I had my shorts and walking shirt on and was about to reach for my white ankle socks; then it’ll be on with the runners and out the door for one of my slow morning walks. I’ve never made it a habit to inspect my socks before putting them on. I fold them over themselves to their toe, slip the rolled-up wad over my foot, unravel it and then smooth it over my heel and ankle. On this fateful morning, I just happened to glance down when I was easing the sock over the heel of my right foot. And I saw it; a frayed hole so big that I could push my fist through. I sat back, floored by its size, and all I could do was stare at the socks’ threadbare heel. Memories flooded back to when I was a young lad with frayed holes in my socks, jumpers and cardigans.
Mum inspected my socks, undies, shirts and anything else I wore for the slightest indication of a hole. I gave her every opportunity to be able to perform a daily inspection of my clothes because I’d drop whatever I was wearing when I was changing into my pyjamas onto the bedroom floor. I thought it was the best place to leave them for mum to wash them or put them away. When mum saw the slightest hint of threadbare cotton or wool on a sock, jumper or anything, it became part of her Tuesday night darning collection pile.
Mum’s life as a housewife was made up of the same routine every week. Monday was washing day, cleaning and vacuuming were on Tuesday, Wednesday was soaking the dedicates and catching up on washing, and shopping was on Friday. Monday night was ironing, Tuesday night was always darning night, and Thursday night was knitting and mending. On Tuesday nights, after the dishes were washed in the sink and dried, mum sat at the kitchen table with the darning pile and her darning-sewing box. Her darning-sewing box was a MacRobertson’s Old Gold Chocolate Box. Dad sometimes gave mum MacRobertson’s Old Gold chocolates for a special occasion; I think her darning-sewing box was a present for a long time ago birthday.
As a youngster, I always hoped dad would give her a box of chocolates for her birthday, and I looked forward to mum’s birthdays as much as she did. She’d let us choose a chocolate from the assortment in the box when she first opened it. The chocolates were long gone, and instead, it now held a collection of threads of different coloured wool, large darning needles, crochet hooks, buttons, elastic, bits of material, reels of cotton, several metal thimbles, and a pincushion. But if you looked closely, you could still read the faint print on the underside of the lid.
The half-pound box contains two inviting layers of tempting chocolates- twenty-three delicious pieces tantalising with the fragrant aroma of fresh chocolate. Twelve different varieties in each box …. and each an artistic creation made from, fresh wholesome foods and lavishly coated with smooth, rich “Old Gold” Chocolate.
Ironing, darning and knitting and mending nights were back in the time before television, and so the kitchen wireless kept mum company. The wireless dial never left 3AW, and the sounds of Give it a Go with Jack Davey and Bob Dyer’s Pick a Box with Dolly filled the kitchen. And our pet sulphur-crested cockatoo, perched on the back of a Laminex kitchen chair, also kept mum company by joining in and starting conversations with a burst of obscure cockatoo sayings made up of put together words. Mum had a simple but elegant darning style. She’d put her left hand into the sock, make half a fist under the hole and then do a warp and weft thread and in no time would weave a flat wool patch over the hole in the sock.
Most times, mums darning pile was all socks, but sometimes one of my wool knit cardigans or jumpers made it into the pile; that was never a challenge to mum. She’d reach for her knitting needles instead of a long darning needle and then a thread of leftover matching wool from her darning-sewing box. It didn’t matter if it was: an argyle geometric long sleeve jumper, a simple stitch cardigan with raglan sleeves and shawl collar, or a cable cardigan with double moss stitch sleeves, mum would have the frayed wool threaded onto her knitting needles, and she’d knit the hole closed with the same stitches and pattern of the cardigan in less than no time. We all thought of mum as a knitting wizard. Her fast-moving needles created rows of plain-pearl stitches on Thursday knitting nights and filled the kitchen with a silent rhythmic clicking. She never looked once at her finger around the wool, or her thumb and finger, guiding the needles; she occasionally looked if she was doing a cable or herringbone stitch or knitting a jumper with a pattern of different colours of wool. Whenever I outgrew something, she’d recycle it by unravelling the wool, winding it into balls, and putting them away until she could re-knit them into something else.
