I am over half way through reading a book.
This is remarkable for a number of reasons.
I have always loved reading – a love instilled in me perhaps by my eccentric Shakespeare-quoting, Virginia Woolf obsessed father, who memorably taught me A’level English with the eclat and elan of PT Barnum, or possibly by my beautiful, serene mother who bore a striking resemblance to Ingrid Bergman and whose calm unpretentious softness was the perfect counter-balance to Dad’s bravura and brio. I have a rather lovely recurring memory of her sitting in front of the fireplace in our sitting room, having successfully pulled off yet another Sunday Roast – she’d have been to chapel in the morning and then served us a mouthwatering full-on roast followed by Granny’s Crumble or Banoffi Pie, hosting two or three guests who would otherwise have been on their own for Sunday lunch. She would clear the kitchen – occasionally hindered or helped by her four redheaded prodigies, and then retire gently to her armchair by the fire where she would sit quietly devouring the Sunday papers from cover to cover, carefully reading each section. I rarely find such moments of peace in my life, perhaps in 2020 I will be able to rectify that.
In any case, back to the remarkable incident of the book that I am reading, which is worth commentary simply because I find myself being able to concentrate for long enough to actually take it in. Grief tends to rob you of concentration I find. Cruel but maybe it is a way of sparing us from dwelling too much on the the things we are not quite ready to dwell on.
My father’s mother, unanimously known as Gargee, a moniker bestowed on her as so often is the case by her eldest grandson, unable to navigate the word Granny, used to send me, one by one, The Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. So maybe it is this digestive-biscuit-eating grand dame (she famously had a cylindrical tin beside her bed and enjoyed a biscuit or two with her early morning cup of tea) who made fudge for charity fêtes and told us stories of her time in India who was responsible for my bookish childhood. I would read one of the books, send it back to her, ceremoniously wrapped in brown paper packaging, tied up with string and wait patiently for her to send me the next in the series. How I loved being transported away to another world, a world where the dramatic birth of a calf, or the harvesting of sap to make maple syrup were the norm and where i imagined myself as the protagonist, travelling bravely though Indian territory in a covered wagon with my pioneering family searching for a new life.
Once I had consumed all 8 of this series I progressed to treason on the high seas, or more accurately shenanigans in the lake district with the Walkers and the Blacketts as I embarked on the Swallows and Amazons adventures, and so it went on…. through Rumer Godden (my horsey phase), that series of ‘Sweet Dreams’ teen American trashy books we were all in to (my high school phase) the Flowers in the Attic series (my gothic phase), the Jilly Cooper series (oh the height of sophistication) anyway reader, you get the picture. I liked reading from a pretty early age, and I have read a lot ever since. I read English Literature at Uni, secretly yearned for a career in publishing and have always been a member of a book club. I like nothing more than the promise of adventure that a pile of books on my bedside table or a lengthy bookshop browse brings.
However. I have discovered over this past year that grief in all its strange and peculiar guises, does not like to read. I have managed to plough through very few tomes in recent months, probably the last books I read cover to cover were Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, and Dr Kathryn Mannix’ With the End in Mind. Not exactly cheery stuff. The pile of books I have been given to read continues to grow, untouched, and it is only this past week that I have managed to really get into the book I started some weeks ago Everybody died so I got a dog.
If you’ve spotted the theme here, give yourself a gold star immediately. Emily Dean’s story of overcoming the worse that life can throw at you rings true in so manys, lines that uncannily I too have written – albeit in my head; the shared hospital observations – the fact that suddenly a word like ‘metastasize’ worms its way unnoticed into your every day vocabulary, and the stark loneliness of kitchen-floor parties, only in my case these are parties in the great outdoors – moments when I seek out open spaces and howl uncontrollably into the wind, as opposed to curling up in a foetus position on the kitchen floor – although I can see why that would appeal.
Emily says ‘there were times when grief swaddled me in disconnection and I felt like someone playing at being human, unable to engage in everyday life’.
I often feel just like this and wonder how long this feeling takes to recede. The sense of disconnection is so strong at times as I try to do the things I should be doing, be the person I should be being, while wishing I could just go outside and howl and howl and howl some more.
‘I was starting to realise there is a curious honeymoon period in the initial stages of mourning where everyone treats you with the same friendly indulgence extended to the celebrity. It’s a land where turning up late, forgetting to respond to messages and having emotional outbursts is patiently tolerated. ‘You have to make the most of that time’ I was warned ‘because people forget quickly, they move on. But you don’t.’
Emily was warned to make the most of that time and I still use (abuse?) the ‘extenuating circumstances’ hashtag the family devised to explain away a multitude of faux pas in the early days of my grief. I can still get away with being late, forgetting to respond to messages, howling into the wind, earring too much comfort food, crying in church, having no food in the house, putting my keys in the fridge, drinking too much, losing 6 passports at Geneva Airport because of my #extenuatingcircumstances but I wonder how long this will continue for.
I’m a year in now, actually a year and 9 days. Are these still the initial stages of mourning?
I’m half way through the book. I hope I will be able to concentrate for long enough to finish it. Maybe next year I’ll get to read some other stuff too. And maybe the disconnection I am swaddled in will ease and instead I will feel reconnected with everyday life. Maybe. Watch this space.
Granny’s Crumble – before I got married 27 years ago, I raided my Mum’s recipe files, folders and cuttings and wrote my favourite recipes in a Liberty Print hardback book that Rich had given me, with a picture of him cooking pasted into the front (note to self insert photo here). This is my Mum’s Mother’s easy peasy crumble recipe that stands the test of time.
Pick some blackberries. Rinse through and gently heat with some sliced apples – use up what you have in the fridge/fruit bowl/garden. Add a tablespoon or two of water and some lemon juice.
For the crumble – rub together 6oz flour, 3oz caster sugar, 2oz butter (not spreadable kind). Add granola/nuts/brown sugar as required.
Assemble by puttting crumble on top of fruit base in pyrex pie dish (preferably a family heirloom inherited from a long lost relative) or use individual ramekins which can be frozen and used at a later date when a wayward child returns from an adventure in need of home cooked comfort food).
Must be served with vanilla ice cream and/or custard.
Mum’s Banoffi Pie – adapted from a recipe claimed to have been created by The Hungry Monk Restaurant in Jevington East Sussex.
Crumbly biscuit base
Melt 4 oz butter over a gentle heat. Once liquid, remove from heat and add 8oz of digestive biscuits crushed (I use the end of a wooden rolling pin to bash the biscuits in a large plastic bowl). Once mixed, smush into a loose bottomed flan ring and refrigerate.
Toffee topping – you can either do this the hard way or the easy way.
Hard Way. Take a tin of condensed milk and place in a pan of boiling water. Boil for 2 hours. DO NOT LET THE WATER BOIL AWAY. put a lid on it to prevent evaporation and keep water level topped up by checking every 20 minutes or so. Let the water boil away at your peril. This will result in toffee splattered all over your kitchen (and I mean ALL OVER your kitchen).
Easy Way. Buy a tin of caramel condensed milk. Spread the caramel over the biscuit base, being careful not to mess up the base.
Slice 1 or 2 bananas, as required, at a diagonal and spread in a single layer over the toffee.
Whip a pint of double cream until soft peaks form (do not over whip, no-one likes butter on a Banoffi) and spread gently over the bananas
Sprinkle a chocolate flake on the top of the cream and serve. Serves 8 or so….