Chapter Seven. Three Kitchens and an Old, Old Love.
From Letters to my Mother. We are small. Mum is gone. Dad is building a full sized wooden dinghy in the kitchen. I am sleeping in the linen cupboard.
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This is Cecilia from The Kitchens Garden.
I have been struggling all week with a piece of writing for you. I am not sure if it will go into The Boatbuilders Daughter or not. Whether it is important or not. Whether these tiny moments in our memories, from long ago, these flashes, even mean anything. Do you ever wonder why our clever brains remember a particular moment - this little living movie of a memory. Maybe we remember things by mistake - not because they are important but because a window in our memory was open at that moment. So much of our lives is lived at speed in a fog. Not thinking too hard or maybe thinking too deep. Why this moment. We all forget so much - so why remember this,
This story is based on a real memory. A flash memory.
There is the kitchen. I am small. Mum is gone. Dad is working on planing the sides of a full sized wooden dinghy in the kitchen. I am sleeping in the linen cupboard.
Mum was often gone.
Head injuries can mess with people; though I never knew her before the accident (I was only four when we had the car crash remember) so I have no idea whether the accident changed her or not. But her frequent unexplained disappearances became a fact of life. Dad called them her retreats “Mum has gone on a retreat”. Come home from school - Mum gone - on a retreat. Often.
And it is around this, one of her gone times, that my writing brain has been hovering for two weeks.
Here is what I have so far:
Small child - me maybe 10 years old? You? Maybe 8? We are not tall.
The kitchen in the big house on the beach.
Early evening. Winter. Dark.
OK, let me describe the kitchen of our big house on the beach for you. Remember, this is an old house, actually built at the turn of the century for the Manager of the failed Freezing Works that they built on Westshore Beach in the early 1900s or late 1800s. I need to look that up. The meat processing works did not last very long (a bridge collapsed) and then the 1931 Napier earthquake, so the works were abandoned, and the big house was sold to my dad's father after the 1931 earthquake.
This kitchen was pretty original with a few hits of the 40s and a few hits of the 60s. The kitchen was at the back of the house, like all kitchens were in those days. They were always close to the washhouse, the clothesline, and the kitchen garden.
The kitchen was a long rectangle, and to make it easy for you to create a visual, I will stand you at the top of the room, with your back to the doorway to the passage. You will be the small child. Now, small child, if you were to turn completely around and walk straight down that passage, you would pass our bedroom and the other bedrooms and Mum and Dad's bedroom door and eventually get to the Front room and the Front Door, and you could look straight out to sea. The sea being your point of reference for everything. Always. For the rest of your life and mine.
But don’t turn around now, come back to me, look straight into this big kitchen. It is evening and a bit dim because there is only one light suspended on a wire from the ceiling. You are at the short end of the rectangle, on a piece of paper, this would be called the width. You are beside a whole bank of dark varnished cupboards. Within the cupboards is an alcove with a huge old ratty rattan seat with high sides like a throne with a prickly green cushion. That is to your left.
Now remember that you are viewing the kitchen from the point of view of a small child. So that chair looks huge to you but was probably ordinary sized. We forget our size when we look back through our memories.
Now look back down into the room, all down the right side of the kitchen are the kitchen counters. These wide benches are all thick varnished honey-colored wood. The bench is quite clear. There are no cupboards above the benches, only shelves with cups and plates and things. Follow the long bench down, past the sink and the oven to the chippie. The chippie is a little wood-burning stove that heats the room and the water for the house. It has a little window in the door where you can watch the fire. So there is a glow of orange light coming through that little fire window. We can see Dad opening the tiny door and feeding the fire with offcuts from his boat.
Yes. He is building a boat in the kitchen. A dinghy. No one is sure why, but there you are. Its hull is a dim outline behind the table.
