One year on

Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of mum’s death. Unsurprisingly it’s been on my mind the last few days. The other night I went back and read this blog leading up to and out of this event. It felt so fresh and vivid. I remembered all, remembered the strange state I existed in for a few days, the extremes of emotion, the melancholy contemplation. It was a horrible time.

A year on I’m past the casual absence of mum. I no longer pick up the phone to call her, or think ‘I must tell mum that’. Occasionally things crop up and I wish I could pose a question to her. There are pangs of regret sometimes that I didn’t ask some questions I’ll never have answers to. I know she’s dead and gone though, I have absorbed that truth into my daily routine. I still miss her though when I think of her.

In the last few weeks there have been a couple of things that brought home to me the difference in a world where she no longer exists. It was my birthday early in the month and for mum this was always an excuse to put on a show. If we did not go out for lunch or dinner then she would cook something at home for us. Gifts were presented with great fanfare, and I think mum was always more excited by it than I was. It was infectious nonetheless. There was none of that this year.

I had a couple of drinks with friends spread over the weekend. I had a birthday lunch with my sister and her kids the following weekend. That was pretty well it. Now I’m not one for extravagant displays on my birthday. I guess I’m more inclined to the cool end of things. I sort of missed it though because it brought home to me the great loss mum has been. It was so low-key that it was not until a week later that I had only received my present this year – a bottle of beer Cheeseboy brought with him to share with me on the occasion. Another gift I later bought on behalf of my sister. That was it. A far cry.

Then I had my operation. As it has turned out it has been much more intrusive than I ever expected. Up to a couple of days ago I was really struggling (the miracle of anti-inflammatories – Prednisolone – has worked wonders since). Now I had the Cheeses offer to help me out through this, but the only real problem I had was getting my trousers on. The offer was much appreciated all the same. I like to be self-sufficient, and will always try to get by before requesting help. Still, I couldn’t help but think of mum. She’d have been all over this. She wouldn’t have nursed me – that isn’t her style – but she’d have been in constant contact, she’d have come by bearing pastries or something, she would be just ‘there’, as good mums are.

We don’t always see that until we miss it. So, a year on, it’s probably worth repeating, thanks mum, for everything, and I love you.

Australian Gothic

By now I’ve got most of my mum’s remaining things in order. The front room is full of things I’m trying to encourage people to take home with them. There’s a bunch of prints, a couple of rugs, some of mum’s plentiful decorator items, a couple of good single bed doonas, some kitchen stuff, and so on. The rest of the houI remember when we were is near empty, but for the things that are either scheduled to be collected, or thrown out altogether, once I leave. There are boxes too, largely of my things, and piles of like stuff which will end up with me as well, if for no other reason than I can’t bear to throw them out.

One of those piles is a bunch of large, framed family photos taken over the last 30 years. They’re stacked against each other on the side wall of the garage. One of the foremost pictures is of my mum, my sister, and me, taken many moons ago (above). As I go to and fro my eyes catch it every time, and every time there’s a subtle shift of memory. I remember the day the photo was taken, long ago as it was, it was one of a series of similar pictures, formally posed, developed in fashionable black and white, and taken at what was then the family home in Lower Plenty.

Passing it day after day there came the time I couldn’t let it go. I picked it up before, and took a photo of the long ago photo. For the last 10-15 years it’s been in storage somewhere, I haven’t seen it. As you can see, it’s a little discoloured with age. It seems remarkable to me.

There is mum, younger there I think than I am now. She looks retro, very much in the style of the late 70’s, but also quite happy. Though it seems a solemn photo in many ways, she is familiar to me there, familiar at least to an earlier memory of her that I hold.

For the last few weeks I’ve gone through thousands of family photo’s, ranging back across the years to when my mum was just a baby. My last memories of mum are of her ill, and before that, the sprightly, but aging grandmother.

Day to day you forget that your mother – more than anyone else –  had a life outside of your knowledge. There was a time when you didn’t exist, and when, probably, she went about her life then not dissimilar to how you do now. Then of course there are the things you do remember, like this photo – but for the most part even those memories have been long filed away.

Now, I find, the filing cabinets have been flung open. Mum does not exist on earth anymore – there is no version of her here to refer to, but what lives in our memories. And so your memory is free to roam, no longer tethered to practical reality. You begin to remember mum, and to see her, in the different iterations of herself through the years. What happened before, most recently, becomes subsumed in all the years of living – and the memories associated with that – before. You remember, that while mum might have died at 71, there were about 69 years before that she was healthy, largely happy, and a vibrant part of our life.

That’s how it seems to me right now, though doubtless all the photos I’ve looked at these last weeks make it so much fresher for me. It’s good to know regardless, and good to remember.

As for me – yes, that is the young H. Can you associate that cute face with the man who writes in these pages? I find it hard sometimes, but I guess he must be in me too, somewhere.


