Saturday, 23 May 2015

The magic of remembering

I have a little white silkie named for my mother's mother, Nana McHugh.

Yesterday, I heard her screaming and ran to the verandah too late to see what had happened, but there was a flurry of large white wings and a shrieking of smaller birds in the trees on the bank of the creek. All that was left was a bloodied scatter of Nana's fluffy feathers on the lawn. Hawk attack. She didn't come for food in the evening, so we lamented the loss of her little life.

Poor Nana.

Last night I was filing correspondence and found the following letter from me to my Nana in 2002, just before she died. So I read it in honour of her namesake's passing.

Dear Nana, Lydia:

I am so sorry you are in pain now, and I wish I could make it stop for you. Remember when I asked you if you were afraid to die? You told me, no, as long as you got to go in your sleep. I want you to know I will miss you. Death is all very well for the one on their way out, but it's not for us left behind. You never told me your stories! That is my business, stories - I know thousands of stories, but none of them mean as much to me as yours, because yours tells me who I am. Please, before you get too ill to remember, tell me your story so I've got something to be going on with! Write to me - tell me where I come from; tell me who you are, so I know how I've become myself.

You are my only remaining grandparent, and I am your first born's first born. Tell me what you wanted to be when you were 16, tell me your secret desires, tell me what you haven't had a chance to achieve, and I'll pick up the baton and run with it!

I find myself thinking about you a lot, and your life, and what it means, and how to deal with your eventual death. We all spend too much time trying to ignore death, or hide from it. I try to imagine what it would feel like to finally release myself from this bloody bag of bones and water we all drag around and call our 'body'. I try to imagine what it would be like to just be me, without the weight of existing in this world.

Your daughter, my mother, said to me when I was pregnant with my son, while she watched your husband, her father , dying, that she thought they were the same thing, birth and death - a release from one state into another. She knows big things, our connective tissue, the body between us, Hazel.

I am distressed that you are ill, that your body is worn out, but I am really distressed because you are living out my own mortality. You are proof that I will have the same fate as you - I will age and die - your fate is mine. We are the same thing and will suffer the same fate. And it makes me realise that all the nonsense and stress and crap that I worry about in the minituae of daily life means nothing - it will all only lead me to where you are now.

I feel humble, but the strength it gives me is the knowledge that this life we breathe is the only wealth we have as humans. Eventually, all we have is our selves, and if we can live with ourselves and our choices, then we have lived well. You have lived the best of lives. You are a good woman. Congratulations. 

I love you and will never forget you.

This morning, Geoffrey was downstairs gathering tools for work when I heard him exclaim, 'Nana!' There she was! Back from the dead! The hawk must have flown off with just a clutch of feathers. There are small punctures on her back from its claws, but she was able to flee under the house and must have hid there all night, terrified to go our under the dangerous sky.

Or, maybe my remembering her namesake brought her back to life.

Lucky Nana.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

When I grow up,

      Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick, tick, tick. Ti    .  
      Not long now.

My mother is really grown up now - she's been boundless and infinite for at least 5 years. I remember being shocked when I first began to give her the mini mental tests they use to assess dementia.

The Alzheimer clock face flies apart like its whole logic has been flung out from an ever widening gyre, blowing apart like a puff of dandelion.

We were sitting at my veranda table. I was conscious of her enlarged sphere of concentration. She could not focus her attention on the task at hand because her mind was taken up by awareness. Here, in the swirling unfamiliar environment of my place, she feels lost. Although she pretends to be content, I can see her glance at heavy clouds looming. She startles when a shriek of greenies in flashing bright feathers, wheel out of the tree tops, then her eyes widen with the same wonder mine did at the kaleidascope she gave me to look thorough when when I was her little girl. 

I am the sum total of everything she filled me up with - her songs, her joy, her vast, bottomless chocolate-eyed adoring gaze. She never took her yes of me, after all that time waiting and longing for me. She poured so much of her energy into into me I was practically airborne. If she believed I could fly, I'd be a bird.

But here she is, with her exploded clock and a fist full of coins that may as well be buttons, for all they mean to her. She thinks she knows the lady's face, but can't quite remember her name. She knows the kangaroo is on the other side.

She sleeps a lot more now. She gets tired after the exertion of the tests and agrees she might be thirsty - whatever I think. I say she should come inside and lie down while I get her a glass of water and by the time I'm back she's sleeping heavy as child, toes outpointed, with a balled up hanky descrunching in her uncurled palm.

Faces look down from the paintings on the walls. All their eyes have followed her into this room and pinned her to the bed. Her grandson, six years old in his Lewis Miller portrait watches her from the depths of the too-big chair he is trapped in; a red face screams out of a Davida Allen Mother and Child from the mid 1980s, and directly above, monsters and ghosts lie just beneath the surface of a black, purple and red David Kirk.

