From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Mystery Sister Tea Brack

I’ve called it that because it’s in one of the sisters’ handwriting but I can’t decide which. They both went through a cramped, backward-slanting gothic phase, as in fact did Mum (she was briefly learning calligraphy from a retired drama-school headmistress who lived down the road). Since the cost is given in ‘s’ and ‘d’ it must be pre the 1971 decimalisation.

TEA BRACK – dated 5th August, no year

  • Cost: about 4s 2d
  • Approximate preparation time: 15 mins (plus overnight standing)
  • Cooking time: 2 hours

Ingredients:

  • 8 ozs (ounces) sultanas, cleaned
  • 8 ozs currants, cleaned
  • 8 ozs soft brown sugar
  • 1/2 pint medium-strength cold tea (plenty of that swilling around in the UK)
  • 1 lb (pound) self-raising flour
  • 4 tablespoons milk

Method:

  • Put fruit, sugar and tea in a bowl. Soak overnight
  • Next day, turn on oven: set at moderate, 375º F, Mark 5 (gas)
  • Grease a round 8 in (inch) tin; line base with greaseproof paper and grease the paper
  • Sift the flour into bowl of fruit. Add milk and beat
  • Turn into prepared tin. Bake in centre of pre-heated oven for 2 hours.
  • Cool on a rack

I’ve sorted it out and bullet-pointed it to make it less cramped-looking on the page, and easier to follow.

Enjoy 🙂

PS: if you’re wondering where the word ‘brack’ comes from, it’s a short form of barm brack, an Irish recipe upon which there are many variations (including this one). In Irish gaelic it’s bairín breac. So now you know.

shamrock.jpg

Just Tell Daisy

I was just emailing Daisy and mentioned in passing I was going to have to resort to another of Mum’s Old Recipe Book recipes as alternative blogging inspiration had failed to strike – when it did. Second time it’s happened. So, that’s the cure for Writer’s Block then – just tell Daisy.

I do despair of myself some days…

most days…

every day, in fact…

because I can’t seem to focus. I have the attention span of a gnat and the persistence of… something that’s not very persistent… can’t actually think of anything (ideas?)

I can’t seem to be able to manage anything sensible and business-like.

I’ve been trying to activate my dormant Crafting gene in order to have stuff to sell at the Artisan Market. Up to now all my ‘creativity’ seems to have gone into writing but now that seems to have worn itself out, or at least the fiction-creating part of it. But surely, I thought, I could make like Canadian Sister and Make Interesting Stuff. Trouble is, though both of us have the gene for inventing, neither of us seem to have the gene for selling or being able to conceive of what might sell. She is always getting into trouble at the Seniors Craft Group in her local community centre for not wanting to knit dishcloths and insisting instead on trying out green and purple crocheted elephants. “Elephants Don’t Sell” the Seniors are always telling her. “Dishcloths Do.”

“But how do you know my Elephants Won’t Sell if you won’t even Put One On Your Stall? How are people to know there is the Possibility of Elephants when all they are ever presented with are Dishcloths?”

I paraphrase and possibly exaggerate here, but you see what I mean.

I have been trying to force myself to make sensible little items – “small objects of desire” as the phrase used to be – but what comes out is weird stuff – eccentric items that surely Won’t Sell – a miniature Dr Who scarf, for example – so many possible uses:

  • Winter wrist-warmer
  • Granny Chic bracelet (I have only just discovered Granny Chic, unfortunately you have to be no older than twenty-two to wear it)
  • Must-have addition to Teddy’s wardrobe?

Or the Dancing Doorknob Cat (don’t ask) or the Two-Tailed Catnip Mice (my cats look askance at them) or the Odd-Eyed Lucky Fish. I can visualise the potential customers at the Artisan Market – that army of muffin-topped, much-tattooed, legging-wearing, toddler-toting females – and somehow I can’t see them going for the Dancing Doorknob Cat even if I label it Shabby Chic. Shabby Chic, like the lurid feature wall, is much in vogue here still. Granny Chic hasn’t got here yet and probably never will.

