Please welcome guest blogger Kate Kerrigan to the Book Club Girl blog! Kate's newest novel, City of Hope, is on sale today, and she is also the author of Ellis Island. The inspiration behind parts of these books comes from a place very close to home -- her grandmother.
In recent years I have found myself storing half-onions under saucers and saving bits of leftover bacon to throw into a quiche. I began to suspect that supermarket sell-by dates were a con designed to make me buy more yogurt, and when said yogurt began to take on a life of its own – why, I’d just dilute it down with an egg and throw it into my soda bread mix instead of buttermilk. I was dimly aware that my newfound thriftiness wasn’t just a reaction to the economy, but one day, reaching for the bone-handled knife I always use to peel apples, a picture flashed into my mind. My grandmother was seated at the table in her simple kitchen tearing the leaves off rhubarb stalks, that very same bone-handled knife in her hands.
My grandmother died when I was in my early twenties. She lived with us in London for much of my childhood, and her stories of life in Ireland and the part of Ireland that she bought into our home have undoubtedly contributed greatly to what I choose to write about and the era in which all my novels are set – the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.
For Granny and her generation, all over the world, thrifty housekeeping was a way of life. It is only now that the hard times are hitting us all that my generation are beginning to look back and see the value in how those hardy, resourceful women ran their homes and kept their families fed through times of depression and austerity.
As a young single woman living in the city, my home was an apartment that served as little more than a large wardrobe. After I got married in my mid-thirties, though, I found myself craving a different kind of life. After our first son was born we moved from the city to a large tumbledown house in the country. Working my own hours as a full-time writer meant that I was finally free to create the family home I had always dreamt of. As I found myself fixing up old cupboards, scouring charity shops for vintage crockery, and patch-working bathroom curtains out of squares of discarded fabric, I was surprised to find I had a great sense of achievement. More than that, this domestic life, full of small, satisfying tasks like preserving apples from my own tree or bringing the brass door knocker up to a good shine, seemed to ground me at a time in the past – my grandmothers era – and through that realization, I found a greater sense of who I was. Gradually, subconsciously, with my daily bread-making routine, rhubarb patch, and lettuces in a tub on the patio, I had begun to replicate the simple self-sufficient domesticity of my grandmother’s life.
I want to stand at her side in my mother’s kitchen and have her teach me to make her wonderful soda bread again. This time I would take real note as she throws the flour and bread soda into the bowl, measuring by eye alone, gradually adding in the soured milk then gently kneading the dough into a delicate round, gathering in every last crumb, leaving the red Formica tabletop spotless. I’m ready to learn from her now. I am ready to listen.
I want my time back with her, but not as a girl in my twenties, my head full of new clothes and boyfriends, worrying about my future. I am living the future I hoped for now and I long to share it with the woman who helped shape these dreams. My experiences as a maturing woman – the joys and struggles of marriage and motherhood, the ongoing persistence needed to juggle a successful career with a satisfying home life – make me better able to appreciate my grandmother than I was when she was alive. The pride and craftsmanship with which she ran her home, the embroidered tray clothes, the meticulous housekeeping, the knitting, the baking, all masked a frustration that she had not been allowed to pursue her career. As a young woman she fought hard to qualify as a teacher in rural Ireland in the 1930s, and then found she was expected to give up work after she married my grandfather. When he retired, she took up teaching again in later life. Granny was determined to “have it all” – and so am I. Although there is a generation between us, I feel we have so much in common. The next best thing to having her to sit in my kitchen and share her stories is hearing her words of advice as I cook her recipes: “Don’t waste a good egg glazing a tart when a bit of milk will do the job as well.”
When my mother refurbished the kitchen in her family home, she passed me on a number of Granny’s things. Her cookery books, the mixing bowl she had made her bread in for forty years, and crucially, the bone-handled knife that she carried about in the pocket of her apron, always. “Granny’s knife” now sits in my cutlery drawer and I use it every day. (My husband is mystified and slightly nervous of the thing and never touches it.) The small, flat instrument with the rounded blade started its life as a dinner knife, but, for some eccentric reason, Granny sharpened the center of it until the blade was concave. With its ancient yellowed handle and strange-shaped blade it looks like a hybrid butter knife, but to this day it is extraordinarily effective in cutting everything from vegetables to bread, and using it is a way of keeping her with me. Often when I am chopping an onion or peeling an apple she comes into my mind – stout and stern, working at our kitchen table, then throwing her head back into a loud burst of laughter so suddenly you’d nearly jump out of your skin.
Material possessions are not as important as people, but they often outlive them and for what they represent, for the way they remind you of a person, they are important. My grandmother’s knife had no significance for me until she died, but now I can remember her using it from when I was a child. My own children are unaware of these things now, but as they reach adulthood, the legacy of my grandmother’s generation will live on in the comfort of the home I have created for them. I let them know, “This is my grandmother’s recipe,” when I serve them up a traditional dinner. They aren’t listening and don’t care that I ate the same foods as a child, but just as I by some mysterious process absorbed my grandmother’s ways, I know that my children will come to appreciate, perhaps even cherish the history of their home lives. Despite their eye rolling, the meals I cooked and the knife that I used, which once belonged to their great grandmother, will all log in their memories. Perhaps one day they will come to cherish the way history can enrich our everyday lives as I have.