Ghosts of Christmas Past . . .

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Ghosts of Christmas Past visit me each year, sometimes twice as we continue our new tradition of Christmas in July. The ghosts are family, welcome and regular visitors to my kitchen. I look forward to the festive season, find pleasure in Christmas by melding my memories with what gives me joy nowadays. However, it doesn’t always come easy. Every year we ask ourselves will we put up the Christmas tree. End-of-year-tired-adult-me says no. Six-year-old-me says please can we. So we do. Six-year-old-me, lover of twinkle, adorns the tree with lights and we all enjoy the ambience but it comes down a day or so after Christmas Day as adult-me likes an orderly house. The ghosts remind me that festive spirit doesn’t come from excessive doing and spending and standing in line to buy overpriced seafood. They help me remember how much I loved our homemade celebrations.

My memories are scant of Christmases from the early years but the marks on my psyche are carved deep. A single Christmas, age five, the last at home with Mum, and Santa’s gift of a blue child-size table and chairs. I was twenty-ish before I discovered by chance it was handmade by my Dad. It stayed around for a long time, later bequeathed to my seventeen years younger sister.

the blue table and me
A friend and me at playing at the blue table and chairs at Oakleigh circa 1972.

However, when I think of Christmas, my memories invariably crystallize at my grandparents’ farm. The living room with its pine tree I ‘helped’ my grandfather chop during an expedition in the bush, placed in a bucket of water and stationed in the small corner next to the fireplace. Simply decorated with ornaments gathered over the years, not new; not much in that house was.

my grandparents farm how i remember it
“Oakleigh” my grandparents farm circa 1970’s, how I remember it.

The Christmas tree skirted by a few wrapped gifts modest in nature and number. I could also -as I had been good… of course- expect a gift on Christmas morning from Santa and Christmas stocking filled with useful things, story books, colouring pencils and small treats. A distinct memory is the long-awaited Christmas morning of the much-desired baby doll… which Santa inconveniently left behind the tree. Forbearance is still not one of my virtues. Nor singing, another clear recollection is my uncle suggesting I sing Silent Night… silently.

musical doll circa 1970
Souvenir of Christmas past, a wind-up musical doll, a Christmas gift from my nanna circa 1970.

My nanna’s kitchen is one of my realest memories. If I am very focused, barely breathing, I can transport myself to it, six years old again. Our festive food was made in this -tacked on to the back of the house after the old outside kitchen burned to the ground- boxy room with its wood stove, faded paint timber dresser, Laminex table and modest Kelvinator refrigerator.

Plates of Christmas cake appeared when visitors did and disappeared quickly along with welcomed cups of tea or glasses of beer depending on the hour of day, sat side by side with Bakelite trays of child tempting treats; lollies, assorted nuts from which as the only grandchild I would freely pick the cashews & brazil nuts, irresistible crunchy sweet red-coated peanuts.

Baked vegetables, I’m sure there was a whole panful cooked in dripping but my eyes were on the prize, sticky baked white sweet potatoes, served with roast chicken -wing for me please- with bread & onion stuffing and gravy -rather than the more common roasted rooster- selected for the occasion from the laying hens and prepared by my grandfather… thankfully I didn’t make the connection when I was ‘helping’ him although the memory of the stink of chicken feathers and skin scalded in boiling water is fresh as ever decades later.

Christmas pudding studded with thripence and sixpence but a little light on red jelly cherries in the fruit mix, the price of my ‘helping’. I still have my nanna’s trifle bowl, smallish but cut crystal and treasured, big enough for each of us to savour sufficient portions of pale sunshine coloured custard and buttery cake both made with freshly laid eggs and creamy milk from their dairy cows, sprinkled with a little of my grandfather’s sweet sherry some of which might have also been tipped into an accompanying small glass for the cook, studded with glistening slices of peaches picked from the orchard and preserved in jars, dotted with spoonfuls of shiny multi-hued jelly.

Somehow my nanna conjured festive food miracles akin to biblical loaves and fishes. Counting my grandparents, aunts and uncles home for the holidays, and assorted visitors we might number more than ten for Christmas lunch which would be plentiful enough to require a postprandial nap, followed by the cool joy of a salad of leftovers for tea which is what as dairy farmers they called the meal eaten around 5 pm, and later when the news was on the black and white television (likely purchased along with the Kelvinator, the only nod to modernity in the house), a pot of tea and small bowls of remaining sweets.

If you mention Christmas food to my family members of the era, their collective recollection will be my nanna’s egg mayonnaise which I remember dressed our Christmas tea and Boxing Day salads -lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion, tinned beetroot & pineapple, potatoes, ham, chicken- in cold creamy deliciousness. A secret recipe apparently but after some family conferring my aunt and I agree this is it, although I’m inclined to the milk version.

polly's salad dressing
Polly’s salad dressing.