In your eye

I’m back in the house, much of the meat plucked from the bone by the vultures that came before me. It’s quite a bleak outlook. The place is, I guess, about half empty now – much, though not all, of the furniture remains, but little else. Most of the prints are gone from the walls, the multitude of knick-knacks and decorator items mum had have been removed, all the lamps are missing, a coffee table, even some towels, mugs, and so on. What remains paints a pretty sorry tale. It hits home to you again, mum’s gone, and this, her home, will soon be no more.

I fired in my protest this morning, complaining of the way things have been handled, how we, my sister and I, have been disadvantaged, if not downright discriminated against. It’s too little avail except to my spleen, but that’s reason enough. What’s gone now won’t be seen again, not the lamp that mum promised me, or the little $20 brass Buddha I might have added to my collection, nor the Chinese banner I bought in Hong Kong years ago and gave to her one mother’s day.

I’ve been going through what’s left, their seconds if you like. There are a bunch of photo’s I’m trying to separate into meaningful piles. And a million recipe books and magazines. These evoke a strong sense of nostalgia. Many have been in use for nearly 40 years. They are scuffed, stained by meals long ago consumed in happier times. To sort through them is a poignant exercise. Most will end up in the rubbish now, but some I will take with me, less for the recipes inside them than for the memories they glow with. I guess I am sentimental after all.

Of the rest of the stuff remaining I will take little, if any. A friend is visiting to take a keepsake or two, and my sister threatens to load up on the pots outside. We are supposed to seek ‘permission’ to take anything, her children, but bugger that, or, as mum would say, in your eye.

Memory of flavours

Seems like busy times in the H household right now. Pleasantly busy. We’ve sat here most of the day attending to different bits and pieces of business: answering emails, making calls, preparing quotes, paying bills, doing some reading for the job, and so on. In typically Melbourne fashion the weather outside went from bright sunshine to overcast with driving hail, then sunshine again. Once more the rain came, and now, just about G&T time, the sun is out again bright in a blue sky.

For the moment music plays in the background, an eclectic mix, Sufjan Stevens followed by Nina Simone, and somewhere in there Glenn Gould too. There seems things to do, at least things to think about. I look about me. Rigby catches my eye, wags his tail. “Later mate,” I murmur to him. I look beyond him to the house, the house that will soon be somebody else’s, and all the stuff in it, mum’s stuff, the stuff some of which will be handed out to various beneficiiaries, and the rest to be disposed of one way or another. That’ll be my job.

It will be melancholy, but for now I don’t feel it. It’s a job to be done, a job my mind is already ticking over to organise. I see beyond it, to another time, my time, somewhere else.

Still, a little while ago there was poignant pang. Mum has left her recipe books to my (now) evil step-sister. That’s a matter of little concern, but for the recipes that mum had collected over the years and had either pasted or hand copied into a notebook. Growing up I remember mum having two notebooks, the ‘wallpaper books’ we called them because they were clad in a wash and wipe, very garish, wallpaper.

In those books was the food that we had again and again from the time I was a boy until I was an adult. I sat at the kitchen bench in Lower Plenty eating those recipes, and later, in Eltham and Montmorency, in Templestowe, Toorak and Canterbury. Food is a such a resonant element in life, not just for what it provides but what it stirs up. We eat, we share, with family and friends, an experience that is as much about fellowship and community as it is about sustenance. It’s hard then to look upon recipes like this without memories being evoked.

The wallpaper books have long since fallen apart, and the pages from it pasted and taped into newer versions of those books. In the kitchen earlier I looked up at the shelf of recipe books. I’ll have to pack them up for the step-sister I thought. Then I thought, I can’t lose those recipes. From the shelf I picked out the thick notebook mum had copied the recipes into. I browsed through it, recalling recipes from long ago, reminded of mum by her elegant script, so familiar, and occasionally of her personality by the notes she wrote in the margins – ‘this is delicious’ or ‘yum, yum.’ There were recipes from my aunt – it was she who gave mum the wallpaper books – including the famous monkey gland steak recipe. She too is dead.

I found as I read so many favourite recipes that I could hardly think back without getting sentimental – or feeling hungry. I ripped a sheet of paper from a nearby newspaper, and as I went through the book placed a strip in each page there was a recipe I wanted. I would lose mum’s words, her writing, the memories that went directly with that, but at least I could copy out these favourite recipes for posterity – mum’s potato and leek soup say, many bowls of which I enjoyed on cold winter days over many years; or steak and pineapple, such a retro seeming dish now, but delicious; and her vanilla slices, famous for miles about with their passionfruit icing; and so on.

Funny, a Simon and Garfunkel song came on as I looked through the recipes, ‘preserve your memories’ they sang, ‘they’re all that’s left you’.