Nannies at the ready

ONE day, completely out of the blue, my friend Nona, my intelligent, independently minded friend Nona, announced, ``I wish someone would tell me, `Don't bother your pretty little head about that.''' Some hope. She didn't stand a chance. Neither do we. The only people who do are women who don't bother their heads about anything. Still, it would be nice if someone did say it, just once, wouldn't it? At least in my weak-kneed moments I think so. But no one ever does. So I find my comfort in escaping back to my days in the nursery of one of England's most stately of stately homes.

You know the kind of thing - the coziness, the innocence of it all, especially at teatime, when thin bread and butter and wholesome cake are served to a clean little girl and her teddy (bald, from too much loving). The kettle sings on the cheery coal fire and nanny in her glossy starched apron stands at the ready to bear all uncertainties on her broad shoulders.

Actually I never set foot in a nursery or even in a stately home when I was a child. But I did read all those unlikely, old-fashioned children's stories, so convincingly told that you can't blame me for forgetting whose childhood they describe - mine or a storybook child's.

In fact, mine was a very unstately childhood. No nursery. No nanny. But we did have a staff - of a kind. We could boast of six gardeners, for instance: my father, my mother, their three daughters (one helpful, one a goof-off, and one too dreamy to be any use at all), plus a bronzed, baldheaded part-timer who wore one solid gold earring (I wish I had known at the time that he was a gypsy).

We had quantities of maids, Ethel and Laura, Dora, Ivy and Dorothy - but not all at once. They came one by one, daughters of the miners who dug for coal in the nearby mines justly nicknamed ``Black Country.''

That my kind parents took it for granted that 14-year-olds should leave home and work for us says something about the attitudes of the 1920s and '30s. It says even more about miners' living conditions, for their children never seemed to resent leaving home. They knew their families needed their earnings.

In fact, poor Laura had to send all her wages home. When my father found out, he gave her pocket money, but her father got wind of it and she had to send that off, too.

With a room to herself, a miner's daughter must have found our modest house quite stately after her father's crowded cottage. With all of us eating the same food and sitting around the same table, and going on vacation together, we were light years away from ``Upstairs, Downstairs.'' And since both our parents were working all day, the girls became a succession of highly unorthodox nannies. We cried when they left to marry or to better themselves.

Ethel was the one Mother wanted to adopt, but she proved far too independent. Laura was constantly crossed in love, though that didn't prevent her cheerfully belting out sad songs of betrayal as she mopped the floor. (``I'm alone because I want to be true/ Sorry I can't say the same about you.'')

Ivy had dimples on her shoulders and a sensitive nature - so she said. Dorothy found life a continual bafflement, one of her favorite sayings (but not ours) being, ``I can't think what to do for the best.''

It was Dora who added most to the picturesqueness of our speech.

The gypsy gardener taught us that the proper name for autumn is ``the back end of the year.'' Our friend's handyman proved that Bible language isn't dead. Faced with an enormous sack of foam rubber, he braced himself for a heavy load and then exclaimed in surprise, ``Why it be light as vanity.''

In nearby Birmingham, young schoolchildren soon to be servants themselves lived close to the Bible, too. From them we learned to sing ``Zacchaeus, Zac-chaeus, come down from yon tree/ I'm coming to thy house to 'ave a cuppa tea.''

But nothing equaled the charming phrases we gathered from Dora.

``Don't go paddling in and out like a dog at a fair,'' we would be warned when we came indoors once too often, tramping through the kitchen (``my clean kitchen'') in search of warmth, books, company, or snacks. And if we got the snack, it would be plonked down in front of us with the suggestion, ``'Ere, get yoursef outside that.'' Objections were raised to gloves, scarves, boots, etc., left on the ``dog shelf'' (the floor).

``What's this? What's it for?'' we would sometimes ask and get a deeply mysterious answer, never decoded to this day. ``Leo,'' Dora would say darkly, ``for meddlers.''

But there was more than vivid phrases to be learned from these tough, uncomplaining girls. Feel ``mardy'' (sorry for yourself) or expect some soothing words about pretty little heads from any of them and you would get a strengthening answer. ``It's too hard,'' you might say, ``I can't do it.'' Back would come the cheerful reply, far more helpful than a soothing nanny's in banishing self-pity, ``You're old enough and ugly enough.''

All the same, you would say, a little tearfully, ``What do you mean? What do you mean?'' Back would come the lip-stiffening response (I can hear it now ringing down the decades): ``You 'eard. You ain't got cloath [cloth] ears.''

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