Wednesday, October 27, 2010
It was a rambling, old wooden cottage with a huge established garden filled with rhododendrons over 100 years old, daffodils and jonquils in Spring, bushes of hydrangeas, climbing roses and a row of waratahs surrounding a fishpond filled with waterlilies. It was also our family home.
Today, it is still all those things except it no longer belongs to us.
Nearly a year ago, I drove out of the gates for the last time, the car filled with freshly cut hydrangea flowers, and it felt right it was no longer ours, despite my parents, sister and I thinking it would be a house that would never leave the family.
Bought as a weekender in the Blue Mountains nearly 20 years ago, my parents quickly realised they had stumbled onto something more significant, a house they could make the family home. One that could contain our history while anchoring us in the present. Furniture my parents had bought when they first married, the low coffee table my sister and I used to coast around when learning to walk, the piano I was forced to practice on numerous times a week, our childhood twin beds, family photos going back a couple of generations, my grandmother’s crockery and tea cups... all of it now finally out and displayed under one roof.
The house also witnessed our milestones and rites of passage: my father’s 50th birthday picnic in the garden, my wedding ceremony by the fishpond and reception in the neighbour’s paddock, numerous Christmases and Easters and many lunches farewelling or welcoming us all from overseas at different times.
But perhaps the most exciting milestone of all, was the arrival of the first grandchild. Extra bedrooms were added to enable all three generations to sleep under its roof at once. Highchairs were bought, my old teddies and toys appeared and a bookcase filled with our childhood library stood waiting patiently.
My parents talked about retiring there, my sister talked of having her own wedding there and then my father got sick.
During his illness, the house became a refuge. After chemo rounds and oncologist appointments, my parents would flee to this house; an escape from their unplanned reality. After his funeral, my mother and sister, along with me and my two children also fled here to be alone together. I insisted we plant a tree in his memory and all of us, including my two-year-old daughter, dug the hole. We could never sell this house, we all agreed, it would always be in the family.
Yet, life rarely goes to plan and the house stopped being a refuge. Instead, for all of us at different times to different degrees, it was a reminder of what we had lost. My mother was lonely there; married to a ghost she felt. When we visited, my children’s laughter would fill the rooms and every chair at the kitchen table was occupied but this only haunted me: my children inhabit a world my father doesn’t.
Eventually the decision was made; it was time to let go. It sold quickly and a weight lifted. So there we were – my husband, our three children, my mother and sister – a couple of weeks into the New Year, all of us ready for a new beginning.
The house was kind to us that last weekend. The sun shone, allowing us time for morning coffee and evening glasses of wine on the veranda in between trips to the tip, Vinnie’s and the Salvation Army. During one afternoon, my mother found my sister and I sorting our childhood books into piles for charity, another for the bin and ones for us to take home. She couldn’t watch, feeling we were throwing away pieces of our childhoods. In a sense we were, many of those books and toys while evoking wonderful memories belonged in the past.
‘I feel like I’m at my own wake’, my mother commented as we sorted through the contents of a dresser drawer. Dismantling this house was dismantling her life as a mother and wife. Her house in Sydney was post-husband and children. All remnants of our family life were kept in this house and now it was time to let it all go.
Before leaving the house I walked around the garden one last time chatting to my mother as we cut flowers. I watched my son on the old swing, my daughter leaving birdseed in the bird feeders and my youngest giggling as he crawled through the grass and I didn’t feel sad.
It was time for another family to love this house, another daughter to marry in this garden, another grandchild to squeal with delight on that old swing. We don’t need a house for us all to be together. We just are.
Photos © Justine Joffe
Sunday, October 24, 2010
What’s the chore you least enjoy? For me it would have to be the ironing. It was a rainy, cold Sunday in Sydney today. Perfect weather to get through the stack of ironing that slowly grows in this house week by week. Only I didn’t do it. Instead I just folded the clothes willing the creases to disappear in the wardrobes.
They never do, of course, but it doesn’t stop me from hoping.
So, instead of ironing on this wet day, I cleaned out a desk drawer instead. It was filled with everything from preschool artwork, old airline tickets, brochures I’ve never bothered reading to articles I have cut out of newspapers and magazines over the years.
Reading about ‘domestic drudgery’ is always more interesting than the drudgery itself and it wasn’t long before I came across a fascinating article written by Michele Hanson and published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002.
Titled Dirty Secrets, the article was describing an exhibition held at the Women’s Library in East London during that time. The exhibition was all about doing the laundry during the mid-19th century: ‘Dirty Linen; the history of women and their laundry’.
