Lesson 3 of A Year of Writing to Uncover the Authentic Self course with Rachel Astor via DailyOM on the topic of “What is Missing?” asks “Have you ever felt like something is missing from your life? Chances are at some point you’ve felt that a small bit (or maybe a large chunk) of “something” seems to be missing”.
“Something’s missing in my life…
Got my house
Got my fancy car
Everything’s going like I planned so far
But something’s not there
That should be there
I gotta find it somewhere…”
Lyrics from Something’s Missing, composed by Paul Jabara and Jay Asher, and recorded by various artists including Marcia Hines in 1979.
That point eventuated too soon in my life: the early loss of my mother and ensuing breakdown of connection with maternal family, followed soon after by passing of my paternal grandparents, and eventual attendant distancing from once close kin as they naturally focussed on their own growing broods.
I’ve conjured a facsimile of what was lost. The old house I live in, and its contents are the stage and props recreating the theatre of childhood I might have experienced longer had things been different… and comfortable environment I craved to share with my remaining family: a hospitable place of refuge, familiar bedroom, convivial kitchen, easy togetherness.
The nucleus of the following short story unfolded in response to a different prompt but it became apparent it was rather more germane to this exercise.
A little ray of sunshine
Her experience of saudade… a Portuguese and Galician term for the sensation of absent yearning, began many years ago: not epochs but in terms of her allotted years there are times the past feels distant enough the imageries might to belong to a film she once saw.
Although she was young and small, at her grandparents’ farm she felt safe and old enough to comprehend it and the work Nanna and Pa did was the source of what nourished them all. Creamy milk from two big dairy cows -named Strawberry and Blue- she delighted in skimming from the bucket as she skipped down the hill from the dairy to the kitchen, and meat from their male progeny. Eggs with golden runny yolks perfect for the dipping of toast soldiers, collected from the fowl run -as it was called- that housed a polychrome flock of hens, and roosters which sometimes were roasted for dinner particularly those misbehaved, like the one who chased her up the hill until Pa intervened to swiftly dispatch the feathered fiend with his sharp axe. Vegetables from the garden, a few delightful nibbled raw, but tasted even better when her nanna cooked them, especially baked sweet potatoes and onions, of which she was given her pick as the only grandchild. Best of all sweet fruit from the orchard trees: juicy plums, apricots tasting of the sun, and deep red staining mulberries were her favourites. Nevertheless, sufficient remained for her nanna to put up bottles of jewel-coloured fruits to be eaten with warm from the saucepan custard in front of the fire during cool evenings.
After rain she tagged along carrying the bucket with Pa while he gathered mushrooms from paddocks where the cows had been. He showed her the brown underside and earthy aroma of those safe to eat, and to avoid those with white gills underneath. Tea -as it was called- in the early evening would be sliced field mushrooms sautéed in butter atop golden slices of thick toast.
Every now and again her father came back from the creek with a shiny dark eel which when he dusted the pieces in flour and fried in a pan of hot oil was a crispy, fishy treat. Other times his catch might be a couple of rabbits, skinned ready for her nanna to chop with vegetables and simmer in a pot until the delectable aroma became exquisite torture only remedied by a ladleful in a bowl accompanied by a slice of crusty bread with homemade butter to capture the last smear of gravy. Occasionally he came home with a brace of plucked ducks which didn’t look appetizing at all but after being roasted in the woodstove the modest amount of dark flesh stripped from its bones was more than compensated by rich gamey flavour.
It’s just as well they were proficient providers as often there were many mouths to feed: uncles and aunts would return, and other family or visitors would arrive bearing polite offerings inherent to the towns and cities whence they came but really for the succour the farm provided, sometimes in return for providing assistance that as the years passed her grandparents grew to need.
Her mother’s funeral -the reason she lived at the farm with her grandparents rather than coming and going as before- was followed only months later by her nanna’s and all too soon her grandfather’s, without a surfeit of intervening years. With no means of keeping it going, the family had to sell the farm.
