Thursday, December 26, 2013

My Australian Mother

In a previous blog, I referred to one of my mother’s unusual traits regarding school lunches. She is truly rich in personality and I am grateful to have had her as a mother all my life. 

She is 88 years old now and still very gentle in her ways, but everyone has their moments.  When growing up, my three brothers and myself were not always on our best behavior, yet she would usually remain calm. When we were really bad, watch out. When mom yelled that was an event. We shut up.

Even when my older brothers sat at the dining room table in anticipation of dinner, banging their cutlery on the table shouting, “We want food, we want food,...” Mom just raised her voice a bit and said “Oh, be quiet.”

The very most I’d ever hear and more so after my dad died, was “Oh, bloody hell!” Usually while trying to figure out the remotes for her satellite television. Her swearing became richer after my father died, as there was no one to judge her and, also, no one to help her except my husband, son, myself or younger brother. She lives independently and I hope she always will.

It will be 14 years on January 7 since my dad died and my mom has grieved for him quietly and with dignity, yet retains her sense of humor. She sold the house in Sacramento that they had lived in and where we grew up. She then moved, along with our family, to Kirkland, WA, to live near my brother’s family and in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

She has never really learned her way around here, so if some place is a bit of a drive, it’s “Oh, it’s way out in Oodnadatta .” This is an actual place in Australia, and I gather from the context of the phrase that it must be a town in the middle of nowhere.

She met my father in Sydney during World War II. She’d sworn off dating Americans after one bad experience, but her best friend, Peggy, convinced her that my future father was an exception and a really nice man. When his ship came into port (he was a naval officer on a supply ship in the Pacific) they went out on a blind date and it truly sounds like it was love at first sight for both of them. They decided to live in California after their marriage and Mom left Sydney not knowing if she would see her family again. Her parents never discouraged her from taking this huge step. They knew they would never see her very much again or at all.

She spent the next 20 years homesick before the U.S. really felt like home. She became depressed, endured migraine headaches and endured us, too, as we were not angels. She has always been a lady in every way throughout it all.

She’d never experienced pumpkin pie or black olives, coffee, Thanksgiving, barbecuing, camping in the woods on air mattresses -- the latter always flat by morning, and a host of other foods and customs. She got to know her in-laws, who were farmers and railroaders originally from Germany. They were kind to her. This was a whole new world. She did get to hold on to little things she’d make in the kitchen for us.

Red Rose tea with milk and sugar from a teapot with a tea cozy on top, became a custom between Mom and I often when something bad had happened to me such as a breakup with a boyfriend or bad day at school - those times and sometimes just because we wanted to, we sat down and talked with a lovely “cuppa” and an arrowroot cookie. It was a ritual that never failed to soothe the sometimes troubled soul. 

She kept her Marmite or Vegemite in one of the kitchen cupboards, but, thankfully, did not push it on us children. For school lunches, though, I received funny comments about my baked bean sandwiches which were actually kind of good.

My Mom is the very best at tea sandwiches. When I bought the first house of my own, I invited friends from work to lunch on the deck of my new home as the house was not far from the California State Capitol, where we all toiled each day. Mom offered to make it and leave it in my refrigerator while I was working in the morning. We feasted on fresh fruit salad and a huge platter of my mother’s finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Very thin, triangular in shape, always buttered inside and filled with salmon, egg salad with a dash of curry and tiny, chopped fresh parsley; and paper-thin cucumber. They were so small, it was easy to eat a dozen just down-the-hatch in nothing flat. Delicious! Everyone loved them and my mother’s could seriously outdo those of any of the tearooms I’ve dined in, including The Empress Hotel in Victoria, BC.

My mother cooked in the manner of the English. This was what cooking was like for her growing up. Well-done roasts and limp vegetables. When standing with Dad out by the barbeque, he used to shake his head in real sadness as he turned her T-bone or Porterhouse steak into something resembling charred shoe leather. She and I went back to Sydney for a visit not too long ago and everything food-wise had changed -- Sydney was like any major U.S. city. There was a huge choice of ethnic and modern cuisine. So, as you can now see, the answer is yes, she did get to go home again to see her family, but not often.

She even had the courage to take my two older brothers and I to Australia by ship when we were children. I have memories of my oldest brother getting seasick all the way there and back and the water sloshing over the porthole in our cabin. I remember being intrigued by the action on the wharf in Fiji - scads of bananas everywhere you could see! I remember my grandparents’ house and the wading pool they had bought for me, even the swimsuit I wore. I just wish I could remember my grandparents better as that would be the only time I would see them, although my Nana continued to write wonderful letters and sent Australian children’s books to me. Anyway, after a voyage of three weeks each way there and back with three children, I thought my Mom was pretty fearless. We stayed six months as it probably took at least that amount of time for Mom to recover from the trip there. 

Since then, Mom has gone back by propeller plane, quite a few times by jet, once with my Dad and once with me. Seeing my cousins, their children, my aunts, Mom’s friends, etc., thrilled me. In my heart I’ve always felt a longing to be there as it is a part of me. The place of gum trees, kookaburras, huge flocks of white cockatoos, the bush, the convicts’ stonework from colonial times, the soaring white opera house, all the busy little ferries, sailboats, the very recognizable Sydney Harbor Bridge and the blue, blue ocean.

Happy Boxing Day! Boxing Day was a tradition begun long ago when, after Christmas Day, servants and tradesmen would be given a gift box that often included food to take home and share with their families. 

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