That Christmas when I was six was the last for my beloved nanna. She died one hot afternoon in late February after I had gone back to school, in her sleep on the green vinyl night and day sofa in the living room where there might have been a few remaining pine needles escaped her housekeeping in the crevice between the carpet and the wall in the small corner next to the fireplace. I found her there cold to my inquiring touch having arrived home after walking up from the school bus drop off to a too quiet house just ahead of my Pa who had popped over the river to the lucerne paddocks.

four generations, dad, nanna holding me, and her mother
Four generations, Dad, Nanna holding me, and her mother at Oakleigh circa 1967.

Fresh from Christmas’ recent incarnation which saw the G.O. and I visit and celebrate with my family a few days before, in their merry style. Everyone enjoyed catching up and had a good time. Back at home for Christmas eve, one of my favourite days, we spent it with the usual soundtrack of carols in kitchen and lawnmower in the yard. My local in-law family opted out of Christmas celebrations this year… and after the event were a bit sorry but it meant on Christmas Day we pleased ourselves, barbequed breakfast, exchanged Christmas morning phone calls with faraway family, opened a few gifts, visited the in-laws, walked on the beach and later enjoyed a quiet festive food dinner.

our christmas tree suffered collateral damage from a christmas morning altercation between deez-dog and his new squeaky pig toy
Christmas tree collateral damage from a Christmas morning altercation between Deez-dog and his new squeaky pig toy.

Yuletide, for me, is timely alchemy of intangible festal mood and tangible: our hand-me-down tree with its lights and decorations all the more loved after fourteen December Christmases and one July; gifts squirreled away through the year; wreath on the front door; sparkly lights woven through a tree in the front garden to cheer passing night-time festive travellers, which the G.O. and I once were; seasonal home cooking that brings to mind food our grandmothers made… manifestations of my memories in a contemporary setting.

Christmas is occasion for quiet communion with my ghosts who are never far away anyway, at home with the life and place I’m at now that quite resembles theirs’, no accident, I’m inclined to believe. In my early fifties, three years beyond the age my nanna attained, I get to experience the other side of the festive coin. Now a step-grandmother, I found satisfaction and joy in our inaugural family Christmas in July when the kids’ -old and young- eyes lit up at the array of simple food I had made, planning already the next year’s festivities before they departed to their home a few hours drive down the coast, and talking about the food for months afterwards.

christmas in july same same but different food to december, and morning frost for authenticity
Christmas in July same same but different food and tree decorations to December, and morning frost for authenticity.

Just a few weeks after Christmas past is a felicitous time to look forward festively, not a year ahead but to our next gathering in July: holiday ambience invoked by our tree in cheery adornments of white ribbon, red hearts and -of course- lights, adjacent to the living room wood fire which will be lit and around which we’ll gather to eat dessert and open gifts. Devised as a family gathering -eschewing the bandwagon of mid-winter commercial trendiness- an opportunity to partake not only of gifts and comfort food but timeless pastimes en famille of brisk strolls, and toasted marshmallows around the pot belly fire outdoors… circumventing the pressure cooker of December festive negotiations and obligations.

“When we recall Christmas past, we usually find that the simplest things – not the great occasions – give off the greatest glow of happiness.” ― Bob Hope

ssss. . . sweet nothings

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I could cover it off by simply re-blogging one of my very early posts, dear holiday houseguests, from December 2011… but more than a fortnight has passed since the same houseguests’ most recent visit, and my temper is still snaky…

There was some improvement in their style: Stepson wielded a tea towel as sidekick to his washer-upper father; and I didn’t have to yell “don’t run through the house” (1) or remind “put the toilet lid down” (2) more than a dozen times during their 2 night/44 hour stay.

But what is rankling me will be forever known as “The Great Sugar Debacle”. It started quietly and caught us unawares. Granddaughter was coming solo to Taylors Arm with us for 6 days pre-Christmas so we suggested packing a water bottle for car trips, pillow, swimmers, and a book for entertainment in light of absence of internet coverage.

That was accomplished but also in her bags were 3 x 3 packs of chocolate flavour Up&Go (3) “liquid breakfast” drink, and 2 largish packets of lollies. I put a single 3 pack in the back fridge and left the rest in the bags.

Granddaughter is lovely and like most 11-year-old girls naturally has aspirations to behave much older than she is. We enjoyed her company and she enjoyed not having parents and 2 younger brothers cramping her style. An unfussy person in every way she hung out with us, herself or took advantage of the single item of modern technology, the TV, which at least has free-to-air channels including ABC3 Kids via the satellite dish.

