Friday, February 29, 2008

Better days

At the end of a bad day, reminding myself it's more often good than bad. And when it's good, it's very, very good.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Naming rights

I'm lazily trawling through the rose sites, making a list of lovely things for the garden. Some of the names are so perfectly rose-like: Gloire de Ducher; Reine des Voilettes. I'm note sure what those words actually mean but they sound so frothy and elegant, I want to slip on some marabou trimmed mules and take to my chaise lounge in the boudoir.

Other titles are a little more ambiguous: La Passionata and - my favourite - Belle of Berlin, which suggests either a Sally Bowles type figure, bold and blooming in corruption and decay or something quiet and hardy, surviving in the rubble of a post-war city, giving hope to a battered population.

But sometimes people surely miss the spirit of the rose. It's a winner, Betty Boop, Las Vegas all sound like racehorses. Jessika could come from the birth notices we giggle at on Sundays. And Dazzla and White Lightnin', well, that's just wrong.

But friend Ttina, who is indeed currently in Berlin, sent me something so odd, so mind-bendingly inappropriate, I can't help but wonder if it is a joke: the Weight Watchers Success rose. (It is, of course, a redi-plant.) When I think about roses I shiver in pleasure at their abundance and generosity, their lushness, their sensuality; when I think about Weight Watchers, not so much - I guess they're going for an image change.

But the more intriguing question is this: what would a Weight Watchers Failure to Achieve Goal Weight Rose look like?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Fronting up

In this past six months dandelions have become my favourite flower in the garden. They are yellow ellipses, linking unfinished plantings and allowing the beds to roll to an stop without ever committing to an end. They bob on single high stems and offer a lightness of colour and spirit I've grown to love. I've looked around for something more socially acceptable for the front yard but every yellow I find is too thick, too obvious, too much - a series of exclamation marks with no nuance and suggestion of further, interesting and specified things to come.

But to cultivate these plants deliberately is another, rather more radical proposition. I'm all for serendipity and I do believe a weed is just an un-appreciated plant but encouraging the yellow dots to thrive and multiply, even when they are exactly what I want in the space, goes against the expectations of the neighbourhood, I'm sure. Al already struggles with the state of our verge and lawn, and while I'm not so worried about what the neighbours say, I can feel a little uncomfortable standing out like a sore thumb - the slum on the street.

But then I think, what's it matter? Like most front yards, ours isn't well used. It's the front stage, the (inexpertly) made up face, denying any business end out back. There's something confronting but satisfying in seeing a different front yard. In Canberra, I saw one laid out in a traditional and stilted manner, but there were aubergines where roses would be, and basil as the prim little border. I stopped and looked, and looked again, and now it remains in my mind after all the other yards, with their iceberg roses and agapanthus, have faded into a mass of nothing much.

What I would love, even more than the ellipses, would be to walk down the path to my door through rustling wheat, shoulder high and golden, a mini-field, the ultimate in mass planting. Or through the lawn grown out, aged and diversified into a meadow, in the way of many front lawns and verges in Canberra, where the drought had turned the suburbs golden and dry. It would be a place for birds to eat at the seeds (and snakes would steer clear), and a counter-point to the rather formal and very elegant white house in which we happily live.

People in decorating magazines say paint your rooms boldly and if it doesn't work out you can always re-paint; I guess the same is true for your garden. But my houses are always cream on the inside, and I suspect for all my fancies I'll end up with lovely conformity out the front and zucchinis out the back.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The pointy end

This morning I picked the blackberries that grow in the old convict cemetary just over the way. (It's worth living here, just to write that sentence.) When I stand there plucking the fruit from the thorns I have visions of brambles growing through the bones interred 150 years ago - it's not such a grim vision when you taste the sweetness while stopping in the sunshine.

I had thought to pick enough to make some jam but that was a plan doomed to failure. The whole process is so fiddly, the thorns so spikey, the labradoodle so greedy and sly (snuffling up the fruit from the basket while I was deep in the thicket), the kids so demanding (there's no explaining why these particular berries are destined for jam and not their bellies), that it would take me hours to gather enough. And, as much as I like blackberry jam, which is especially lovely eaten with cream on white bread, it's always going to be a distant second to eating the berries alone, outside in a field, glad of the sun that's warming up the first cold morning of the year. I'm not a peasant and I don't need to protect myself from scurvy and starvation in the long winter ahead so I'll gather and gobble them while I may and then enjoy the anticipation of next February.

