« The Cat's Prophecy | Main | Murray Musings »

Letter From America: Make Do And Mend

...All our dessert spoons had deformed handles from being bent to serve as bicycle tyre levers, and then straightened out, ostensibly so as not to be noticeable. My scientific researches prove that you cannot bend a spoon and straighten it without leaving forensic evidence of the crime...

Ronnie Bray is a firm believer in the principle of Make Do And Mend, but home repair enterprises can leave a trail of damage in their wake.

For more of Ronnie's fizzy words plese click on Letter From America in the menu on this page.

The Second World War imposed itself on my childhood like a dead whale falling onto a mouse from a mile up. I was only a little fellow when it began, and was halfway through my first year of double figures when it ended. Thus it is that many of the attitudes and sayings ingrained into my mind have wartime connections.

Some of these have clearly passed into the ‘Ancient History’ file, and surface only when brooding memories of those dark days are recalled. Others have become part of my every day vocabulary because of their applicability to things unconnected with any warfare other than the constant struggle with things wearing out before I can afford to replace them.

Phrases such as ‘Dig For Victory,’ ‘There’s Many a Slip ‘Twixt Cup and Lip,’ and ‘Be Like Dad and Keep Mum,’ have a hard time finding a place in today’s conversations.

One of the most useful wartime phrases is ‘Make Do and Mend,’ which was an admonition against waste by mending whatever it was that broke. Not because of the expense of replacements, but because replacements were unobtainable. That being so, and it was, the slogan ought to have been ‘Make Do and Mend – Or Do Without!’ because that was the stark choice we had.

Patches on clothing were neither unusual nor were they a causus remarkus. It was just the way things were because ‘There’s a War On!’ and provided tacit assent that the principle of ‘Make Do and Mend’ was taken seriously. Those who did not take it seriously ended up with threadbare clothes or with no clothes at all. While threadbare is hardly the end of the world, the absence of clothing can be a serious social disadvantage, and few will go down that road voluntarily.

Therefore, out of urgent necessity, ‘Make Do and Mend’ became a standard to live by, and as a model of thrift it has survived and remains solidly useful. These days there is a conspiracy against fixing things that break that is spawned and spread by greedy manufacturers who make things not intended to be repaired but replaced with new items at prices pleasing to themselves.

I caught the spirit of mending broken things early on in my childhood. I was not always successful in my fixings but that didn’t stop me trying. One of my greatest failures was re-housing a clockwork gramophone spring that I had released like a captive genie and could not persuade it to get back into its tiny case, and I didn’t get three wishes!

Broken clocks and watches, and a few unbroken ones, were blessed by my rectificatory attention. It might be considered a misfortune that to date I have not managed to make a timepiece run and keep the correct time. That holds true whether I had cogs, screws, and springs left over or not.

The majority of my attempts to repair or investigate were not commissioned or approved, hence I had to work in secret. Also, because the family toolkit was limited to one pair of rust-patinaed pincers, a pair of well-worn pliers in the same livery, a hammer with a broken handle, and an axe with a handle sawn from the short end of a brush tail, I had to make do and use substitute tools to carry out my inventive and exploratory work.

That is why the cutlery drawer held several knives whose tips were absent. The missing bits were compelling testimony that they had been introduced to mulish screws and persuaded – beyond their strength – to endeavour to shift the stubborn articles.

All our dessert spoons had deformed handles from being bent to serve as bicycle tyre levers, and then straightened out, ostensibly so as not to be noticeable. My scientific researches prove that you cannot bend a spoon and straighten it without leaving forensic evidence of the crime.

The hammer and the axe were the only tools used solely for their intended purposes. The hammer broke up lumps of coal too large to fit the fireplace, and the axe served the same purpose on sticks of firewood if we used it. The axe didn’t get much use for we rolled sheets of newspaper into long tapers, and then rolled them round our hands into tight coils. ‘Examiner Firelighters’ not only lit easier and burned hotter than the little sticks of wood, but made firelighters redundant and alleviated the burden on the household purse.

Work projects were not the only matters that required tools that the household did not have on its inventory of useful items. Although we only had nuts at Christmas, when we had them we had them in abundance, and yet, we had no nutcrackers. Although we could not be said to be out of the top drawer of society we did have some standards, and these precluded cracking nuts between our teeth.

Besides looking ungainly and tasteless, dental nut-cracking posed serious danger to the teeth of those who had them, the dentures of those who once had them and had them artificially replaced, and the gums of those whose chewing days were over.

Thus it was that the humble cast iron flat irons were pressed into service as nut crackers each Christmas. Although intended to serve the interests of economy and forestall the expense connected with the purchase of a pair of cheap nutcrackers, it was a false economy owing to the damage that the ersatz crackers caused.

These damages came about on this wise. The nuts were placed on the tiled hearth and struck with considerable force by the sole of the smoothing iron wielded by the nut-hungry. That force was almost always sufficient to cause the nut, shell, and kernel, to be reduced to inedible powder, some of which stuck to the underside of the iron. The product of the crushing was fit only to be added to the flames in the grate.

Some nuts did not submit to being smashed, but opted to be shot out sideways, either scarring the furniture, or making it all the way to the back of the room under the sideboard and within easy reach of domestic mice who scurried off back into their apertures to enjoy their good fortune.

But the appalling cost of nuts lost to pulverisation and rodentia was dwarfed by the cost in broken hearth tiles. When I had become of such an age to notice such things, there was hardly a tile left intact, and several were missing altogether.

It is surprising that my Nanny, who knew the value of money, did not invest in a few coppers at Woolworth’s for a pair of nutcrackers. It was a short-sightedness that was atypical of her normal economical self, and I cannot help wondering whether the flat iron tradition was one she received from her own childhood in the Potteries, and that she felt that it was little enough for her to hang on to in a world broken by untold violence and bloodshed, in an atmosphere in which death hung heavy in the air ready to change everything forever for the unfortunate.

If so, then the price was well worth paying because no matter how long our lives may be, there comes a time when we look backwards with some longing for the things of our tender years that still bring us comfort by their remembrance or by re-enacting some small thing, even if it is only cracking nuts inside the fender with a flat iron.

Although the days of ‘Make Do And Mend’ are long gone, the principle lives on, as it did for instance when I found the sack of dead puppies, or why the tops of the bookcases are home to stacks of rock brought from the garden to my feet by my faithful Belgian, Belle, and why I am still loth to discard something for no better reason than because it is broken. That is one of the better things that have stayed with me from childhood.

It might be in these remembrances of things past, and the honeyed glow through which we view them, that our yearnings spring when the distance of time between them and us has grown great. If so, then it would explain Gay’s fondness for taking a nap snuggled under the timeworn quilt that her mother stitched, and why, on her ninetieth birthday, my mother said she wished she was back at home as a little girl with her mother.

The more tenuous such delicate links to the past become, more precious they get, but the greatest loss is when we can no longer find them among our fading memories. It is then that the world becomes strangely cold.

Copyright © 2007 – Ronnie Bray


Other stories at:

Do you have a story to tell? A poem you have written? A memory to share?
Send them to www.openwriting.com


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.