She hasn't had much practice looking at paintings. She doesn't think the pictures hanging in my house are for decoration and I wonder what she makes of the dreamscape world of imagery I have walled myself into. She loved to watch me draw, I could draw anything I saw. Drawing attracted her attention, this thing l could already do. Like breath.

I hear her snore. She hasn't forgotten herself completely. She still knows all her favourite songs, but can only catch them once they are already in the air, in process. Once she hears the pattern, she's away, pitch perfect. If we are not singing, it is difficult to keep a conversation going. I try to remember to stay in the present and only talk about things we can both see; birds passing overhead or the ant she's been watching cross the table, feeling with the tip of her tongue for words that never arrive. Everything is only what it appears to be - pre-Adam, before it all got divided into names. Reading is pointless. But as she says, she's happy just sitting. 

Tomorrow, I am looking after my mother while my father has day surgery. She can't be left alone now. She knows who Dad is, but she's not 100 percent sure. I am a complete stranger, but she will believe me when I tell her he'll be home soon.

The drought has just broken. Its been raining hard on and off all day while the tilt of the Earth turns a notch closer to winter. I will make her banana on toast for breakfast and we will drink tea on the veranda. I'll draw some shapes for her to colour-in with the lovely Derwent pencils what turn to bright pools of pink and red - her favourites - under her wetted brush. While she paints, I'll watch the rain do the same to the land and try to imagine her story, her forgotten life, into a book.

rude food

It takes guts

It takes some considerable courage to plunge your hand into the abdominal cavity of an undressed creature, scoop your hand round a gloopy mass of giblets, find and snap the trachea and gullet and then and pry it all loose and gently but firmly pull it out all in one go to spill out under your palm.

It's rare these days to even find undressed poultry and it takes a couple of goes to get practiced enough not to burst the lower intestine and make a putrid mess all over the sink.

But I'm pretty good at it now and can get it all out without carnage. And there, glistening and amid the coil of gut is the prize - duck liver.

Until you have made your own, it is impossible to imagine the hard won pleasure of fresh duck liver pate.

Some duck sauces call for the giblets to be used to make rich demi-glassed conconctions to accompany roast duck, but bugger that, unless you specifically want the giblets, they are mine.

Here's how to transform your handful of quivering, satiny offal into a small taste of heaven.

I didn't have any bacon in the fridge, so just left it out and put in some extra salt. If'n yer a local, you can get chemical-free pineapple-juice cured bacon at Cooroy Meats (near the IGA) which is an excellent excuse to take a drive into the now greening Hinterland hills.

Duck Feet First

Kind of fiddly, but totally worth it
The first thing off the carcass is the feet. 16 of them. I am very fond of chicken feet in black bean sauce at the East Ocean in Chinatown in Sydney and have found the recipe, but never had enough chicken feet to bother trying it out. You can do it with duck feet too, of course. So - here goes…

So - the verdict is - completely worth all the trouble.

Duck Soup

A duck wing is not a small thing.
4 fresh duck wings
2 knuckles worth of fresh ginger sliced
1 half carrot
1 stick celery
4 pepper corns

Put all into a 4 litre saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil then turn down the heat and simmer for a couple of hours till the meat is falling off the bone.

Remove the wings and set aside to drain.

Strain the stock and return to the saucepan.

Go out to the garden and pick 2 limes, a couple of Kafir lime leaves, a couple of sprigs of Thai basil, and a couple of young Bok Choy plants. and a long Thai Chilli.

Slice some spring onions and mushrooms

While the stock returns to the boil, put a little coconut oil into a wok and very lightly fry the wings and drain off oil.

Add a tbsp to taste of Tom Yum paste*, then mushrooms, sliced chilli, torn Kafir lime leaves, basil, greens and cook briefly till the greens wilt.

Lastly, squeeze the juice of a lime into each of two bowls, add fried duck wings and pour the soup over them.

*Tom Yum paste is smashed lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lime juice and fish sauce. l

Duck Me

Cuddle Duck - not a table duck. 
I have a blister on my finger from plucking duck. The freezer is full and I have a mountain of cook books from the library, a duck soup in the belly, duck liver pate potted in the fridge and a pan of duck feet on the stove, bubbling in ginger and star anise, almost ready for their final sauce, and forty more of the beautiful creatures eating us out of house and home.


GD has decided that ducks are much more user friendly to farm than cows. A duck won't decide it doesn't like you and try to knock you over if it feels cornered. It might, but you're not going to feel it. He;s spent three days on the new duck run and a small fortress for them to sleep in - snakes up here are big and can get into just about anything, as poor Oscar Wilde Duck found out the hard way, along with about 4 siblings of the ducks in the freezer. There's 200 acres out there - they can get their own dinner.

