Sunday, April 29, 2012

Fleabane for dogs and other edible delights

Last Saturday morning my husband went with a group of people to forage.  They each paid twenty dollars to a man who knows about these things and went off in search of edible plants, the sort that grow out in the open and are commonly thought of as weeds.  

Some folk lasted the two hours plus of searching while one or two fell away during the course of the morning, though not my husband.  Never my husband.  He is a man who loves the adventure of finding useful things, especially things we can eat.  I say this with the utmost admiration.

When my husband came home with his list of names for the edible plants he had found, along with a few samples for tasting, his joy was infectious.  For me the names themselves evoked a writer’s thrill.  

How can I use such names in my writing?  Here I can only offer a list.  Among other things, my husband found wild lettuce – straightforward enough; amaranth – four samples; edible blackberry; nightshade; stinging nettle; mallow; ten varieties of wild Brassica; river mint; and my favourite of all, fat hen.

My husband's hat filled with other edible delights he found locally at Gardiner's Creek.

On the other side of his handwritten list, which he had tallied up on the back of the morning program, my husband included clover; opium lettuce; prickly lettuce, wild cabbage; plantain and milk thistle.  He added something called cleevers, shepherd’s purse, sticky weed and purslane.  He also listed  flea bane for dogs.  If only he had brought some of that home for our dog.  And finally he included dock.

Who would have thought all that food is freely available down by the Merri creek or in any other vacant allotment where land has been left to go to seed.  

When land is left unattended for long periods, my husband tells me, the plants that spring up tend to be plants from the past - heritage plants - those whose seeds might lie for decades dormant in the soil only to reappear when conditions might be tough for other plants, but ideal for these hardy specimens.

It puts me in mind of writing.  Next Sunday I'm off to a non-fiction writing class under the guidance of Leslie Cannold.  I need to do something in the direction of turning my thesis into a book and I figure a new voice, some new input, might well get me started.  

It’s not true that I have not started.  I have written most of it, but maybe I’m in need of some of these old hardy plants that come out in times of want.  The manicured stuff seems stale now, like an over attended garden filled with exotics and pruned trees.  

I prefer natives and I prefer a degree of disorder, a country garden where you can never be sure what you might find around the next corner. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

'No one is as old as me'

The rose bush outside my window is top heavy with flowers. Full petalled cups that drop down as if they are too heavy for each stem to support.

 My head feels the same this morning, top heavy and ready to topple. Too full of thoughts to be able to tease them apart. Ours is a winter sky today and winter skies remind me of Europe, that first time we visited when I was still a young woman, though then I thought myself quite the sophisticate.

 In 1980 when my aunt met me at Schipol airport in Amsterdam she told me later she had been fearful of who and what she might find. ‘But you were just a girl,’ she said, ‘just a young girl.’ And no longer did she feel intimidated. Now, thirty five years later, my aunt is dead.
My aunt in Holland, the year I was born in Australia, when she herself was a young 'girl'.

 My aunt who goes by my two middle names, Margaretha Maria, was a twin born half the weight of her twin brother. So sickly was she during her early life that her parents sent her off to live in Munster, where she was allegedly spoiled by her childless aunt and uncle, away from the rigours of life with her parents and six other siblings.

 This was a commonplace event in those days perhaps but one I suspect that had a profound effect on my aunt. Sent away for her physical health with little regard for her emotional state. She felt abandoned.

 My aunt was so unlike her sister, my supremely optimistic mother, who is six years older and very much the opposite. At 92 years of age my mother wants to live forever.

 My mother believes the world is full of goodness and help is always there when she needs it. Before my father died he told her that although he had not provided well for her after his death, he was sure she would find someone else to take care of her. Not that he took much care of her other than to provide her with many children.

 My aunt on the other hand, did not trust that the world would provide. And on her death notice which recently arrived here in the mail, her children had included these words: Ik voel me stokoud. Niemand is zo oud als ik. I feel I am so old. No one is as old as me.

 My mother protests. How could my aunt say such a thing? She was not sick. Old, yes, maybe, but not sick.