The only things inexplicable were Granddaughter’s sudden bursts of manic activity or chatter particularly late afternoons. An easy houseguest, Granddaughter availed herself of the contents of the fridge & pantry, ate with us, ate well, and as we have little junk food-drink in the house, appeared to not overindulge her stash of lollies or when visiting her great-grandmother the endless supply of biscuits & sugary tea. She consumed a single Up&Go, preferring to join her grandfather in whatever he was having for breakfast, or a small bowl of rockmelon. Neither of them were interested in my breakfast of muesli (4), homemade plain yoghurt & local banana.

Initially we didn’t realize the moderate amount of sugar as we gauged it was cumulative in effect & desire. It’s consumption earned Granddaughter the nickname “Sugar” and better supervision of her intake. Which she took on board with good grace and improved self-moderation.

Fine until the rest of the family arrived on Boxing Day, descending upon the house with numerous plastic shopping bags (5) containing several more multi-packs of Up&Go, breakfast cereal – Coco Pops, Nutri-Grain & Fruit Loops, a six-pack of Powerade, 2 x 2 litres of fruit juice, 2 litres of raspberry cordial and copious packets of lollies & biscuits which were deposited on the kitchen table (6).

The G.O. made the new arrivals a late lunch of Christmas leftovers sandwiches before they proceeded to dive in to their sugary haul, dipping into the bags which I left unpacked in situ as we were eating at the outside table, or snacking on biscuits conveniently toted around the house by Daughter-in-law along with her bottle of Powerade.

Dinner was simple but homemade, Christmas leftovers: local pasture raised ham & roast chicken, pasta salad, mango salsa and green salad. Everyone enjoyed it (7) except Youngest Grandson who wanted lollies or dessert -got neither (8) , and Daughter-in-law who gratefully liberally applied to her food the bottle of fancy BBQ sauce they’d given us as a gift the previous year.

Next day the weather was miserable but we were out & about so a visit to the bakery made an easy lunch, and being a sensible woman I’d booked us into our local Pub With No Beer for dinner, which the houseguests prepared for by consuming more biscuits & lollies.

At the pub (which does have beer and thankfully, wine & spirits) the G.O. and I relaxed, had a few sanity restoring drinks and lovely meals. Despite the dreary weather the kids played in the Cubby With No Cordial, had a red “fire engine” fizzy drink each, ate their dinners except of course Youngest Grandson who wanted lollies or dessert -got neither. The parents couldn’t have cared less about food or drink… OMG the pub has WiFi… they were glued to their latest iPhones.

We'd rather a visit from George-Junior the Carpet Python than sugary junk food toting houseguests
We’d rather a visit from George-Junior the Carpet Python than sugary junk food toting houseguests

As the miserable weather settled into possible flood rain the decision was made by Stepson to decamp early the following morning as they’d, in his words “hate to be stuck in the boondocks”. I was sympathetic, I’d hate it too if they were stuck.

That morning the houseguests packed while ingesting Up&Go’s and breakfast cereal. I assisted by roving the house discovering discarded items, and restoring to the plastic shopping bags the remains of the sugar haul, assuring the houseguests probably unnecessarily “we don’t eat this, take it home”.




  1. Kids running through a 1930’s house built on raised “stumps” and full of old furniture-stuff creates an effect similar to earth tremors.
  2. Leaving the toilet lid up creates the possibility of a close encounter between a bare bum and a frog. Hilarious if it’s not your bare bum.
  3. Daughter-in-law works for the manufacturer. Linked product review dispels any illusions Up&Go is healthy.
  4. Homemade muesli ingredients: Organic if possible – oat bran, pepitas, sunflower seeds, mixed raw nuts, shredded coconut.
  5. The G.O. suggested as there are no shops (10) at Taylors Arm they come prepared with kids’ necessities and not to worry about food for meals as we had plenty of food but limited space in the fridges.
  6. Rendering unnecessary the tin of homemade Christmas biscuits I’d baked: usual Snap Biscuits recipe plus chopped dried sour cherries, macadamia nuts and white chocolate nibs.
  7. Eldest Grandson ate everything on his plate & licked it clean.
  8. Therefore no-one got dessert, which comprised leftover components of the deconstructed trifle I made for the G.O.: homemade custard; Aeroplane jellies – port wine with vodka poached cherries & passionfruit with vodka poached mango; Pandoro; tinned peaches; and Sara Lee vanilla ice-cream.
  9. The G.O. assisted with tidying up, collapsed on the verandah futon and didn’t move for the rest of the day. I did four loads of washing and drying (11). Wine o’clock was early but reverted to wine spritzers with homemade fizzy water.
  10. The new managers at the pub now sell their own homegrown eggs, meat, produce and a few basic grocery items.
  11. 5 houseguests = 6 bath towels even with the parents showering only once, plus 4 sets sheets & 10 pillowcases.

