MORE THAN TOAST AND
POTS AND PANS
By Pearl Barrett
It was fascinating, the way she cut those onions. I moved a little closer and mouthed, "Wow, what a great trick." She did not even have to look. Her hands worked the knife and the vegetables as if they were directing themselves, with no need of mind or eyes. Chop, chop, she was humming to the rhythm, and her gaze was far away. No onion tears, just a sweet content in her eyes as they rested on the blue calm of the lake which filled the window view.
She was a true heroine in my eyes, my Nana. To be able to perform such a feat without even looking got my awe any day. "How come you do not cut yourself?" I wanted to know. This was likely the fiftieth question I had asked in the last quarter of an hour, but there's a lot you've just got to find out when you're eight years old.
She turned and appraised me with a half smile. "When you get to my age, you do not even have to think about it," she said.
I decided then and there that growing old did not seem such a bad idea. If I ended up anything like my Nana, I would even look forward to it. And then kerwoosh, (well, it sounded something like that anyway) she tossed the onions into the pan, and I clapped my hands in glee and inhaled the aroma.
My grandparent's kitchen--I shall never forget its atmosphere. I may have only been eight, more years ago than I would like to count, but the memory is as vivid as if it was...well, as if I was there right now. I can still smell the soup simmering in the large pot. I can still see her preparing the meal and hear the regular call to my grandfather, "Keep that fire going now, we want the kitchen to stay warm." And it was warm but not only in the temperature sense. The warmth nestled in the very vibes of the air with happiness and security. It pervaded, because she was there. If it wasn't one of the three main meals keeping her busy, there was always a fruit loaf to bake or a new healthy dessert recipe to try. Or she'd sit at the small round table and write letters to friends, gazing at the lake now and then for her inspiration.
Her kitchen had a heartbeat!
Perched on my stool, watching her through those childhood eyes, I learned that the kitchen is more than just a room. Its significance goes beyond a feeding facility. Her kitchen had a heart beat. Though she may not have been young, there was more life there than the local coffee house.
It was in her kitchen that she welcomed friends and those who were lonely. An herb tea made in a pottery teapot and “something nourishing to eat” were the items on her menu during visiting hours... though there never seemed to be a closing time. But it wasn't just for the home-made food they came. It was the listening ear she offered and the well-chosen words of counsel. Her kitchen was not only a place to feed the hungry; it was a psychiatry office with a stool for a couch.
I never saw anything but a fulfilled woman!
It was never a place or drudgery for Nana. Certainly, she often worked hard, and there would be piles of dishes, pots boiling over, steam and a little bit of sweat. But the mundane chores could not dampen her pleasure of serving others. It's been said that the only way to true happiness is by helping others--this worked for her. Her smile told everyone so. So did the songs which she hummed and sometimes belted forth, so loud you'd wonder how such a small woman could summon such decibels. I've heard her sing Amazing Grace at phenomenal volume. Shoulders straight, hands clasped, she'd let it fly. Looking back, I've wondered whether she ever felt less than a successful woman when the liberation movement swept the world. There she was, a housewife, and to add to the stereotype--a seamstress. That does not spell "ultimate fulfillment" in feminist language. But, I only know what I saw, and I never saw anything other than a fulfilled woman.
The tasks she accomplished everyday were not demeaning to her intelligence, as far as she was concerned, and her opinion was the one that counted. She did not need liberating because she never considered herself repressed. In fact, she loved the kitchen. And so simply, that is why we did too. The announcement of an intended visit to our grandparents would ignite in us children an excitement much too wild to suppress. "Yippee!" we would yell and dance around the house. "We're going to see them, Yeah!"
"I've got the window seat," one of us would yell.
"No way, you had it last time." Inevitably a rip-roaring argument would ensue, but as it was a regular part of the hysteria no one really minded. We were off to see Nana and Granddad and nothing could dampen our spirits, not even when the arguing sometimes turned to thumping.
We would arrive at their home after a day's long trip and leap out of the car, scattering peanuts and pillows on to the driveway. It was a race to the front door. Up the wooden steps, through the overhanging ferns, up and up, panting and running until we reached the front door, and there they were, waiting for us.
"How's my best mates?"
"How's my best mates?" Granddad would boom, squeezing each one of us in a hug that never failed to squash out spare breath. Then we would head straight for the kitchen, six children, a set of parents and two more in their golden age, with their arms around one another and as many of us as they could capture. Through the door the glowing, wafting kitchen would open its arms to us, and we would crowd around the oven, guessing its contents and hinting vocally of the hunger that gnawed in our stomachs.
It was never a disappointment. Always the room gave the promise of a wonderful meal, the chance to boast to a doting grandparent. Always it lived up to the excitement.
But we weren't the only ones who were big fans of their kitchen. It attracted many other pilgrims who knocked on the front door and ended up staying for days. Granddad was very adept at pulling people in from the doorstep, dragging them into the kitchen, sitting them down at the table and stuffing them full. He was a food man. "Tucker" he called it. "What you need is some good tucker," he'd say, pulling out the contents of the refrigerator at remarkable speed and lining them up on the counter.
There was a fierce, unspoken competition between my grandparents as to who was the master chef. Granddad considered himself quite the man for the job. He'd hold up a slab of meat. "Hunted this myself; you'll never taste anything like it." He'd thrust it into the oven like he was scoring a goal, and then begin a boisterous and dramatic commentary on the items of food the guest would be served. "See this honey here?” He'd hold it up and beam proudly. "Comes from my own bees, greatest in the country."
Their kitchen was there for others--always open. They liked it full, so full it was. There are many who have its memories like I do; many who have learned the meaning of happiness through watching them give. They too must have learned that a kitchen is more than toast and pots and pans. And some days I'm sure that they, like me, cannot help longing for hot soup and a little golden-haired woman who made afternoons of staring out of a kitchen window the most cherished moments of a life time.
Pearl Barrett is Nancy Campbell's daughter. This story is about Nancy's parents, Ivan and Joyce Bowen of New Zealand. Joyce Bowen moved to heaven on the 28 January 1999. Although Pearl wrote this story before she was married (and she now has an 18 year old, Meadow Joyce, named after her grandmother), this story is as powerful as when it was written.
When enjoying a special luncheon to remember Nana Bowen this year (2013), I read this story again. Pearl was about eight years of age when describing herself in this story. Her youngest daughter, Autumn Rose is now eight years and listened with wide eyes of delight as she heard the story of her mother remembering her grandmother. In fact, all the little cousins were in awe and the adults were all crying as we remembered this wonderful lady.