 Try as I might to explain to my mother that her younger sister had lost the will to live, my mother remains confused, even after she reads Tonny Van Tiggelen’s eulogy. Tonny, who had been my aunt’s friend for nearly eighty years wrote the eulogy in the form of a letter to her dead friend.
 ‘You would get angry when I told you to eat, otherwise you would die. But you were not interested in living any more.’

 After my aunt’s husband had died in 1994, Tonny said, her friend lost her way. My aunt’s husband as he was dying had arranged for her to live in a new house in Castricum, custom built to suit her needs but for my aunt:
 ‘The house was too big. There was too much sun. You had to walk the stairs and look after the flowers in the garden and you did not like that at all. The next house was smaller but it was too cold with not enough sun. The view was good, but you did not like it any more.’

 Slowly my aunt had stopped eating, Tonny said, and she stopped sharing a glass of wine with her friend. She stopped going out to eat.

 Tonny remembered their friendship. How they walked as flower girls together, on religious occasions, dressed in white with veils; how they rode on their bikes during the war to a village, Boverkaspel, to get food, but had then to flee because someone shot dead a National Socialist in front of them. Tonny remembered how one of my aunt’s mothers friends had given them brown beans and oliebollen (dough balls) to eat and all the way home they had to stop by the side of the road to relieve themselves. The food had been so rich.

 Tonny remembered the two years they had worked together in a crèche, again during the war, and how they licked the pots and pans clean.

 She remembered the red cabbage feast at my mother’s place with candlelight and in evening dress...and how my aunt had so often said that when she died she would she see what there was to see.

My mother is certain of what she will see after she dies and yet she is reluctant to go off to see it. My aunt on the other hand, who kept an open mind about what she would find, has gone off in search of it.

I miss her already.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A short history of eggs

A full carton of eggs sits alongside the stove.

Every Sunday my mother passes them around, one egg for each child, one for her and two for my father.

She cooks his first in the fry pan alongside a butter soaked slice of bread. Then the brothers each take it in turn to cook theirs. My older sister prefers to boil her egg, hard boiled, the egg yolk as yellow as the sun.

My mother scrambles the little ones' eggs into a buttery spread at the bottom of a sauce pan.

I take my egg to the corner of the kitchen away from the others and crack it gently on the side of a tea cup. My older sister has taught me how to ease apart the shell with my thumb and finger, so that the inner skin holds like a hinge when I pull the shell back. I can then tip the yolk from one half of the egg shell to the other, letting the white slide into my tea cup.

All the while I keep a close eye on the yolk, not only for blemishes, those red blood blisters that might signify a fertilized egg gone wrong – one I will not eat – but also for ruptures. I must preserve the skin to keep the yolk and white from mixing. The yolk glistens and slips from one side of the shell to the other.

When all the white has slid away into the cup, I offer the yolk to one of my brothers to cook alongside his own. Sometimes the brothers fight over it.

Then I take a fork and a spoonful of sugar – two spoons depending on the size of the egg and amount of white I have collected – and begin to whisk.

It is a tricky business. I must tilt the cup to one side to get maximum egg white under the whisk without spilling any.

I do this for an hour or two. I do this till the kitchen is empty of breakfast eaters. I do this till well past the time when the eight o’clock, the nine o’clock, the ten o’clock Mass are over, by which time it is too late to eat.

I must fast for three hours before Mass and communion, otherwise I will be in sin.

Today, my youngest daughter tells me she is in trouble because of my eggs.
‘It’s your old eggs,’ she says. They’ve caused my allergies. Your old eggs make me the sickly one in the family.’

It is a joke perhaps, but if I am to take it seriously what is she saying? That I should have conceived her earlier, just as I should have begun to whisk my Sunday morning egg at six o’clock in the morning in order to eat it in time for the last Mass at eleven.

I did not plan to have this daughter so late in my life. At the time I called her an afterthought, almost by way of apology, but the Sunday egg became a tradition for me, however late I came to eat it.

