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Jo St Leon

Australia

Jo St Leon is a musician and aspiring author from Hobart, Tasmania. She writes fiction, non-fiction and reviews and plays with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. She is currently working on a collection of personal reflections inspired by a cancer diagnosis.

The Memory Book

Mum swanned into the gleaming kitchen, skirts flowing, saying, “Oh Martha darling, I thought I’d whip up a batch of spaghetti scones for tea. For old times’ sake.”

 

            I felt the familiar irritation rising in my chest. “Spaghetti scones, Mum? Sounds disgusting. What on earth for?” Even though my brother Pete had installed this state-of-the-art kitchen in her rambling Queenslander, her recipes hadn’t changed since the 60s. I’d thought it a stupid present − Pete just showing off his flash new job, and making me feel small while he was at it.

            “Your brother’s coming,” my mother replied. “It’s his birthday.”

            My heart sank. Peter is eight years older than me; I used to call him Pompous Pete. He hated it – more for the Pete than the Pompous, which says it all really. We’d never got on, even as kids. He was full of it because he’d won a scholarship to a stuck-up school in Toowoomba while I just went to the local primary school in Victoria Hill. Now, I could almost hear his voice saying, Oh really Mums, spaghetti scones? What’s wrong with a nice batch of lamingtons? His smug superiority grated, despite my own irritation. So she’s eccentric. So what?

            I reached up for the battered, ancient cookbook. Mum has only ever had one. She’s had it for more years than I can remember. The gold lettering on the front − Country Women’s Association Cookbook − is wearing off and the pages are threadbare. The atrocious ingredients − tinned, processed, sugar-laden − sent chills through my self-righteous, wholefood heart. When Pete gave Mum her schmick new kitchen, I’d tried bringing her fresh, healthy food to cook with but she just left it to rot and carried on cooking her awful CWA dinners.

            Flicking idly through the book as Mum bustled around making coffee, I realised that, like a Memory Book, every page held a piece of my past. That red stain on the fish finger pie page was where I threw the jam jar at Mum in a rage, because I liked my fish fingers with baked beans and peas, not all mushed up in a pie. The French chicken casserole recipe took me back to my twelfth birthday, when Mum made it as a special treat. The chickens were a present from Sadie, who lived up the road. I used to beg her for it after that, but it was only ever for special occasions. The jelly whip page was all torn from overuse, mended lovingly with neatly applied sticky-tape. I remembered Mum making the mushroom pie after an especially fruitful mushrooming expedition in the bush behind our house. I loved mushrooming with her, we had such fun, grubbing around in the dirt.

            Mum didn’t have much fun, I realised now. Cooking, cleaning, constantly making ends meet, took all her time. There wasn’t much left over for friends or leisure. Looking up at her now, bustling around the kitchen assembling the ingredients for her scones, she looked happy. She hummed a little tune under her breath, and I realised that this cheerful woman had rarely had a look-in all those years ago. The mushrooming expedition was one of my best memories, and the pie was great. A real celebration.

            These country women were thrifty. The ingredients might be awful, but they used them wisely; nothing went to waste. Turning back to the beginning, I noticed some writing on the flyleaf: a beautiful flowing cursive that we used to call running-writing when I was at school. “Maria,” it said, “Thank-you for the contributions. I’ve done what you asked with your name.”

            Slightly puzzled, I turned to the spaghetti scones page. I read the list of ingredients with disbelief: tinned spaghetti, flour, shortening, an egg, all seasoned with a big dollop of Worcestershire sauce. Worse than I could possibly imagine. Surely this was more than eccentricity!

            The page was pristine, one of the few that remained unstained, but nonetheless it surprised me with its own long-forgotten memory. I was 7, and I was helping Mum in the kitchen. The kitchen was old, all peeling paint and shabby cupboards. The pantry door was coming off its hinges and, as usual, it was empty. Mum didn’t have her swirling skirts and hippy hair back then. She was kind of old-young, with a cheap perm and a truly hideous nylon dress, damp and clingy with sweat. I inhaled the desperation, the tiredness and the defeat emanating in waves from her drooping shoulders. This was the Mum of my childhood.

