The chicken and the egg

There has been a couple of stories in the last few months about chickenpox, which has reminded me of something that happened when I was a kid. I was probably about 6, going on 7 years old; my sister would have been about 4. This would have been about 1978 it all took place.

What stopped me from submitting it is that for me to turn it into a suitable story for the site would mean quite a lot of explanations. This would be for things like significant differences in UK/US terminology, plus other things that will become clear as the story progresses.

I know I’m on NAR a lot, but I didn’t want to wait for the story to be posted, miss it, then spend ages clearing up misunderstandings. These would have inevitably ended with someone thinking our parents were incredibly reckless, and there is no way I want you to think that!

But as the Forum now exists, I thought I might finally share this story, as I get to do all the pre-empting plus include photographs of some of the items involved!

As you’ve probably worked out by now, my sister and I caught chickenpox. I had it quite mild, and sis got a LOAD more spots. But despite all that, she wasn’t affected badly either. We were off school for a couple of weeks, and we did get a fair few friends around as their parents wanted them to catch it too. As you are no doubt aware, chickenpox for a kid is generally just annoying itches. For an adult… not pleasant at all.

One person who was worried about getting it was Mum. Dad had it when he was little, but Mum missed out on that, uh, pleasure. But throughout mine and sisters contagious period, Mum was spared the horror of the adult pox.

Until what turned out to be a day or so before Sis and I were declared all clear.

We’d all got up, and Dad had gone to work. Mum told sis and I that she was feeling a little tired, so she was going to have a lie down in bed for a short while and would get us our breakfast when she got up. She planned on 30 minutes.

When she woke up, it was midday.

Mum came down quickly, very apologetic, thinking she was going to be facing two hungry kids, and found us playing in the front room.

Mum: “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to fall asleep. You must be very hungry!”
Me: “No, we made our own breakfast”
Mum (relieved): “What cereal did you have?”
Me: “We made poached egg on toast”

Now this is the bit where I need to do some explanations, partly so you can experience the full horror that Mum felt with that bombshell of a line, but also so I can throw in a few bits of mitigating information as it probably isn’t quite as bad as you might be imagining right now. But I would like to make it clear that I do know now that what sweet innocent 6 year old me did was incredibly dangerous to do unsupervised, especially doing it with a 4 year old; we were very, very lucky.

Firstly, we didn’t have a toaster. What we did have was a grill. For the benefit of those outside the UK, a grill in this instance is a gas flame that heats from above. It was also above the gas stove. Here’s a stock photo of the sort of thing we had in our kitchen:

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The bread was sliced (by hand, with a sharp bread knife) and then put under the grill. Lighting the grill it was a bit temperamental at times, but we did manage it okay. Once one side was cooked, we’d turn it over and do the other side.

Poached eggs was carried out in one of these poaching pans:

Poaching was done on the gas hob. So that’s another gas feature we needed to light. Turn on the gas, press the ignition, and hope it does light properly. Did I say these were a bit temperamental? They were a bit temperamental, and didn’t always light straight away.

Anyway, we’d boil the water in the pan on one of the gas hobs, place the poaching cups in the holder and put a bit of margarine in it. When the marge melted, we’d then crack an egg and put it in the cup, cover and wait for it to be cooked nicely. Then the cup was lifted off the boiling water (we used a tea towel when holding the handle) and put on the now buttered toast. Oh, and we had to remember to turn the gas off properly.

I bet some of you are still thinking about the gas stove, and wondering how we, who would have been barely tall enough to see the top of the stove, were able to not only use the gas hob, but also the gas grill, and do it safely?

Well, sis and I knew what to do. Our parents had us cooking (in a highly supervised manner) in the kitchen for quite a while by this point. We would often help cook things with Mum or Dad stood next to us whilst we stood on the chair in front of the stove. It got us to a height were we could see and reach everything we needed to. I had made poached eggs on toast several times before. I don’t think sis had been doing that yet (she was only 4), but she knew how to butter toast.

At this point, you are probably having visions of a small chair, probably easily tipped, which no doubt has contours that make it comfortable to sit on, but uneven to stand on.

Relax, it wasn’t like that at all. I don’t have a picture of it, but I shall do my best to describe it. First of all, this thing was very solid, and very stable. If it wasn’t for the fact it had a back and arms, you’d think it was an upholstered table. It had a thin fabric-covered foam cushion on it, and this cushion was firmly riveted to the wooden seat, which was flat. The sturdy legs were at each corner of the seat and it had a very low centre of gravity. It was wide enough for sis and I to sit on at the table, so plenty wide enough for the two of us to stand on in front of the stove and the work top for when cutting the bread.

Of course, being unsupervised, were were at risk of all manner of dangers that we might not have been watching out for, like clothing or tea-towel in the flame, or cutting ourselves, or gas not lighting properly then engulfing the two of us in a fireball, or the pan boiling dry and starting a fire, or scalding ourselves when handling the pan of boiling water, or even though the bench was sturdy we could still trip onto the stove, or the gas not turned off properly and a small spark could blow up the house…

…all of which was running through Mum’s mind as she watched the two if us, with our contended full tummies, playing with our toys in the front room.

It was about this point the phone rang, as Dad was doing his usual lunchtime phonecall home. Mum answered, broke down in tears, and told Dad to come home straight away. It wasn’t clear in the morning when Dad went to work that Mum was under the weather, but it was very clear now that she was extremely fatigued and not able to look after us. Dad was home about 20 minutes later, and stayed off work until Mum was better, which took a couple of weeks.

I was talking to Mum about this a few weeks back, and apparently she still gets feelings of dread even now about what could have happened, and that was over 40 years ago!

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This was something that could have gone very badly… and yet didn’t. And this understanding hit your mother at a really vulnerable time – physical illness takes it out of you psychologically. And even so, she managed to respond pretty sensibly, without taking her fears out on you, and asking for help the moment the chance came.

I was cooking eggs at 6 myself, though I was using a simple electric stove, and was frying them rather than doing anything fancy.

People underestimate what kids can learn and do… yes, there’s more risks than for an adult (and in this case, a lot more because you were that young), but it’s easy to forget that risk is not itself the harm – we do have this tendency to catastrophize, especially in our modern risk-averse society.

Especially when it’s your kids, whom you’re bound by society and biology alike to protect at all costs.

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I can’t believe it… my parents still have the chair! Over 40 years later, it’s just as rigid as when sis and I was cooking that day!

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