And then I fell into the brambles. They really hurt. In an old book from my own and my mother's childhood, called At School with the Stanhopes (complete with boarding school, japes and sexually non-threatening but crush-worthy older brothers and teachers' husbands) there's a incident where they whole school takes off from conjugating French verbs and studying Georgian history to go blackberrying, so that they can learn the worthy art of jam making. The uppity girl is pushed into the brambles, which is presented as a bit of harmless fun. The way those thorns bite, more like serious assault, I think.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Slide night :: travelling in style

I love slide nights. I love the translucency of the colours, the musty smell and the faint heat from the projector, and the little stories that come with each picture. My Dad has thousands of slides, and I love sitting in the dark and staring at the past. We don't as yet have a slide scanner to take those images digital, but Dad does have a scanner and on the last, sad trip to Brisbane I collected up a whole lot of Grammy's photos and put them on a thumb-drive. Mum doesn't know what to do with them - they're another person's memories. But I'm happy just to look and marvel at the difference and the sameness I see between those people and my own life.


These photos are from a trip my Grammy and Grandad took to Japan with my mother, back in the 1960s, back in a time when people made more of an effort when they travelled. I'm always a little taken aback by the get-ups I see in the airports - I'm not saying people should travel in furs, with their maids carrying the jewels in morocco cases, but surely there's nothing wrong with being turned out - and seen off - in style. I was going to write "My Grammy is the woman in the headband, standing next to the woman in the glasses", but I now see there are many glasses, it was the age of glasses. So I'll keep it at, my Grammy is the woman in the headband, the one with truckloads of style.


Travel is tiring. Not so much for the hours but for the lack of sureness, the constant need to negotiate where I fit into the surrounds I find myself in. But today the equilibrium started to be regained. I cooked and gardened and started to feel like my home and my life are mine, again. This morning I went to yoga and then all afternoon I built a compost heap from all that wilted promise that greeted us when we came home from Brisbane. The zukes, loads of tomatoes that didn't make it through our comings and goings, the straw from the no-dig potato beds, the last of the mildewed plums, the first falling leaves and rotted apples - it's an end of summer compost heap.

Composting is tiring, especially coming on top of an unexpectedly hard yoga session (it didn't feel that strong at the time) and the upheavals of the past month. It has to be something you really, really want to do, if you're going to get through four hours of hauling and pitchforking and being soaked by the sprinkler. And I really, really wanted to do it. It was hard work and immensely satisfying work and now, this evening, I feel rooted.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Comings and goings

When we were in Brisbane I looked at this photo a lot. I love the way it shows the baby still left in an increasingly kid-like Lu, who is all muscles and big words. But I love it more because it was taken in our backyard, just before all these comings and goings began five weeks ago. Throughout Canberra and Brisbane and then Brisbane again I've been home sick. I've missed my house and more so my garden, and most of all the rhythms we have as a family. The girls had a pretty good time in Brisbane - Grandad and Meema have a pool and a dog and there's a park down the road. Al and I were not so happy - even without the sadness of Grammy's passing we were at a loss outside of the home we've created together.

Getting back was so lovely, even though I was faced with a garden that had collapsed without watering. It's not going to be a season of plenty, more a season of grilled green tomato chutney and composting (which are both indications of plenty in their own way, I guess). But last night we ate well: a free range chicken from a place down the highway; and corn, boiled potatoes and a salad of lettuce and cherry tomatoes, all from the sad-looking garden. Eaten at our own table, it was a delight, even with the food on the floor and the screaming and shrieking and spitting out of food with bold declarations of 'Yuk', that are part of the fine dining experience down here. It was soul food and a reminder of why I live where I do.

Also, Nell can now say 'potatoes', and can eat about five in one sitting. I just love her commitment to food.

Today it's up to Sydney for a few days, to sound knowledgeable about stuff and to make awkward conversation over fruit platters at morning tea (I don't think I can stand many more fruit platters - it's been a year of fruit platters). I'm not super-keen because I just want to work in my garden, but then I'll be home on Friday night and maybe then we can get some of those rhythms back again.

I think I love that photo of Lu because she looks how I've often felt these past week: wistful and hopeful and looking to somewhere else. I'm happy that very soon, I'll be looking to where I am, not where I want to be.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Market day

I love markets. At work, I spend all day under artificial lighting, staring at a screen and unaware of the light and weather of the day. I don't want to do much the same in Coles on the weekends. Looking at lettuce and grapes under trees, in the sun, with people milling and chatting, is my idea of how our food should be got. There's a sense of possibility, of perhaps stumbling across something lovely and unexpected, in the markets, and that's something absent from the trudge through the aisles at Coles (and only imperfectly experienced at our lovely Olde Greengrocer who gives us stuff for free).

Nell and I went to the West End markets today. They are down by the river, under old Moreton Bay fig trees. There's lots of produce (though not, of course, all very local or organic), a few stores selling old clothes and some Indian tat, and the hippy coffee sellers, who provided me with some cardamon coffee (which I almost liked, I think the cardamon was a little too strong) and a baby latte and scone for Nell.

