My mother’s kitchen in the 1970s was a war zone in which the weapons deployed were electric potato peelers, pressure cookers and a gigantic pale-blue Kenwood mixer. All these gadgets created a terrific din - a racket she used to fend off me and my two sisters. And if the clattering of the potato peeler or the screech of the pressure cooker didn’t keep us at bay the huffing and puffing of my mother as she wiped her brow, damp from the stresses of feeding a farming family, would.
My mother was a farmer’s daughter who became a farmer’s wife. She always said she thought she’d marry a man ‘who went out to work in a suit’, which suggests she hadn’t planned a lifetime of turning out three meals a day for hungry farmers.
Breakfast was after my dad and grandad had milked 80 cows and fed the calves and pigs. ‘Watch that milk!’ my mother would order leaving one of us hovering by the cooker where a pan of milk - quivering , going thin and shiny - would suddenly froth and boil over onto the hot ring where it instantly burnt and made a terrible stench and put my mother in a worse temper than ever. ‘I told you to watch it!’
My mother made bacon and egg for breakfast occasionally but more likely was wholemeal toast and porridge or cereal. She was the first person I heard go on about ‘cholesterol’ – long before anyone else. In the 1970s she came home with Ski yoghurts and boxes of Alpen which we thought were healthy because they had pictures of mountains on the side. Turned out Ski yoghurts were full of sugar which Mum said was bad for you and rotted your teeth. She bought a yoghurt maker.
My mother said only boring women had clean houses. She loathed housework and called feeding the family her ‘bug bear’. She made it more interesting by buying gadgets and when she became aware of Lakeland Plastics only 40 miles north it became her spiritual home. Her birthday outings were trips to the Lake District, not to admire the views or walk the hills but to purchase heaps of plastic bags and tags and clips and devices for chopping and shaping and peeling and slicing.
Our midday meal (called dinner) was of the meat-and-two-veg variety. Her veg were always on the hard side to stop the cooking ‘taking all the goodness out’ and to prevent ‘the sink being the best fed mouth in the house’.
All puddings were home-made, my mother being convinced that factory-made cakes contained eggs complete with shells and quite possibly the sweepings from the factory floor.
My mother bought organic ingredients and ‘wholefood’ long before they were readily available, going to ‘the health food shop’ for wheat germ which she sprinkled around liberally.
‘Your mum doesn’t like that,’ said Uncle George watching my mother eat a bowl of muesli and wheat germ. ‘I can tell ‘cos she’s eating it with her mouth closed.’
‘I do like it!’ declared Mum, inadvertently breaking one of her rules and speaking with her mouth full.
My mother was angry that the world contained so much boring house work. She shoved vegetables through a sieve to make our Christmas soup with such a fury it was a wonder the handle didn’t break. If we got too close she’d bark: ‘Get out from under my feet!’
She grew her own strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, potatoes, peas, onions and lettuce. Her proudest boast was serving up a meal and saying: ‘This was still growing half an hour ago.’ Her homemade beetroot was boiled in a blackened pot on the open kitchen fire, bubbling away like a witch’s cauldron.
We were given occasional jobs like shelling peas and topping and tailing gooseberries but as a rule if we dared approach while she was clattering in the kitchen we were told to ‘stop mithering’ and she’d turn up Richard Baker on Radio Three. ‘These You Have Loved’ would drown us out; Berlioz and Brahms, Bach and Beethoven swirling in a great crescendo round the plastered walls of the farmhouse kitchen.
‘I can’t hear you,’ she’d bellow, turning up the Kenwood mixer.
Despite my mother’s lifelong interest in healthy eating life’s little joke was to stop her eating almost anything at all by her late 60s when she started having trouble with her stomach.
First she couldn’t eat mushrooms, then meat and gradually the list of foods non-grata grew and grew. She would sit, hands pressed against her stomach staring into the middle distance. Pretty soon all she could keep down was Complan. After years of a home-made, organic, wholefood, fresh diet she was existing on a depressing-looking powder she mixed with milk three times a day.
The doctors thought she had stomach cancer. Months of tests revealed it was non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. For a woman who had barely approved of taking an Anadin, her life now depended on toxic chemo-drugs.
She didn’t talk about it. Years of drowning out communication with household gadgets wasn’t going to stop now. She bought a little whizzer from the Lakeland catalogue to froth up her Complan.
Her bed was brought downstairs to a room beside the kitchen.
I discovered some organic vegetable stock she’d made and frozen when she was strong. I defrosted it and fed it to her as she lay in bed. She was happy to eat good food; food she knew was good because she’d made it with her own hands.
She didn’t want to die; forcing down bio-yoghurt along with her tablets as the nurse shook her head out of my mother’s eye line and mouthed ‘there’s no point in taking them anymore’.
I wasn’t going to tell my mother that.
She took them.
The next day she died.
The battle was over. I threw away the tubs of Complan and the blister packs of tablets.
In her kitchen there was silence.