Canadian Sister once told me she finds it difficult to make more than two iterations of any design – she just wants to move on – and I suspect I’m the same. No wonder she hated doing all those dishcloths. I’m sick of the sight of Two-Tailed Mice already.

And now I’ve discovered Pinterest. For years Pinterest was just a nuisance to me, popping up all over the internet and interrupting my browsing. I didn’t know what it was for, to be honest. And then I saw someone on the business programme explaining it was a search engine, like Google, but for images, and the penny dropped. I registered. Now, far from constantly clicking on that little ‘x’ in the corner to get rid of it because I didn’t want to enter my email address, I’m hooked on Pinterest.

But now I am both fascinated and depressed. Fascinated because there’s an Aladdin’s Cave of beautiful, creative, wonderful stuff being produced all over the globe. But depressed because – too overwhelmingly many un-have-able (by-me) crafting ideas. Too wonderful ever to be emulated by a spare-room Lucky Fish manufacturer like me. I feel like Mrs Macron standing next to Milania Trump – like, why bother being a svelte, elegant, Parisian older woman when there’s that towering above me?

Ah well, on with the motley. Tomorrow, maybe, a patchwork bag with a Two-Tailed Mouse poking out of the pocket…

dr who cat

 

Caught in the zeitgeist’s vapour trail

I am just old enough to have been pervaded with and forever infected by hippiedom – with that far out philosophy, with those general interests, with that taste for eccentric, narrow-hipped, wild-haired men – but not quite old enough to have really been a part of it. Also, not American. That would have helped. There were so many cool things hippies could do that I, somehow, couldn’t. The zeitgeist caught me, briefly, in its vapour trail as it swept on and on, and out of sight.

Out of sight, man…

Of course it’s possible that I would have been a hippie-equivalent wherever I happened to tumble into the time continuum this time around. A (nasty-ish, female) someone told me once that other people thought of me as Nice, But A Bit of A Drippy Hippie.

O wad some Power the Giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!

Thanks, but no thanks, Giftie.

However, recently they seem to have been coming back in full force, those thwarted far out hippie dreams, and I have happened across a really good book – sad in places, funny in others – called The Hippie Handbook* by Chelsea Cain. Chelsea grew up in a hippie commune centred around an old white farmhouse in Iowa, meaning she is now ideally qualified to remind us of lost hippie skills and the whole atmosphere of those far off days.

I actually bought the book to learn how to tie-dye a new white sheet and turn it into a long skirt – not a good idea as it turns out because new white sheets are full of starchy stuff that won’t take the dye. But along the way discovered a whole lot of other bits and pieces I either never learned or have long since forgotten:

  • How to Anthropomorphize Inanimate Objects
  • How to Amble
  • How to Howl at the Moon
  • How to Milk a Goat
  • How to Build a Compost Pile
  • How to Do a Sun Salutation
  • How and When to Flash a Peace Sign

and much, much more. It’s a slight book – I finished reading it in a few hours – but it was so much fun.

You see I had this plan, maybe to somehow make enough stuff of some sort to take a stall at the monthly Artisan Market on the mainland. Could I pass as an Artisan? Probably not, but maybe… Not having a car any longer would be something of a problem. Would have to be a mountain of small things I could fit into Mum’s old shopping trolley…

As I write this I am conscious of sounding increasing like that gormless Neil from The Young Ones:

Look at all that washing UP!

So, now I could not only tie-dye a tee shirt – or a sock – or something – but I could milk a goat if I had one, or macramé a belt! I’m going to have a go at a macramé belt straight away! Would they go down well at the Artisan Market, do you think? Possibly not, but I’m going to macramé some anyway. Macramé – the new…whatever. Maybe I should try it out with garden string first, just in case…

* In the course of writing this I discovered that there is also a WikiHow entry for How To Be a Hippie, so I have linked it. Who does those dreadful drawings, I wonder?

