In the Kitchen with my Mother
I have watched my mother bake scones, apple pies, sausage rolls and mince pies for Christmas hundreds of times. No, that is ridiculous. I am 62 years old. I have watched my mother do these things thousands of times. And I realize today, I do not know how to do these things myself.
So I watch, absolutely focused, engrossed in her movements. She wears a faded apron, one of dozens she has made, it is of course ironed, and she has removed her watch. Her hands are deft and move swiftly, these are such simple acts for her; she measures by feel and plunges her hand into plastic containers salvaged from elsewhere, each with a texta hand written label sticky-taped to its side marked ‘flour’ or ‘fruit’ or ‘bakeing powder’ (sic.) The kitchen is warmed by the heat of the oven as it awaits today’s meal of fruit scones, and our conversation flows uninterrupted as the bench is floured, the trays are greased, the ingredients are sifted, and I anticipate, as I have done so many times before, the comforting smell of her, her baking.
My Dad is reading the Sunday papers in the sitting room and through the open door, I hear the music I have listened to all my life, although now it is not Bing Crosby or Vera Lyn, it is Rod Stewart singing from The Great American Songbook. My mother sings softly and swings her hips. Rod is singing “Time after Time”, and my father enters, making an exaggerated bow, ever the English gentleman, and in such a familiar scene, he extends his hands to her. She wipes her hands on her apron and she folds into his arms in just the right places, still such a handsome couple. I glimpse the youths they once were as they dance out one door and in the other, gracefully, as it is after seventy years of practice. The last notes fade and he releases her with a smacking kiss and asks for tea, charming and characteristically unaware of how much she is already doing. This is the way is always is in the kitchen. Tea will arrive shortly, just the way he likes it, as it has always done. I think again, with a flip of my heart, of how devoted they are, how much living and loving they have shared, of how deeply they love each other.
The phone rings, she removes her hands from the bowl yet again and now there are white fingerprints on the kettle and the handset; her face is concerned, it shines with exertion, yet she talks animatedly. There is no doubt she is comforting yet another friend.
How come I never before noticed how clever she is? How compassionate? How seamlessly and patiently she does so many things at once? How she feels her way around the kitchen - around life, around people, around us, around me? How instinctively she knows so much and gives so much?
I watch my mother with new eyes, and I wait as she replaces the receiver, and returns to the bowl on the bench. I know she brought that bowl with her after the war, on a long journey in a converted troopship carrier from the other side of the world, seeking sunshine and peace, desperate to escape the bombsites and hunger of war torn England. She walked the decks with her baby daughter to escape seasickness, every day scanning the horizon for their new home and for my father, who had gone ahead, ‘to forge us a new life’. That bowl is precious. She crumbles its contents as she talks, lifting air into its heart just the way she taught me. But now I see things differently, I see her differently, I see her hands are reverent, they are caressing what is in that big old bowl. I see that in the act of baking, she has taught me an act of love.
She is, I think, a Master, excellent at what she does. And I ask myself, have I ever told her that?
I marvel as she places the small fat fruit studded rounds on the tray, punched out with a water glass, each one perfect and evenly spaced. She tenderly brushes their tops with milk, the way she strokes my hair, the dog’s ears, my father’s hands. Plump and painted, they are finally ready, the oven is opened, a short blast of heat escapes, and the trays are fed into its belly.
My mouth is watering, but my heart is heavy, and I wait.
Soon the kitchen is saturated in the smell of my mother, her love, her baking. These scones, huge mounds of them, will delight her family and her friends, and are symbolic I think, of the hoards of people she loves and indicates the size of her heart. To bake is to love, and so she bakes, and I have watched her all of my life.
But today is special. For today I have placed in the oven the last of my mother’s scones. They have been in my freezer since she died two and a half years ago, six months after my Dad, her dashing dancing partner, died. I don’t know how they will taste after all this time and I so regret I never asked her for her recipe – indeed, I don’t know if there ever was one, it is yet another of the things I took for granted. Today I am mindful of the lessons she taught me, some of which I am still learning, and feel profoundly grateful for the gift of her.
Today I see my Mother. I smell her, I feel her, I understand her, I yearn to be like her, I long for her.
And as always, and especially in the kitchen, I am filled with her love.