents and poverty. I climbed onto her lap and gave her a cuddle, feeling her tears on the back of my neck.
Two days later my mother went away for the day with my grandmother. Grandfather had to fetch us from school and give us tea.
“Grandpa, where is grandma?” my little sister asked. “And Momma?” her little face showed her concern.
“Ssshhh child, they will be back later. Drink your tea and wash your dishes” he instructed kindly. We did, still feeling fearful but there was nothing we could do about it. After playtime, we bathed and got into bed. Grandpa tried his best to assure us that everything was alright and gave us both a cuddle. Just before I drifted off, I heard my grandmother’s voice. I jumped out of bed and ran down to say goodnight. I stopped on the stairs when I saw my mother’s face. She was deathly pale and obviously in pain.
“Mother” I cried. “What happened? Are you ok?” little tears leaked out of my eyes. I ran to her but stopped short, scared to hurt her. She gestured to me, I went to her and sighed in relief. I was desperate to help this lovely woman who was in so much pain, but I didn’t know what to do. My grandpa and I walked her up the stairs while grandmother made her some sweet tea. I kept on asking what was wrong, but she just smiled and squeezed my arm. We tucked her into bed and covered her to get warm. I sat there holding her hand until my grandmother insisted I get into bed.
Sleep was a long time coming.
For 2 days mother lay in bed, pale and crying. I realised that there was more to her illness than we were being told, but we were too little to know. On the third day, a Saturday, my mother got up and walked slowly into the kitchen. Grandfather gave her a squeeze, offered up his chair and made her tea. We were so happy to see her up and about that we didn’t even mind doing the dishes.
We were never again to see the special parcels my mother used to bring home, but we didn’t need them. Father came back from the war and took over getting supplies. We all cried when he walked in. The war was over and things slowly got much better. We were warned never to discuss mother’s illness or the special parcels and soon forgot about them.
Only years later did I realise its significance and what my saintly mother had done for a pair of stockings and to stop her children from starving. I love you mother…