By the way I have also discovered the BBCs original knitting pattern for Dr Who’s scarf! I used to wear something very similar over a long black winter coat in my almost-hippie days. Maybe I’ll make one of those as well…

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Scones

Friend Daisy just tactfully pointed out that I forgot to include the quantity of breadcrumbs in Mum’s previous recipe. It’s 3oz wholemeal, and I have now corrected the recipe. You see, this is why I was a mediocre (looking kindly upon it) legal secretary and Daisy was a so much more excellenter one…

[Warning: if English is not your first language and you are using this rather odd blog to practice reading English – please do not employ that last sentence in an essay or drop it into casual conversation. You want to write proper English like wot other people writ it.]

Daisy is a very fast typist, conscientious and with an eagle eye for errors. I am a very fast typist but an impatient, slip-sloppy one who tends to lose interest in what she has typed the minute she has typed it. (Heavy sigh!)

Anyway, scones. Hopefully I can get this right as Mum’s scones were one of her best things. I still remember that waft delicious hot-air aroma when she opened the oven door…

SCONES – Recipe dated 27th August 1990 (Mum: These are good!)

8oz (ounces) plain flour

2 tbsp (tablespoons) sugar

Pinch of salt

1 tsp (teaspoon) Bicarb (Bicarbonate of Soda)

2 tsp Cream of Tartar

(Goodness, can you even buy Cream of Tartar nowadays? Isn’t ‘Baking Powder’ a ready-made mixture of Bicarb and Cream of Tartar anyway?)

2oz margarine

5 tbsp milk

Method –

Sift flour & mix all dry ingredients together

Rub in margarine

Add milk & mix to a dough

Roll out to about 1″ (inch) thick & cut into rounds

Place a greased baking tray and brush over top with beaten egg or milk

Place in a pre-heated oven

Turn out onto a wire rack to cool

Servings: 8 scones

Small (?) oven: 220ºC –   10 – 15 minutes – middle shelf

Fan oven: 210ºC –   8 – 10 minutes

Variations

  • 4 oz wholemeal flour instead of 4 oz plain flour
  • 3 oz grated cheese & 1/2 tsp mustard. Omit sugar
  • 3 oz mixed dried fruit
  • 1 oz dates, chopped and 1oz walnuts, finely chopped

Mum: The above variations should be added before the addition of milk to the dough

An attempt at reconstitution

A phrase from the ‘Mum’ recipe included in the previous post has stuck in mind:

CARE – if you do the latter, don’t let any water get into it or let it get too hot, else it goes solid and you can’t reconstitute it.

She was talking, of course, about the delicate art of melting chocolate. However, it led me into an area of thought I would rather have avoided – or more likely have been avoiding, all this time. To what extent is the ‘Mum’ who appears in this my blog – the reconstituted Mum, as it were – the real one?

I started writing this blog, as I recall, around the time that Mum’s dementia/ psychosis was getting really bad. Around that time we had several silly arguments during my Sunday visits, about foolish claims she made, completely illogical conclusions she had come to, and her patronising insistence that it was me – the stupid child – who had got things all mixed up. Twice I came home from a visit in tears because of the illogicality of it all.  Dementia is something you are forced to learn about from scratch, and usually doesn’t look like dementia to start with. You make mistakes. You let it get to you because somehow or other you haven’t spotted it – that great black storm cloud on the horizon, barrelling towards you.

As far as I recall, the time I wrote my first post and started rescuing all sorts of ancient, spider-infested writings from cardboard boxes in the garage was about the same time I realised I could no longer talk to Mum on an adult to adult, person to person basis. I could no longer talk to her as a daughter. I could no longer ask her advice or rely on her for anything. On the contrary, she was going to be relying on me. It was then that I started this blog.

