Topic: A Special Place

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In Waterhouse Street there is a special house. Or rather, there are three houses that are now private homes, but which once formed a complex known as the Maternity Annex (annex to Whakatane hospital that is) but which was more commonly referred to by locals, as “The Home.”

It was a place well known to most of the lady residents in the early days of Kawerau - mainly because it was a place where babies were born, but also because it was a place where many confidences were shared and friendships were begun.

Of the three buildings, the one nearest to the Waterhouse Street bridge was the ward, the one nearest River Road was the nurses home and the one in the middle was the delivery suite. It consisted of a preparation room, a bathroom, a small ward for women to rest before being moved to the main ward, and the main room, which was of course, the theatre. Many young Kawerau residents, now in their forties and fifties, came into the world there, including my own three.

About twenty years later, after a new maternity home had been built, this house became a teacher's hostel. I am not sure if all three houses were a hostel, but certainly the central one was. My daughter, Susan, a teacher herself by then, was serving her probationary year at Kawerau North school. Visiting a training college friend who lived in the hostel, she reported that it felt strange to be sitting in the room in which she knew she had been born.

But that was a long way down the track. Her actual birth, and my first visit to the home, came in March 1958. Kawerau annexe was then under the care of a lady known as Sister Thompson. She was a strong disciplinarian. and all her patients, as well as her staff, were in awe of her. I had heard many tales before I went in, and was almost as scared of meeting her as I was of the actual birth. It was therefore a surprise, and something of a relief, to discover on my admission that Sister Thompson was away on holiday and that her position was being taken by a relieving Sister.

She was an older lady and kindly in her ways. Patiently she explained to me, a first timer, what I could expect to happen. There were no pre-natal classes then and the only knowledge I had of the birth process was what I had gleaned from women's magazines.

About eight o'clock in the morning I heard a knock on the door and  realised that my husband had come to check on my progress. “Baby is nearly here” the sister told him. But she did not invite him to stay. Our daughter was born about half an hour later but he did not see her until he returned at lunchtime.

By then I had joined two or three other ladies in the main ward. On entering the room I was pleased to hear that the radio was switched on and hoped I would be in time to listen to my favourite radio serial. In the days before television radio “soaps” were popular with us stay at home ladies and the one I liked best had reached a very dramatic point in the story. To my disappointment the nurse switched it off straight away. “You must get some sleep,” she said.

Now I know I had been awake most of the night working very hard “labouring” in fact, but I was far too hyped up to sleep. I think if the radio had been left on I might have relaxed and dozed off. But as it was I didn't get to sleep until much later in the day.

I had plenty of time to rest over the next couple of weeks as the rule was that for a first time confinement, the mother and baby stayed in the home for fourteen days. The routine was very strict. At four a.m. we were woken and presented with a cup of tea in one hand and a baby to feed in the other. Then we were allowed to doze off again until breakfast was served at seven thirty. Babies were brought out again at eight o'clock, at midday, at four p.m. and then again at eight. After that they remained in the nursery until four o'clock the next morning. Unfortunately, being very young infants they had not yet learned the importance of rules - one of which was that they must wait a long time between their eight p.m. and four a.m. feeds. All they knew was that they were hungry and the best way to get food was to yell !

The nursery was at the end of the corridor in our wing, as far away from the ward as was possible, but near enough for us to hear their cries. We soon learned to recognise our own baby's cry, and it was agonising to listen to in the dead of night. There was nobody on duty in our block during these hours so some of the bolder and more experienced mothers occasionally crept down the hall, picked their babies up and gave them a quick feed. Even if I had been brave enough to do that it would not have been of much help, as for very personal reasons, I was not able to feed my baby myself. Without a bottle in hand I could not have done much to ease her distress.

Visiting times helped to break up the day. In the afternoons, friends usually dropped in, and family if they lived nearby. Husbands were more likely to visit in the evening at the end of their working day. I longed for the day when I could take my baby home but when I did I was in for a bit of a shock.

I had no idea that one little baby could make so much work. There were no disposable nappies then so a dozen or so of the white cotton variety had to be washed each morning and hung on the line to dry. Milk formula had to be mixed and boiled, and bottles and teats sterilised in preparation for the four hourly feeds.

The Plunket nurse insisted that I stick rigidly to routine, and being a new and rather nervous mother, I did my best to comply. But it all took time and for the first few weeks especially, I was very tired indeed. Yet in spite of my inexperience my baby thrived, and as she did, my confidence grew. Convinced from the start that she was the most beautiful and intelligent child ever born, I began to think it would be nice to have another in the not too distant future.

Two years passed before that event took place. It was May 1960 and Princess Margaret had just married Antony Armstrong Jones when my son David decided to make his appearance. He did so in quite a hurry and I only just made it to the home in time. He was delivered by a young nursing sister, because, surprise, surprise - Sister Thompson was away on holiday again and her job was being filled by two relievers.

This time I made the most of my stay, knowing all too well the work that awaited me when I went home. But towards the end of my time there I was alone in the ward and it did get a bit lonely. So I was delighted when, one afternoon, one of the sisters invited me to join her and the rest of the staff for a cup of tea and some social time in their sitting room. It was a small gesture but one that was greatly appreciated.

My third visit to the home came in October 1963 when my second son was born. This time I discovered Sister Thompson was not away on holiday and I soon came under her tender care. I had been rather scared of meeting her, but actually I rather liked her. She was firm it is true, but she was very efficient too, and that quality inspired confidence. Andrew was born at eleven o'clock that night. It was too late for me to be put in the main ward, so I spent the night in a little room in the theatre block. In the morning when the curtains were drawn I both saw and smelled a beautiful display of jasmine on a nearby trellis. Sister Thompson, it seemed was also an expert gardener. Even now, I never see or smell jasmine without being reminded of Andrew's birth.

Everything went really well this time and I was only in the home for six days. One memory stands out. I was feeding Andrew one afternoon when I heard a car toot. Looking out of the window, I saw my husband and the children on their way to take some rubbish to the town dump which was then situated just the other side of the Waterhouse Street bridge.

I held up baby so that they could see him and the cries of “She's got the bubba” were loud enough for me to hear from the other side of the road. The proud dad brought the children up to the window to see him more closely. And that is how Susan and David met their little brother. That bubba  is just coming up to his 50th birthday and the others are 55 and 53 respectively. I don't know where the young mums go to have their babies now but I am glad I had mine in the Waterhouse Street maternity annexe. It became a sort of home from home - a very special place indeed!

Anne Blakely (formerly Anne Read.) - story given 25 September 2013 to Sir James Fletcher Kawerau Museum

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