Put off the best till last, my mother said. Always save the good stuff. Do all the hard and horrible jobs first and then you will have the greater pleasure of anticipation.

All those years ago when I came home hungry from Mass and went to collect my egg white from the fridge, it still sat in its cup like a fluffy white cloud, but the cloud no longer stuck to the sides. The cloud had come away and slid around the inside of the cup afloat on a trickle of liquid that had leaked its way out, like a rain puddle.

I think my mother is wrong. I think my daughter may be right. There is a point in taking in the best things first. If you wait too long they might spoil.

When I think of the warmth of a freshly laid egg in the cradle of my hand, the warmth of the egg that has just slipped out from its hen mother’s body onto the straw of the hen house, only to land in the cold outside air, I remember my daughter’s birth.

How she hung there upside down in the doctor’s hands, after a quick labour that had surprised us all. Her body slimy and purplish blue. In those first few moments, her first in the world, I wondered through the fog and haze of a painful labour, will she ever breathe?

And then came the cry, the loud scratching sound that is a newborn’s cry, and I could let myself think the unthinkable.

If she had left the best till last, if she had held off that first breath, then she would not be here today to complain about her mother’s old eggs.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Silent through grief

Last night my husband and I shared a meal in a Japanese restaurant. We often take off at the end of the week for a meal prepared by someone else in a local ‘cheap and cheerful’ place and this night we both had a yen for something light and tasty.

The point in writing about this particular outing is not so much for the food or the ambience as the woman on the table behind us, whose voice was so loud she could have been sitting in the middle of our table.

Our own conversation had stalled. It was hard to engage above this woman’s voice, above her ‘conversation’. To my mind a dull conversation and even as I type the words ‘to my mind’, I’m brought back to the thought I had last night that there is one expression I tend to use within the blogosphere that I now must abandon.

This woman said it over and over and it began to grate.

‘To me…’ she said repeatedly as she prepared to launch into a discussion on the best flour to use for her cakes, the best toilet cleaner for her toilet, or the best church to visit over Easter.

She seemed to have an eclectic array of religions.

At first I thought she must have been a devout Catholic but then she talked of attending services at St Marks, the local Anglican establishment and at another time of enjoying a visit to the Presbyterian’s Uniting Church.

Good for her that she should be so expansive in her religious tastes but there was something about her taste in religions and in foods generally and in conversation that has led me to be writing about her today that irks me.

I have lost all patience with small talk. The glue that cements strangers or near strangers, the stuff we need to fill all those gaps when we do not know what else to say. I used to pride myself on my ability to make small talk but not these days.

These days I want any talk in which I engage to be meaningful, though not necessarily heavy. I want it to be meaningful to be worthwhile as if I am fearful of wasting words.

The woman of the loud voice at the table behind us sat among close friends, I imagined, and yet the whole time she indulged in what I can only describe as small talk.

It was so awful and so constant, so loud and dominant as to be fascinating.
‘Are you for real?’ I wanted to say to her.
‘Can you hear yourself? Are you listening to the words that come out of your mouth or are you on autopilot tuned to talk non stop?’

The woman who sat opposite spoke softly. Occasionally she offered an affirmation or an extension of her companion’s thoughts but no sooner were the words out than the woman of the loud voice took over again.

The two men, also seated at the table, both husband’s I presumed also spoke to one another in softer tones. But every so often the four came together in conversation and one of the men said things like ‘my wife likes to…’.

I could never quite catch the tail end of what his wife liked to do but I figured he was referring to the woman of the loud voice simply by the way her arms moved up and down when he spoke, as if she were momentarily silenced.

‘Do I speak as loudly as that?’ I asked my husband.
‘No,’ he said, ‘not so a whole restaurant could hear you.’
That’s a relief.
‘Do I dominate like that?
‘No,’ he said. ‘You usually let people have a turn.’
Again a relief.

Why then did I see this woman as being so much like me, so much like the me that I dislike, loud and overbearing.

She reminded me of one or two of my friends whose lives for various reasons have taken a turn of late. One whose family of four have all left home and she’s alone most days now until her husband arrives after work and the other who has recently retired.

