“It’s All About Food” is a collection of stories about growing up down under, which was prompted by our local newspaper in Topanga asking me for a Christmas story. At the time I was mourning both my mother and my best friend and did not think that I could come up with anything. I sat down to write and found that I was remembering my own childhood and my mother and what an awful cook she was and how lucky I was to have such happy memories and the words just scrambled onto the page. “Southern Christmas” was the first of eight true stories.
by Jillian Palethorpe
Christmas Day and my mother is cooking Christmas dinner. The works, a roast leg of lamb, roasted potatoes, string beans, green peas, a nice bit of roast pumpkin and my grandmother's famous Christmas pudding with threepences and sixpences in it. Since this is New Zealand in the 1950s that means midday dinner, and since this is New Zealand and the Austral Summer rages full blast that means a lovely December day at 95 in the shade. All the family is at our house because it's the biggest and because it's 500 yards from the sea and should be cooler. But the hot NorWester, little antipodean cousin to the great desert winds, is blowing. So we swelter and a fine gritty patina of beach sand settles on the mounds of food intended to get us through what would be the worst of the winter if we still lived in the Northern Hemisphere. This cultural schizophrenia is further accented by what we're wearing. The men have as little on as possible; swim suits, shorts, sun hats, while the women are in frocks or suits – "costumes" they called them -- with nylons and high heels. I am too young to understand cultural schizophrenia but old enough to dread any roast dinner my mother cooks. My little sister Viv and I hide in our room under the pretext of keeping our good frocks clean but really to escape the smell of the food.
We have come from church, at least the female members of the family have. The men don't go and that's that. Last year my sister and I tried out our own freedom from religion movement. We told our mother we weren't going to Sunday school any more because we didn't believe in God. This heresy was met with a counter move that the Diet of Worms could have used on Martin Luther. "All right," my mother said calmly, "You don't have to go." My sister's jaw dropped. I don't think she had expected such swift and giddy success. She had, as usual, put me up to it. Our triumph lasted three or four seconds. "Instead of Sunday School, I want you to go and help our neighbors," ordered our mother. "Miss Fergusson lives alone and needs help with errands and that dog of hers. And Mr. White has lost his wife, poor soul. Give him help with his garden."
And we still had to go to church on major holidays like Easter and Christmas. This wouldn't have been so bad if we still had Cannon Witty. Cannon Witty was married and had children and grandchildren and a wife who ran her household like the royal yacht. Cannon Witty, fully aware that his wife's roast needed to be in the oven at precisely 9:15am raced through 8am Communion at full clip. His record was 45 minutes but he never went over 55. His successor is single and has the light of eternity in his eyes. His flock is shrinking and the ones that stay eye the door and their watches discreetly as he wraps himself in the comfort of the sacraments. I use the time to smell the perfume of the Christmas lilies and try and stop my empty stomach from growling. I think about the roast pumpkin yet to come and that does the trick.
For my sister and I, oh we dread the midday weekend dinner with its overcooked dry roast meat, its green vegetable boiled pink, its gleaming evil gravy and worst, most terrible of all, its roasted pumpkin. My mother is, like most New Zealand women of her generation, a good baker but an atrocious cook. The tragedy is that in the fifties Men Don't Cook. The two best cooks in our family, my father and grandy, my mother's father, get to show their abilities only when my mother is sick or having a baby or on one of her rare holidays. My father can grill fish. Grandy makes the best Irish stew. The longing for food like that will be enough for me to throw off the shackles of childhood helplessness and become the family cook in another three years. It is simply self-defense.
High noon. In the living room my father gets everyone drinks and fusses around. My mother is still in her good suit, tight around the tummy where what will be my brother is just beginning to show. My parents' friends the Atkinsons, Gus and Reggie and their hopeful teenage daughter Alana sit in triptych on the sofa. Next to them are my divorced aunt and her two youngest boys my cousins, teenage Neil and Neville who is a year and a day older than me. Love Neil. Hate Neville. When I was seven Neville told me earwigs would crawl in through my ears in the night and lay eggs in my brain and I would die in screaming agony. I slept with a pillow over my head for a whole year. He's another good reason for my sister and I to stay shut up in our room until the very last minute, hoping (we no longer believe in God so we can't pray) that mum will burn the pumpkin and we won't have to eat it. We sit on the floor our backs to the dresser pulled across the door. The door thumps with Neville's kicks. "Auntie Jean is spoiling Neville because of the divorce," I tell my sister. I have overheard my father telling my mother that.
