The Lost World of My Youth

One of the series I’ve been following lately is “Call the Midwife”, one of those wonderful, well-crafted British productions that recreate another time – in this case, the late 1950’s.  The story takes place in Poplar, a poor section of London, and the main characters are mid-wife nurses and nuns — somewhat dated roles, by definition. As much as I enjoy the program, the social conditions, and the conditions of day to day life, as depicted in the series, have shocked me on occasion.  And shocked me into realizing that these were the years when I was born and brought up.  How distant and far away they seem, even primitive. Like a different world, almost. 

 One of the episodes takes place in 1958 – the year of my birth, only 13 years after the end of WWII.  For the characters in the show, not many years have passed since the Blitz, and all the trauma of war, including the families who lost husbands and fathers, and old soldiers who fade away with little reward for their service There is an epidemic of TB in the area, and one of the nuns is sent away to the sanatorium to recover. “Pregnant out of wedlock” is cause for firing of a single woman from the typing pool.  A married woman with 8 children tries unsuccessfully to abort herself, and then almost dies of a botched illegal abortion. The elderly and mentally ill must cope as best they can, and with the help of the fragile networks of relationships that support them.  Women at risk of abuse have almost no recourse; nor are the nuns and midwives able to offer much help.

 Yet, in 1958, there are signs of hope and progress. TV is a novelty, and a motor scooter is a thrill to the women who ply their trade mostly by bicycle.  A couple of the more adventurous don pants, after Princess Margaret has been spotted wearing them.  For me, in rural Connecticut, it wasn’t until a few years later, in the early sixties, that we girls wore pants to school, instead of skirts and tights, on winter days.  The big excitement for the nuns and nurse midwives in Poplar is the advent of “air and gas” to relax women in labor, and the arrival of the X-ray machine to detect TB before it spreads.  They are just beginning to instruct on the use of prophylactics (rubbers), although birth control of any kind is not covered by national health. These particular women, the nuns and nurse mid-wives, are in charge of themselves, and seen as true caretakers and authorities by the assisting doctor and by the hundreds of residents who use their services.  

 Mainly, I think to myself – what a revolution; what a relief to live in these present days. All the greater opportunities and conveniences that we enjoy, although not necessarily such greater protections.  Creature that I am, with the degree of independence I experienced as a young woman, I could not go back to that time.  However, I can see that some things have been lost, and greatest, perhaps, is the degree of connection and interdependence, the greater intimacy of lives shared.  The narrator of the story, voiced by Vanessa Redgrave, celebrates the joys and victories, the respect and acknowledgement that she and the others receive, as well of course, the tragedies they witness – with such a clear sense of need and purpose at the most sacred and vulnerable times. 

 Most of the time, I’m thrilled and awed by how certain fundamental things have changed, and how quickly – technology, health care, women’s rights. TV and movies on demand and Iphones are what we longed for, and they are here. Yet, I feel a certain comfort in the remaining big yellow school busses, pop-up toasters, and the inches and feet of my youth. Because 1958 – the year of my birth – is now the distant past – another time – history.