Childhood Homes: Anna Miles, Gallerist

Anna Miles shares her personal memories of her childhood home

Anna Miles with sister Bridget. Picture / Supplied.

My sisters and I grew up in a long white house on a hill in Wellington. We drove up and down the hall that ran from one end to the other on tricycles, occasionally gouging the walls with our pedals. One of my friends once asked my mother, ‘Why do you have a shed in the middle of your house?’ referring to the room with a coal range that my father used as a darkroom.

I was more concerned about the possums in the apple tree. Sometimes they were caught and my father drove them to the Hutt and let them free on the boulders on the other side of the River. When their gnawing woke me in the night, I would dash across the hall to my sister’s room and go back to sleep under Indian block printed covers.

The house contained many opportunities to contemplate the mysteries of adults. What had our parents done before they had us? I searched the shelves to find books they had won as school prizes. I remember eavesdropping on incomprehensible phrases from under the piano.

“She’s as good as gold.” Lying on the living room floor flicking through one of my mother’s Vogue magazines I pointed out an ad for foundation to my nonplussed father. It promised to “reduce the shine”. My teacher Miss Carr had a shiny face and she was one of the most beautiful women in the world.

At the end of my bed was a small square window that looked out over the back door step allowing me to keep an eye on visitors. The blind over it was a crisp design of navy blue birds and plants lined up symmetrically on cream linen. I like to think I have committed every material in that house to memory, but that blind and the perfect ball-shaped stamens on the dark linen upholstering the armchairs and sofa in the living room are probably responsible for my life-long fascination with pattern.

The high ceilings and long double-hung windows, that in some rooms ran right to the floor, had the capaciousness to accommodate the hive of activity initiated by our mother. She was very interested in the house, and had admitted all the objects in it with care, but what she was really interested in was people — and instructing us how to make things properly. In her bedroom there was a loom and this was where she conducted her long experiment with stripes of varying widths and colours.

When we weren’t being transformed into a small army of helpers ready to pass things (including unpronounceable ‘hors d’oeuvres’) around, we were also absorbed in the household enthusiasm for making streamers, Christmas decorations, needle books, samplers, guys for Guy Fawkes day, Fimo jewels and a countless stream of cards and invitations.

A corner of the kitchen was given over to painting and a retired office typewriter. We liked to mash all the keys together then pick them apart. There was a good supply of old letterhead and envelopes for drawing and an overflowing rubbish bag for our artistic rejects. Specialist equipment was also important. Pinking shears and a supply of felt were kept in a chest in the hall.

A few years ago, a good friend gave me a gift that felt like a trip back into my childhood home, The Mother’s Almanac, a 1975 parenting guide by two Washington DC mums, Marguerite Kelly and Elia Parsons. In its day, this was a revolution (and do not be fooled into buying later revised editions).

The book’s message of independence and making things seemed strikingly familiar. By far the greatest part of the book is given over to introducing your kids to craft. Bricklaying and plastering feature in the “Expressions” chapter. “Beginning at Two, your child can guide the electric sander, oil the squeaks out of hinges, help you revive dirty furniture and, before the year is done, can use his Plumber’s Box.”

When I was 14 we moved closer to town. The new house suited me well but I did not develop the same connection with it. That my first house is inaccessible does not make me sad. It is the one that means the most and now it lives on properly in the imagination.

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