Monday, December 12, 2005

Of handwriting and memory

A post at long-toothed hinterland dweller a few days ago on the necessity to get one's recipes organised got me hunting out a precious document on the cookbook shelf: a tiny, battered, falling-apart notebook that my mother kept recipes in. The earliest entries are some household accounts, dated 1956.

After she died in 1999, my dad taught himself to cook, largely out of this book. For a long time I'd get three or four phone calls a week: 'What on EARTH does your mother mean by "fold in the flour"? How much is a scant cup of milk? What the hell is a smidgin?'

After my father remarried last year I took custody of this notebook, for so strongly does it project the aura and presence of my mother that we feared it would freak out his new wife completely. It's full of annotations, alterations and interleavings by my nan, my mum, both of my sisters, me, and now my father.

In it you can trace the shifting patterns of food fashions in Australia over the last 50 years; my own three non-negotiable permanently-on-hand ingredients -- garlic, olive oil and lemon juice -- barely get a look-in, even though my mother was a meticulous and imaginative cook, well ahead of her time. These notebook recipes are from an earlier era, before she started indulging herself in the luxury of buying new cookbooks. Cornflour figures prominently.

Whenever I want to conjure up and commune with my mother -- and Christmas tends to bring this kind of thing on for everyone, I think -- I go not to photographs but to this little book. The sight of her handwriting is a direct blow to the solar plexus; it's not a "nice" thing. It's powerful and spooky, the kind of thing that makes you understand why clairvoyants and psychics often ask for some personal item belonging to the dead or missing person. Handwriting's what Frank Moorhouse would call strong magic, an extension of both the body and the soul. You've got to hope that in the age of keyboards, keypads and voice-recognition software, it won't die out completely. Too much would be lost.


Val said...

This is such a powerful post. I read the shorter version over at long-toothed hinterland, and I'm so glad I visited your blog.

Because my parents live in the U.S., we have turned to email over the past 10 years rather than snail mail. I print out their messages, but you're right: the handwriting is so much more immediate, and the email is not the same. Fortunately I've saved old letters.

comicstriphero said...

My mother has a handwritten family recipe book given to her by her aunt as a wedding gift.

I've been ever so gently prodding her that perhaps a similar heirloom from her generation to mine would be a treasured object.

But one does not wish to say things like "it would provide a connection between us that would exist know"

Your post has inspired me to persevere!

Pavlov's Cat said...

Email is of course immediate in a different, and sometimes better, way. But nothing evokes, or do I mean invokes, actual presence like handwriting. Some cyborg-oriented cultural-studies theorist must surely have discussed this somewhere.

As for discussing with one's ma the time when she will be no longer with us: you're right. Tactless.

I realised much later than I should have, though fortunately not too late, that one really regrettable effect of 2nd wave feminism was that it gave our mothers the impression we thought their lives, because mostly spent at home, were worthless. I worked hard in the last years of my mother's life to correct this impression.

I think mothers in any generation think their values aren't, erm, valued by daughters, so maybe it wouldn't even occur to her that you might like to have such a thing.

Cozalcoatl said...

Thats such a lovely post.
Growing up we were the country Aussie meat and 24 veg family (as we call it).
I don't think i ever had garlic till i was 20, now i never cook without it.
I remember cooking once corned beef (yum) a family fav, but didn't know how to do the white sauce. I rang Mum and wrote down the recipe around a stetch of a Troll on a page of a Terry Pratchett discworld desk calander.
Even though i totally stuffed up making it that time, everytime i find that grubby page it takes me back to when Mum made it perfectly. Even though she didn't write it down herself its still a part of her. She is alive and well and would roll her eyes at me i'm sure.
Umm not sure where this is going but i loved reading your post which is the main thing ;)

(ps found you via FlopearedMule, my country chick sister)

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post.
There is something about handwriting. Solar plexus indeed.


Pavlov's Cat said...

White sauce was one of the things that flummoxed my dad. 'Make a roox? What the hell is a roox?'

It's roo, father of mine, I said, and I can either show you how to do it or direct you to the supermarket where they have good ones in packets.

He uses the packet ones now, but he taught himself how to make a real one first!