My Mother’s Holland

The taste of Holland recedes, as I grow older. It once held a central place in my consciousness. The taste as strong as the almond infused marzipan that I came across whenever someone had a wedding and layered their fruit cake with a thick undercoat of marzipan before the pristine white layer of sugar icing.

I peeled off the top most layer, not because it was too sweet. In years gone by, sweetness at its most intense appealed but not if it lacked flavour. I liked my sweetness to come with other hints of vanilla or chocolate or hazelnut not straight sugar.

This appealed to me too in my sense of Dutchness which arrived once a year in early December when my Opa sent all his children living in Australia a silver tin, the size of a squat suitcase, filled with Dutch delectables: salted liquorice, Speculaas, Hagel, and best of all the marzipan.

I left the liquorice to my older sister and brothers, those who had acquired a taste for the raw saltiness of the sweets that came usually in the form of cats, small back cats that you chewed on until your teeth were black.

More than the individual items themselves the contents was the reminder of that place my mother called home. That place where she had once been happy. That place where she had been able to lead the life she once expected for herself, surrounded by friends and family.

In my mother’s memoir she wrote about a day early after her arrival in Australia when she stood at the back door, perhaps the only door of the chook shed which they had converted into their first home, and swept the step clear of the dust that piled high from the unmade road in front. Beyond the road she could see long stretches of green fields where cows grazed as contentedly as she would have liked. But she could not graze.

She had six children under ten by then, with four at home and two at school and another one on the way. She was trapped in this brave new world where she had moved in order to give her husband the satisfaction he craved, off on a new adventure with a chance to get away from the shame he left behind in the form of his parents.

She had left behind her own most beloved parents and although three of her brothers had joined her with their families on this other side of the world far from the ravages of war, she looked across the fields up to the sky and held back tears.

A car flashed by, a black sedan smeared in dust and through the front window she recognised the driver. Her new parish priest, Father Ashe, off on a call to some other parishioners further afield.

My mother put down her broom and waved to the priest from the shade of her front veranda but his eyes looked ahead and he did not see her. Nor did he see her through the rear view mirror as he drove on up the hill after she had stepped away from the shed and out onto the street in the wake of his dust.

Or if he saw her he did not stop. He did not wind down his window and wave to my mother from his position of retreat. That would have been some comfort but he offered nothing. And she felt the tears splash down her cheeks remembering her life in the parish of Haarlem where not only would the priest stop, any visit in the direction of her parents home on the Marnixplein would be his first stop.

In Haarlem, my mother wrote, I was a somebody, the member of a respected family. Here in Australia she was nobody, of no consequence, and she went back inside, picked up her broom and dusted off the last leaf that had landed there.

So, my mother began to forget the country that was once her home. She remembered it from her childhood, but it stood still in her imagination and even as she continued to read newspaper accounts of the happenings at home, the death of Queen Juliana, the wedding of Princess Beatrix, the politics of the place, she found herself growing more attached to her adoptive country.

Besides she could no longer tolerate the idea of those long cold winters, especially as she aged when ice-skating, the joy of her childhood, became an increasing impossibility.

These days, I find myself increasingly a reluctant traveler, under the shadow of my mother’s homesickness. To be buried far from where she was born in a country she’d never have chosen as her final resting place.  Far from her parents’ burial plot.  Far from home.


A birthday, Cassoulet and Germaine Greer

My husband is preparing cassoulet in readiness for a dinner tonight in honour of his birthday which falls tomorrow.

Cassoulet, in the grand French tradition, duck leg confit prepared over a week ago which he has cryo-vacced in separate bags and stored away in readiness for inclusion in the stew he’s concocting at present, including a ham hock, pig’s trotter, pork shoulder, Toulouse sausages bought from a French delicatessen in Carlton and various other meats that he needs to brown first before adding them to a giant pot in which he will also cook a truck load of white beans, which he’s had soaking in water over night.

When we were planning this event and I suggested given it was his birthday wouldn’t it be better if he were to tackle something simple or we bought food in from elsewhere or even that someone else might cook, he refused.

‘I can cook it days in advance so it it’ll be ready to go on my birthday.’ For some reason although we had discussed this with our various children and their partners and decided as a group that it would be better to celebrate the event on the Saturday night before, the eve of his birthday, he took it into his head that we were eating the cassoulet on the Sunday.

He thought therefore he had a day’s grace but as we talked about logistics last night the penny dropped and so he was up early this morning ready to go.

The house smells like a French restaurant, dense with the whiff of fried garlic and browned pork. It clashes with the taste of my breakfast yoghurt but still it’s a good smell.

A fantastic smell, especially when the weather is still spring chilly and we all have bigger appetites when it’s cold.

My children grew up with such smells. All their lives their father has cooked like this. One of his favourite pastimes to cook excellent food, but also one of the things that exasperates him the most when things don’t work out quite as he’d have wanted. as happens.

I act as sous chef.

All my life the sous chef, the under cook, the one who fetches and carries, the one who clears up, the one who keeps the plates on the table, the glasses filled, tempers calm. It’s a role I’m used to, given my years as a woman born before the second wave of feminism. Though in the 1970s when I first took myself off to Women’s Studies at the university I began to question my long-held belief that it was a fine thing for me to win my boyfriend’s love by ironing his shorts, by cleaning the toilet and scrubbing out the shower recess.

My job as helpmate.

It came as a bolt from on high when I first began to understand there was such a thing as inequality between the sexes, that women’s lot was more lowly than that of men.

The third wave of feminism, if there is such a thing, has set me further on edge. Ready to declare war on any helpless male who assumes I’m available for taking on the menial tasks of life and yet it comes so effortlessly these impulses to help out, to make people comfortable, or at least try.