Divorce is still comparatively rare in New Zealand in the fifties. I have no idea what my aunt being divorced means. Her husband James is a distant blonde curly-haired memory who liked to tell jokes and make me laugh. But he has gone and no one talks about him any more. Aunt Jean and the cousins have moved to another town and are only visiting for Christmas. My world is emptying out of people. Grandy isn't there either. He died in the spring and there are moments when I catch my mother staring out the window at the distant sand dunes, her eyes very bright and the dust cloth loose in her hand. I still have a last picture of him in my head. Walking away down the long white street, back straight and tall in his suit with his hat on. The heat waves between him and me wiggling the air. Going to catch the bus to the hospital. He never came home.
Neville's thumping ceases abruptly. My father pushes open the door despite our siege and we are called to eat. The table is set in the big kitchen. All the doors and windows are open to the scorching summer day. We have been promised a trip to the beach later but first we must endure our dinner. "You girls can eat in the back yard," my father tells us. My sister and I look at one another in sudden joy. "Eat outside?" asks my aunt. "Won't they get overheated?" Neville starts whining. "I want to eat outside too." No, no he mustn't come. He will ruin everything. And besides he'll tell on us. He'll know our secret. "There are only two seats," says my mother, "and they're play-house chairs. Too small for a big boy like Neville."
In triumphant duet, Viv and I take our plates and our cutlery and our serviettes out of the kitchen down the long back hall through the back porch and out into the back yard. Our house, like the others in this suburb, has been built on sandhills in the years following the Second World War. Stolid, unimaginative houses like Mr. Stanley, the stolid, unimaginative builder who built them and who lives around the corner in a house just like ours only bigger. Surrounded by high pine wood fences, milled from the local pine plantations, which march in vast, dark regiments behind the sand dunes all the way up the coast. Gradually the houses are replacing the trees. No quarter is given the pines; none are left standing to shade the new houses, or their gardens. Our back yard is like all the other back yards – there is a lawn and nothing higher than a tomato plant in it. But it backs on to Mr. White's backyard and Mr. White's backyard is a garden.
As young and deprived of variety as we are, even we know that Mr. White's garden is something special. His front garden is the high point of the street, manicured, immaculate ranks of roses, Buddleia, Myoporum, guard his lawn and front path. His back garden is for vegetables and fruit trees. The vegetables grow in raised beds in perfect rows; cauliflower, spinach, silverbeet, carrots, cabbage, and in summer, giant heads of lettuce. Runner beans line the fence and raspberry and gooseberry canes back the strawberry beds. Apricot, apple, plum and pear trees shade the back lawn. It is an apricot tree growing hard up against our fence that generously provides the one piece of shade in our nude, green desert – the place where our play table and chairs have been set for our al fresco midday dinner.
Since my rift from formal religion and my entry into the world of hands-on good works I have become at first acquainted and then entranced by Mr. White's garden. Religiously, every Sunday morning I go through the gate in the fence that separates the two yards and Mr. White assigns me a task. Sometimes I must weed the lettuce beds. Sometimes I must hunt for snails in the stand of Iris. Sometimes I must rake the lawn or dig out dandelions. Each time at the end of my 2 hours labor Mr. White gifts my mother with yet another sacrifice for boiling or roasting. Sometimes it's new potatoes crusted with dark earth. Sometimes it's rough-coated runner beans with divine pink insides. Most of the time, knowing my mother's partiality, it's a pumpkin. Where they grow in his garden is a mystery to me. I'm not even sure what a pumpkin plant looks like. If there was a street to walk the way home on I would lose the pumpkin but with only our green Gobi to traverse I am forced bear my own cross to the weekend Calvary of midday dinner. This irony is not lost on me. I have contemplated a return to Sunday School but I A) can't bear the idea of being shut up for 2 hours with God and Mrs. Charles who has a mustache and B) Mr. White would give my mother the pumpkin anyway because he has so many of them.
Besides, sometimes there are reprieves. Like lunch outside. For best of all and most wonderful, right beside that apricot tree on the other side of the fence is Mr. White's secret weapon – his compost heap. All we have to do with the hated pumpkin is toss it lightly to the left of the apricot tree's branches and it will land in the lap of all the other organic throwaways to rot and become fruitful. This is why we love to eat outside. This is our secret. Both of us loathe pumpkin most of all but both of us know that on this subject my mother is implacable. How can you tell someone who went hungry in the Great Depression that you're a fussy eater? So in winter we gag and try to swallow it whole and in spring, summer and autumn we eat outside so we can throw pumpkin over the fence.
I have perfected the throw, a light lob avoiding the green branches of the tree. I hear mine plunk down among the other compost. But Viv is still excited by our narrow escape and she flings wide. There's a peculiar thunk and a faint muffled voice says "Hey!"
My legs turn weak. My sister and I gaze at each other in wild surmise, silent then there's her squeak of panic and we're up on the fence. Through the branches of the apricot tree we look down on Mr. White's perfect back lawn, dotted with daisies. Mr. White is lying on the lawn looking up at us. Viv's pumpkin has scored a bulls-eye right in the middle of his chest. His glance skips over my peeling nose and tomboy countenance and finds my sister’s blonde curls.
