Productive procrastination and the tug of memory

The editing assignment I’m working on at the moment is one of the most interesting, and biggest, I’ve had in the three years I’ve worked as an academic editor. Each new editing assignment, written by academics in China, Japan, Indonesia and elsewhere, is a new and fascinating learning experience for me. But the one I’m currently working on is particularly enjoyable because it is closest to my own research interests and the suggestions I have made to the authors come from my own specific background as an environmental anthropologist, rather than from my usually broader background as a social scientist at the interstices of culture and nature. This week’s assignment is about intangible cultural heritage, about the conservation and transmission of knowledge, skill and memory.

However, despite my enjoyment of this current assignment, I find myself procrastinating. Having done the washing up after lunch today I knew I should return to my office and sit down for an afternoon of editing. Instead, I decided on the spur of the moment to make a coffee cake. I’ve never made a coffee cake before, but I have a hand-written recipe in the little recipe book I’ve been adding to and baking from for years.

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My ‘not as good as Cissie’s’ coffee cake

I’ve been craving coffee cake for weeks, probably since the end of March and what would have been my father’s 78th birthday. You see, for me, coffee cake is intimately and indelibly tied up with memories of my father and my aunt Cissie, Daddy’s oldest sister. Coffee cake does not exist in my memory and my imagination independent of those two very important people in my life.

Until I was five years old, I was the only child in a small house in rural Ireland that was home to my mother and father, my paternal grandmother, and my paternal aunt, Cissie. My uncle Tom was there most days too and each weekend, my cousins Sean, Declan and Colette and my aunt Lillie were there too. I grew up in a house filled with love and jokes and an obsession with Gaelic football. I never once questioned my place in that wonderful setting. I was grounded and protected and loved. When I was five years old, my baby sister was added to the mix, and when I was six, my beloved aunt Cissie died of breast cancer.

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Cissie and me on the lawn in Ballygibbon, summer 1974.

Cissie was 18 or 19 years older than my father, who was the baby in a family of eight children that spanned a 22-year range. They all grew up in that house, as had my grandfather before them, who had died on my father’s first birthday. Cissie was the third oldest in the family, and the oldest girl. In what would be the final years of her life (although none of us could ever have imagined that someone so full of life could die so young), and her most important years from my young perspective, she worked as a housekeeper for a country doctor. Dr. Hill was herself an amazing woman, family doctor to all of us and a woman who had gone to medical school in Ireland in what must have been the 1930s. She and her husband, Ger, who was confined to a wheelchair, lived in a big bright orange farmhouse up a long avenue, a couple of miles from my house. Cissie worked in the kitchen, cooked the meals, baked, helped with Ger and slept in the house a couple of nights a week. I have very strong memories of sleeping in Cissie’s bed in her room at Dr. Hill’s house once and feeling simultaneously thrilled and terrified by the vastness of the house.

Back home in our little two-bedroom, five-person house, I shared a bed with Cissie and we, in turn, shared a room with my grandmother. When I go home to Ballygibbon now I can’t imagine how or where we fit two large old beds, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers in that room. But, somehow, we did (maybe the confined space prepared me for life on a boat).

Cissie’s baking was legendary. She baked all the time and everything was delicious. Cakes, tarts, desserts, she made them all. My father, despite hating coffee, loved his big sister’s coffee cake. And, despite being in his mid-30s in the mid-1970s, when I was a little girl, he was still Cissie’s adored baby brother, Cinn-bán Paddy, blond-headed Paddy, and she indulged and cultivated his sweet tooth at every opportunity.

It would be incorrect to say Daddy loved coffee cake. He loved Cissie’s coffee cake. After she died, in 1979, at a time when I was too young to appreciate the grief of those around me, he rarely ate coffee cake again. On those rare occasions when he conceded to try a slice of coffee cake, his response was always the same, ‘It’s not as good as Cissie’s’. Coffee cake never being as good as Cissie’s became, and still is, a running family joke.

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With my parents and sister at Dublin Zoo on the day of my First Communion, May 1980, less than a year after Cissie’s death.

My father died fourteen and a half years ago. Although my grief is triggered in often odd and unexpected ways, twice a year, on the anniversaries of his birth (March) and his death (September) I am usually guaranteed to feel his absence particularly acutely. This year I was less sad than usual, but was overcome by an almost madness-inducing craving not only to eat coffee cake, but to bake coffee cake. For weeks the stars have failed to align – not enough eggs in the house one day, not enough of the right type of flour the next, the gas bottle too close to empty to chance baking in the oven. But the craving to make and eat coffee cake never went away.

This morning, I took a mid-morning break from editing, as I had promised Katie I would play padel with her. Padel is a game that’s very similar to tennis, but played on a court that’s some way similar to both a squash and a real tennis court. Katie seems to be a natural at most sports and as we hit the ball back and forth across the padel net, I told her (not for the first time) how much Grandad Pat would have adored her and about all the sports they could have played together. Talking like that set me off and I had to take a little break from padel while my eight-year old daughter comforted me.