Don’t be distracted by the boat in the kitchen, though. Other than to give you an idea of how big that kitchen is. The green speckled enamel chippie with its fire and pipes and hot plate is right next to the hot water cupboard. The chippie actually heats the hot water in the cylinder in the linen cupboard, and if the water gets too hot, the steam builds up, and it shoots out onto the roof with a loud splash, and Dad would yell “Thar’ she blows,” and we would all rush outside to watch it shoot out like a geyser, then Mum would run the bath so as not to waste the hot water, and we would all disperse at speed.
But Mum is not here. She is away. She is often away. Gone.
Tonight down there in the gloom at the end of the kitchen, the hot water is quietly heating in a hot water cylinder taller than you; we can hear it tick from behind the sturdy door to the linen cupboard. The linen cupboard is big enough to hide in, a small child like you and me could slide up into the long shelves and hang out in the warmth for hours. Reading or sleeping. Or listening to the kitchen radio. The linen cupboard is my favorite place in the kitchen. The linen cupboard has two doors; one in the kitchen and one on the opposite side of the cupboard that leads into the laundry. We call it the wash house, and the wash house runs parallel with the kitchen so we could enter the linen cupboard from the wash house and exit in the kitchen.
It was a secret passageway of sorts for very small people.
There is a big wide window seat that runs the whole width of the kitchen at the other end. Close to the chippie and the linen cupboard.
To the left of the room are two big long sash windows, and right at the end of the room opposite the linen cupboard, are two French doors, all opening out into the garden.
Right in the middle of this large high-ceilinged room with its windows down one side and its kitchen benches down the other is a long pine table with an assortment of wooden chairs parked under it. We are small, so the table looks like it takes up the whole room, fat square legs like trees. But it doesn't - dad was able to fit a dinghy down behind it - by the windows.
The walls are a smoky shiny cream paint, and the floor is blue linoleum.
Take a small step back and look hard right from where you are standing, there is another little door; this leads into the cool windowless larder where the fridge perches uninvited, then the larder leads through to the wash house - the wash house with the shared linen cupboard leading to the kitchen.
It had been Dad's mother's kitchen and larder and washhouse and linen cupboard since late in 1931, and our Mum had only taken it over when Dad's mother died in 1959, so if we say the evening of this story was in the winter of the mid-60s, then when we think about it, my Mum was still new to the area. This is interesting to think about. As a child, we imagine that everything we see has been just like that forever. When we are little, we don't even think about what came before.
But Mum arrived at the beach (from the South Island) married to Dad with a baby on her hip and a baby in her belly, to nurse my Dad's Mum as she was dying, she dealt with all that, then there were more babies, and then there was the car crash, well, it stands to reason she went AWAY often. Right?
Ok, you can go now. You can go and sit in the big rattan chair with the prickly cushion, there is a stool there to help you climb in. You are holding the baby. You can give him the bottle while we wait. The two of us can fit in the chair together - it is big.
We are waiting for Aunty Joe.
I will tell you about her while we wait.
Aunty Joe is old. She is our mothers Aunt. So she really is Great Aunty Joe but we always called her Aunty Joe. She lives down in the middle of the South Island (where Mum comes from) and only comes to our house in the middle of the North island when Mum is away. Her hair is a different shade of pink or purple or blue every time we see her. We adore her clothes. She has an outrageous wardrobe. And her name is not even Joe but we all call her Joe. Her sister is called Mid because she is the middle sister. Mid is our grand-mothers other sister. We think Joe is the nice one. Nicer even than our grandmother.
Mum told me that Joe had never married, her beau having died in the war so the legend goes.
Joe is a traveler. She loves trains.
She is going to walk into the kitchen in a minute so pay attention.
Joe has terrible sight but refuses to wear glasses and wears whatever clothing takes her fancy. Once she arrived entirely clothed in tartan, skirt, socks, scarf, cardy, shoes, even. We were entranced. Do you remember?