‘At last, social reformers realised the poor needed help. As part of a push for cleanliness and social order, public baths and wash houses began to be built. It had been decided (largely by middle-class philanthropic women who had the time and energy) that the female poor should be allowed out for a couple of hours to slog away at the laundry. A woman could then bring her washing back home clean and dry, rather than "keep her dwelling-room all day in a state of steam and slop, her children being wet and dirty and her husband driven by sheer necesssity to the beer-shop".
In 1847, the Goulston Square Public Wash House was opened for the poor of London's East End - the building that now houses the Women's Library. It's a strangely gloomy place: in one room you look up a very long way to a skylight, like a prisoner in a pit. But at least I wasn't doing the laundry.
In its day, it provided women with soap, warm water, a wringer, a tub, and a wooden dolly for pounding their washing - luxury compared to the grisly conditions at home - but the household wash could still take hours of backbreaking work. The wash house also provided 94 private baths, but they were mainly used by men. It wasn't respectable for women to go to public baths - anyway they didn't have time to spend on themselves, baths cost money, and men came first. Still, let's not quibble. It was a step in the right direction.
And if it wasn't bad enough doing your own washing, the exhibition also illustrates the plight of laundresses - who had to do everyone else's. They worked in commercial steam laundries, young girls and married women working 14-hour shifts in hot and cramped conditions, who frequently burned themselves on the irons, died of carbon monoxide poisoning or even fell through the rotting floors. For all this, they were part-paid in beer. What a life.’
But it’s encouraging to read that at least the Russian laundresses got their own back; ‘"Laundresses had a reputation for being tough and drunken," says [Gail] Cameron [exhibition curator], and who can blame them? They were perhaps at their toughest in Russia, where, disgusted by their working conditions, and having to wash the aristocracy's knickers to boot, they started the February 1917 revolution.’
Yes, reading about doing the laundry is definitely more interesting and educational than pulling out my dusty ironing board.
To read the article in full, click here.
For more information about The Women’s Library, click here.
Images © Culture 24
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
I’m finally reading Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader. I know, I know, where was I 10 years ago?! Anyway, as we’re on a bit of a book theme this week I thought it was a good opportunity to discuss a paragraph that really struck me (obviously there were lots of paragraphs in this book that struck me but this one pays particular reference to the idea of ‘home’ and growing up).
‘I felt as if we were sitting all together for the last time around the round table under the five-armed, five-candled brass chandelier, as if we were eating our last meal off the old plates with the green vine-leaf border, as if we would never talk to each other as a family again. I felt as if I were saying goodbye. I was still there and already gone. I was homesick for my mother and father and my brother and sisters, and I longed to be with the woman.
... I was happy. And at the same time I felt I’d just said my final goodbyes.’
For me, the line ‘I was still there and already gone’ is so eloquent and poignant; the bittersweetness of changing relationships, growing up, moving on (or out). And while the character isn’t moving anywhere literally, he is beginning to grow beyond his childhood.
My most recent memory of a similar feeling was when my first two children were four and two-years-old. I went to visit one of my oldest friends in New York for 10 days. All on my own! It was fabulous; a time spent with friends who are like family and a very special godson.
Yet the lead-up was awful. I knew rationally the children would be fine; they had their father, my mother and my mother-in-law. But I didn’t want to leave them behind.
The week before I left felt like a week of goodbyes. I was most definitely ‘still there and already gone’. I was missing the children while we were still altogether. I was homesick for people who were in the same house as me. But mentally I was already on the other side of the world without them.
There are so many circumstances in our lives when we can be physically present but mentally absent; or why we may miss the very person we are holding hands with.
I’d love to hear about more.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Have you ever read a novel so absorbing that its fictional world feels more ‘real’ to you than your real world? And when you are forced to put that book down only because real life demands it, do you feel a desperate need to get back to that other world, your ‘new’ home and your ‘new’ fictional friends?
I have always felt this is the greatest, addictive pleasure of reading, which recently made me wonder how it must feel for the writers of such books. According to author Kim Wilkins; ‘It is a GAZILLION times better. It's like living another life. Reading a book only gives a fraction of the pleasure. Oh, the things I've seen and done!’
A few months ago I interviewed Kim for a fiction special in That’s Life magazine. As we chatted about her most recently published novel Wildflower Hill (which is published under her other name Kimberly Freeman) much of our conversation focussed on the creative process and her love of writing. She is always writing and says that she ‘goes weird’ if she stops. ‘My husband will say to me “Do you need to go and write?”
