Our third featured piece in our Mother's Day series this month is by rural Victorian writer Nicole Kelly. Nicole shares with us a seemingly inconsequential moment of her past - trying buttered toast for the first time - and in doing so invites us to reminisce about the life-building relationships that give us these moments. We never know how much a moment will mean to us until it has become a memory.
My family were margarine people. Throughout the health-conscious-butter-is-bad rhetoric of the 90s, my mother was a strong advocate of the ‘you oughta be congratulated’ variety. Each day our sandwiches and toast would be covered with the insipidly pale butter substitute. It would leave a film on your tongue, and you learnt quickly that a filling which would disguise the taste was of the utmost importance. As a child, you accept your life as normal. I never realised there was a world beyond the hydrogenated spread.
The first time I remember tasting the salty, creaminess of real butter was at my grandmother’s kitchen table, with its faded green Formica top. There were only chairs for four. She lived in the South Australian Riverland, where the sun was scorching, the dirt was red, but around the great artery of the Murray was fertile abundance. Her front yard held the allure of soft grass, sustained by water from the river which it led to.
We didn’t visit often when I was a child. My parents filled their days with work on the family farm. There were always horses to feed, vet visits to organise and broken fences to mend. There might be a year, sometimes two, between family celebrations. But as a child, the time between visits was irrelevant. Life stretched eternally and the time always evaporated in the greetings, hugs, movement and noise of our arrival at her little weatherboard house.
My grandmother was one who sat easily with silence. She was the one who taught me to knit. To create something from nothing but strands of wool; a type of magic. Her rhythmic clacking of needles was a language that we could share, which was indecipherable to others, and I relished the quiet moments together. My stitches weren’t as taut or even as hers, but there was no criticism, only gentle encouragement. She showed me there was power in silence.
The morning I ate real butter, served in thick wedges onto hot toast, I was 18. It was the day after I had buried my grandfather; the first family member I remembered losing. We buried him amongst the saltbush and red dirt, away from the river’s edge, in the land where he had spent his whole life. The cemetery was only a short drive from the house at the river’s edge, but it felt like we were leaving him in another world. My grandmother was like the river; steady and calm, even on that day. Afterwards, I sat under the dappled shade of hanging branches and watched them both. Their strength reflected in each other.
It was a day of firsts and lasts, when we buried my grandfather. It would be the last time I would see him. It was the end of my childhood vision of life stretching infinitely. It was the first time I saw my father cry. Did he cry when I was born? I don’t know. I never imagined he had; he is a quiet man who works hard and has little use for tears. But that day I watched his shoulders shudder as he wiped the moisture from underneath his dark glasses when his father was lowered into the earth. To me, the routines of burial were surreal and foreign. I can’t remember the words people read in tribute to my grandfather, but I remember the feel of my hand in my dad’s. Large and work-hardened, I took comfort when he squeezed my own.
As afternoon turned into evening, funeral turned to wake. The first hours of soggy sandwiches and over-sweetened tea were spent in the local bowls club, which was the only space big enough in this rural town to hold the crowd of people there to farewell Frank. A mix of people grieving and greeting, remembering and reuniting. I had counted the minutes as the hands crept slowly around the clock.
Returning to the river, my head full of un-cried tears, I found room to breathe. Only the closest of friends and family remained to farewell the man who had become only a memory to us. We were raucous and drank with gusto the wine he loved, that he had spent his life making. In the sanctuary of family, and our need to feel, we shared stories and laughter along with the bottle of red. We talked of the man who had always been the life of the party and designated joke-teller.
It was August and a chill followed the darkness as evening became night. The fire outside was lit. Great big chunks of red gum at the ready to keep it burning through the night. We sat around its glowing embers and spoke for long hours. My mind was soft and fuzzy with the unfamiliar alcohol that burned through me, and the smell of the fire-side smoke that surrounded me turned sweeter. I watched as my cousins, full-grown men, shared their joint around the fire. I breathed in when it was my turn, and felt myself floating for a time, moving on the river of their voices around me.
The chatter of the night was broken by my uncle starting to play. His guitar was soft and sweet, a familiar tune, interrupted only by the popping and crackling of the wood. It was his accompaniment which took me by surprise. My grandmother: the woman who never wore pants, who tended to her garden, and said more with a noise or a look than with her words, took up the melody in his strings and moved us to tears. It was the first time I had ever heard her sing.
The morning after her song, she had passed me a thick slice of toast with a hunk of butter cut from her ceramic dish. The salty smoothness of it contrasting with the tang of the marmalade and I took pleasure from each bite. I watched her, a woman who had seen seven decades of life and loss, carry her grief around the kitchen, intent on looking after others, until finally she settled with her own cup of tea at the small kitchen table, across from me. We sat in silence, just the two of us, looking out the window towards her river. In that moment alone together, I savoured her presence, as much as that first taste of butter on my tongue.
My Nan died on Christmas Day last year. Twenty years had passed since that morning when we watched the river together without a word shared between us. It had been the last time I ever stayed at the river house, but all these years later I still dream of it. I never told my Nan she had given me my first taste of butter, or how my heart had soared when I heard her sing that night. She never knew I was a writer. That I fill my silences with rivers of words, and that they remind me of her.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR...
Nicole Kelly is a teacher and writer from regional Victoria. She loves the open paddocks and towering gums of her rural life. She has a number of short stories published in anthologies, including her title story, Just Alice with Stringybark Publishing. Her debut novel, Lament, a rollicking re-imagining of the life of bushranger Ned Kelly, is published with Hawkeye Publishing. Follow her on Twitter @ruralvicwriter