And so, I have often thought, the ‘dementia’ part of this blog (a relatively small percentage of it) has been an attempt to put her back together again, to recreate her, to preserve her – whatever. And the same for my father – whom I scarcely mourned when he died and did not begin to miss really badly until my mother began to leave me too. And the same of course for my lost life, my lost past selves. These multiple ‘goodbyes’ must happen to every human being as they age, I think – just maybe not all at once or concentrated into so short a time.

In painting word-pictures of Mum, and Dad, and me, and my sisters, I have tried to be honest. I mean, I find it difficult to restrain myself from writing honestly – that’s how it tends to come out – but I sometimes wonder if any of us – the typed up and published ‘us’ – are real? Or could it be that the typed-up and published ‘us’ is in some ways more real than the flesh and blood sad, distracted old folk we really are? Hyper-real.

Damn, I knew this was going to be difficult one to write. How can you put into words something so… transitory and vague?

I find it increasingly difficult to reconcile the Mum of the recipes, the Mum of the sewing box, the Mum with whom I Listened With Mother, the Mum who enraged me by throwing out my boyfriend’s copy of 1984 because she had happened upon the scene with the rats… with the thin, poor person in the plastic armchair, yesterday. I find it difficult to understand this creature who can no longer be shown how to drink from a spout on a plastic cup with the bright-eyed girl who went to grammar school and passed all her exams (except geography!) with flying colours in spite of the second world war. I find it hard to believe that this is a human being let alone my human being. I can no longer talk to her, nor she to me, and without the salve of words I struggle to feel any connection between us. It is as if we no longer belong to the same species, or that she has become animal… or vegetable.

I once had a lover who was – or claimed to be and I have no reason to disbelieve him – clairsentient. He asked me once about the bond between soon-to-be-Ex and I. Did it still feel, he asked, like an umbilical cord stretching between us? Did it still feel as if we were joined by a strong thread, navel to navel and that any separation would produce a painful tug? At the time I suspect I denied it, but whatever I said he would have ‘felt’ the truth as I was speaking. And he was right.

colored dust

It seems to me now that once you have really loved someone, willingly or not, that cord is formed and can never again be broken. You might say that the cord between Ex and I has worn awfully shabby over time and now more closely resembles a thin and greying old piece of elastic than the magnificently throbbing ‘shared umbilical’ of my lover’s psychic imagery. Still, it stretches through the miles between us.

And I suppose the same cord stretches between my mother and I. We are cut off from one another, adrift on different rafts, but still just about within sight. Maybe that is the final, almost-impossible lesson we are forced to learn – how to just be with someone. But how painful it is just to sit. How raw it feels just to be in a room with someone and not be shielded with words or even understanding. How hard it is, finally, to permit yourself to feel the cord stretching and stretching as the other person pulls away, and to know that you are never going to be able to cut the cord, however much it hurts.

Listen With Mother

It had sat in that same corner all my life – beside the window chair in the living room – my mother’s sewing box – and yet I had forgotten about it.

When I was a child she often gave me the sewing box to tidy, and I genuinely believed I was helping rather than – as seems more likely now – being kept amused. I remember sitting on the floor surrounded by cotton reels and cards of press-studs and hooks and eyes and being full of my own importance. I was helping. This goes back to the time before things went wrong, before Mum started lying on the sofa and crying for most of the morning instead of dusting. The time before Nan started coming along to help, and Mum started taking two aspirins every four hours for most of many days.

In those days we would listen to Listen With Mother together on the radio. She would sit me on her lap and I would start twiddling a lock of my hair in sheer anticipation. What would it be today? See-saw Marjorie Daw or the one about the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie? We had to have teddy with us. The radio lady always asked us if we had our teddies with us, and whether we were sitting comfortably.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

But back to the sewing box. I think I took it all rather seriously. I not only sorted out the cotton reels but wound in every loose end and secured it in the little notch at the top. I not only tidied the button box but threaded the buttons into a long string using one of Mum’s darning needles – little buttons at one end, all the way up to giant coat-type buttons at the other. Duffle-coat toggles were a bit of a worry…

I had to go back there about a week ago – I think I wrote about it – to remove Ex’s paintings as the house is now being sold to pay Mum’s fees. I was dreading it, and it was pretty dreadful, in some ways. Arriving half an hour before the removal firm man, I sat on the doorstep for ten minutes unable to go inside on my own. When he arrives, I thought, I’ll usher him in first and he can confront the ghosties! But then the neighbours started making casual passes back and forth. I realised they didn’t know who I was and assumed some sort of Bag Lady. Maybe they were about to call the police and have me removed… so I plucked up my courage and went in.

