Mum organising some male relative circa 1926
It was two weeks before the designated move and mum and I began to pack her kitchen. Mum had this sign
No matter wherever I place my guests, they always like my kitchen best.
As a family we spent most time in the kitchen. And while there mum cooked, she prepped, she bottled and she preserved, she peeled and she pummelled. Over the years the combination of her catering love and her inability to get rid of anything meant every cupboard and every drawer was chock full. Add to that two dressers in the garage that were also full of equipment and you had enough stuff to set up a catering college with the left-overs sufficient to back up the Great British Bake Off.
I began well. Two cracked and chipped casseroles were unceremoniously given the heave-ho. A teapot, once a favourite but now with a spout that poured side-saddle went the same way.
Mum, top right, and her mother bottom right; the rather gruesome duck’s heads should be ignored but maybe explain her granddaughter’s obsession with animals
But then I reached the heatproof glass bowls, some of which were pyrex (are you old enough to remember pyrex?). Often mum made pies and puddings which she froze in these vessels. That way they could go straight in the oven from the freezer.
I pulled them all out. There were four different sizes and thirteen bowls in total. I lined them up in size order on the work-surface.
‘Ok. How many?’
Mum glanced my way. ’13.’
”No I meant how many are you taking.’
‘I know you did.’
Sometimes mum was so many steps ahead of me I needed a moment to work back through our conversation to realise what she meant. ‘You can’t take all of them.’
Ok, yes, I sounded a little petulant. And miffed.
‘There isn’t space.’
‘How do you know that?’ She’s now meeting my gaze with a steady stare.
‘Mum, you’re kitchen is a third larger here and…’
‘Haven’t you heard of space saving?’
‘Of course, mum but…’
‘And that lovely kitchen designer (note the ‘lovely’ – if this particular form of endearment was added as an appellation it usually spelt disaster to argue with such a person’s opinions – the equivalent of telling Stephen Hawkins he couldn’t add or that David Attenborough was unkind to animals) said my new kitchen had the latest in space-saving (she was referring to a neat pull out cupboard-thingy that was one door wide, rose from floor to ceiling and had access on both sides to the five shelves).’
‘I know but…’
‘So, and please don’t interrupt my flow (as if my feeble attempts could ever interrupt the inexorable Ganges of logic swamping me), if the new kitchen is an improvement on the old it must be able to hold more per cubic meter (now I knew she was toying with me, the evil predator of hapless lawyers – when did she go metric, for pity’s sake: we were ruled by the rod, as in the rod, pole and perch as a system of measurement – (if you are unsure what I mean, these are different names for the same unit of length, which is five and a half yards)) than the old one.’
‘I get it. You think all this,’ I swept an arc around her kitchen, ‘ will fit into the new one.’
‘No? I don’t understand.’
Mum and her cousin, circa 1952; oddly she seems happy that dad is in charge of a moving vehicle
She hugged me. ‘I know you don’t.’ She looked up, smiling her goofy smile, chucking my cheek – is there a more annoying motherly gesture ever devised? ‘You are as impulsive as your father…’
Pausing here for a moment, the expression you are as [add characteristic] as your father has been adopted by the Textiliste in what might be described as a ‘braking’ expression. Describing something I have said, or worse, have done, or indeed, am in the process of saying or doing thus, renders me instantly immobilised. I adored my dad but comparisons with, say, his politics, his ranting at the radio, his ideas on best business practice, diy, house buying, his driving, his.. well you get the idea, does not cut it. I am different. As in DIFFERENT. I shaved off my moustache for heaven’s sake in 1998. Didn’t that show my intention to be my own man (ok, so I was 42 but I don’t like to rush)?
Yes, glamorous but rather scary…
So for mum to make such a comparison was, as she well knew, liable to (a) make me bristle (b) become defensive and (c) instantly do the opposite of what I was about to do. Namely argue with her.
‘I’ll put the kettle on. The thing is, darling, it may not all fit and if so we can decide then what we do with the extras but unlike your father (and implicitly, me) I prefer not to make assumptions based on a flawed thinking.’
‘Which is what?’
‘That just because I want to move means I want to get rid of anything.’
‘Anything? Haven’t we only been discussing glass bowls?’
‘I think they are what you lawyers call a test case.’
‘You mean you expect to apply the same logic to everything in the kitchen.’
Her smile grew, Cheshire-cat like. She didn’t respond, at least not verbally and just held my gaze. It was a caring, teacherly face. One I saw many times as a child when I couldn’t grasp a concept: like algebra or ironing a shirt. She knew I would grasp it eventually; I just needed time to absorb what she had said and my subconscious would do the rest.
She resorted to torture often to get her way…
‘You don’t mean you plan on taking everything,’ my waving arms described windmills of arcs encompassing the house, the garage and beyond, ‘with you and then sort it out.’
She had the grace to giggle. ‘That would be logical, Captain.’
I didn’t give in easily. I dutifully ate my cake (apple and cinnamon) and drank my tea while testing the edges of this theory. But she’d planned it out, even to the extent of agreeing the arrangements with the removal men. All the boxes that contained the absolute essentials (no, I didn’t dare ask how she’d identified these) would go to their chosen destinations in the bungalow. Ditto the furniture (mum had ten sofas and chairs and expected them all to come). The rest would be stored in the garage. And the summerhouse we were taking. Or, at a pinch on the sitting room which was the biggest room in the new place. Gradually, a box at a time would be emptied, its contents reconsidered and, if found essential, or likely to be, it would be kept. If it failed that test it didn’t go. Oh no. It was repacked. Once every item had been reconsidered, if there was space over, some of the unessentials would be kept (because you never knew, did you?). If however there wasn’t space then a clear out would be instigated.
Mum was 82; of course there were circumstances when she might need 13 glass mixing and cooking basins. I just couldn’t imagine them. No one I asked could. When regaled with this conversation, family members sighed and smiled; friends laughed and said things like ‘Isn’t your mother great’ and ‘doesn’t she have spirit?’ and ‘It’s marvellous she knows her own mind’.
Fuckwits, all of them. It was going to be a nightmare. And that was before the intervention of my sister-in-law.
And so to Dad’s poem. This was written from the heart after he was made redundant a second time in 1986, even if the ending sentiment was not one he worried about.
Joe was made redundant on a Friday afternoon,
His world came tumbling down just after three,
He went back to his office, sat down and shook his head,
And whispered to himself ‘Why me?’
He tried to recollect just what it was they said,
Some word or phrase, perhaps, would be the key,
He remembered words like ‘rationalise’ and ‘viable’ and ‘facts’
But they were not the answer to ‘Why me?’
‘It’s nothing personal, Joe,’ they’d said, ‘You’ve done a damn good job,’
‘It’s just a basic economic fact, you see,’
‘And if we had our way, we’d leave things as they are.’
And that left Joe still wondering ‘Why me?’
He’d worked here now for – how long? Why nearly thirty years,
And at least he’d climbed some distance up the tree.
The department he now managed – surely this was a success?
But all that did was emphasise ‘Why me?’
And driving home that evening his mind was in a whirl
At nearly fifty-five what would he do?
But the thing that most concerned him was what to tell his wife
Who was surely going to ask ‘Why you?’