Sunday, February 24, 2013

Looking back through mothers and my father - the handmade


When in her now famous lecture ‘A Room of one’s Own’, Virginia Woolf said ‘women tend to think back through their mothers’ she was of course referring to writing, but I have realized that I tend to think back through my mothers when it comes to everyday living, and the love of the handmade …

I was making a curry ‘from scratch’ a couple of weeks ago – roasting cumin and coriander seeds to grind in my mortar and pestle and realized that this was the way my mother used to do it, and probably her mother, and her mother’s mother.  Mama carried her grinding rock all the way to Australia when we emigrated – it was packed in a trunk, along with lots of other valuables that she couldn’t bear to leave behind. It was a big block of river stone with a smaller tubular stone for grinding. 
My mother's rock was similar but had a dent in the middle

My grandmother had gall stones and the doctor, when he extracted the stones– which were huge like miniature comets and subsequently left to float in some viscous liquid in a jar – said they were the result of eating food that had been ground on stone.  My mother looked at her river grinding rock and she had to admit that there was a ‘wearing’ dent in it from the years and years of grinding curry and spices, and that the fine particles of stone probably did end up in the food she prepared.  It had been ending up in our food for a couple of generations now.  When her mother passed away she put the stone away and later was glad to actually give it away. Mama started using packaged curry powder about 40 years ago and never looked back.  She had her preferences for particular brands, usually a dark roasted Ceylon powder.

I find it interesting that I keep looking back particularly to my grandmother’s generation – not only in the way that I grind curry but also in the ways that I have inherited the love of the handmade arts.  My grandmother along with her sisters, used to make paper flowers and sell – they were three sisters and each had a specialty for a particular flower.  My father who was a young boy at the time had the job of couriering them to their customers and he used to pray it wouldn’t rain, as he was making the deliveries – as he’d arrive with a wet bunch of drooping paper flowers.  

My father ended up training as a tailor so perhaps his aunts had a decided impact on his choice of metier. But a thought which suddenly occurs is that the handmade is also a wonderful thread of connection with my father too and I've tended to overlook my father or the fathers' influence though my father seems a special case - he has what Woolf called 'androgyny' and 'the spark of a woman' in him.  Not only can he sew (he makes the greatest hand made buttonholes I've ever seen, which I can't seem to duplicate regardless of how many times he's shown me), he also taught my mother to cook ... I grew up witnessing my mother’s various endeavours with knitting, crochet and embroidering – her hands were usually busy with some creative task – until she discovered TV soaps.   She had the skill but perhaps not the perseverance or will – and in this ‘post-modern’ age there are so many distractions. In any case my mother feels I waste my time and energy with making things by hand, whether it be felt, or a curry.  It was my father whom I used to run to if ever I got stuck on something to do with sewing.  It was his machine I used when I sewed as a young girl. 
Grinding spices for a Vindaloo 


In the work cited above – Virginia Woolf goes on to reflect on the nature of the creative mind and agrees with Coleridge that it is ‘androgynous’. (Anticipating Jung writing about the soul) Woolf suggests that there are two ‘sexes’ in the mind or two sides of the mind – one masculine and the other feminine and that what is sought is the harmony between the two…one must write with both sides of the mind and not only with the feminine side…  ‘It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly [...] Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the art of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated. The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness.’ 

Perhaps I need to look to my father's example and ignore 'sex' when thinking, being creative, or just being, indeed cultivate androgyny in the mind. It is his 87 birthday this week and I feel very blessed indeed to have his presence in my life. Writing, I find gives me these sorts of insights...

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

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