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U3A Writing: Ordinary, Or Extraordinary?

...How wonderful life is, Jean thought, as she wrapped the baby in a soft white towel and laid her on the table. I have a good, reliable husband, a comfortable house, even though it isn't ours, and three healthy, adorable children...

Briar Stuart tells of a day which shook the foundations of domestic bliss.

The day began ordinarily enough. Up early to feed the baby, Jean put a match to the wood stove fire which she had prepared the previous evening, and set the old black kettle on the stovetop. There was definitely a feel of Spring in the air, but warm slippers and a cosy dressing gown were still needed until the fire warmed up the kitchen. Baby was just stirring, not yet demanding a feed, so Jean popped out to the front porch to fetch in the milk, before realizing it was Sunday. Oh, dear, I must be tired, she thought, I don't even know what day it is. She shuffled into the baby's room to pick up the stirring, complaining bundle, who by now was obviously just starting to feel very hungry.

Pulling the old rocking chair to the stove, and opening the over door, Jean settled down to the feed and rested her feet in the oven, which was now beginning to warm up nicely. Little Margaret suckled contentedly. Fingers of light crept through the gap in the curtain at the east window, and the rooster crowed in the back yard. Jean enjoyed this early morning feed more than the others during the day, peacefully planning her day's movements before the rest of the household stirred. Some sheets in the mending box were waiting to be patched, and young David's overalls needed to be let down, but first she would have to pack a picnic lunch for their traditional Spring picnic. Jean wished the wireless was working; she liked to listen to it as she prepared the family's breakfast, but it needed to be pulled apart to find the problem, and Frank just hadn't had the time lately. Perhaps Pete can fix it when he's here for tea tonight, thought Jean. He's nearly finished his apprenticeship now, and he's sure to find out what the trouble is.

Baby all finished and with a fresh nappy, it was time to make the tea and get the porridge on. She could hear Frank coughing, so knew he was awake, and would be out any minute for his breakfast. Jean sang a lullaby to little Margaret as she placed her gently back in her bassinette, and then went in to wake the children, always a hard thing to do on a cold morning. She bounced in cheerily, singing a song from the film they had all gone to see the previous week.

"We're off the see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz!" The children responded in a good mood and leapt out of bed.

"Good morning, little bunnies. It's the first Sunday of Spring. Remember what's happening today? Uncle Pete will be here in a couple of hours, in his car! Isn't that exciting? Now, you know what to do. Get going, and wash Mr. Sandman out of your eyes, and then hop into the kitchen for some hot porridge. And then, after brekkie, you can help me to make the sandwiches for the picnic, with all your favourite fillings. But be careful not to wake Margaret, because I've just got her off to sleep."

An hour later, and the baby was demanding attention again. "She's a bit cranky this morning," observed Frank.

"Yes, I wonder if she's coming down with something," mused Jean. "She was pretty snuffly when she woke up. And I feel sort of tired, so maybe it'd be best if Margaret and I stayed home today. I don't really like the idea of taking such a young baby out for hours on end when it's still so cold." And so it was that Jean had the house to herself that Sunday, and with no wireless she began to feel just a touch of loneliness. Best get busy, she thought, and after dressing, Jean attacked the tidying and mending, missing the wireless all the while. Then she organised little Margaret's bath things, and poured some water into the old tin baby bath. Margaret had stirred, and was gooing quite happily now, with no trace of illness, as she played with her toes. Jean went in to the tiny room and leant over the bassinette. "Hello, sweetie. You've woken up in a good mood. Now, let's have a lovely bath."

Jean welcomed bath time with warm pleasure. Margaret gurgled and blew bubbles, grinning with delight as her chubby body was massaged with soap. How wonderful life is, Jean thought, as she wrapped the baby in a soft white towel and laid her on the table. I have a good, reliable husband, a comfortable house, even though it isn't ours, and three healthy, adorable children. I think I'll make them all a special treat for tonight's tea. And she sang to herself as she got out her great grandmother's recipe book.

Yes, it was a pretty ordinary day, all right. Nothing exciting going on, just normal activities, keeping Jean busy doing the things she loved to do for her family. While Margaret slept in her pram outside in the back garden, Jean tidied the kitchen from the cooking session and sewed a button on
Jennifer's pinny. When the other sewing and mending jobs were done, Jean sat down at the kitchen table and wrote a couple of letters to relatives, then swapped her slippers for sensible shoes, and wheeling Margaret in her pram, headed off to the post box a block away.

Jean walked quite briskly, stopping only once to read the church notice board about the fete which was coming up. I might make some toffee apples this year, thought Jean, and I'll try and talk Frank into coming along too, although he likes to get his tomatoes in around that time. Must remember to get Frank to oil this wretched gate, and she wheeled the pram down the path to the back door.