While Nell stumbled and gobbled and won hearts and minds, I got to watch the people go by: urban hipsters in their distressed and ironic retro Ts; toned middle class mammas who like their family's eating to be authentic; neo-hippies in tie-dye and fisherman's pants; retirees in navy hats. But the one thing these groups had in common (and this shocked me to the core) was their use of those once super-daggy vinyl bins on wheels, to cart home all that right-on produce. These are the wheelie baskets once favoured by old ladies in shopping centres. No more Oxfam baskets or the free green bags from supermarkets; it's bowling lady chic all the way. And I don't even think their use was post-modern or tongue-in-cheek or self-referential or ironic or any of the other stances that have allowed us all the embrace the un-embracable.

I fear I am losing my touch with style.

Friday, February 15, 2008


Once upon a time I was Ms. Since becoming sadly over-educated I go by Dr (the proper kind, not the medical type). So why is my daughter calling me 'Mrs Mum'?.

Lu also calls me "Mother Fox", which I don't mind so much, as it sounds a little sexy, somehow.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Art is what you can get away with

Well, Warhol would know. I'm not a huge fan of his stuff, and when we went to GOMA today, I gave the big Warhol exhibit a miss. But there's some excellent kids' stuff: the usual drawing room where Lu abused her free paper privileges; a play area filled with Campbell's soup boxes and other people's babies for the girls to kiss; a space with silver helium cushions bobbing around; and a photo both wherein frazzled parents get to transform their units into little bits of pop art. Everything looks better in brights.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Gender bending

Today was Grammy's funeral. I walked into the room wearing my black dress - the go-anywhere black dress that we all read was a wardrobe basic in Cosmo , back in the late 80s - and Lucy looked at me and asked "Why are you being a girl today?". I thought that going out to work each morning dressed in trousers would be somewhat counter-balanced by my breasts and vagina (or at least my uterus might give me away) but no - despite our best intentions to to de-emphasise gender, girls wear dresses.

Oddly, Lu and Nell almost never wear dresses but Lu's very clear that they are girls (because they are brave, and apparently boys are 'often not so brave', poor possums). Kids' gender rules are more confusing than those in men's mags (and women's mags and just about everywhere else in society), that's for sure.


The girls slept through the funeral. On the way to the wake we explained Lu wouldn't be able to say good-bye to Grammy:

"But I wanted to kiss her".
"I know but now she is in heaven and so you can't".
"I want to go to heaven and kiss her".
"Well, we're going to the bowls club to eat cake instead".
"That's good too".

No use pining for things you can't have, I guess.


Thanks to all those who left such caring comments. It's been hard and sad but some peace is beginning to grow in my heart.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Down on the farm

I'm always at a loss away from my garden. What to do with the left over cornflakes and bread crusts when there are no chooks to feed? Where do the meat trimmings go when there are no dogs sniffing around for sneaky treats? What to look do outside when there are no tomatoes and plums to test for ripeness? Thank goodness my parents have a compost bin- I'd otherwise be shaking in the absence of recycling.

To take the edge off things I haunt the neighbourhoods of my travels, peering over fences to catch a glimpse of gardens. If I find a veggie garden behind a back fence I'll return again and again until I must surely be in danger of being arrested for loitering. But Brisbane houses don't lend themselves to peeking - there're too many high fences and deep setbacks from the road. So yesterday we drove (and drove and drove and drove - my, but Brisbane is big) to one of my favourite places here - the Northy Street City Farm. It's a few huge blocks of 'permaculture' by the river, in the middle of an inner suburb. It's peaceful and sprawling and soothes my need to stroke some produce.

My Dad is never impressed by the place - he says it's all pumpkins and weeds, and there's not a lot of food emerging from a very big and potentially productive space. That's true enough (although there's a little more besides the cucurbits) and yesterday I was a little underwhelmed by the state of the gardens. But in that farm I recognised a space that is used. On Sundays hippies and middle class mothers gather at the organic markets under the Moreton Bay figs, their kids rollicking in the playground made from trees and bits of trash. There's a cafe in a shed selling chai and food cooked from the garden. My favourite nursery, Edible Landscapes, which is a wild and messy place, is hidden behind a fence, filled with the makings of a garden in my alternate, Brisbane life. People wander and chat and play music. For all its wildness and lushness - it doesn't look much like the farms of our childhood stories - the place is welcoming to people.

In many ways I take after my Dad when it comes to gardening - I look for maximum productivity, whether by permaculture or straight weeded lines; it must the farming stock we come from. I tend to forget the garden is a place to be in, not just a space to work in. The City Farm was so seductive yesterday, with its offer of a living space, not just a working space, and it's making me think about my garden is some very different and liberating ways ...