There is a family story of Aunty Joe visiting her sister in a posh area of Christchurch in the South island. Joe arrived on the bus (she never drives - maybe because she cannot see well) so she had taken the bus from the train station and then walked around to Great Aunty Mids. She was wearing a long purple dress and a blue turban wrapped high on her head like a bath towel. She had bought a couple of steak and vege pies at the corner store and a doughnut as an extra treat for Mid. Aunty Mid was not home. Whether Aunty Joe knew that Aunty Mid was not going to be home is anyones guess. So instead of going inside (nobody locked their houses in those days) Aunty Joe commenced to recline like some grecian goddess on the front lawn of Mids house and eat her pie, then the doughnut with extra cream. Mid came home just as Joe was licking cream from her fingers and shrieked in horror.
"What would the neighbors say, lying on the grass eating a pie in a turban?" she asked, and she hustled Joe into the house.
"And where are your stockings, Joe? You can't go about walking in monk's sandals wrapped in a sheet without stockings. Look at your bare legs. And what on earth is on your head?" Mid was appalled. But this was typical behavior of Aunty Joe, so not too appalled, I bet.
Anyway, Aunty Mid was so horrified she told my grandmother who told my mother who would have shrieked with laughter if she had been able to. Grandma wrote the story in a letter (they wrote to each other exactly once a week) in hushed horrified tones and Mum told it to me like it was a terrific joke that Joe had played on Mid.
You know those pictures of a middle aged Queen Elizabeth? Think of those hats then change her into bright crazy hippie outfits and maybe a little less chubby and you have Great Aunty Joe. She was a whole and brilliant entity of her own. Clever. Well read. And whole. Independent. Smart shoes and handbags. She traveled at the drop of a hat and had lived alone since the beginning of time.
Joe had a little tiny cottage in the hills in Canterbury way out in the country. She had no electricity. Never had and never did as long as I knew her. She fed a group of local single shepherds their lunch. They kept her supplied with the meat or game that she cooked for them and they chopped the firewood to cook it with. She organised her life to suit herself exactly. Her garden was extensive and unruly. Any space she saw a gap she jammed a plant or a seedling in. She was more Monet than Manet. Her gardens and farm orchard was a kaleidoscope of wild movement and color and food. Cabbages next to sunflowers, tomatoes with the corn, she did not care for rules. Her chickens were fat, her cow was little, and her ice cream was like smooth custard.
She had retired sheepdogs as company, she hated cats because she loved birds, I guess one of her men fed her chickens and watched the cow when she was gone. I have no idea how all that worked but in my memory she traveled to our place often.
Her men, she really did call them her men, were all local shepherds, older single men who worked on neighboring farms. I don’t know how she found them or how the arrangement was brokered but they ate their meat and three veg hot lunch with her every day but Sunday for maybe thirty years that I knew of. I am not sure if they were always the same men but feeding the men when she was not traveling became her reason. She would say at the end of her letters; right, well, time to feed the men.’
And Grandma would say; Joe is fine - she has her men.
As a child - the moment I first saw her house I knew that this was how I wanted to live. There was a tiny kitchen painted bright white with sunflower yellow curtains on the window above the sink, there was a coal range for cooking, heating the water and drying the clothes in an airing cupboard with slatted shelves built next to the range. She had a pantry full of jars of bottled fruit. Off the kitchen was one room that had the diner table, with wooden floors and rugs and herbs hanging from the rafters and two large chairs facing an enormous fireplace complete with the iron work to hang a pot over the fire. The cottage had no ceilings, just an alpine shaped roofline - all high beams. Aunty Joe’s house followed the pitch of the roof. So you entered her living /dining area from the little kitchen at the highest point of roof pitch and by the time you got down to the fireplace a tall man would be ducking his head. But Joe’s house was not for tall men - it was for small round people and children. The tall men only got as far as the dining room table then were sent to do the dishes, bring in the wood and be on their way.
When the coal range and the fireplace were both roaring it was as cosy and welcoming as any house I have been in.
It was the kind of old cottage that would fall straight down if the people left it for too long. But I am getting ahead again. We are small. In our kitchen waiting for Aunty Joe.
