I inherited my rolling pin, its pale wood slick with the grease of years of rolling out scones, Eccles cakes, mince pies… Believe it or not, some cookware is meant to be that way: in the same way you’d season a wok, what I had was a baking tool that worked like a dream because of how often it had been used. I ruined it, though: my hands are too hot for pastry and I put it to work rolling sugarpaste instead. A handful of trips through the dishwasher to clean it of food colouring, and it’s as good as new – pale, clean wood that bears no trace of its heritage.
I tend to think I’ve been more shaped by the men in my life than the women. I’m a daddy’s girl par excellence: not only do I go to my father for affection and for advice; I mirror him in personality, too: that desperate desire to please that hides a deep-seated anxiety. Which was why, when I was in therapy a few years back, I astonished both myself and the therapist by bursting into tears when she asked about my maternal grandmother.
She died when I was eighteen, and on my gap year. I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye. I cried, as you do, but it had little concrete impact on my life: we didn’t live that close and I probably only saw her five or so times a year.
I didn’t see her much more often as a child either, but how those visits have stayed with me. These are my most vivid memories of childhood: bingo in the village hall on a Friday night, winning £5 and putting it towards Take That’s Everything Changes album, being allowed to play it, ad infinitum, in the kitchen, while she made dinner. And younger still: being left in the bath, the bathroom door ajar, while the Coronation Street theme tune leaked through from the lounge. A hot water bottle already in bed waiting for me, and a glass of hot milk on the nightstand – a skin forming where I didn’t drink it quick enough. Being tucked in so tightly I could barely breathe, and allowed to pick my bedtime reading material from a huge pile of Woman’s Weekly and Best magazines.
But more than anything, it was the cooking: butterfly cakes, coffee and walnut sponge, sweet and sour pork, rice pudding. She’d stand me on a chair and let me help, and I learnt to bake that way. When my gas hob died recently, my mum urged me to switch it for an induction one instead but I won’t – yes, new pans would be more expensive, but it’s more than that, the smell of a gas flame, the condensation on my kitchen windows – all of those things take me straight back to my grandma’s kitchen.
When she died, my granddad burnt a lot of her stuff in a fit of grief. I’d done well, on paper: my mum paid for her only diamonds to be reset into rings for me, her and my sister, but the only thing I really wanted was her recipe notebook, which went on the fire. I have the next best thing, I guess, the beautifully titled ‘Radiation cookbook’ filled with her notes and cuttings, but it’s not quite the same.
I always mean to put music on while I bake, but somehow I always forget, and I realised the other day that that’s because when I’m baking I can channel that immense love: it makes me feel closer to her, and more than that, to all the women in my family. I’m neither religious nor spiritual, but I can find peace in flour, eggs, butter and sugar, almost without exception.
Last week I made a chocolate fudge cake for a bake sale at work – the proper 80s kind that’s all cocoa powder and no real chocolate. I topped it with Smarties, because hey, all the best cakes have Smarties.
I dropped it off at 10. At 11.30 a friend rang. ‘Your cake’s all gone,’ she said, ‘Already.’
‘Yeah, well,’ I said, ‘Everyone loves Smarties.’
That’s not what I was really thinking though. What I was really thinking was ‘Thanks, grandma. I love you.’
PS I owe thanks to two bloggers, Ella Dawson and Floraidh Clement, for the inspiration behind this one. Ella, for her post on what someone said ‘sounded a lot like happiness‘ and Floraidh for reminding me that yes, women are hot, but we love them for their ‘strength, wisdom and talents,’ too. Thanks guys! Also, a reminder that if you haven’t yet voted for your favourite post in my ‘Don’t read clickbait, read this instead’ competition, you can do so here. It’s too close to call currently, so it’s definitely worth doing!
How lovely. A beautiful elegy. I know a poem – http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1995/poems-1-e.html
Damn you, Vida, you made me cry with your poem! It is lovely though…
You’ve got me thinking now.
I was brought up by two grandmothers – my paternal grandmother, who spent most of her life in a wheelchair, lived with us until she died last year and was a constant source of advice – after a very Scottish fashion. My maternal grandmother, although there’s been friction, raised all six grandchildren on her own – a Herculean feat, especially when you consider that all the toys we used have passed through six pairs of young hands and are still serviceable toys.
I too spent a few nights in her house: the bath I remember, and the bed (which is now the bed she sleeps in – it used to be a guest room)… which, like yours, often had a bottle warming the nylon sheets. I took my own reading material, though – often something from Point Fantasy.
Reading your post I could visualise everything about it – okay, so I was visualising my own grandmother’s house, but that made it all the more real. She’s not as much of a natural baker, but she does her best, and that’s usually more than good enough.
I recommend BBC 6 Music for cooking. It usually does the job for me.
Thank you for reading, and for sharing your own memories – it’s been lovely to hear other people’s stories about their grandparents as a result of this post x
Whenever I bake (or cook) I always think about the two generations of women that played a part in shaping who I am – my mother, my aunt and their mother, my gran. All three of them have passed on things to me that I’ve learned to treasure: my mother gave me heaps of strength and the courage to keep pressing on with writing, and my aunt gave me the impetus to learn how to bake and cook. My gran passed away about a month after I started secondary school, and I miss her every single day of my life. What she gave to me can’t really be put into words. But I can see it in what I do every day. I see it in every stitch I knit, every word I write and every cake I ice. I see it in the things I love and I feel it in my heart. I think she gave me things that I’m only now learning to appreciate, as I get older. And I thank her for it with all my heart.
Thanks for sharing this post, Charlie. x