Topic: Boots 'n All by May Gaskin

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Boots 'n All is a 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition entry by May Gaskin

Archived version here.

A young girl - a teenager in the late 1800s - walking alone mile after mile...

She had been sent into the city for flour and it was so hot carrying the bag on her shoulder. And her feet hurt; her boots were too tight.

Still she struggled on.

This girl was Harriet Frances Barnes, my grandmother. She was born in Karori on 25th May 1856.

I loved her dearly.

My grandmother was married three months before her 18th birthday in 1874 to Thomas Cole, six years her senior. During her marriage she had eleven children, but lost two little girls, Eva Gertrude and Nellie Winifred when they were fifteen and eighteen months respectively.

And then suddenly she lost her husband. She had helped him on the farm, and I have been told she would leave the milking, go home and have her baby, then return to finish the milking.

They certainly made them tough in those days!

After her husband died she continued farming for a number of years, then leased the farm and opened a boarding house in Thorndon for many years. To all her children she was Mother; nothing else. A true matriarch, my grandmother. She later returned to her old home with her father.

My parents married late - there were four of us, ‘the Cole kids.’ Dad leased the farm of Grandma and she became part of our family again. Mum and Grandma worked as a team, with Mum helping on the farm and Grandma in charge of us kids.

Monday was washday with no exception. It was another team effort and a real ritual. Once clothes were dried and sorted larger items were put through the mangle kept in the bathroom and operated by us children under the watchful eye of Grandma.

Karori School was where Grandma ‘learned her letters,’ as did her children and nine of her grandchildren, myself included. I was about fifteen when Karori School Baths were opened. Grandma and Mrs. Monaghan ‘cut the cake’ as the two oldest ex-pupils.

Grandma always looked the same. Her hair was piled into a bun on the top of her head. Her dark-coloured frocks were down to the ground and in the house she wore an apron covering her from top to bottom. She still wore boots, never shoes; they buttoned up the side with the aid of a button hook, which I have kept.

Grandma Cole was never idle. She kept a hive of bees and it was because of them I learned to appreciate how versatile these little fellows are and how competent my grandmother was in handling them. With her hat on and a veil thrown over it and her face she puffed smoke into the hive. When the bees became drowsy she pulled out a wax-encrusted frame dripping with honey. This was called a comb. Jars were filled with the golden liquid and the frames replaced so the industrious bees could continue their good work.

A by-product from the hives was beeswax. This my grandmother melted down and poured into egg cups to set. It was used to wax thread when sewing. I still have the well-used wax she gave me.

Friday was the day Grandma made butter. She sat on the side of the wall in the dairy where the milk and cream cans were placed in water to keep them cool and churned and churned. It was a long tedious job - her patience was amazing. Once butter was formed it was washed and salted then shaped with butter pats into pound blocks. I still have the same butter pats she used.

The copper in the scullery had many uses apart from the weekly clothes washing. For one thing Dad made his home brew in it and Grandma made soap. All very mysterious, but in the end - bars of soap.

Grandma and Mum kept chooks. There were four different fowl houses and eggs a plenty. Eggs not sold were preserved in a kerosene tin with isinglass, or coated with a greasy something made under the watchful eye of Grandma, and then stored in a huge and bulbous stone jar.

The airing cupboard wasn’t only for airing clothes. Oh, no! When the hens were sitting, some chicks would hatch much earlier than others. So Grandma would put them in a basket, cover them over and leave them in the airing cupboard until the remaining eggs hatched.

Poultry was often on the menu and Grandma was in charge. Dad’s job was wringing the chooks neck. Then - often with children standing by, mouths agape - he watched as Grandma plucked and gutted the unfortunate bird and removed its innards. We learned about the gizzard, the chicken’s crop with undigested wheat inside and the beginnings of yolks - lots of them - round and yellow. If we were lucky, a whole egg in its sac, and sometimes with the shell on ready to be paid.

Grandma’s garden was a joy to behold, a large flat area at the back of the house bordered by the fowl houses. Across the front was a large border of dahlias. The flowers were nearly all double and some had really large blooms. She divided up her garden, using small paths to separate various plants. Grandma loved carnations, stocks, roses and pansies.

I can remember an old gentleman regularly visiting her garden to ‘look at the faces of her pansies.’ I also remember the white and red peonies growing in the front of our house and the fragrant lilac and honeysuckle she grew by the dairy.

Grandma had a canary, a golden bird that could whistle gloriously. I dreamt the canary was at the bottom cage so went and told Grandma. She said, “Go and look.” I did and he was dead. Why did I have a dream like that?

I can remember when I was small the two cats that belonged to Grandma. There was Old Tom, a huge grey-striped tabby, who would catch eels from the creek and bring home little rabbits. Then there was Ginger, dark and ever so handsome. A good hunter, too. We grew up together, Ginger and I.

I loved going on holidays with Grandma. The journeys by train were always exciting as she kept me entertained. I had to look out for a white horse, make a wish and cross my fingers until I saw a black dog. This could become frustrating. I was always told, “You’ll see a black dog at the next station.” I usually did - fingers uncrossed!

Her youngest daughter, my Aunty May, lived in Auckland. Once at Wellington Station and ready to depart, Grandma discovered - horrors of horrors! - she still had her apron on. What a to do. That episode took a lot of living down.

Wanganui was where her sister-in-law lived at a place called Fordell. Aunt Hannah had married Grandma’s brother John, but he had been dead many years.

The days were sunny and carefree holidaying with Grandma.

My grandmother was a good cook, and it was all done on a wood range; everything from family meals to sponges, biscuits and pancakes. I remember the time she forgot to put in the flour. Her cake came out completely flat! My brothers looked at it.

“What’s this, Grandma?”

“Passover cake,” was her quick reply.

The boys ate it.

“Why pass over cake, Grandma?”

“Because I passed over the flour,” she said with a smile.

Grandma always brushed and combed my hair. It was, “Stand still, girl” as she wove my long straight hair into two thin plaits.

After finishing college my hair was cut off by the farmer down the road with his new sheep shears. My grandmother never spoke to me for a week!

This industrious lady never let up. She had knitted for us and done all she could to help. Now she was slowing down. She sat by her window and crocheted yards of wide lace, using a bell pattern or a diamond or pineapple design, winding her work into a ball as she continued. Reading also helped to fill her days, and my father borrowed books from the Working Men’s Club for her.

She was a Godfearing woman and I remember passing the Reverend Canon Woodward, a tall thin man, dressed in black with gaiters on his legs and a flat hat on his head. He had been visiting Grandma.

Harriet Frances Cole, my grandmother, was laid to rest in St Mary’s churchyard, Karori, beside her husband and two young daughters, boots and all, following her death at the ripe old age of 82 on 9th September 1938.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: 

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