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Katie approved!

So, with my head full of ideas of intangible cultural heritage, of memory and skill and the transmission of knowledge, and with my heart full of my long-lost loved ones, my procrastination was inevitable, as I took my recipe book from its shelf. So, I’ve made a coffee cake for the first time for my blond-haired girls, and the cycle of intangible culture, love and belonging goes on.

Would Daddy like the coffee cake I’ve made? Although he would never say so, for fear of hurting my feelings, I’m sure inside he’d be thinking, ‘It’s not as good as Cissie’s’. And I would have to agree!

 

P.S. Apologies to my mother, sister and any other family members who I have made cry by bringing back these happy memories. We’re a sappy bunch.

 

 

The tattooist of Auschwitz

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My Friday book review…..via The tattooist of Auschwitz

Snow memory

I remember this time of year about a decade ago. We were living in rural Cambridgeshire, about four miles from Cambridge. It had snowed heavily overnight and the flat southeast English landscape was blanketed in white. I couldn’t wait to get out of the house and go for a walk. I left by the back gate and headed across the fields. The land around our house was owned by Trinity College, one of the Cambridge University colleges. It was heavily cultivated and, although the fields were accessible, walking was restricted to signposted tracks or to field perimeters. As I walked, the sky grew more overcast and it started to snow again. After twenty minutes I was well out of sight of my house and the quiet country road on which we lived.

Instead of the joy I had anticipated feeling at being out in the snowy landscape, I felt unease. This walk along the familiar hedgerows was one I took regularly, and it was not uncommon for me to encounter a hare or a deer. Indeed, on this particular day I found fresh hare prints in the snow. But, somehow, I felt decidedly uncomfortable. I was on a circular walk and at this point I was equidistant between going on or turning back.

I was aware that I had quickened my pace and I was perspiring under my winter clothes. I had the sensation of being a hunted animal as I kept furtively glancing around. Suddenly, the reason for my fear became clear to me – polar bears! There, in the bucolic, highly-managed, symmetrical landscape of rural Cambridgeshire, something had subconsciously brought me back to the Kivalliq. It wasn’t simply the snow. I had been in the snow at least a couple of times since I had last lived in Arviat, and I hadn’t feared an encounter with a bear. But that day, there was a certain quality to the light, a certain texture to the air that tricked my brain into thinking there might be a bear around.

Despite being in a landscape where the largest carnivore I could possibly encounter was a badger, I found myself feeling the way I had that spring day seven or eight years earlier when I had walked out to Huluraq. Arviat was more than a 40 minute walk behind me and all around was the flat west Hudson Bay landscape, where the undulating snow-covered land reached a snow-covered finger, Huluraq, out onto the frozen seascape of Hudson Bay. As I turned to make the slow snow-hampered walk back home I saw two sets of prints in the snow – a mother polar bear and her cub. My blood ran cold. I was unarmed – although I doubt that, armed, I would have stood any better chance. I had no idea how old the prints were. They looked fresh enough, clearly defined and without an accumulation of blowing snow.

The walk back to Arviat was the longest of my life. I expected at any moment that the last sound I would hear would be the fluey-sounding grunt of a mother bear coming up behind me, turning me into a meal for her cub. I walked as fast as my cumbersome clothes and boots and the terrain would allow me. There had been other encounters with bears, some where I’d felt threatened and some where I’d felt awe and gratitude for being in the presence of such a creature. But no encounter was as frightening as that non-encounter that day near Huluraq.

And then, years later, what should have been a pleasant walk across a snowy English landscape turned into an anxiety-filled power walk, as I raced to escape from my subconscious fear. I realized at the time how ridiculous I was being and I forced myself to slow down, relax, bring myself back into the moment. But in a very short time I found myself once again anxiously speed walking towards my little chocolate-box English cottage.

I’ve often thought of that snowy day in Cambridgeshire and the subtle sensations that caused my mind and body to subconsciously make connections between past and present. We all subconsciously make these connections all the time as our senses trick us into time travel. The smell of a 2-stroke engine immediately transports me to the west coast of Hudson Bay; the theme music to BBC Sports Roundup puts me back in the busy little kitchen of my childhood at 5pm on a Saturday evening, me, my cousins, our parents, aunt and granny and the smell and texture of fried bread; tin-foil wrapped ham sandwiches take me back to the Canal End of Croke Park.

It’s not simply memory or nostalgia. Rather, it is a triggering of the senses that awakens reaction, muscle memory, feeling, sensation, emotion. Perhaps it’s the closest we get to time travel as we are transported backwards through time to catch glimpses of what were, perhaps, the moments that defined us. We may not have known at the time but those would be the moments that would remain, imprinted on our souls.