Wildflower Hill is her 21st novel, ‘a career high’. As Kim is never not working on a book I thought she would be the perfect author to describe writing as another ‘home’.
So, what is it like for Kim when she begins writing? ‘I love it when the two or three ideas I've had right at the beginning start to come together and make sense together. It's a feeling of absolute magic, as new ideas proliferate rapidly, turning up like lucky pennies all over the place. The most fun of writing is the thinking-up ideas and scribbling them in my notebook, before I've written a word of prose. Exploring possibilities is delightful.’
As she writes, Kim says; ‘I don't feel anything. I'm living and breathing the story and just trying to get it down as quickly as possible. I'm often not aware that I'm working at all until I stop. Then I come back to reality with a bit of a thud.’
Coming back to reality also happens when the book is finished, ‘It's a sense of loss and grief, but by then I'm usually thinking about the next book and consoling myself with the "exploring possibilities" process of that one. I can usually move on pretty quickly.’
And like with all homes, sometimes it’s not the easiest place to be. ‘When the story isn’t coming easily I feel like I'm outside a party, knocking but nobody's letting me in. It's very frustrating and a little bit cold and drizzly.’
Eventually though, Kim gets inside all her books. ‘In terms of setting, I've felt "at home" in all my settings. It's like they are places I've actually been, and I could still find my way around even years after I've written them.’
Of all the books Kim has written, there is one that feels most like home. 'The Resurrectionists: I haven't enjoyed writing any novel as much as I enjoyed that one because it was before I had children and I was writing it fulltime. I just got lost in it for the full nine months; a spooky, atmospheric story about a cottage on the English seaside.
Yet, it seems home is bittersweet for us all. Just as we feel homesick for different places we have lived at different times in our lives, there are books authors will always feel a sense of homesickness for; ‘Giants of the Frost was the first book I wrote after my son was born, so it really did become an indulgent escape for me. It was such an immense pleasure writing that story; I still miss it.’
To read more about how Kim feels when writing a novel, click here.
For more information about Kim’s published work, click here.
All images © Kim Wilkins
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Have you ever considered swapping city living for a rural life? I know I have and I often wonder what the reality of such a lifestyle change would be like. Writer Hilary Burden made this move five years ago when she left an apartment in London for an old weatherboard house in Tasmania. For Hilary it was more than just a physical change of space; this move has also changed her sense of ‘home’.
‘Home was never about the place I lived - it was about me. Now my home is totally connected to place - in all senses of that word; ie town, region, community, seasons, livelihood - my life is local.’
Hilary had been looking for a significant change and had reached a point in her life where she felt it would be possible; ‘I decided my time living in a city was over. I wanted fresh air, fresh produce, fewer people, less congestion. And I no longer needed a traditional career or professional status. Being independent and child free, I realised I could live anywhere which was a tremendously liberating feeling.’
She was looking for a home on the east coast of Tasmania and had put in an offer on a rundown farmhouse which fell through; ‘I was pretty despondent. Then I saw the home I'm in now in the local paper. The ad was headed "Character & Space". It was just a classic old weatherboard house that needed some TLC. I arranged to visit and, like they say, knew instantly this was the one. I visited in August when the front paddock was full of daffodils. Maybe that helped too.’
Hilary’s only expectation about living in the country was that she wanted to live a balanced life at a slower pace. ‘This was a very conscious decision, and at times I've had to be quite ruthless about what I let in and out. This is what I love. That what I aspired to is unfolding around me and making me happy. Observing the seasons has been key to achieving this I think.
Observing the seasons has also been key to how Hilary’s sense of home has changed; ‘Home was the door to my flat being closed behind me. Noise, crowds and pavements shut out. I lived where I worked which made it home. Now I live where I live and work comes second. And I leave the doors open when I'm home.’
Her garden is one of the things she loves most about her home now – ‘this is a reflection of the doors always being open’ – and an outdoor lifestyle has also led her into a new business venture. Hilary, along with her partner Barney run ‘Hilbarn’: a fresh fruit and vegetable box delivery service bringing seasonal produce to Launceston. They collect seasonal produce from across the state, including buying from roadside stalls, organic farmers and people who sell only by word of mouth.
And now, instead of ‘seeking favourite things to do in the day rather than reflecting on the day itself’ as she once did when living in the city, Hilary loves ‘opening the doors and windows on the day. Hearing the birds wake with song. And making sure I'm not chasing the day.’