I busied myself packing Nan’s blue half-a-tea-service, which I had promised Mum I would save, and which nobody else seemed to want. I remembered the tea service from Sundays with Nan and Grandad. When first Nan and then Grandad died the half-a-tea-service (presumably my uncle had the other half) moved along the road and took up residence on a Welsh dresser in Mum’s living room. I had brought newspapers with me, and carrier bags.

Take anything you like, my sister said. The house clearance man was coming to take the lot. Probably been and gone by now.

I found a little album with a few random photos in it, of Mum and Dad and me maybe fifteen years ago, exploring the local chalk-pit that had been turned into a tourist attraction (or that was the idea) by the addition of wooden walkways and stairs. I have no photos of Mum and Dad – indeed, no photos at all of any part of my life – somebody else seems to have had them all at each step of the way, so I put that in the bag. I found a grubby old “Knitting Patterns” album containing not knitting patterns but recipes – all Mum’s favourite recipes in her familiar handwriting, recipes torn out of women’s magazines and annotated. Little interjections, mostly with her favourite exclamation marks

Delicious!

I substitute sultanas for mixed fruit!

360F, middle shelf!!

I thought I might share a few of the recipes with you, in occasional future posts. A way of Mum living on and in a small way contributing to the future, if you see what I mean.

And then I spotted it – the sewing basket. It was very, very heavy but I brought that home too. It sat at my feet high up in the removal man’s van. You need to be a veritable mountaineer to get into one of those things, and I all but landed in a heap trying to climb down out of it at the other end.

And then there was the dilemma. That evening I sat with Mum’s sewing basket on my knees and shed the few tears I ought to have shed a year earlier, at the thought of Mum to all intents and purposes gone. Mum in that home. Mum not at home. The house I grew up in not my home now. Everything off with the house clearance man to be distributed, no doubt, among charity shops.

But what should I do with the basket? Part of me wanted to sit on the floor, take out a whole lifetime of bits and bobs, half-cards of bias binding, folds of orange ribbon, samples of hessian (whatever did she use that for?) and of course the button box which, when I was a child had seemed a huge and magical container and now seemed to have shrunk to a hexagonal toffee tin with pictures of rabbits and 1950s postmen on the front.

Part of me wanted to leave it exactly as it was, so that the muddle inside should be Mum’s muddle, her memorial, a little bit of her practical, creative mind. In a way I wanted to keep her boxed, rather than bottled.

The dilemma continued for some time. Should I use the sewing box – as she would probably have wanted – or leave it undisturbed? After all, they were not really magic, the rusty tin of pins, the darning needles rusted into the tartan pincushion… I remember her teaching me to make a version of that pincushion for my Brownie sewing badge. They were just old things.

And then today I decided to design something to sew. Now, don’t laugh. There is a reason for it but I haven’t got time to go into it right now. I designed a Sad Cat Hat, taking the pattern from a sunhat I bought at a market stall on a recent visit to Canterbury, cutting out paper pattern pieces from the front cover of the Radio Times and pinning them onto an old pillow case for my “trial version” of this unlikely object. And then I thought, I no longer have any dressmaker’s shears and the kitchen scissors are too blunt. Maybe Mum has some?

In the bottom of Mum’s sewing box was a perfect pair of dressmaker’s scissors and – and this is the strange thing – left handed ones. Now, how does that happen? Mum was right handed. I’m left-handed.