            It was Pompous Pete’s fifteenth birthday, and he had a few friends coming round for tea. It was a big occasion, the Toowoomba Grammar boys coming for tea. Mum wanted it to be special. From the pantry shelf she took tins of condensed cream of mushroom soup and spaghetti in tomato sauce. Apart from the bag of flour and a few condiments, that’s all there was. Looking back now, I can imagine her despair as she tried to create a feast from these meagre ingredients, but back then it just seemed normal. The familiar bowl of mushrooms sat on the windowsill, where it seemed to have sat for my whole childhood. Mum always seemed to know, on our expeditions, which were edible, and which not. “They’re magic, these mushrooms,” she would say. “They’ll lift any dish out of the ordinary.” They would be added to the tinned soup in a pathetic attempt to make it special. She mixed up the flour and spaghetti with the egg and Worcestershire sauce to make scones – not really a recipe, just random stuff chucked together because she had it. I’d always scoffed at Mum’s cooking, but I realised now that quite a lot of creativity was involved in her weird concoctions.

            The friends had laughed at Mum’s food. Four big, galumphing boys with loud voices and spots. They called each other by their surnames − Smithson, MacDonald, Davies and Wilkinson-Smythe – and said things like “good man.” They called Pete “Jones”, and then laughed, like it wasn’t a good enough name. They didn’t say “good man” to him. None of them brought him a present. Maybe that was a boy thing, but I wasn’t sure.

            Wilkinson-Smythe was the worst. He had the loudest voice and a sort of braying laugh that made him sound like a donkey. Whenever he brayed, the friends joined in and sniggered with him. He picked up the plates to look underneath, and hee-hawed loudly. He did the same with the cutlery and the glasses − servo ones that came free with the petrol. They made fun of our house, our yard, our shabby furniture. I didn’t understand their laughter, but I remembered that awful, squirmy feeling of embarrassment, and the mortifying blush that crept up my neck, betraying me. We were all wrong, again. I felt that a lot over the years and it always began with Mum. I hated her sometimes.

            Mum brought the soup and scones to the table then pushed me into the next room. Pete didn’t want his irritating little sister at his birthday tea, but I peeked around the door. We could hear everything. We heard when Wilkinson-Smythe said, “What the dickens are we eating, Jones? I’ve never tasted anything quite like it before.” The boys hee-hawed some more and left their soup to grow cold in the bowls while they started breaking off bits of scone and chucking them at each other, hee-hawing all the time.

            Pete himself remained strangely silent. He’d eaten his soup and scones with apparent enjoyment, but I felt embarrassed for him. The scones were weird. Why couldn’t Mum have made Pompous Pete a nice chocolate cake, with proper icing, for his birthday? The friends’ laughter hurt. This was our house, our stuff. Mum might not be a great cook, but they were just rude. I watched her quietly wipe away a tear as Pete’s horrible friends threw her food around the kitchen. She thought I didn’t notice.

            After they left, Pete went to Mum and gave her a big bear hug. “Thanks Mums,” he’d said. “That was great. Specially the scones. Genius!” Then he’d fetched the broom and started sweeping all the bits of mangled scone off the floor. I watched, unhappy without really knowing why.

            As I relived this memory, I finally got it. We’d been poor. Dirt poor. Aged 7, I hadn’t realised. Looking back through the years at my young mother with her cheap perm and hideous dress, in her shabby kitchen with the permanently bare pantry, I felt a dawning respect. She had spent her life scrimping and saving, creating meals out of nothing, so that Pompous Pete and I wouldn’t go without, or even know we were poor. Then, thinking of Pete’s long-ago silence, his bear hug, his thanks and praise, I realised: he had known. Not pompous at all − just kind and protective beyond his years. I felt a renewed rush of hatred for those long-ago, stuck-up friends, and an uncomfortable twinge of shame for my intolerant younger self.

            Looking down at the book in my hand, I saw that the recipe had been contributed by Anita Morrish, from Victoria Hill in country QLD. Our town. Ah − the writing on the flyleaf! This was Mum’s recipe, invented out of desperation one afternoon so her son could have a birthday party. She’d contributed it to help other women whose pantries were bare. Too proud to make our poverty public, she’d rearranged the letters of her name. Anita Morrish. Maria Shortin. I felt the tears prick as I finally understood the effort, the sacrifice and, most of all, the love that had allowed me my carefree childhood.

            The ringing of the doorbell recalled me from my memories. Peter. He came into the kitchen with Mum, laughing at something she’d said. Catching sight of the mushroom soup and the scones, his face lit up. “Oh Mums,” he cried, “you remembered.”

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