I rationalise the impulse back to childhood when my mother taught us, or at least it’s in my mind that when you want something yourself, a cup of tea, a piece of bread, a piece of fruit you must offer all those in your company the same first. You cannot simply go and help yourself without first making sure that others are happy. It’s probably not a bad habit, but it can grate when not everyone expects to be included in my own decisions about what I might want to eat or drink. It can become a type of millstone.

‘Are you sure you’re alright? Are you sure you have enough? Can I get you anything?

The list of requests go on too long and people tire of such solicitude.

My husband tires of it, especially when directed towards others, but heaven help me if I forget to pull back his side of the bed at night after I pull back my own. An odd habit I picked up in Bali where we stayed one overly long week, years ago, and the people who serviced our holiday suites came in every evening to pull back the sheets and drag around the mosquito netting.

How easy it became for me to take up the role of servant at home. As I prepare my side of the bed for sleep I must prepare my husband’s, even when I spend much of the night elsewhere in a spare bedroom to escape his snoring, which starts up around one am and which I cannot tolerate for more than two minutes before I’m wide awake and in search of quieter quarters?

Lynn Freed writes of snoring as one of a man’s greatest humiliations. Snoring stories are the great stories of revenge, Freed argues. The way in which at dinner parties, women, and it is usually women, tell stories about the nature of their husband’s snoring.

Women can keep their fellow dinner guests in stitches as they regale them with the horrors of those late-night trumpet calls, while the husband, the perpetrator of said snores is left humiliated and in shame.  Notwithstanding the fact he commands a respectful figure by day. She imagines him decked out in business suit and tie by day, but there he is at night, slack jawed, mouth agape emitting the most hideous of noises fully unconscious of the fact until his partner jabs him in the ribs and urges him to roll over.

I did this for years.

‘The double bed has a lot to answer for’, says Germaine Greer in one of recent talks On Consent.

I went on Thursday evening with a few friends. We arrived early to get best seats. My friends are also keen on being able to see and hear clearly. There we were at the edge of the reserved section, which proved to be reserved for dignitaries of sorts. We sat beside two women from Melbourne University Publishing who distribute Germaine Greer’s books.

It was fun to chat with them beforehand. I had forgotten my notebook and during Greer’s talk, I wrote on a scrap of paper, my scanned ticket and just as I was running out of space, one of the women handed me over her ticket and then another as I ran out of space on each sheet.

The woman beside me told me later she noticed that I looked as though I was getting anxious in running out of space and so she felt compelled to find me more paper. A kind and womanly thing to do and I was grateful.

There were two men alongside these two women whom I could not see only I noticed at one point during proceedings perhaps at the point where Lesley Cannold, the interviewer came on stage to begin her conversation with Germaine Greer, after the great woman had talked to us for some forty or so minutes off the top of her head.

I’m afraid I too fell for Germaine Greer, her mind, her wit, her way with words, even as there were moments when I considered she had failed in the art of throwing in qualifiers. Too certain were her generalities.

The man nearby sounded furious with her for the suggestion that all men were… of course all men aren’t any more than all women are…But Greer makes the point and she’s on about the patriarchy and problems with notions of consent.

As if consent was easy. Yes, please no thanks. I’ve changed my mind. As if consent can be factored in during the middle of sex. When you started out in one frame of mind, enjoying the encounter, your mind in top gear and filled with desire only to change your mind when as Greer suggested, your partner turns into a Christian Grey type with his bag of tricks and you decide you’d like to stop now. Too late.

How do you stop? How do you express non-consent?

Greer gave another example of a woman friend and colleague who lived with her young daughter and had broken off with her partner. He arrived one evening demanding sex and she told him to leave, but he forced himself onto her and she failed to protest, believing it was better she acquiesce rather than scream or try to stop him, because she did not want to upset her daughter sleeping upstairs.

And in the morning, this man with whom she also worked came into work crowing because he had succeeded in inveigling his way into her body once more and was able to prove himself triumphant.

Was that rape?

Leslie Cannold suggested it was, but how to prove it in a court of law. And then I found myself thinking of all those Saturdays when I was a child and my father was at home and drunk, when he called out to my mother to join him in bed. And she held back engrossed in her book, and close to us as we played in the loungeroom or watched television and we seemed to do often in those days.

On this day there was no noise from the television just the click of chess pieces on the board as my two older brothers competed with one another in one corner of the room and my younger sister and I played dress ups with our dolls.

The others must have been around somewhere, my older sister, my oldest brothers, my littlest sister and brother, but in my memory,  it was just we four there in the lounge with our mother as our father called out to her repeatedly from the bedroom,

Liesje, kom.’

In time, she set aside her newspaper and dragged herself up from her chair.

How did I know she was going off to him to protect us, to give us peace? How did I know she did not want to go to him?

Her body language spoke of acquiescence and not the acquiescence of a mother who must go to her crying baby in the middle of the night when she wants only to sleep some more, but the acquiescence of a woman who must give into her husband’s demands for sexual comfort.

And then I listened and sensed my brothers and sister listening too, for small sounds, those that might suggest our mother was in trouble, our mother needed help.

When the cry rose up through the walls and into the hall way, we ran to our parents’ bedroom door in file and my older brother led the way. He threw the door open and rushed inside.

I did not see. I could only hear my mother’s voice.

‘Get out of here,’ she said to my brother who backed out. His eyes were wide as plates as if he had seen a ghost. To this day I do not know what he saw.

My mother naked. My father undressed, the two on the bed, on the floor?  What did he see?

I asked this brother once over thirty years later at a family reunion, this brother who is reclusive and rarely speaks. He only nodded his head as I recalled the day but later he said to me ‘I cannot give you what you want.’

To this day, I don’t know what that is either, only I know Germaine Greer is onto something when she said in her concluding remarks:

‘The family is the most dangerous place on earth.’