Photos: Silmara Emde
Text: Curtis Emde
Text: Curtis Emde
At one point in her classic A Room of Her Own (1929), Virginia Woolf describes how children are nurtured at home in preparation for adult life. She invites us to consider these children’s mothers and the hundreds of meals they prepare and the thousands of plates and forks they scrub to strengthen their children for the world. What remains of this work? “All vanished,” she writes. “No biography or history has a word to say about it.”
Mid-summer 2015 marked ten years since the death of my mother. The anniversary lead me to consider Woolf's ideas in personal ways: what of the thousands of meals, the hundreds of cookies and muffins she baked for my family? Adults usually expect some kind of recognition for doing their jobs even at a minimum level of competence, but what recognition was my mother ever given for doing her job, and for doing it extremely well? My family enjoyed her food, for sure; we appreciated it for ending our hunger and usually said a quick thanks as we hurried from the table. But I had taken the labour involved for granted.
It's easily done. While we have portraits of grand Christmas Dinner table spreads, there’s little surviving evidence of the work behind the scenes. There are no images or recordings of my mother cooking, no 8mm films of her busy with breakfast. Her work wasn't entirely undocumented, however: a small sample of her efforts was preserved, thanks to the similarly under-appreciated abilities of that clunky phenomenon of modern convenience - the deep freeze.
Thanks to this bulky appliance, I could hold my mother's food in my hand nearly a decade she'd died. But while we might keep letters and other mementos of the departed for the rest of our lives, I knew I couldn't hold onto a plastic bag full of macaroons baked in 2002 forever. Something else needed to take over from the freezer. I didn't know what that 'something else' could be, but an idea would eventually be provided by my wife Silmara.
My family moved during the summer between my 5th and 6th grades. Bridging our two Okanagan homes like a thread was the equipment of living: our old chairs and tables, arranged in new rooms. We also brought little treasures with us: heirlooms, photographs - items we treated with respectful solemnity, even if the jewelry was hidden in a box in a bedroom, or the pictures hung in obscure corners.
Appliances, though, carry a faintly distasteful industrial whiff: fridges and ovens are inelegant and cannot be hidden in drawers and are not willfully displayed in the same way sofas are. Like sofas, stoves and ovens receive daily use, but are rarely treated with gratitude, never mind respectful solemnity. When our deep-freezer was first delivered, I couldn't help but see it as the perfect size for storing a stack of corpses. An entire section of the laundry room had to be cleared to make space, and the very name, that strange and evocative compound noun, implied no-nonsense power. I felt bad for the instantly less impressive abilities of the refrigerator's puny ice-box upstairs.
The machine created new chores for my siblings and I. We were often sent downstairs pull from it hardened loaves of bread, bags of frozen blueberries or containers of leftover sauce from a distant winter meal. We always knew when someone was downstairs opening the freezer because of the distinctive near-shriek of the lid. It was the sound of newness, bounty - but the kind of bounty that came from careful planning, not wealth. Such duties ended when my family moved. Our new laundry room was just off the kitchen, so it now took just seconds for mum to grab something and return to her boiling pot. The deep freeze lay in front of us as we entered through our new, smaller laundry room. Its large surface now made a good place to throw our jackets on.
In the spring of 2005, I came back to this second house after working abroad for eight years. I had the whole summer free, but wasn't planning on lounging around - there were books to read, friends to catch up with. Keeping busy helped diminish the shame I felt at becoming a boomerang-child cliché by living in my parents' basement at the age of thirty. My parents also helped: despite our inevitable little retreats into old habits, they treated me, for the most part, like an adult.
Most mornings I got up early and walked up the street to mail postcards. Back home, my dad would have left for work and my mother would just be sitting down for breakfast. I'd join her for coffee. She'd pull a recipe book down from the cupboard above the phone and start flipping through it - “this sounds good, eh?” She knew what would work for supper because she knew what was in the deep freeze - she never had to rummage around. Food was labelled, rotated and removed from the cold darkness right on schedule. Her activities those mornings were so natural I barely registered them. We don't often notice the quiet, mundane moments in time - they only take on significance later, magnified either by nostalgia or tragedy, when the previously-normal becomes elevated to a kind of prelapsarian paradise of the mind.
My mother died suddenly in the middle of the summer. My grief was disorientating, like trying on a new pair of glasses and seeing the world immediately transformed. Everything is recognizable, but completely altered through sudden and dizzying focus.
Friends and neighbours came by with food, and kept reminding my father and I to eat. We did eat, but not much, and without enjoyment. Most of the donations ended up in the deep freeze, stacked on top of rows of my mother's carefully wrapped and labelled baked goods. What else could we do with casserole dishes and snack trays? The freezer was as busy as ever, but the flow was one-way. At the time, it would have seemed disrespectful to dispose of those gifts. On subsequent visits, I had fewer qualms. The freezer was cluttered, so I didn’t mind chucking out a half-eaten lasagne that had been languishing there for years. I couldn’t remember who had given what, so it felt like I was throwing out food that had been cooked anonymously, like restaurant leftovers that had spoiled.
But what about the packages of my mother's baking? The date cookies and blueberry cakes were not the shapeless, colourless masses I might have expected - they had been remarkably well preserved. Once I gave into curiosity and bit off a small piece of a date cookie, holding it my mouth just long enough to detect a hint of the original, gently spicy flavour still lurking beneath the frost-bitten staleness. Impressions of a hundred recess breaks and after school snacks rushed back at once. I savoured the taste and the time-travel for as long as I dared before spitting it out. This baking was the last tangible links to mum in her home. The food could live indefinitely in the deep freeze, but would thaw and rot not long after being removed and have to be thrown out.
It was inevitable, though. The appliance, having outlived its usefulness as a food-preserver for a busy family of five, had been reduced to life as an electricity-gobbler for my father. I wanted to take charge and get it cleared out, but at the same time felt I'd be cutting myself off from the last surviving evidence of mum's provision of nourishment. It was a dilemma almost as absurd as it was morbid.
The dilemma was dissolved during a trip to Vernon with Silmara last February. Silmara is a photographer. We stayed at the house while my dad was out of town. I showed her how the cookies and cakes had been so well-kept they might even appear fresh in a photograph. We looked at each other and without discussion started unpacking the freezer, unwrapping and arranging the frozen goods – heavy, solid - on dinner plates. We placed my mother's identifying labels, written in her polished cursive script, next to the items as if they were price cards in a bakery or information tags illuminating small plastic recreations in a museum. “It’s like a bake sale,” she said, photographing the food as if she'd been hired to promote a local fundraiser.
When she was finished, I quickly re-wrapped it all in the original wax paper packaging and put everything in the garbage bin outside where it likely stayed frozen throughout the night in the sub-zero temperature. I kept the labels, but the food was finally gone. But only in one sense. History might not have traditionally had a lot to say about women’s labour in service of their families, but it is starting to whisper. Home-made food frozen in the past to feed us in the future is an expression of care-taking and love that deserves gratitude and as much respectful solemnity as anything else we treasure from the past . And even when that food is thrown away, it is not “all vanished” - the beginnings of biography are found in what remains: photographs and words. Now they are the story, and – with apologies to the family deep freeze – tell it better than anything else.