For more information about Hilbarn or to read Hilary’s blog, click here.
All photos © Hilary Burden
Monday, October 11, 2010
Recently I was at my mother’s house for dinner along with my sister and my sister’s godparents from interstate. Mum had made a roast – albeit with mash potato rather than roast which was my first shock of the evening – and just as the meat was ready my mother asked my sister to help with the gravy.
My initial reaction was to wonder why she asked my sister when surely she knew as little about making gravy as me. But then as she deftly whisked away with a fork I realised that she knew exactly what she was doing.
‘How do you know how to make gravy?’ I asked accusingly as only a big sister can.
‘What are you talking about? Mum taught me of course.’ She looked at me curiously. ‘Didn’t she ever teach you?’ she said in a way that only a younger sister can.
‘I’m sure I’ve shown you how to make gravy’, my mother interrupted shaking her head at us.
Um, no. White sauce yes, gravy no.
How is this possible? As a lover of roast dinners how have I gone through adulthood without making a gravy?
It’s funny how there are some recipes that you learn from your family rather than a recipe book. And if you miss out before you leave home you may never master. What I love most about such recipes is that every family probably has a slightly different version thanks to generations of tinkering to please different palates.
I suspect the reason why I never learnt to make gravy was that it’s not my favourite part of a roast dinner anyway. I never liked the gravy seeping into my crispy roast potatoes and I still don’t. For me a roast dinner has always been about the potatoes.
But I think it’s time I grew up and at least had an idea about how gravy comes to appear on the table. After bringing up the gravy conversation again with mum (‘You should just know after watching me make it for all those years.’) I learnt that she makes it the same way my poppa does as my nanna always made it too thick, lumpy and pale. At least nanna’s way would mean that it wouldn’t leak into my potatoes.
So, finally I have our family’s gravy recipe. Whether I attempt it will be another question. After all, a family recipe always tastes better when it’s made by your mother, doesn’t it?
Sprinkle enough SIFTED plain flour (I just use a metal tea strainer) to cover the bottom of a hot frying pan (this can be done in a dry pan or otherwise the baking dish & juices once the meat is
Watch it carefully as it starts to brown without being tempted to move it around! As you see it change colour - not too dark, the safest way is to take it off the heat and add enough beef stock slowly, stirring all the time (or even using a whisk) to make sure it does not go lumpy (putting it back on the heat as you add more stock).
When it is the consistency you want & just at boiling point ... not too thick and not too thin, take it off the heat. When the beef is rested & carved, pour the juices from the carving tray back into the gravy & re-heat ready to serve in a 'gravy boat' of course!
I think I remember that Poppa's secret ingredient was adding a touch of Worcestershire sauce at the end.
Thursday, October 7, 2010
Only recently I was writing about my love of bacon and the smell of it sizzling in the frypan but what I didn’t mention was not really loving the smell that lingers in the house well after breakfast has ended.
Just the other week we cooked sausages for dinner (well to be honest we have sausages every week thanks to certain limited palates in our house) and one of us – perhaps it was me – forgot to wipe down the stovetop afterwards. The next day the house smelled of old sausages and grease. Even after cleaning the stove the smell unpleasantly lingered.
It was time to burn my scented candle. I’d been avoiding using it though, as it’s a candle made in a very old sundae glass and looked almost too good to use. Jen, who I interviewed recently about her handmade vintage handbags, also makes candles in old vessels – glasses, vases, teacups, ramekins – and happens to sell them at my sister’s shop Retrospections.
I love the idea of finding another way to use old objects that were once part of a set and are now lost or alone. They get another chance of life in another home.
Perhaps no one will drink champagne or tea out of them anymore but they will still make people happy.
Jen originally came up with the idea of making candles in teacups because of her obsession with collecting them. She says; ‘I needed to start coming up with different ways to use them around my house as there are only so many cups you can justify keeping for the purpose of tea drinking alone!’
‘I had seen people using teacups for growing herbs and flowers which got me thinking about different ways they could be used for display around the house. I have always loved candles so it hit me that they would be the perfect vessel for candles.’
She chose the vanilla scent because of the ‘homely’ feeling it creates. ‘Vanilla reminds me of baking which I find very comforting.’
It’s certainly a lot more comforting than the smell of bacon or sausage fat the day after, I have to say.
Photos © Jennie Smith
Monday, October 4, 2010
Are campers born or made?
