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Life Is Too Short To Drink Bad Wine: 18 - Skin And Bones

“I longed to be able to wear slacks but my mother deemed that these were not ladylike and common and would show off my bottom too much….’’ Gayle Woodward recalls shouting matches when she was 14 with her mother about what should be worn.

For a while I attended Girls Brigade, affiliated with the local Baptist Church. As usual I liked the uniform and the ceremonies and the games and I was enrolled and duly presented with my badge. But it all seemed too serious and religious and I was committed to the Guides, by now acting as a Pack Leader helping with my mother’s Brownie Pack. But the Brigade did allow me to make some new friends and to learn about other families’ values.

I longed to be able to wear slacks but my mother deemed that these were not ladylike and common and would show off my bottom too much. So when I was invited to Matamata on a winter school holiday with my friend Marian’s family and they tried to teach me to roller skate on the rink in the camp, I was the only girl in a skirt and showed a lot more of what my mother would have hated when I came a cropper, legs askew.

I could not persuade Mum to change her mind and shouting arguments began to reverberate throughout our household. It seemed silly to me that shorts in summer were pants as well and these were allowed. It was unfortunate for me that during the sixties, a time of turbulent social change, I was the firstborn in our family and had to test each change I wanted in my life against what my mother wanted. The folk song, ‘The Times they are a’Changin’, rang out on the radio but she resisted change at every turn. We did not “pull together”.

At age 14, I got the chance to attend a weekend religious Bible Camp with probably one hundred other young people from all over Auckland. I was keen to attend as my friends would also be there. The suggested clothing included jeans or trousers for girls as outdoor activities were planned. Mum was horrified. Jeans were definitely banned but she relented and said I could take some trousers. I was thrilled, though I changed my mind when I saw what she wanted me to wear. They were grey and baggy but I wore them to camp. I hated them but nothing untoward happened, and from then on pants became my favoured item of clothing. Before much longer I could wear jeans, which soon became a teenage ‘uniform’.

And then another phenomenon arrived to worry my mother. Pantyhose arrived in the shops and were welcomed by all women who hated suspender belts with their rubber buttons to keep the nylons stockings up. Even with the long ‘witches-britches’ stretchy bloomers we wore to cover the suspenders, they were still awful and uncomfortable to wear. But poor Mum thought these new things were appalling.

We argued, it seemed, about everything. She seemed rather bitter to me. I thought that she would want for me what would make me happy but she seemed to deny any of this would happen. . Miles Franklin, in her 1901 autobiographical novel ‘My Brilliant Career’ said it better than I can. I quote “My mother is a good woman - and I am, I think, not quite all criminality, but we do not pull together, I am a piece of machinery, which, not understanding, my mother winds up the wrong way, setting all the wheels of my composition going in creaking discord”. This discord was never more in evidence than during my teenage years, yet to come.

One winter, we drove to Taupo with our Nana, all squashed warmly in our first car, a little yellow Standard Ten. We were to stay at one of the Post Office baches available for employees on ballot. The idea was that we would see snow for the first time at Ruapehu. In photos on the side of the Desert Road, I am posing in the snow, rather like the Seventeen models I so admired, in my car coat, skirt, long socks and winter shoes. No trousers allowed on this trip.

We arrived at the mountain and with none of us having any idea about skiing or the money to finance it, we decided to build snowmen, have snow fights and slide down gentle slopes on bits of plastic as toboggans. When it was my turn, in trying to avoid a rock ahead of me, I leaned to the right and bumped right over the top of a submerged rock. I felt a great pain in the area of my backside about which no one seemed to take any notice. When I picked myself up from the snow I could hardly walk. The pain was intense.

It was determined that I had injured myself and needed to see a doctor. The trip in the small car was agonising as we bumped along and I had to lie on my front across Mary and Nana’s laps. The trip seemed to go on forever. I had broken my coccyx – the small triangular bone at the base of the spine. There was no way to mend this break so the holiday was cut short and I had to sit on cushions and sleep on my tummy for a long while after.

For our summer holiday in the last two weeks of January that year, I was allowed to bring a friend to Onetangi. I took my great friend Marian, who had a marvellous tan and could swim and body surf without apparent effort. We had a happy two weeks, sunbathing together on the sand under our favourite pohutukawa tree, swimming and talking. Another year Mary was allowed to take her best friend, Lynette Samson.

In return, when I had turned fourteen, I went away with Marian’s mother and the younger kids to Muriwai, where I camped for the first time since I was very young. I enjoyed showering in the shower block and eating food cooked in the communal camp kitchen, while sitting on the ground. We girls had to carry all the plates and cutlery back to the kitchen to do the dishes. The black sand of the west coast heated up in the hot summer sun and one had to ensure a towel was at hand to stand on until you made the dash to the water. And run fast, if one was not to get burnt and blistered feet.

I used Coppertone sunscreen which had a pungent smell peculiar to that brand. It was not very powerful sun screen and I got badly burnt across my middle as this was the first summer that I wore a two piece swimsuit. I would get burnt, peel and burn again. I had no idea of the power or danger in that sun, reflected off the black sands. I believe that my future troubles with skin cancer started right here, when no one had yet made the connection between the two.


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