And it seems to me that Mum – wherever she hides, inside that poor old grey head – was trying to get a message to me. Take the middle way. Use what you need but only when you need it, leave the muddle mostly, but not entirely, undisturbed.

One Long Frog

‘First swallow your frog’ used to be one of my favourite mottoes. In other words, at the beginning of each day tackle that one task you want to do about as much as swallowing a live frog. However, it seems to me that the older you get the more frogs seem to string themselves together until some days seem to be One Long Frog.

Take the other day, for instance: mammogram; long wait to see a doctor about a persistent cough; chest x-ray. And I only had tooth x-rays the day before. Won’t I be radioactive? Or are mammograms some other sort of wave and/or particle? Long bus journey there. Long bus journey back.

And tomorrow? One Long Frog. Long bus journey to see my elderly lady. Well, I like seeing my elderly lady and she likes seeing me, but listening-and-prompting for an hour is surprisingly hard work – like job interviews – something I was good at. Good at the interview, rubbish at the job, usually.

After elderly lady? Remove scratchy ‘visitor’ dingly-dangly thing with awful photo from around neck. Speedwalk to bus stop. Catch next bus into town instead of home. No doubt will get the Smelly Person again. I never realised human beings were smelly until I started caching buses. In town, catch next train. Then another train. Then walk to Mum’s bungalow to meet a person called Peter from a removal firm. Person called Peter is going to pack up a whole bunch of Ex’s paintings and prints and drive them and me back home. Thank goodness. At least I haven’t got to brave the school bus, this time.

While he’s making the Works of Art damp- and rodent-proof – for who knows how long they will now be languishing in my garage? – I have to pack up Nan’s blue tea set. That’s the only thing I’m ‘rescuing’ before the house is cleared – by someone called Gavin, or was it Steven? – and Mum’s lifetime possessions, and all my lifetime memories, get driven off and distributed around the local charity shops.

To be honest, I don’t know which is worse – seeing Ex’s painting again and being reminded of Ex – because the paintings are the person – or seeing Mum’s house half empty, and that garden – her life’s passion and obsession – merely mown. Just sort of kept under control until the new owners or, as seems more likely, the bulldozers move in.

I always promised myself I wouldn’t go back, after that last traumatic/humiliating day/night when Mum was marched off to hospital, sandwiched between two burly ambulance-men. ‘Worst part of my job, this is’ one of them told me. But there’s no avoiding it. I’ve had my orders.

However, I remind myself of what happened with Nan and Grandad’s bungalow, in the same street. After they died Mum insisted I went along there with her. I was young(ish) then and had never seen a cleared house before. Nothing of Nan and Grandad remained: empty rooms smelling of linseed oil where someone had been fixing the windows. That house meant so much to me and it had never, ever, occurred to me that one day its whole shabby-familiar insides, together with Nan and Grandad, could just be gone. I hated Mum for taking me along there. I hated her businesslike mood.

‘Don’t you miss Nan?’ I asked her.

‘Oh, I’ve shed a tear or two, when I’ve been on my own.’

Shed a tear or two. Is that what you say about your own mother? But I knew what she was doing: brushing it under the carpet, setting it aside, saving it for later when I wasn’t there. Self defence.

That night I dreamed myself back in that house. I was standing in the empty kitchen and Grandad hurried past. I tried to talk to him but he couldn’t seem to see me. It was as if I was the ghost. And outside a sea of daisies pushed their way up through the lawn in that clever, punning way that subconscious daisies have.

For a long time I couldn’t see anything else but that empty, linseed-smelling house. It overlaid every childhood memory. My past had been removed. But gradually, over the years, the house as I had known it returned. I realised I could revisit it at any stage in its history, and myself in any stage of mine. All its past incarnations were still there, and so were mine.

And so I hope that gradually, after tomorrow’s final visit to Mum’s house, the colours of the past and all those lost versions of me will start to surface again. Finality and emptiness will be just one version.