a good missus

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"First Impressions" Sandstone relief sculpture symbolises the origins and settlement of the colony. Playfair Street, The Rocks, Sydney, NSW Australia
“First Impressions” Sandstone relief sculpture symbolises the origins and settlement of the colony. Playfair Street, The Rocks, Sydney, NSW Australia

One of the quainter ways the G.O. expresses his appreciation of me is the by the reassuring accolade “you’re a good missus”… However, I’m not even remotely in the league of one of his great-great-great-great grandmothers, Harriet Hodgetts.

While the convicts of the Second Fleet were waiting to depart England the Home Secretary, William Grenville sent a letter to Lieutenant John Shapcote aboard the Neptune advising due to vacant berths there was some capacity for prisoners wives to have passage to the colony. Ordinarily not allowed, however Thomas Hodgetts and his wife listed as Harriet Hodgetts were beneficiaries of this circumstance. Harriet was one of six free women allowed to travel in this instance as convict spouses to New South Wales.

Her husband Thomas Hodgetts was convicted of theft in 1788 and sentenced to death, the sentence being commuted to seven years imprisonment and transportation to New South Wales. Thomas and Harriett Hodgetts arrived at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, New South Wales, Australia in June 1790 on ships of the Second Fleet. Thomas as a convict on board the “Scarborough” and Harriet as a free woman on board the “Neptune”.

If the times and life Thomas and Harriett left behind in England were harsh, their journey to the other side of the world was more so, with the mortality rate of the Second Fleet the highest in the history of transportation to Australia. The ships were contracted to private businesses who kept the convicts in awful conditions, treating them brutally. Of the 1026 convicts due to disembark in NSW 267 died. Of those who managed to complete the journey 486 were described as lean and emaciated many needing medical attention, with 124 dying shortly after.

Thomas and Harriet are described in the book The Brave Old Pioneers. A History of the Hodgetts Family In Australia.

“Convict Thomas Hodgetts & his wife Harriet, who was one of the first free women to come to Australia, survived the notorious Second Fleet to become respectable citizens and pioneers in a strange and challenging land.”

Such was the beginning of Thomas & Harriet’s new life together. They remained in Sydney until Thomas’ sentence expired in March 1795, thereafter he was free to work and apply for land grants. In July 1800 they moved to Norfolk Island, returned to Sydney in July 1805, in 1810 moved to Pitt Town on the Hawkesbury River, and finally to Tasmania in 1819 where they remained. During this time Thomas and Harriet had 10 children.

Thomas died suddenly in 1823, age 62 leaving his wife, eight children and fourteen grandchildren. Harriet stayed on at the farm at Longford where she died at 85 years of age in 1850.

The life Thomas and Harriet began anew was up summed by Tom Keneally in his book The Commonwealth of Thieves: The Story of the Founding of Australia.

“Male convicts were suddenly told that they could bring their wives on the voyage, if they chose, but only three women and three children turned up at Portsmouth by 21 December. Three of four other women embarked in the following days, interesting volunteers, lovers of various convicts, willing to take the step, on the eve of Christmas, into the void.

Amongst them was Harriet Hodgetts, wife of a 24-year-old blacksmith-cum-burglar from Staffordshire, Thomas Hodgetts. She had followed her husband down from Staffordshire to London, where she lived with their three small children in acute squalor in Whitechapel. It seems that the church wardens and overseers of the parish of St Mary’s Whitechapel took an interest in her case and were anxious to get Harriet aboard, since she had no other prospects at all.

That made her fit for New South Wales. Her revenge was to live till 1850 and to give birth to nine colonial children.”

With grandchildren of his own the G.O.’s family has 8 generations born in Australia descended from Thomas & Harriet.

Generation 1: Thomas & Harriet’s eldest living daughter Mary Maria (1795-1844) married Thomas Graham (1794-1862), son of the G.O.’s other 2 convict ancestors Eupham (sometimes referred to as Elizabeth) Graham and Matthias (often referred to as Matthew) Lock and who were described in one bit of research as “Australian Royalty“.

Generation 2: Frederick Albert Graham, son of Thomas Graham and Mary Maria Hodgetts was born at Wilberforce in 1841. He married Annie Maria Organ (1842-1905) in 1862 at Bukkulla. They had 12 children. Frederick died in 1924, age 82 and is buried at Inverell, as is Annie Maria.

