Many years ago I bought, at a library sale, a copy of Kristin Lavransdattir by Sigrid Undset. It takes place in 13th-century Norway and tells the story of a woman from childhood to death.
Kristin marries and goes with her husband to his estates. She’s pregnant, and has concealed the fact from everyone, including him. Once they have arrived, the couple visits one of the husband’s tenants, who has just had a son. Kristin says to the woman, “I’m going to send you a gift, because your child is the first I’ve held since I got here.” For some reason this statement reveals that Kristin is pregnant, not only to her husband, but also to this woman who doesn’t know her.
I can guess why it might have done so, but I don’t know why, because we’ve lost the context for the statement. Was there once a belief – either in mediaeval Norway, or even in Undset’s own time – that the sex of the first child a pregnant woman held would influence the sex of her own unborn child? Or was it considered unlucky not to have held a child before the birth of your own? Or was it part of the lord-tenant relationship? I have no idea, and I’m not sure where to find out, or if it’s even possible to find out anymore.
In a novel of the scope and complexity of Kristin Lavransdattir, perhaps we might say that this single incident is unimportant. Still, it’s puzzled me for years, and I’ve never been able to forget it, precisely because it puzzles me. It also tells me how quickly we lose track of small but important pieces of folklore, custom and daily practice. And yet these very things are what give colour and verisimilitude to writing, especially period writing.
Here are some things from my own life that are being forgotten:
Margarine in bags – it came white with a colour dot of orange, and the colour had to be worked into the margarine by massaging and kneading the bag. This was in the fifties. I remember being given this job to do when I was four or five.
The Sheriff horsey – Sheriff gelatin powder was a competitor of Jell-o. It came with a “flavour bud”, a solid piece of sugar, flavouring and colour, which melted when you added the hot water.
Operator-run telephone systems – When I was fifteen, we moved to Elmvale, and our phone number was 190 ring 31. The telephone had no dial. When you picked up the phone, an operator came on and asked what number you wanted – yes, she said “Number, please”. Our number meant we were on party line 190, and our ring was three longs and a short. You were supposed to answer only on your ring, although there was one woman who listened in to most conversations. If someone picked up the phone while you were talking, you said “using” and they were supposed to hang up. If you had an emergency, anyone on the phone was supposed to get off right away.
Circular skirt – all the rage when I was coming into my teens. We also had crinolines.
Leotards – all the little girls wore them. I hated them because they didn’t stay up properly and the crotch always crept down and had to be adjusted. Which leads me to…
Garters – came in two kinds. There were round garters, a piece of elastic which held your nylon up. Sometimes the nylon slipped out from under the garter. The garter usually curled up and cut into your thigh, which is why I mostly wore a garter belt. This was not a piece of sexy wear, but a necessity. Four clips (a wire that slipped over a rubber button, with the stocking held between) held up the stockings.
What do you remember from your childhood and adolescence that you don’t see any more? What customs did you have, what beliefs, what skipping rhymes or games that are disappearing? We need to make notes about these things, if the context of our own time isn’t to be lost.