She was allowed to stay at home from school that day when she was 8 years old, barely comprehending the scene she witnessed; their household items strewn throughout the yard while an auctioneer melodiously and methodically dispatched all, along with the property, to strangers. Later the significance of being asked to choose a single keepsake for herself, and the ramifications of what transpired, sank in.
Life went on, the first decade after the farm spent with her father in neighbouring country towns before the all-too-common rural rite-of-passage propelled her initially to bigger nearby towns then the far-off city where she would marry and unmarry and live and work a cubicle-like existence for many humdrum years.
Her subconscious faithfully recalls her old home. In her mind, her steps retrace the faded linoleum and floral carpets of the farmhouse, its wide timbered verandahs, deep and cool shiplap walled rooms attached to long hallways dissecting the house, winter fireplace, simple kitchen with woodstove and generations of accumulated housewares, old but cared for furniture, beautiful soft furnishings handmade by her nanna, utilitarian garden [pausing at her swing in the Jacaranda tree], and not enough rainwater tanks. Each Sunday evening, scalding bathwater trickled never more than a few inches deep from the old [wood] chip heater, but she was fortunate having first bath, the rest of the household following.
All the while, she hung onto her cherished farm memories. However, occasional visits to the farm courtesy of connections to a succession of owners over the course of four decades reinforced the childhood farm of the dream was no longer hers. She needed to dream a new place.
How many times she spoke of “an old house” over the years, she’ll never know, but the day they parked their car at the gate in front of the timeworn house painted the colour of sunshine, and entered to stroll its welcoming wide verandahs, she knew she had found her home. It felt like it had been waiting for her to arrive.
As years passed, she ceased aspiring to be a farmer or farmer’s offsider. The 1930’s house in the village wasn’t the farm of her childhood, nor even a farm but it was hers, a package deal with her old friend who was now her new husband. Both of them weary and unfulfilled by city life but finally with enough savings to make a fresh start near where he was born and landscape remembered from the earliest years of his life. Situated in the village with surrounding farmland, its sunny aspect, canopy of trees -notably two Jacaranda, verdant gardens, rainwater tanks… would with imagination and work, do for them.
She traded her dry clean only business suits and high heels for aprons and wash & wear, work boots and garden clogs. He traded heavy earthmoving equipment and horsepower for building and gardening tools.
Without fully understanding her motivation but honouring the urge, first she studied horticulture which felt like a dream come true then stumbling across a mention of permaculture, searched for more information: what she found gathered assorted practices she’d encountered into a holistic ethos which made sense. Studying permaculture, she worked towards a functional design for their modest but serviceable residence they would come to call “Sunshine Cottage” named for the visage of a gently smiling sun her husband had fixed traditionally onto the front verandah wall.
They worked around what they couldn’t change, and adapted what they could. Planter pots could be moved around to suit conditions. Wicking beds ensured plants received moisture in dry weather. They tidied old gardens and make them useable. They built raised garden beds, a caged area to deter foraging birds and animals, and a tiny glasshouse to start seeds and protect tender plants during winter. They composted, created no-dig gardens out of straw, newspaper and leaves. They added a shed, solar panels and additional rainwater tanks.
They made plant choices to encourage helpful birds, bees, butterflies, as well as worms, spiders, lizards, frogs, beneficial insects… creatures which daunted some folks but which they recognised as necessary to living in harmony with their surroundings.
They befriended neighbours which led to sharing produce, space to raise chickens for eggs, and additional garden areas. As well, they got to know local farmers, bartering crops, know-how and assistance. They foraged for mushrooms and other edibles, as well as garden inputs and second-hand materials to recycle for projects.
They furnished the house with accumulated-over-decades assortment of donated, found, hand-me-down, second hand or handmade furniture, bric-a-brac, pictures, kitchenalia… adding more along the way, until at last their home resembled the farmhouses of their childhoods as much as practically possible and fulfilled her need for the ambience of an archetypal nanna’s house.