I went to Williamstown Technical school, an all-boys school in an inner working-class Melbourne suburb where I grew up, and completed the fifth form before going to College. The winter uniform at Williamstown Tech was long woollen grey trousers, a grey shirt with tie, a maroon v-neck jumper, a maroon blazer, grey socks, black leather shoes, and a cap. The summer uniform was a grey short sleeve shirt, grey shorts, get socks, black leather shoes, and a cap. The only time we wore our cap was Monday morning assembly and when on a school excursion. We all folded our caps and pushed them into the back pocket of our pants with the tip just sticking out; making it easy to quickly slip it out of our pocket and onto our head in case of a sudden cap inspection.
A couple of clothing shops in Williamstown sold school uniforms. Each year in early February, before the start of school, mum shopped for my new school uniform at Burke’s emporium in Douglas Parade. Burke’s sold men and young men and boys and women’s clothing, haberdasheries, bedding, linens, curtains, and what seemed to be everything else; I thought of Burke’s as a tired and old fashioned Myers. Shopping at Burke’s was stumbling into another world; the faded polished wooded floors were the yellow brick roads to the display counters of the different departments. Each department had a shopping assistant waiting behind the counter; it was polite and formal. The tangle of overhead cables and small metal cylinders flying back and forth from the counters to the raised central cashiers’ booth preserved the faded old-world charm. To a young, clean-cut, urbane adolescent, there could be no better shop to buy a school uniform.
Until the school jumper incident, mum knitted all my jumpers and cardigans and anything woollen I wore. The incident happened when I was entering the third form at Willy Tech. Mum decided to knit a school uniform jumper instead of buying a new third form jumper at Burke’s. During the long, hot, January summer nights, mum sat at the kitchen table with the white cockatoo and wireless as her only company and kept up a steady sequence of pearl and plain stitches and knitted a maroon long sleeve jumper with a V-neck collar and two yellow bands and a green band bordering the collar, waist and cuffs. I thought the pearl-plain stitches on my new jumper were bulky but thought no more about it. I started the school year with unbridled enthusiasm, proudly wearing my hand-knitted third form school uniform.
In the sixties, boys at Victoria Education Department Technical Schools were placed into each school year’s top two forms by their average grade in the final tests from the previous year. The twenty-four students in Form 3A were those whose average ranked highest from their second year. I was starting my third year at Willy Tech in From 3A. Schools combined forms into double sections for academic subjects, so 3AB was the double section for Mathematics, Science, English, and Social Studies. Forty-eight of the brainiest second form boys grouped as a double section for most of their third form school year.
The first general assembly for the school year was the first time the boys of 3A lined up together as a form; they were mostly the old faces from form 2A, but there were a few new faces. Each form learned who was their Form Master and their Form Room for the year. The school assembly marched off to their form room for the first important form meeting to assign a form captain, roll monitor, and lunch monitor. In the form room, several boys began to point at me. I thought they were trying to influence our new Form Master’s choice for the honoured monitor jobs, but as boys were assigned, the pointing continued, and then I started hearing hushed whispering. Surely all the pointing and whispering wasn’t at me. I knew most of the boys; we’d been together since 1A. They were my mates.
Every day for the next several weeks, when I wandered the schoolyard at recess and lunchtime, I suffered a slew of ugly jumper comments and pointing at my chest. After enduring days of peer torment, I hung my head and looked at my hand-knitted school jumper; there was no end to the large pearl-plain stitches. Every boy in the school was jeering at the pearl-plain jumper mum had knitted with size seventeen knitting needles. I never wanted to wear the hand-knitted jumper to school again, but the fear of being out of uniform and the threat of yard duty and the cuts kept me wearing my jumper. Whenever I pleaded with mum to unravel the maroon wool and wind it into balls, she told me the jumper was sheer perfection in plain-pearl knitting, and the simple stitching was what made it beautiful. For the rest of the year, I tried to filter out the jeers by only thinking of Mathematics, Solid Geometry, and my new fourth-form machine knit school uniform jumper from Burke’s. At the end of the school year, mum unravelled the homemade school jumper; the wool sat somewhere waiting for her to re-knit into another jumper.
I still have the blue argyle short sleeve jumper mum knitted for me twenty-plus years ago; she sent it to me in the US. I think she knitted it without a pattern. I remember wearing it only one time. I sometimes take it out of the drawer and try to squeeze into it; unfortunately, I’m now a little too portly, and the jumper is an extremely tight fit, so it sits in the drawer most time, gathering a collection of moth-eaten holes. When I take the jumper out of the drawer to admire mum’s knitting, I sometimes see strands of maroon, yellow and green wool in the argyle pattern.