Once apron a time

Mrs Daniels lived in the bungalow next door to Nan and Grandad’s. I don’t remember much about her. She was small, a bit shrivelled-looking. There was definitely a Mr Daniels. He seemed to be bigger, and red in the face. Nan, who was a much better source of stories than Mum, told me that Mrs Daniels’ one peculiarity was collecting those frilly waist-tied aprons 1950s housewives were often pictured wearing.

She didn’t just collect the occasional apron. She collected one a day – at least. She got them from Hazell’s, a kind of all-purpose grocery shop and Post Office just below the station. In this same shop I was stung by a wasp which was lurking under the counter, just where I happened to place my hand. The wasp was attracted to the sticky cakes which were, of course, uncovered and displayed at the front of the counter so as to collect the maximum amount of dust, sneeze-germs and halfpennies dropped from purses. Same logic as hanging entire dead animals on hooks outside butchers shops so as to attract flies and absorb traffic fumes. I remember making no sound, but completing my purchases and waiting till I was outside to inspect the sting. Being stared at and fussed over was infinitely worse than pain and a bit of poison.

Hazels may well have been staying afloat financially only because of Mrs Daniels. The brightly coloured pinnies were hung from a hook on a pillar, and a garland of fresh ones appeared every day (I guess they bought in bulk, especially for Mrs Daniels). They certainly were attractive – I could see why she liked them. The 1950s was a time of bright and bold design. Fabrics were sprinkled with larger-than life vegetables and illustrations of kitchen equipment – colanders, apple-corers, wooden spoons and so forth. The colour thing was a reaction against the drabness of war, the dark, utility clothing, the sensibleness of everything. And the housewife – well, housewives were the new rock and roll. Men were back from the war. Women had to be encouraged not to keep the jobs they had proven so efficient at during the war. The emphasis once again was on femininity, on the household arts. A woman was encouraged keep young and beautiful, stand by her man and have lots and lots of babies. This was to replace Britain’s lost boys, the widows’ lost husbands, the spinsters’ lost fiancés. A generation of slaughtered, unconceived and unborn children. It was a woman’s duty to be fruitful. Hence the baby boomer generation.

Yes, if I had been of apron-wearing age, and if my pocket money hadn’t been so measly I too would have been attracted to frilly pinafores. I remember asking Nan what exactly Mrs D did with her aprons. Did she wear them one on top of the other – each serving to protect the one beneath? Nan laughed. It reminded her of a song about a spider and a fly. There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…

If she did leave the aprons on, why wasn’t she as stout as a barrel by now? Did she even take them off at night? How long would it take to untie them, smooth and fold them all?  Or did she keep them stacked neatly and laid them in her airing-cupboard just in case. Just in case the thousand other aprons should be stolen from her. Just in case the moth should get in and chew holes from the top of the stack to bottom. Just in case… Because I sense that would be the underlying fear. There is always an underlying fear. One day she would be in dire need of an apron, and wouldn’t have one. Yes, she might run out of aprons. Unfortunately, and I am loath to admit it, I can understand that quirk.

I worry about running out of things too. After a trawl round the supermarket I don’t even have to glance down at my trolley to know that I will have bought two of everything – two cakes, two packs of eight yoghurts, two loaves of bread. I will buy two loaves of bread even when I know one will be stale before I open it. Everything must be backed up. My mother is the same, I notice – two currant cakes, when she doesn’t even like currant cake – or four, or six – but never an odd number. It’s that fear of being without, of finding the cupboard bare – even if the corner shop is just around the corner. Unsatisfied want. Probably something to do with breast-feeding. Yes, let’s blame it on the bosoms.

I read somewhere that people who do this may actually be twins, but one of the twin has been lost in the womb (making that person a Womb Twin Survivor). That impulse to provide for the other, to make real the missing sibling, never to let them go. The same thing as children, insisting that a place be laid at table for their imaginary friend, and bereaved parents keeping their child’s room untouched for years. That tie of love, that cord stretching between the living and the lost. The impossibility of letting go.

I read somewhere else that extreme hoarding is a way of not dealing with a problem in the past – something so painful the person isn’t capable of dealing with it – at least, not without help. And even with help, extreme hoarders are known to be among the least motivated and most recalcitrant of subjects when it comes to therapy. So what is the point of hoarding? What is the mechanism? One theory is that a hoarder is creating a second problem, which supersedes the first. So, a houseful of junk is a suit of armour. Remove the junk and that person is raw, terrified – like a snail without its shell.

I suppose the thing is, we are none of us that far from OCD. Where does eccentricity end and extreme hoarding begin? At what point do you cross the line, from thinking It’s getting terribly crowded in here with all these aprons, or I could do with a sixth garden shed to house my lawnmower collection to I can’t let this tottering mountain of old newspapers go? I have no option but to read them all in case there’s something I’ve missed – an article, maybe, or an advert. Something in the obituaries. And even then, I won’t let them go…

Or it may be that Mrs Daniels was bored and depressed. Lonely. The aprons were bright, fresh and pretty, they smelled of new cotton, they were crackling-stiff with that starchy ‘dressing’ and they made her feel better. Or buying an apron made her feel she had accomplished something– that here was at least one thing she could tick off her list.

She died a long time ago. I sometimes wonder whether she isn’t wandering around heaven, collecting dropped angel-feathers to arrange in crystal vases, or…

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