We didn’t exactly live in poverty but then in my day poverty was somewhat relative I suppose, we were no better nor were we any worse than all the other working class people in the community.
Bexhill was a small seaside town in southern England and the period before World War II was just slightly beyond my memory but I do remember the day the war startedI was six years old and it was bath time, which involved setting the metal tub up in front of the kitchen stove and filling it with soapy water, I was in the tub and my mother was scrubbing what was probably a week’s dirt off my back. The radio was on as it generally was most of the time and suddenly the programming was interrupted by “The Speech” announcing the fact that we were in a state of war with Germany.
I remember my mother started to cry and I guess that was the first lesson from her, war was not glorious but was something to fear and avoid, bringing nothing but horror and sorrow. The next day my father came home from work in a local hotel that along with all the others in our resort town had been closed down and he announced that he was off to join the army for the second time in his life. Another bad thing I learned war splits up the family.
What brought this memory on was that it occurred to me that one of the things that we older persons might fear the most is that the memories and accumulated experience of our lives will disappear off the face of the earth with us because as we well know “you can’t tell those young people anything because they know it all” already.
But it was some tomatoes that really got me thinking. I keep them in a bowl on the kitchen counter because if you put them in the “frig” they lose their taste. Of course they need to get used up and I remembered that my mother sometimes cooked tomatoes in a special way for me when I came home from school and I still cook them her way once in a while.
“Fresh from the garden tomatoes” work best because they have the best flavour but I bet you could even use canned at a pinch. She would sauté them gently until they were just about sauce and then add a mixture of water and Bisto gravy mix and pepper, and stir and serve with lots of bread and margarine to soak up the gravy. I guess one could say that I am a bit of an amateur gourmet cook at least that is what I am told but for my money nothing delights my palette more than tomatoes in Bisto gravy.
We were proud of the fact that we were a working-class Catholic family and proud of our Irish heritage. My dad wasn’t really political but my mother had three of her brothers beaten to death by the English Black and Tans during “The Troubles” in Dublin. The IRA newspaper was delivered to our home regularly and my mother taught me to sing “Kevin Barry” almost as soon as I could hum a tune.
She was not a well person however and the dampness during the cold months caused her to be an invalid for three or four months of the year. My father was in the army and I was an only child, so at seven years old during the months she was ill I had to do all the things that if I had a sister she would normally have done. I had to be the care-giver, learn to cook, clean, sew and work the garden as well as go to school.
Looking back it is a hard thing to say but I really appreciated those days and the things that I had to do, and those self-reliance “skills” she taught me. Later in life I have always considered feminism as part of my social consciousness and I think that came to me easily because of my childhood experiences. Maybe I am just a sensitive guy but it is not surprising that working to end the abuse of older persons is something that is important to me now.
My dad’s experiences in the war left him pretty scarred inside and he would go through periods often that were not pleasant for my mother and within a couple of years she died and I looked after the task of arranging with the neighbours and friends to make sure she was buried properly.
Nevertheless dad and I worked out a relationship and I learned a lot from him because he had travelled in the army and valued a broadened range of knowledge. He was no musician but we listened to opera regularly together and through him I grew to enjoy classical music. We went fishing on a nearby river every Sunday morning during the summer. We did share a love of the garden and growing things and I raised the chickens and rabbits that kept some of our neighbours supplied with Holiday dinners.
My parents were not what one would call educated folks they had no real aspirations to be anything more than what and who they were. That generation was for the most part accepting of the class division that had existed for ever. Like most parents I guess they wanted better for their offspring and after my mother was gone my father made arrangements for me to immigrate to Canada where I had an uncle.
Throughout life every experience we have and every person we meet influences us in some way but no matter what we think of them at the time our parents shape us and the way in which we absorb knowledge more than anything. Maybe it is just the manner in which we enjoy tomatoes, the love of music or the desire to help in changing the world; our parents are the ones who kick start the process.
The difference between human beings and the so-called lower animals it is said is that we are able to learn from and pass on our experiences in life to following generations. So here is my contribution to posterity: try cooking tomatoes with Bisto gravy but add your own touch, maybe garlic, onions and a little beef stock and wine. Or you could make a revolution and change the world.
Harry Paine is a writer, community activist, seniors’ advocate, and an amateur gourmet cook.