Generation 3: Ernest Richmond Graham, son of Frederick Albert Graham and Annie Maria Organ was born at Inverell in 1885. In 1906 Ernest married Amanda Maria (sometimes recorded as Marie) Kachel (1886-1968) of German free settlers, who the G.O. remembers and refers to as Old Mummy. They also had 12 children most of them known to the G.O. Ernest died in 1960 age 75 and is buried at Urunga with Old Mummy.

Generation 4: Thelma May Graham (1906-1992), is the G.O.’s grandmother. May is buried at Coffs Harbour with the G.O.’s grandfather, Vincent who died in 1963 age 59 years.

There is some mystery attached to this story. One of the crimes Thomas was convicted of was reported as stealing a cotton gown valued at ten shillings, being the property of William and Ann Duce at Wednsbury in Staffordshire, purportedly his in-laws as there are suggestions that Thomas may have been married to a woman named Ann Duce at the time of his conviction, and had 3 children, who did not accompany them on the voyage. Harriet’s name has been recorded variously as “Duce”, Henrietta Ann (Harriet) Luce and Harriet Henrietta. Her headstone records her name as Henaretta Hodgetts.

In A Great Second Fleet Mystery-the Hodgetts Family Nola Mackey, a Historian whose husband’s family is also descended from Thomas and Harriett Hodgetts writes:

“Similarly I have been able to identify his wife, Ann, and their reputed children. By tracing these forward in time, I found no evidence they emigrated to Australia at a later time. In fact they remained in their native place and some of them can be found in the census records, some sixty years later.

It has been suggested Thomas’s wife Ann, changed her name to ‘Harriet’ and came to Australia leaving the children behind. As I can now prove this was not the case, it raises the question, who was the woman who came on the Second Fleet, and later claimed to be ‘Harriet Hodgetts’ the wife of Thomas Hodgetts?”


With the advent of the internet and various ancestry and genealogy websites, depending on the depth of research you want to undertake, web searches can offer up information previously only obtainable via considerable effort, research and cost. It was during a period of Google-based family history research on my mother’s family which morphed into the G.O.’s paternal grandmother May’s ancestry that I stumbled across what many Australians consider family history gold – convicts. Should you endeavour to undertake this type of research be prepared to get side tracked and spend endless time clicking on links and sources leading you to snippets of various information which do not necessarily exactly correlate necessitating the approximation and cobbling together of a story. With more material coming to light be prepared for revisions, updates and sometimes conflicting & varying information and versions.


Polly put the kettle on

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Nanna and me
Nanna and me c. 1967

The G.O. is not a devotee of Christmas cake i.e. fruit cake so it’s many years since I made one. Back in the days when I did, the version I made was simply dried fruit mix boiled in a combination of butter & orange juice and when cool flour, eggs and spices were added; very rich more like a pudding. A little went a long way so I baked it as cupcakes and distributed them widely amongst the family.

Last festive season visiting my aunt, she produced Christmas “mini muffins” made, she said, from my Nanna’s recipe. The G.O. uncharacteristically helped himself to extras, so my aunt emailed me the recipe labelled Polly’s Fruit Cake scanned from Nanna’s book. My sister’s middle name is Beulah, named after our Nanna but Nanna was always called Polly.

I hadn’t given thought to making it until the G.O.’s son recently mentioned he had already eaten the Lions charity Christmas cake he’d bought. Upon my suggestion it wouldn’t be difficult to bake one, his suggestion was I do so… for him.

Speaking to Dad I mentioned I was making the recipe and asked if he was interested in sampling the test batch. Paying lip service to his diet, he replied “No… Hmmm… Yes… Hmmm… You may as well drop some in”.

Polly's Fruit CakePolly’s Fruit Cake

250 grams / 1 cup softened organic salted butter (or margarine)

500 grams / 3 cups mixed dried fruit

250 g / 1 cup brown sugar

250 g / 1 3/4 cups organic plain flour

1 tablespoon organic self-raising flour

6 medium eggs, free range

Cream butter and sugar, add eggs then flour and mixed fruit, and combine.

For whole cake bake in slow oven 160 C (325 F) approx. 2 1/2 hours. For muffins bake at 180 C (360 F) approx. 30 minutes. (Fan forced ovens 10-20 C lower)

The margarine ingredient is controversial. My grandparents were dairy farmers. We always had butter. Dad said Nanna wouldn’t have used margarine. I tend to agree. However, my aunt follows the recipe and uses margarine.

The address recorded on the page as well as the recipes give an idea as to its time. The address is for my uncle when he was conscripted into National Service during the Vietnam War.