"Angels,” Mr. White murmurs. His face is all stiff and weird. My sister immediately bursts into tears and runs for the house. I know I have perhaps three minutes before she persuades them that this isn't her normal hourly meltdown and one of them comes to investigate. Mr. White scares me very, very much. He smells funny and I have seen him crying which grown-ups aren't supposed to do. But I have to approach him. I have to get the telltale pumpkin off his chest. If my mother sees that she'll know. She'll never let us eat outside again. The thought of endless weekend dinners inside forced to eat the nauseating roast pumpkin Summer And Winter spur me on like a jockey's whip. I hoist myself up on the fence and jump down beside Mr. White. His weary blue eyes blink at me. "So tired." he mutters.
I stretch out my hand to the pumpkin. It has maintained the integrity of its shape – the skin is still deep black and crisp and even. No cadmium orange pulp has leaked out onto Mr. White's spotless shirt. I grasp the charred edges gingerly and Mr. White clasps his hand clumsily over mine. The pumpkin goes everywhere, squishing plumply through my fingers and skidding up the snowy slope of Mr. White's shirtfront. Oh no, what could be worse. "Katy?" says my mother's voice. I freeze.
Way, far away inside the house I can hear Bing Crosby singing Christmas in Kilarney I look up. My mother stares over the fence at both of us. I have never seen her look like that. Her face is chalky white and horrified. It's as though an operator has plugged in a line in an old-fashioned switchboard and I am suddenly connected to her thought. This is what grandy looked like. My aunt appears beside my mother. "Oh, Maureen! Oh God! The old man's dead!" She shrieks this last and I am suddenly cold with the chill of the tomb. It had not occurred to me that Mr. White might be dead. But if he's dead why is he moving? Panic rushes into my mind and limbs. I try to pull my hand away but Mr. White has it fast. He's trying to speak but I'm trying to flee. He might take me with him and I have no wish to go. Even with mum's roasted pumpkin in it, the world is where I want to be.
The garden gate bursts open and dad and Reggie Atkinson and my cousin Neil run over to me. My father is scared and furious. "Get away from him, he's dead,” he yells pulling me up into his arms. I try to keep the pumpkin off him but he's holding me so tight. Reggie leans over Mr. White. "Dead drunk, more the story, I'd say." he sniffs and looks at the pumpkin mess with an almost fond exasperation. "Silly old bugger's puked all over himself, as well." he adds and, glancing at my hands. "Better get your girl cleaned up." My father notices my hands for the first time and hands me to my aunt who has now arrived with everybody else. My aunt and Neville shy away from me as though I was contagious. It is cousin Neil who takes me over to the hose and washes my hands. I am vaguely aware of Gus Atkinson and my mother murmuring to one another "…Poor old thing, no-one to take care of him since his wife died…" "…Probably hasn't eaten in days…" Dad and Reggie are helping Mr. White to his feet and my mother is insisting that he come next door and get changed and eat something. Viv comes and stands beside us. She hasn't a clue how the attention shifted off her or what is happening and I pull her over beside the compost heap into the tall grass and tell her to never tell anyone about the pumpkin. She is convinced that her pumpkin missile laid Mr. White out and she knows she's in it just as deep as me so she nods her head wordlessly and goes back next-door.
Neil finds me standing by myself and takes me back home. But not before I notice how different from all the rest of Mr. White's garden this little island around the compost heap is. Here it is wild. Here, Nature rules, green in spur and thorn, twisted vines, large untrammeled leaves run riot. I spot something orange in the green depths. It is a pumpkin. So that's where they grow.
When we get back to the house I am made to lie down. I hate it, it embarrasses me. I'm not sick. But my father is insistent. I Have Had A Shock. With all the fuss it never occurs to me then or in fact, for several years what, or rather who is the source of Mr. White's luxuriant pumpkin patch. And by then I'm a confirmed pagan, so I believe that only Mother Nature could have snookered me so firmly. Now… well, there are more and stranger things in the universe than a deity so micro-managing that He could take poetic revenge on a small child for refuting Him and for loathing one of His other creations so profoundly. But on this Christmas Day I am overcome by heat and sleep. When I wake up the sky is glowing with the gift of the NorWester – a perfect fiery sunset. I have missed the trip to the beach but at least they bring me Christmas Pudding. I get two threepences and a sixpence. I am rich. The loathed Neville leaves in two days. The school holidays stretch out to the distant horizon of February. Mr. White is still with us. So is his compost heap. Life is good. I close my eyes and smell the wind from the sea pushing the last of the roast dinner smells out the windows and up into the evening sky, summer bright and soft with the ghost of Southern Cross coming in.
© Copyright Jillian Palethorpe 2000