After the City Farm we drove out to Kenmore for lunch with some friends. I like them but don't know them well - they're from Al's days as a public servant. They are a lovely couple but very together: no cracks in their ceilings and no cracks in their facade either, if you take my meaning. I always feel a little rough around the edges near them, and wish I'd brushed my hair and lost 8 kilos before arriving for lunch. And yet they didn't raise an eyebrow when Nell ate the turquoise playdough or Lu repeatedly attempted nude-ness and climbed to some inappropriately high places when I was drinking wine and not watching her movements. They pretty much share a set of the same ideas that we do, though you'd never guess it to look at the families together. You can find like souls in the most unexpected of places.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Last rights

My grandmother died on Wednesday evening while I sat in Brisbane airport waiting for a plane home that was delayed two hours, watching Lucy tear about being a horse. I had gone to Brisbane on the Monday evening to say goodbye and I guess I didn't really think what goodbye would mean. I thought there would probably be chances but it turns out that when I kissed her in the afternoon before catching the train in a storm, I was kissing her a final time.

Grammy started fading two weeks ago, pulled down by unspecified causes. The doctors had a range of theories but Gram was 95 and sad - isn't that enough to make the body wind down? The interventions were becoming increasingly intrusive and nothing was working and so Mum - but really, the whole family - decided to end all treatment. The nurses spoke to us of dignity, of not letting Gram linger; the doctors - all aged about 15 and dressed in very natty shirts and ties - talked about the failure of anti-biotics, the lack of further treatment options - but no-one really told us what ending treatment means. No drugs and also no food, no hydration - only pain relief. I don't think that it was a wrong decision but it's not a dignified death, begging for water without being able to speak because your dentures won't fit, not able to move even your arm or your head, hoping someone will divine your needs and say 'yes' rather than 'no'. Lingering is relative - I don't know how the minutes and hours and then days passed for Grammy, but for us, a day waiting for an end that the nurses said would occur twelve hours before is a really long time; a night keeping vigil over a woman balking at death, frightened and thirsty and wanting to go home is a dreadful, dragging time.

I wanted to stay until the end but in the end we thought it best if I went. I had Lucy and she was getting restive; the logistics of dealing with a three year old don't match well with the needs of a family waiting in a hospital room. Nell was in Launceston with Al, missing me. I had a plane ticket which couldn't be changed to an open flight date. I knew Gram would die quickly if I left and I knew that if I'd stayed she'd linger for two weeks and my own little family would be in turmoil. I was second guessing things that can't be controlled and in the end Dad said, just go, just stick with the original plan. And so Gram died while I waited at the airport in a storm, and I'm back on the plane tonight, this time with Al and both girls, with black clothes in our bag.

Our decision about ending Grammy's treatment was the best we could make and my choice to go home seemed the best in bad circumstances. But my, I feel bad. I said it didn't matter if I was there or not, as long as someone was (and at the end, it was my Dad, Gram's most loved and trusted son-in-law). But leaving seemed a poor repayment for 35 years of receiving nothing but adoration. No matter what I did or where I went, I knew there was an old woman who was boasting about me, swelling with pride over everything I did, loaning and giving me money, buying me pretty things, cooking me treats, telling me stories and singing me the songs that I now sing my girls as we walk through the neighbourhood. Grammy always did the right and generous thing by me and I worry that at the end I didn't do the right thing by her - I went, I didn't stay.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Still talking about zucchinis

Quite possibly the perfect pasta sauce, and the reason I plant more zucchinis than I'd ever really need:

Take a few cloves of garlic and soften in oil with three rashes of bacon, if you're the kind who likes their meat (otherwise, leave them out). Very finely slice three of four young zucchinis - if they're a mix of colours then so much the better. Stir in with the garlic and bacon until everything is cooked but not at all brown. Now is a good time to stir in some pesto if you have any (but here I would specify homemade as it tends to lack the harshness of the stuff you buy in bottles; I think the pine nuts might matter here) and regardless, bind the whole with a little cream, season and leave to bubble. Then toss in any flowers that came in with the fruit, ladle over pasta and offer to an appreciative audience with some parmesan on the side.

We eat this with two yelling kids, one who'll only have the green stuff and the other who'll eat the pasta. There's usually some wining on the topic of "I don't like conversation", food thrown to the floor, milk sloshed on shirts by a 13 months child who refuses to acknowledge she needs to work on her hand-eye coordination, and a few shouts at the dogs to get out of the dining room. But I am working towards a more fabulous context:

Serve outside under the grapevine, with perhaps a cold riesling (though really, I wouldn't know), a salad from the garden, good friends who appreciate the six months taken to produce the meal, and Bach playing through the open windows of the house.

Maybe next summer