“Under the National Service Scheme [1964 -1972], twenty-year-old men were required to register with the Department of Labour and National Service (DLNS), they were then subject to a ballot which, if their birth date was drawn, meant the possibility of two years of continuous full-time service in the regular army, followed by three years part-time service in the Army Reserve.”

It may be that’s the clue to the margarine. My uncle was called up and sent to Townsville, North Queensland for army training. Possibly Nanna sent fruit cake to him in a care package. He was a long way from home -1800 km, bad news as far as the family were concerned but mitigated eventually when he wasn’t sent to Vietnam but met, and later married his wife at nearby Rockhampton in December 1971 only months before Nanna died in February 1972 age only 50 + 2  months.

the cook's breakfast
the cook’s breakfast

I’ve made the Christmas cakes, so… Polly, put the kettle on, we’ll all have tea.

Cook’s notes:

As I beat the mixture it turned into a golden batter, and  I knew by appearance and taste I’d been there when Nanna baked this cake.

The cakes come out of the oven browned, looking a little oily but as they cool they crisp.

I ate three for breakfast.




daughter out-law

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The dawn of a new mother-in-law era… I haven’t just acquired a husband; I’ve also acquired another mother-in-law. My third. Enough for any lifetime.

M.I.L.#3 has acted unofficially in that capacity for 9 years but since we shocked her with the news of our unheralded nuptials, when speaking to the G.O. M.I.L.#3 has taken to referring to me as “your wife”. As in “the cards your wife sent out were nice. Everyone had to get a looking-glass, the words on it were a bit small but we didn’t have a looking-glass”.

About a month into married life I had a very clear dream where the G.O. and I visited my in-laws from marriage #1. They and their house was pretty much the same, although it was evident time had passed. Possibly they summoned our presence in spirit to convey their blessings. They were disappointed when I abandoned all hope for the success of my marriage to their son.

Our respective hopes for that union differed. They hoped for grandchildren. I hoped for a grown up husband. Their son hoped for a wife with surgically augmented DD-cups. Disenchantment all ’round.

The two families couldn’t have been more different.

Mine: Anglican, big stone church attended for weddings, christenings, funerals; dress as you please; lottery tickets are acceptable goodwill gifts; TV watching; beer & wine drinking.

Husband #1’s: Lay church, twice weekly; women modestly clothed often to neck, wrists and ankles, no jewellery; gambling is the devil’s work; no TV with the exception of his mother’s rebellious compromise kept in the cupboard for special shows; teetotalers.

the thorny issue of the bathmat
the thorny issue of the bathmat

I stumbled into this family unawares; inadvertently, promptly flouting the conventions. By far my most serious faux pas was the bathmat incident. During my inaugural overnight stay at the in-laws, careful not to make a mess of the spotless bathroom, I made sure to step out of the shower onto the bathmat, left the floor dry as the desert, and returned the mat to the rail.

After her discovery of the reprehensibly damp bathmat, it was left to her son to communicate to me his mother’s long-suffering explanation of what she thought would have been patently obvious… the bathmat is for standing on after one is dry. One should dry oneself within the tiny confines of the shower stall before stepping out.

But I was welcomed, and we enjoyed each other’s company: playing board games cards and chatting while their son watched the forbidden TV. They were keen for us to make right our aberrant cohabiting arrangements. After we married, but didn’t immediately embark on procreating, my new father-in-law offered me $3000 cash if I would agree to a grandchild and a further $2000 and his wife’s moonstone bracelet upon production of same.

It was an offer I had no trouble refusing, although I would have done pretty much anything else for that bracelet.

By the time I encountered M.I.L.#2 I was seasoned. I knew when to offer assistance or not, unblinkingly accept the hospitality status quo, and not to stand on the bloody bathmat (thoughtfulness for which I was complimented!). I shivered my way through a freezing Christmas in south-western Victoria wearing all my clothes in bed as blankets were thin and few. I was grateful for the first-time-guest honour accorded me of not being relegated to the mouldy backyard caravan as had my brother-in-law and his long-time partner.

Although I visited their house numerous times, M.I.L.#2’s first visit to mine occurred a few days preceding wedding #2. I made sure there was plentiful food & drink (F.I.L.#2 loved a scotch, disapproval from his wife seemingly augmenting his enjoyment) and their room was comfortable, furnishing it with a duck down doona and pillows: which had to be swapped immediately upon their arrival and the fraught disclosure of M.I.L.#2 ‘s Pteronophobia (feathers).