So, when Mum went on her ‘retreats’ Aunty Joe would come to our house. And Brother always picked her up from the train in town and drove her out to the beach. Brother would bring the dinner.
Ah Brother Aloysius. He was handsome. Tanned and tall and handsome.
Brother Aloyicius was not an old man nor a young man. He was tall and bald with eyes like storms. Brother flowed when he walked. He was fast and efficient and quick to smile, quick to move. Efficient. Controlled. He wore the long black robe of a brother. A brother offers his life to his church but does not become a priest. I am not sure why. The Brothers of his order were winemakers at The Mission up on the hill. Dad did work for them sometimes and Brother Aloycius was the cook at one of the big houses. His kitchen was vast and all stainless steel with huge cold walk-in refrigerators and mixers big enough to stand a child in. Everything was modern and shiny.
When Dad was working on the wine vats down in the winery we would climb the hill to visit the brothers and they would sit us up on the endless stainless steel benches and ply us with cookies and orange drink. They kept enormous tins full of cookies and did not care how many we ate.
Later they would walk us back down through the trees, past the chapel and the swimming pool and the tennis courts up the long palm tree lined driveway to the winery and deliver us back to our Dad. Brother Aloycius was their boss. We were always safe.
But, there is the dog barking. They’re here.
Brother Aloysius and Great Aunty Jo launch into the room through the dark French Doors. No knocking - just straight through the door. Brother following Aunty Joe. He walks past the table and straight for the bench - turning on the oven, unloading all the tall glass jars of food out of a cardboard box.
Auntie Joe heels click quickly on the floor, her red handbag over her arm, her pale blue hair shining in the low light, she heads straight for Dad who is behind the table standing up from the boat. Immediately the room stands to attention. Immediately you and I sit up. Baby shrieks. The energy she threw into the room even made the lonely light bulb feel brighter. She grabs Dad into one of her tiny lady bear hugs.
“She's left again, then. Not to worry. She'll be back. Let's give her time. She’ll find us again after a while”.
Then she turns to us - you and me, she is striding down the kitchen, arms wide, dropping her handbag on the table as she passes and begins shooting orders left and right.
"Give me the baby, you poor lass. Go and call the others to come down. Where are they then? Let's have dinner. Brother brought something nice.
We'll feed the children and get them off to bed first, alright David? Who needs a bath?
David, you look done in. Find the whisky - I don't think it's too early."
Dad nods. Relieved. He puts down the plane and moves to help Brother.
"David, what on earth are you doing with a boat in the kitchen?" laughs Brother Aloysius as he turns on the oven, then reaches for plates.
Dad begins a shambly explanation as we all leave the kitchen to follow Aunty Joe down to the bathrooms.
Later, the children are washed, fed, and put to bed. You have been tucked into your little bed, and the baby is asleep in the cot in our room. I hear our dad's footsteps drag up the hall, and his door, which is never shut, pulls shut. After a while, I climb down from the top bunk and carefully creep down the hall, through the larder, through the washhouse, and, quiet as a cat, I climb into the linen cupboard and snuggle down on the warm, fresh-smelling eider downs.
Maybe Auntie Joe and I can sit up late and have one of our talks.
But I can hear that Brother is still here, so I settle in to wait in the crack of light from the linen cupboard door.
Auntie Joe and Brother are sitting on the window seat by the chippie. The kettle is simmering softly on the fire, and the radio is playing orchestral music at a low volume.
Joe has her head leaning on Brother's shoulder. She looks younger and sparkly, like an angel in the flickering firelight, with her blue hair looking fairy-like.
"What do you want for dinner tomorrow?" Brother asks.
He turns and kisses her forehead softly, like a breath, like ancient knowledge. Like forever.
"Meatloaf and mashed potatoes," she says, smiling at her hands.
There is silence for a long while as I drift off to sleep.
"Cup of tea before I go?" Brother asks.
"Don't go, yet" she says.