A Dying Country Service
First published in Short Head and Yard 2017.
‘Can I lick the spoon? Please Gran…please.’ Although my older brother got the china mixing bowl as it is in families, I would take the spoon on to the verandah in the morning sun. The chocolate icing was better than the final cake anyway; even now I could still taste the sweet, vaguely gritty coating on my lips. But it wasn’t taste that triggered memories and random thoughts today.
The heavy yet fresh perfume of a florist shop was overpowering. Bunches of paper-whites and bacon-and-eggs narcissi, posies of daphne and violets combined in a heady bouquet – but also the smell of death as wreaths and arrangements practically covered the coffin. I paused to pray my farewell but inwardly rebelled at that smell. I was confused. Gran was a fresh hot scones with melting butter person, along with all the other warm and tantalising aromas of her kitchen baking.
Parishioners, her extended family, farming neighbours, past farm workers and stock agents who knew to call about mid-morning packed the little wooden country church. I couldn’t handle overwhelming floral scents and had to edge through the crowd to overflow seats under a grey, sombre sky.
‘As you sow, so shall ye reap is the appropriate rural text that I often take on these occasions,’ began the Vicar. ‘However I hope that no-one will be offended,’ and he glanced upwards, ‘but more appropriate for Margaret Gwendoline Cameron, who we all knew as Meg, is a quote from George Bernard Shaw. “There is no love more sincere than the love of food”. We recognise that with her lifelong contributions.’ He spoke on, then we sang her favourite hymns, nodded with the eulogies, prayed to our individual god, and mind wandered through funeral service thoughts about a special lady.
She was a local girl recruited by her mother to the kitchen as soon as she could stand on a chair to stir a bowl. She loved it and the kitchen was always a good place with its warming wood-fired range and constant bustle of brothers around the big table centre of farm and family. But Gran did her willing apprenticeship on the newfangled electric stove, bought with the proceeds of the 1950 wool boom. The role of farm women was to look after the men-folk, and her place was at that stove. Although she had to take her turn at roasts and stews, baking captivated and continually challenged her. She graduated from pies, and won the premier chocolate cake class at the A&P Show for two years running, only moving on to the pavlova class when the Vicar’s wife got huffy about being beaten by a 15-year-old.
Throughout her married life she’d stood by her husband, although sometimes cowering as he practised on her the annual walnut tree-beating, said to enhance the crop. Afghans were her baking speciality and she always used a whole half-walnut on each biscuit with that unique chocolate topping exactly balancing the slight walnut tang.
Who invented the Afghan name anyway? In later years when arthritic hands could no longer crack the nuts, she changed to crunchy, buttery Anzac biscuits. Was there a connection with past or current conflicts in our history? Two of her brothers – my uncles, lie in foreign fields.
Her prolific baking also carried the love she spread to her children and grandchildren and she was dearly loved in return. At Christmas when festivities revolved around her brothers’ families, she always brought the traditional pudding, laced with brandy and pre-decimal silver sixpences she later exchanged for her spendable dollars. And she always had young children around her telling stories of their parents. She was a central part of our extended family and their hearts.
She was an ever-present comfort and guide to me growing up. When my parents were killed in a car crash, she became my rock, and my many comforting memories were now more than apple muffins and raspberry shortcake. She taught me about catching eels with knotted baling twine, and the quick way to knot a threaded needle.
The time I helped pull her car from the ditch when she forgot to put on the handbrake, and I told Granddad it was my fault. Her secret gift of needed money when I got married, and of course she made the cake.
After Granddad died, there had been some serenity and peace in her last 20 years, and more time to care for those around her with her special baking gifts. She had gone back to the church in her seventies and everyone welcomed her. It gave her another reason and outlet for her baking with regular morning teas after the fortnightly service and Youth Group suppers. Belgian biscuits and butterfly cakes, cheese scones and breakfast bread rolls, peanut brownies and ginger kisses all marched from her oven to table and tins for enjoyment by many mouths. Those were the real remembered smells. The damp asparagus rolls and reheated pastries waiting for us after the service would be an appropriate contrast.
In the last few months as cancer sucked her life away, she could watch the farming life around her house with many memories to comfort her in the afternoon sun. She spent more and more time at the sitting room window looking out at a nearby patch of totara where a pair of kereru was nesting. It gave her great pleasure to watch their heavy-winged and purposeful comings and goings.
Suddenly there was the characteristic swoop noise of a low-flying pigeon above. I craned around to see a fat green and bronze pigeon in the historic yew tree that sheltered the church and the crowd. It brought gasps from some as it seemed anomen. Gran would have laughed at any such symbolism. A tough old bird herself at 92.
I would so miss her. Goodbye Gran.