Amongst the many pre-wedding house guests M.I.L.#2 didn’t reciprocate my when-in-Rome style: 24 hours later not much had been deemed agreeable. Granted her trip must have been tiring, as M.I.L. #2 stayed in her room late on the wedding day while the rest of us thought left-over chocolate cake & champagne was a fitting breakfast including the dog and cats who had been served their portions convivially on saucers. Upon emerging, being offered same, M.I.L. #2 surveyed the scene clearly appalled, and declined, ingesting as little as possible except tea for the duration.

We maintained polite relations for almost another decade but I’m pretty sure M.I.L. #2 doesn’t miss me.

Despite prior acquaintance with M.I.L.#3 via my friendship with the G.O., the slate was wiped clean upon commencement of our defacto in-law relationship. Once again I had to watch my step (although I’ve never ventured a shower) and my tongue.

One of the good things about M.I.L.#3 is that her son is like her in many ways. Understanding one gives you insight into the other. For instance, neither necessarily conveys what they mean, evidenced by a disconcerting discussion between M.I.L.#3 and her sister on fashion merits of chicken thighs… not the sort from the supermarket, the ones inserted into a bra for figure enhancement… aha, chicken fillets!

Other than M.I.L.#3 demanding to see our marriage certificate as proof we weren’t lying, we’ve had a fairly amicable relationship since the time I was asked my thoughts about financial arrangements they were considering, and foolish enough to venture the honest opinion that it was unfairly one-sided in M.I.L.#3’s favour. Wrong answer.

M.I.L.#3’s sulk lasted a blessedly peaceful couple of days; our visits greeted with silence. The G.O. kindly indulged his mother her mood, but eventually advised “think about it, we’ll be back tomorrow”. Upon our return M.I.L.#3’s greeting was friendly, details of revised financial arrangements cheerfully proposed, and my opinion once again sought, but not proffered.

M.I.L.#3’s house, garden and self are immaculately turned out, and she’s dubious about my casual sartorial approach, helpfully suggesting the local department store’s lovely but expensive selection of apparel and the nice affordable clothes to be had in Coffs Harbour.

By way of complimenting me on any efforts, M.I.L.#3 predictably and frequently admonishes me that I have gone to too much trouble. She also doesn’t practice what she preaches, her Christmas extravaganza outshining my modest offerings. We did manage to underwhelm her by announcing we’d eloped and married on the beach in day clothes; and were informed that proper protocols of guests and attire would have been preferable.

As Christmas approaches the G.O. navigating his mother’s traditional “oh you’re so busy we don’t want you to make a fuss” protests about Christmas lunch conceded only her wish to contribute her customary festive $80 lobster (costing $40 any other time of the year) of which we each get a single bite-size piece.

On Boxing Day, my own step-daughter-in-law will pay us a visit with her entourage of the G.O.’s son and grandkids. I just want her to know… it’s fine to use the bathmat. If it gets wet, no worries, hang it on the line. Relax. We’re family, make yourself at home… and feel free to get a drink out of the fridge, prepare meals, wash up & tidy a packed-to-the-rafters house… mi casa es su casa.

It takes courage to grow up…

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Sandra Danby emailed me and asked if I would like to review The Milk of Female Kindness: An Anthology of Honest Motherhood by Kasia James (Contributing Editor).

“I’ve just had two of my short stories published in an anthology and wondered if you would review the book on your blog? It’s called ‘The Milk of Female Kindness’ and includes short fiction, poetry, art, memoir and medical writing on the theme of honest motherhood. Some of the writers have recently given birth, others are grandmothers. Some, like me, are childless; my writing is inspired by memories of my own mother. Some of the pieces will make you smile, others are heartbreaking.”

I responded “… be happy to… given the theme which is close to my heart also”. Of course. I have been around mothers my whole life. Many of my family, friends and colleagues are mothers.

But my reactive assumption of familiarity with the subject was way off. It amounted to: I’m a woman; a Sagittarian, ergo I value honesty above all else; and my mother gave birth to me.

Reading the The Milk of Female Kindness contributions was eye-opening. It was like reading science fiction – women but another life-form, inhabiting a planet unfamiliar to me.

A colleague years ago shared the details of her entire pregnancy with our little office clan but that’s far different to what comes later. She resigned to take on a new role of full-time mum. She may as well have left the country as far as those of us who remained were concerned. Read the rest of this entry »

country offerings…

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For the Labour Day long weekend the G.O. and I took a well-earned extra couple of days off and headed up to our house on the Mid North Coast of NSW. The night before we left the G.O. packed the ute with bits and pieces we’d accumulated, clothes, wine and the coffee machine.