Muscovies are a cross between a goose and a duck, are very prolific layers and dogged determined clucky mothers. They are easily domesticated, reluctant flyers and their offspring are just about the most adorable baby animals in the vertibrate realm.

Table Ducks - not for cuddling
The lot in the fridge are our first cull of birds with no names. They have been raised for the table since the last couple of old drakes we killed (what we really mean when we say cull) failed to produce any fat! WTF? The whole point of ducks is duck fat - but I have since found that this breed, though producing less fat than others, are prized for their culinary properties. Apparently, chefs like them for their dark, gamey appearance and taste.

I have hung them for three days, and on Saturday plucked and gutted them. My sister came over to help. Thats the deal - help pluck and you take nome your own duck dinner.

Not what you could call fast food - 16 weeks to mature - they are in staged clutches. I nurse hatchlings in a brooder in my stove room then when they are downey enough, they move to the run with their big brothers and sisters. I have a colour code so I can tell with are the eldest

So - from here in in, it's duck recipes all the way down. Geoff is going to have a go a smoking as well.
 For now though, it's raining - finally, and time to plant some snow peas and cabbage to go with braised duck feet in three months time.
The new duck run - very excellent use of a very steep spot

Friday, 31 January 2014

White wall fever, indeed.

Goodness, 'who knows where the time goes'? Almost a whole year later, and here I am, back at my blog. I was reminded of it because my son has just begun his own here at blogspot.

Coincidentally, an art exhibition opened last Friday in my very own country town and my son is in it - actually, a picture of him and his father - the art dealers Evan and Ray Hughes. The image is by the Queensland painter Ian Smith, though at the time it was painted, only one of them was an art dealer, the other is only about two foot long, bald, and crawling around the gallery floor.

 Confusing? Time is like that, a tangle of coincidences. For me, to be in that gallery full of paintings was a time warp or artists and old friends I've not seen for ages. A visit to the foreign country of the past doesn't happen every week out here in the sticks.

It was the opening at the Cooroy Butter Factory of an exhibition of the McCrea Collections - Then and Now. Back in the late 70s-early 80s, the McCreas were part of the Ray Hughes Gallery inner sanctum of collectors, artists and lovers. Once a month, we would all come together at the Red Hill Gallery in Enoggera Terrace to launch a new exhibiton. The McCreas joined the scene in the early 80s. At 6pm we'd crack open the Coolibah casks and for a couple of hours we'd all be in thrall of Ray Hughes, the maverick bad-boy art dealer, feeling the full force of his fire and brimstone passion and faith in contemporary art.

Smithy (Ian Smith) was always there. He and Ray were firm, fast friends, and Davida Allen, my painting teacher, and a host of collectors who had learned that admission to Ray's salon only cost them the price of a picture. The McCreas were not alone - there was Athy Nye, the bikie who'd stacked his bike and spent his insurance pay out on art; Ben Peel, a tradie who put his purchases on lay-by and paid them off at $50 a week; Shane and Sally Thompson who made the effort to come up for the show have an equally excellent art collection, as do many others. Jim Baker, who opened the show had a spectacular passion for the art he saw in that terrace shop in Red Hill. He went on to become our biggest collector and was instrumental in brokering the finance for our move to Sydney in the mid-80s. He went on to set up the private Museum of Contemporary art in Brisbane and like David Walsh in Tasmania, put together a fantastic collection that he shared with the people of Brisbane.

As I looked out across the crowd, searching out familiar images - that's  Peter Powditch! Steve Killick! Gavin Chilcott! I realised that the scene in Brisbane back then was about the same size. Our mailing list was only about 500 people (I know, I hand addressed the envelopes). Today, people have more facebook friends than that. But what we had was real - real people would receive that monthly post card in the mail, put it on the fridge and plan their social life around it. The Ray Hughes Gallery was IT, edgy and interesting as all fuck. I feel deeply honoured to have been part of that circle of acquaintance.

So, while it was a weird blast from the past kind of a thing, it was also a fantastic testament to the love and faith John and Lyn McCrea placed in the possibility of where a work of art can take you and how it can change your life. Ray asked his collectors to dig into their pockets to support the artists in their midst - not only to buy the work, but to befriend them and continue to keep and care for their work, and thereby actively participate in its ongoing appreciation in value. By becomming the 'premiere' audience of the work, Ray's collectors were invited into the studio to be the first people in the world to see a new show, to be the front line curators of their own personal museums of art and ideas.

I am blessed to have my own collection of work from that time, my own personal visual diary of my life and times in relation to the great artistic minds of my generation. It is the diary of a large, exuberant love, the major product of which is our brilliant son, Evan - the baby in that picture by Smithy. He has the baton now and runs The Hughes Gallery.