I don’t think I’ve told you much about Hilda, who worked for my in-laws for many years.
When she came to them in 1937, it was to look after Russell, known as Sprig, who was then a year old. She must have been about 24 then – she was about ten years younger than Ma, Sprig’s mother. She helped generally round the house and with the older children too – at that time, June was five and Austin was seven, so I can quite see that Ma really needed some help.
She was one of three, with an elder brother and a younger sister. Her brother was the only one who married, but both girls ‘got into trouble’ sometime during the war, Hilda with one of the airmen who was stationed nearby. It was understood and accepted, and the brother and his wife brought up the babies. I didn’t learn about this for many years – it wasn’t a secret but it wasn’t spoken of either.
Hilda used to have lots of tales about the scrapes that she and her siblings got into when they were children. To give one example, there was a local man who made things out of rabbit skins and he gave a few pence for every skin brought to him. Hilda and the others soon worked out a way to break into the shed where the skins were hung up before they were cured, and sneaked out a skin once in a while, to re-sell back to him. She acted it all out, doing all the voices – it was an entertainment, and we all heard it more than once.
Weeza and Al adored her. When they were children, Ma had them to stay quite frequently – she was then in her seventies and much of the more active fun fell to Hilda, who loved it. She enjoyed leading them astray – for example, with pooh sticks. This was not a game with a bridge over a stream, I’m sorry to say that it involved dipping a stick into a cow pat and then leaving it sticking out of the hedge or through railings to catch the unwary. This has been toned down since; pooh sticks is simply a matter of stirring the cow pats with a stick, which small children seem to enjoy…
They used to go out into the garden to gather seeds, leaves, rose hips and so on – “hipsy-hawsies” as they were called, which they then mixed with flour, water and I don’t know what else, and then baked in paper cases as “pungey cakes.”
Years later, I sometimes came across little burnt patches in out of the way places and Weeza acknowledged that they used to take out a magnifying glass, so that they learned to start fires from the sun’s rays.
Hilda had her bedroom above the kitchen, which I think I mentioned in a previous post, so the back stairs were private to her. She also had a bathroom downstairs and an easy chair in the kitchen – as I mentioned, my mother-in-law didn’t really use the kitchen for cooking, so Hilda had it as a sitting room for much of her free time. Not that she wanted much of that – she had a day and a half off a week and paid holidays, but she rarely took them. She had a cousin in Lowestoft, which was about as far as she ever travelled.
In her middle years, she developed a cataract in one eye. In those days, you had to leave it until it was thick and you were almost blind before it could be operated on, and she got used to it and didn’t bother. Then, in her seventies, she had a detached retina in her other eye. She tried to ignore it, for so long that it couldn’t be saved when she finally did go for help. So she finally agreed to have her cataract removed, and saw through that eye instead. I can’t imagine how she coped with that, it seems incredibly difficult for her brain to adjust to. She had no personal vanity, she wore black-rimmed glasses with one eye covered over, and she simply switched the patch.
I rarely saw her out of her blue checked housecoat, which she wore with an apron when in the kitchen. She never went to the dentist and her teeth were sensitive, so her diet was limited to soft food. She was fabulous, great fun to be with and really good company.
She was hugely generous and Pa never felt she could be relied on not to give away everything she possessed. So he asked Austin and Russell to provide for her in retirement and gave them each a sum of money. Russell bought a small house in Yagnub, renovated it and gave it to her for her lifetime. Austin invested it in rather speculative shares, and lost it – he was a wealthy man and Russell felt he could and should have made it up out of his own pocket, but he didn’t. So Hilda just had her state pension to live on, though rent and council tax free, and all repairs and house improvements were paid for too. She always did give away money though, it was true, as Austin pointed out.
The plan was that she would retire once we moved into the house, she wouldn’t leave Ma before then. But Ma died suddenly when the house renovations weren’t finished, as I told you in Part 5 of this saga. So Hilda finally left the family’s service. She didn’t retire though, she took a job at the local caff, which served (and still does, though run by different people now) excellent home-cooked food. She refused to be paid, saying that she didn’t want to be tied to any obligations. They gave her food, but she gave most of it away, only accepting a daily meal there.
We used to visit her at her cottage or bring her back here for tea, when she told us all her repertoire of tall-sounding tales. I’m pretty sure they were all based on truth, though. She was fabulous. We all loved her. And, to her, I was always Mrs Russell – he was Master Russell, of course.