We didn’t alter the G.O.’s alarm clock setting so departed at the usual time he’d be going to work on a Friday – 5.30 am, fathoming the error of pre-packing the coffee machine. We were saved a long hour and half later by Oliver’s Real Food on the freeway where we grabbed coffees, and takeaway sandwiches for later. We hadn’t stopped there before. Their philosophy is “Fresh. Natural. Organic.” Their locations are where you’d normally find only fast food: “we know how hard it is to get food when travelling for people with special diets”. The G.O. and I don’t have special dietary requirements but we were hoping to continue the evolutionary food process upon which we’ve recently embarked.

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My father’s daughter: Exhibit 2

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Dad and me c 1967. The bad.
Dad and me c 1967. The bad.

My stepmother once mentioned you are your father’s daughter when less than pleased with both of us. This is not news to me. I’ve been my father’s daughter my whole life. You have to take the bad with the good… but my futile efforts to arrange a Fathers Day get-together went from bad to worse.

The noisy environs of our apartment mean we often don’t hear our mobile phones ring if it coincides with a passing train. In conferring with the G.O. re his 4WD quest Dad’s taken to calling him directly on his mobile but if the G.O. doesn’t answer then Dad calls my mobile, and leaves messages on both.

I missed Dad’s call on my phone but heard the message beep, and caught the G.O.’s ringing so answered Dad’s call. To the point as usual, he explained it wasn’t necessary for us to give him a lift back to collect his ute, he was catching the train but would like to see us anyway on Saturday night. I countered yes, we hoped so too but the G.O. had yet to make arrangements, and it was still likely to be Sunday as he’d been working long hours each day including Saturday and over the course of several weeks, so driving up on the Saturday night wasn’t preferable. Dad barely waited for me to finish before suggesting it didn’t matter if we arrived very late. The G.O. could have a lovely sleep sequestered in the spare room at the end of the hall. I reiterated my explanation.

Now concerned for the G.O.’s welfare, Dad suggested he stay on there for the week to catch up on much-needed rest. By this time my patience had run out and my volume had increased, as I announced fine, I haven’t been able to organize anything like that but I’ll put you onto him, and you see if you can do better than me. There’s no dignity in this, I thought, here we are shouting at each other like it’s 30 years ago and I’m 17. As I thrust the phone at the G.O. Dad’s final parry was well that’s whose phone I called.

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My father’s daughter: Exhibit 1

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Dad and me c 1967. The good.
Dad and me c 1967. The good.

Sometimes it feels like I have the spiel of our work-life imbalance on loop tape. Trying to explain the troughs, peaks and deadlines of project work and that the G.O. works 6 days a week, as a rule rather than an exception, to family, friends… and ourselves even, gets a little wearing.

The plan the G.O. and I made to drive the couple of hours north up the freeway to visit my Dad for Fathers Day and also the G.O.’s son and grandkids en route, came unstuck. Dad rang on the Thursday, giving us advance warning my stepmother had come down with a lurgy. Dad although he sounded snuffily assured me he was fine, as he’d been sensible, unlike Someone Else, and had a Flu Shot.

According to news reports Swine Flu is back. We weren’t taking any chances. The G.O. & I are germ-a-phobic; we’re rarely get ill, and there’s a link I’m sure. When we do, we go down like sacks of potatoes falling off a truck, but still have to drag our sick and sorry butts to work. Actually, the G.O. does, I try to manage a day or 2 at home, even if I’m logged on to my work emails.

We rain-checked the Fathers Day excursion to the following weekend and spent a quiet Sunday at home. Which the G.O. appreciated as he’s consistently been working 6 long days which seem to be getting longer, and continues to suffer from plantar fasciitis aka sore feet, as well as simply being bloody tired.

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they have to take you in…

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Continuing the tradition of family hospitality, when the elder of my younger two sisters started work she moved from living at home in the country to my home on the coast. At the time she was vegan, we were all working & commuting, and so we ate a lot of vege rice. I remember Bo, our dog, considering sadly the usually coveted dinner leftovers in her bowl, and looking at me as if to say, not again.

All of us busy, it was a DIY household. My sister summoned me to deal with the sizeable huntsman spider in her bathroom. Not my bathroom. Not my problem. Deal with it, was my response. To her credit she did, compassionately, with a dustpan and brush.

When my sister decided to end a relationship with a guy she had dedicatedly pursued for quite some time, an afternoon of music and cooking was in order, and so we created Nirvana-Lasagne.

My sister is a good musician and terrible sleeper. I believe there is a correlation. Many early morning hours the dull sound of her electric guitar, unplugged, could be heard emanating riffs from the crack under the door to her room.

During the time of my sister’s residence, the cats – Baddy & Jack, and Bo benefited most from her company, as my then husband and I were both away a lot. The timing was great. The furry ones loved the extra attention, lap and set of opposable thumbs to open food and doors. The cats colonized her bed, even when we were home.

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