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The shared past

There is something about headscarves ...

I can’t read about a woman in a headscarf without seeing my mother, and the way she knotted hers firmly under her chin. They kept her safe. Inviolate, no less. They preserved her permed-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life hair. Fashions changed. Headscarves vanished. But my mother never ever relinquished hers.

So reading about Diana Hendry’s mother, for me, is pure time travel. There she is —

out in the scullery putting on
an old mac and headscarf for the journey
across the yard to the shed
for buckets of coal, hods of anthracite.
    [‘Mother in the kitchen’]

Whoosh. I’m back there. The word ‘scullery’ summons the dampish smell of the room where my mother did her washing, its stone (or maybe concrete) floor, the mangle for wringing out towels and sheets, the great shallow sink, usually with something sitting in it waiting to be washed (rhubarb, apples, jam pans), the heavy back door with its giant bolts and huge rattly key, and the old macs hanging on metal hooks.

Colour photo of galvanised coal hod, a brassy colour, with two handles and the mouth in an oval shape, higher one one side than the other, so you could swing the hod by the two handles and slide the fuel into the stove. And on the other side of the door, the icy path to the coke store. In the 1950s, the insides of houses were arctic in winter. And yes, we had a ‘hod’ for carrying fuel in. How can one word evoke so much? I haven’t used the word ‘hod’ in decades!

So we hauled in hods of ‘coke’ which we heaved into my grandmother’s kitchen stove. Our coal was in the cellar and we lugged it up the stone stairs in a coal scuttle. And right enough, it was the women who mostly did the lugging: my mother, my grandmother, my sister, me.

But most of all it’s the headscarf that takes me back. If I lift one of my mother’s (she left me many) and knot it under my chin, the feeling of nostalgia’s almost overwhelming.

It’s a mystery to me how some of the words from your past turn into neat poetry, like coal pressurised into diamonds.

In Where I Was, Diana Hendry knows the right words to work the magic. She summons our shared past.

I wallow unashamedly.

Helena Nelson