I find myself asking this question more and more the older I get. My family were not campers. It was never a question when I was younger. We had friends who camped and friends who didn’t. I never wondered whether we would become a camping family; after a few bad experiences with school camps I was really glad we weren’t one.
My husband did come from a camping family yet felt that his years of highschool cadet camps killed any desire of carrying on the tradition with our children. Again, I never questioned it. I was still of the opinion that campers were definitely born.
But lately a lot of our friends have begun camping with their children. Most are from camping families (in keeping with my theory of campers being born) but some are new to camping as adults.
‘You should try it!’ they have enthused. ‘The kids will love it!’ they continue. ‘Yeah, it would be great to see Germaine camping!’ the men say and I don’t think it’s because they think I will love it.
But lately I have been thinking about it. Not about staying in a camping ground or caravan park but about pitching a tent in the middle of nowhere. With small children and living in a busy city there is something quite intoxicating about the thought of getting away from everyone and everything. Sitting around a campfire with my family and seeing only the stars, listening to the sounds of the birds, hearing the twigs snap and leaves crackling as you walk, being able to shut the outside world away.
Recently Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan wrote about camping with his daughter on his website Apartment Therapy and what he said resonated:
‘When you step out of your carefully constructed home, you can meet the world in a fresh way. And it all depends on mastering the humblest of activities: setting up a tent, cooking a meal, sleeping on the ground.’
But a big part of me still wonders if it’s too late; that campers really are born and definitely not made.
Photo from Country Living via Apartment Therapy
Friday, October 1, 2010
In my experience guestbooks left inside holiday houses, B&Bs and guesthouses have held little appeal. The majority only leave enough space for one sentence, which for most entries is usually about the weather. You glean little information about the people who had visited before you, what their lives are like and what brought them to the same holiday house you happen to have chosen.
So, when we opened the front door of a cute, wooden two-bedroom cottage in the tiny seaside town of Jenner, Northern California last year and I noticed the guestbook on the kitchen table I gave it little thought.
Instead we unloaded the bags and took the kids down to the beach. The coastline had already captured my imagination: rough seas, rocky cliffs, grey sand and driftwood. Not far away, around the next headland in fact, was Bodega Bay where Hitchcock filmed The Birds. Little has changed; the seagulls are still the size of rabbits and the coastline is both haunting and romantic. I didn’t want to leave.
We ate dinner in a little seafood restaurant that evening with multi-paned windows overlooking the ocean. We could hear the wind howl through the door cracks and see the swell of the sea. It looked like rain so we huddled together and ran up the hill back to our cottage, quite early. All I needed now was the ghost of the sea captain from The Ghost and Mrs Muir to appear and my love affair with this landscape would be complete.
After the kids were in bed, we settled on the sofa and poured another glass of wine. I spied the guestbook again and decided to flip through while waiting for Stuart to find the corkscrew.
Here it was; the guestbook I’d been waiting for all my life. Entries that went on for 10 pages: the soldier back from fighting in Iraq who couldn’t get over the quietness here, who could still hear gunfire and bombs in his head but who found the beach and the ocean healing; the couple who had come to try and save their marriage, who had managed to find the time and space in this little cottage to actually see each other properly for the first time in years; or the man who brought his girlfriend here to cook her a romantic dinner of pasta and strawberries and chocolate and who joyfully left at the end of the weekend with a fiancée.
Then there was the family with teenage children and an old Labrador who had been holidaying here for years and had recently discovered their beloved dog was dying of cancer. This weekend was the last holiday for this old dog and the family delighted in watching him run along the beach he had always loved and playing in the long grasses surrounding the cottage.
But I think the story that caught me the most, the one I kept rereading throughout our stay, was written by a woman on her honeymoon. Only a couple of days before, she and her now-husband ‘got all dressed-up in new party clothes’. With the kids they ran down to the San Francisco registry office, had lunch at a very ‘swanky’ restaurant with their families and close friends, all stayed the night at ‘an even swankier’ hotel before piling the kids and dog into the car and driving to this little cottage.
Their days had been spent relaxing and enjoying becoming a family: ‘all of us here together, my wonderful new husband, his two young sons, my little girl, and the new baby we recently discovered has started growing inside me.’
It was the ‘new’ baby, this symbol of lifelong love and hope that still has me thinking of this family and that guestbook.
A family I have never seen and never will see but a family who lived in the same space we did for a short while during a momentous time in their lives; a family who by now will have grown to six with a baby who today must be a preschooler.
A family I will always think about whenever I think of our time in that tiny Californian town.