With Margaret fed and down again for her afternoon sleep, Jean took the opportunity to spend a little time at the piano, playing her favourite pieces. In no time at all, it seemed, the children rushed in from their day out, followed closely by Frank and a proud looking Pete. Gosh, how tall he is now, thought Jean. It's hard to believe my little brother's 21 already.

"Well, how was the picnic? And how did your car go, Pete?" Jean listened to her brother speak excitedly about the car's performance, and how the children loved the trip up to the hills, and how Jenny got a bit car sick, and how, at one stage, they all had to get out of the car and push.

"I'm so proud of you, little brother, buying your first car already. It'll be years yet 'til Frank and I can afford one, even a 12 year old one like yours. You're doing really well, Pete, and you're going to make some lucky girl happy. But, in the meantime, I have a little job for you to do while I get tea ready. Follow me." And Jean walked into the sitting room with Pete behind her, and set him to work to mend the wireless, with Frank's tools.
Then she sent David out to the back yard to cut a cabbage, while Jenny organized flowers for the table. Jean heated the stew she'd prepared earlier and the children helped with the vegetables. After a bit of a grump about whose turn it was to set the table, the children did their music practice and read a comic. Jean freshened up, putting on some new lippy, and plopped little Margaret into her playpen, just as Pete came through the door and announced that the wireless was fixed.

Jean was delighted. "Oh, you've done wonders," she'd cried. "Well, wash up and sit yourself down for tea. It's stew and veg, and then a special treat from Grannie's book. And after tea we can listen to the news."

"Why the treat, Jeannie?"

"Oh, just because I felt like it. I've had a perfectly lovely day, and I want to celebrate how good life is for us all. Now, Where's Frank? He always disappears right on tea time."

Well, at eight o'clock, the dishes were still left on the sink, unwashed. The family had all sat around the wireless and listened to the news. It had stunned them, Jean could not get the words of the Prime Minister out of her head. "... it is my melancholy duty to inform you ... that, as a result, Australia is also at war."

Yes, that day had begun ordinarily enough, but by the end of it, their lives had changed forever.


Jean was in the wash-house, reflecting on that day, when she heard the postie's whistle. I won't get my hopes up, she thought. It's probably just a bill, and I could do without any of those until after Christmas. Christmas. How empty it would be again this year. Jean harked back to previous times when Christmas was full of laughter and games and love, and lashings of scrumptious food. I'll just have to see what I can come up with this year, for the children's sake, she thought, but it's so hard with butter and sugar rationed, and now meat too.

She lifted a much patched sheet from the copper with the copper stick, and swung it into the adjacent trough. Then, as it cooled, she half filled the next trough with cold water ready for the first rinse, thinking all the while of creative ways to make her ration cards fulfil the demands of Christmas dinner. Feeding the sheet through the wringer, she found herself humming "Oh, Come all ye Faithful" rhythmically as she wound the handle to roll the sheet through. Yes, faithful, she'd have to be - to have faith that this ghastly war would be over soon. It had gone on far too long, and her ability to keep Hope burning was waning. Pete had been missing since Singapore fell, and she hadn't heard from Frank for several agonizing months. Singing helped her to recharge the spiritual batteries. By the time she'd hummed another carol, she felt strong enough to face whatever the postman had left.

She made her way down the wash house steps and along the side path to the front gate, checking on the way to see that little Margaret was still happy in her play enclosure. Jean smiled to see that the toddler had fallen asleep, curled up in one comer of the sand pit, still clutching a well worn teddy in her arm.

The letter box contained three envelopes. Sitting on the front steps of the verandah, Jean looked briefly at the first two. Yes, they were bills. But the third looked well traveled, and was addressed with a hand writing she'd not seen for months. She was too afraid to open the letter. What if the letter contained dreadful news? She remembered another September day, four years ago, when she had thought everything was just trotting along nicely, until tea time. Yes, that day had begun ordinarily enough. Jean held the precious letter close to her breast as she recalled that day - the last day that life had seemed ordinary, stable. She indulged in the memory of it, taking a few seconds to calm her beating heart.

Then, with fingers trembling, Jean whispered a silent prayer, and gingerly began to tear the envelope open. "My darling Jean," it began, but she could read no further, as a huge wave of tears engulfed her. She allowed herself to give in to them, the months of frantic worrying and being strong for the children, finally giving way to the sweet release of private emotion. Some minutes later, handkerchief sodden, she put the letter, still unread, in her apron pocket, patting it fondly and returned to the task of washing, taking comfort in the ordinariness of domesticity. The letter deserved her full attention. It needed to be savoured, read slowly, digested, and then re-read again and again. It could wait until the sheets were on the line and she was back in the kitchen with a good cup of tea.

Giving her nose one last blow, Jean put a blue bag in the rinse, took a deep breath, and began humming another Christmas carol.


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