Both seem to need to talk incessantly about things that may be relevant to them but have no bearing on anything we share. They seem to have lost the ability to include their listener and so their conversations become a series of soliloquies punctuated by a nod or two from the listener.

I find I do not want to see as much of them as I might once have done. I find I do not want to talk to them at all. I feel guilty for my lack of sensitivity to these two lonely friends and think of my mother who is grieving the loss of her sister who died before Easter in Holland and was buried on Good Friday.

My mother's family circa 1932. She and her younger sister are the only girls.

My mother who loves to talk has grown silent through grief. She avoids the dining room now and prefers to eat alone, not because she is unwell, she tells me, but because she cannot get her sister out of her mind.

Some of us run from our sorrows with words, others grow silent.

Friday, April 06, 2012

A woman of her time

Today is one of those Good Fridays that defy expectations. Today is sunny and warm. So far at least, but it is still early morning.

Later in the day the clouds might roll over and cover the sky, as was my expectation as a child on Good Friday, led there by my mother’s conviction that on this day at three o’clock in the afternoon at the same time every year when Christ was supposed to have died, our skies would be blotted out.

As an adult, Good Friday has long been a favourite day for me, a day on which - at least for the non-religious - nothing happens. The shops are closed. The restaurants are closed. The streets are empty. There is no requirement to perform in the game of life, beyond home and yet for my mother it is one of the greatest most cataclysmic days of the year, because she is a believer.

Even as a child when I too believed, I let it cross my mind from time to time that the skies across the world could not all be uniformly overcast at three in the afternoon. My limited understanding of the weather told me so.

Was it the centrality of my child’s eye view and of my mother's that wherever we were, wherever we happened to be each Good Friday afternoon, we believed we were at the centre of things, right up close to where the crucifixion took place, and we too shared the same skies.

I may have posted this image before. It features my bedroom in the mid sixties. Notwithstanding the obvious clutter, I include it again, to emphasize the iconography on the mantelpiece. On Palm Sunday the Sunday before Easter we liked to put a sprig of cypress - we could not get a hold of Palm fronds here - behind the body of Christ on the crucifix. The smell is with me still.

I’m wary of writing about religion. I worry about offending people’s sensibilities. People can become sensitive when it comes to religious belief. When it comes to beliefs of any sort. We want to believe something. It gives us the illusion of certainty and in this terribly uncertain world we do not want our beliefs challenged.

I remember when I was twenty years old in the early seventies and I first came across the notion of feminism and of women studies. It was one of those new age subjects taught at the University of Melbourne presumably to keep in touch with the times, but offered only as an elective in my social work course. It was not a compulsory subject.

This was the first time it occurred to me that I did not need to iron my then boyfriend’s shirts. That I could leave them for him to iron or let them give up their creases on the washing line. I need not take responsibility for a man, the way I had grown up believing was my lot.

Before then, I measured my love in tangible ways, such as the number of shirts I might iron each weekend for my love.

I bought all the books, Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, and Shulamith Firestone’s, The Dialectic of Sex. To this day I cannot get my mind around that word ‘dialectic’. It’s a great word, with a crisp feel but I cannot grasp its meaning. Perhaps that is why I did not read the book. I feared I would not, could not understand it.

I have my copy still. It is yellowed with age and the print size appals me. I expect I could understand now if I tried, but the books seems past its time for me.

Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch I read from cover to cover. This book I understood. This book shook me from my complacency and even then I remained a dedicated follower of whichever man happened to be in my life at the time, until I had babies and began to question the orthodoxy.

Even so, there are these deeply held attitudes that creep into my mind and dialogue, beliefs even. I know they are still there.

They infiltrate my blog. They shine a bright light on my personality even as I might want to hide them.

I am a woman of her time. A woman caught up in duty and responsibility towards others. A woman who would sometimes like to free herself from certain constraints and yet at the same time cannot. A woman whose roots are so deeply knitted into the deepest layers of soil that it would take a bobcat and hoe to dig her out.

Even death might not shake her from such complacency.