Meals as emblems

April 22, 2009

waitingroomTwice in two weeks I have heard public readings from Gabrielle Carey’s new memoir, Waiting Room, about her mother Joan. Once was at the launch, and today was at Caroline Jones’ talk about her own new memoir about her dad, Through a Glass Darkly: A Journey Of Love And Grief With My Father.

Both memoirs are about an adult ‘child’ dealing with the illness of a strong-minded, forceful parent, and the unexpected grief that results. And both readings from Waiting Room – one from Gabrielle herself, the other from Jones apropos of her own strange adventures in grief and bereavement – were about food.

I was struck by these choices – the same passage, about  the kitchen, and I realised that some of the strongest writing in Waiting Room plays out in domestic duties, and in the inheritance of those routines of the kitchen, seemingly so commonplace, yet so resonant with symbolism.

This kind of writing is difficult to get right, because it has to reach beyond the merely prosaic symbols of one’s own family, and yet not tumble into the trap of the mechanical kitchen poetics anyone who’s ever been in a creative writing class knows about (oh yes, mea culpa culpa maxima) – the sort of heavy-fruit-and-aromatic-cinnamon blather that leads either to portentous autumnal-shaded glances between lovers, or cutesy musings about Yiayia’s orchard on the island/Grandad’s beer exploding in the passionfruit-covered toolshed/this really good pizza I had as a backpacker in Milan …  

Ahem. Praps revealing a little too much about my own literary failures here … but anyway, Gabrielle, I think, writes about food and its evocations very well, neither falsely poeticising nor cutesifying, and in this way writes us not only a portrait of her mother, Joan, that’s full of quiet dignity, but also says something broader and deeper about parenting, about domesticity and inheritance, and the work and beauty of getting a meal on the table. 

Today Caroline Jones, towards the end of her packed-to-the-rafters and quite lovely talk at the Stanton Library, held up Gabrielle’s Waiting Room and said she wanted to read a little from it. This is what she read:

As I busied myself silently in the kitchen, again, I recognised myself in my mother. Feelings were not expressed verbally within our family, so food often became a substitute for emotion. Although she never articulated her affection in words, each night she offered up meals as emblems of her love. Food became a talisman, invested with magical power, like a eucharist. Through those crumbed cutlets, through that mashed potato, through that lemon pudding, we three children intuitively understood that our mother was repeating, night after night, like a holy incantation: ‘Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my life, my energy, my love, which I have given up for you.’

And there was I, frying garlic, boiling pasta, in an attempt to broadcast the same message to  my children. 

Especially today, I send my good wishes to Joan, whom I have never met, except through the pages of this book. I liked her very much.

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