Their home doesn’t lack modern amenities but notably absent are electric dishwasher and clothes dryer. The activities of washing dishes in a sudsy sink and pegging clean laundry on the backyard clothesline and its subsequent sun-dried fragrance are a direct connection to the early days. Although she streams music through a high-tech device, the soundtrack is the 1960’s and 70’s of her childhood.
She taught herself to bake, preserve, cook from scratch and stretch ingredients like her grandmother had. Notably, after trial and error and eventually returning to old-fashioned full cream milk and backyard eggs she was able to replicate her grandfather’s rice pudding -a favourite of her husband- but she cannot master Pa’s corned beef fritters although she’s proud of the white sauce she accomplishes to adorn corned beef traditionally simmered with malt vinegar, brown sugar, mustard powder, peppercorns and bay leaves, as her grandmother did. As a nod to her forebears, she remembers to take a token sip of sherry before she adds a glug to a cooking pot.
She continues to find time and confidence to acquire new skills. So far, she bakes sourdough bread, makes yoghurt and is increasing her range of recipes and culinary techniques. She crafts, mends and reuses whatever she can. Recently she started knitting cotton dishcloths… the clickety click of the needles audibly transports her to her grandmother’s knee.
Their philosophy of mi casa, su casa affords not only a contented abode for herself and her husband but reciprocity for visiting family and friends’ gifts of time, presence and thoughtful contributions from the towns and cities where they reside; offering in return a place of welcome and respite from busy lives. Evidenced by each instance of overnight visitors who refer to the guest room as “our room”, en route to stashing their bags in it before settling down to enjoy the bucolic setting, good company and home cooking.
Times change but tried-and-true stays on the menu… sums up the food she makes every day and for visitors. Provender depends on the occasion, season, availability and preferences. Some delight in sweet treats so she keeps several biscuit recipes -snap, choc chip, honey & tahini – and a few favourite cakes -banana, chocolate & beetroot, lemon- plus old-school desserts -custard, dumplings, puddings eaten in front of the fire during cooler months- in her culinary repertoire. Meat lovers hanker for thick steaks and tasty sausages barbequed by her husband which she serves with popular potato bake; baked ham and chicken with extra bread stuffing accompanied by cold eggy potato salad or medley of roasted root vegetables and jug of gravy for festive occasions; and slow braises of newly fashionable old-style lamb shanks and beef cheeks with creamy mashed potato. Long-time family favourites; pumpkin soup or pea and ham, and lasagne appear regularly. She’s partial to vego food… vegetables, salads, legumes, soup, cheese, homemade bread; so more often than not they appear, as well as convenience food standbys of leftovers, and eggs -any way you like them- from their chooks.
Of course, there’s more to life than food, isn’t there? In between repasts, relaxed chats and sharing stories, time together is spent doing age-old activities: garden exploration and feeding chooks; walking around the village and surrounds; drives further afield exploring family history trails and the region; but best of all, beach walks. Afterwards, at the point of each farewell, she tucks a package, jar or two, and a carton of eggs into their departing bags.
It’s hard to gauge what makes her happier. To share the enjoyment of her home with loved ones, the joy of cooking for an appreciative audience with fresh produce gleaned as much as possible from the garden and locally. Or even when not in situ the connection of her absent half-siblings, step-children and grandchildren texting or messaging requests for advice, gardening tips, recipes, cookware recommendations, calling via telephone -or video chat as is their want- for conversation or sounding board, and sometimes… asking just out of curiosity, “what’s for dinner?”.
With her natural hair colour now featuring a scattering of grey through the chestnut reminiscent of her nanna’s, progressively she becomes her own mother and grandmother, living the years they never did.
“She can make you feel good,
She can make you feel that it’s all worthwhile…
Oh my little ray of sunshine.”
Lyrics from A Little Ray of Sunshine, composed by Brian Cadd and Don Mudie, and recorded by Axiom in 1970.
Other nostalgic offerings appear in old short-story blog posts: Henry forgot to write “eat, eat” and Ghosts of Christmas Past.