Wednesday, June 30, 2010

When home is... a Compound in Saudi Arabia

Whenever Stephanie Hatton thinks of ‘home’ she thinks of a community, or suburb or city but never a house. ‘Maybe that’s because I’ve always lived in pokey apartments’, she says. After growing up in Sydney near beaches and parks, she moved to the UK for six years after finishing her university degree. She and her husband returned to Sydney, started a family and a year ago moved to Saudi Arabia.

Like most expats moving to the Middle East, the Hattons have come for career advancement and to save money. They plan to stay for up to three years. But for a westerner living in Saudi, even for a very short amount of time, it’s a hard adjustment. In Saudi, Stephanie is also unable to drive and has to wear an abaya in public. Shops shut four or five times a day for prayer and the heat is oppressive (over 45 degrees Celsius a day in Summer). While she misses much about Sydney – ‘the parks, breakfasts at buzzing cafes, beaches, the sparkling harbour and the freedom to walk about and do as I please’ – Stephanie and her family are happy with their new home.

In Saudi, most expats live in compounds. As Stephanie says, ‘this is primarily for security reasons but also for the freedom (women can walk about in “normal” clothes) and the sense of community.’ All the compounds are bordered with high walls and barbed wire, while Saudi National Guard soldiers armed with machine guns are stationed at the entrance. Stephanie and her family usually have to go through two or three checkpoints to get into the compound. The Guards will check her ID (iqama) and search for bombs and other explosive devices. As Stephanie says, ‘I was horrified by this the first time I arrived; even though it does make you feel safe. Now it's just part of our daily routine. Lily [her daughter] waves hello and goodbye to the guards every day.’

But it’s also the compound lifestyle that gives this family their sense of home. ‘Most people go out of their way to make you feel welcome. The lifestyle here is so vastly different for most people and particularly tough for women to settle. From the first day I arrived, I was invited for coffee at someone's house, my daughter was invited for a play date and I had people showering me with advice and tips.’

From this sense of community come strong friendships, ‘Whenever someone hears that you or your kids are sick, you always get a call with an offer of help. When my husband and eldest daughter were stranded in the UK because of the volcano ash a few months ago, I had a stream of visitors bringing baby food, offering play dates and keeping me company so I wasn't too lonely.’

Stephanie also feels that compound life is ideally suited to children, ‘The kids' lifestyle is so safe and free. They ride around on bikes and all the people in the restaurants, shopkeepers and pool boys know their names. When they go to the playgrounds, they know all the children there and when we were recently flooded all the kids came out in their swimming costumes to splash about on the roads - it was such a nice sight to see.’

The family’s villa is much larger than anywhere they have lived before: three bedrooms, two-and-a half bathrooms and a pool on their doorstep. Stephanie also has a maid who comes in a few hours a day five days a week and it’s this extra help, especially with young children, that makes it easier for Stephanie to be so far away from her family, ‘I’m trying to make the most of the time I get to spend with my kids and enjoy the slow pace of life.’

But living in pleasant surrounds cannot change the climate, ‘There are air conditioners in every room to cope with the heat and in summer you need to run a bath for the kids using only cold water and wait half an hour for it to cool down before putting them in!’

Stephanie also likens compound life to ‘living in a retirement village as it’s a VERY slow pace of life and it can drive some people around the bend. It's also hard to have any anonymity. A friend of mine describes it as “boarding school for women” and I imagine it would be tough if you had a falling out with someone although luckily that's not happened to me...yet.’

While the house Stephanie’s family lives in doesn’t really feel like theirs, ‘I really don't think you ever feel like a compound villa is your home. Every villa looks pretty much the same (only slightly larger or smaller) and people are so transient here’, that doesn’t really matter, ‘I guess for me, it's hard to separate a home from a community or neighbourhood. I've never been much for having the best or biggest house on the street. I think it's much more important to live in a nice community. As long as you have your family with you, it doesn't matter where in the world you are (even in the middle of the Arabian desert!).

*Photos of Compound & desert by Stephanie Hatton

Monday, June 28, 2010

Home from the beach without shells

We’ve just returned home after a long weekend away at the beach. After unpacking sandy clothes from bags straight into the washing machine, the next thing to do is decide what to cook for dinner. Something that doesn’t involve any fresh ingredients so I can put off visiting the supermarket until tomorrow. While staring into the pantry, I suddenly think about a recipe I read in my sister’s 1950s copy of Australian House and Garden magazine.

It’s for a ‘Devilled Seafood Special’. I’m not even sure what devilled seafood is but apparently it can ‘enliven a tired meal or leftovers’. What reminds me of this recipe today is the magazine’s suggestion of presenting the food in seashells: ‘The shells themselves can be found on beaches. Probably you may have some stored away...relics of other holidays when you’ve beach-combed.’

Well, we beach-combed and didn’t find any shells at all. Perhaps some tiny ones, but certainly none large enough to serve up a meal. And this was on a large and very deserted beach. My four-year-old was also insistent that no one touch the shells once we did see some as ‘you need to leave them for the hermit crabs or they won’t have a home’. He became quite distraught at the thought of little crabs searching all night long without a home to call their own.

This anxiety was thanks to a ‘travelling aquarium’ that came to his preschool a few months ago. The children were allowed to look at starfish, feel seaweed and see other marine life living in rock pools. They were also told to never collect shells on the beach, or if they had to, to only take one or two as otherwise there would soon be none left.

At the time I thought this sounded ridiculous. Yet another fun, outdoorsy, technology-free pastime of childhood was no longer ‘allowed’. I loved having a shell collection when I was younger; looking at them and remembering which beach I collected them from. What was the harm?

But, after this weekend, I wonder if maybe it was true. Are we running out of shells? Where have these dinner-plate size clam shells gone anyway?

So, here I am without shells — those ‘pretty assets to have on the kitchen shelves for serving all kinds of seafoods’ – but for tonight at least I have found a tin of tomatoes and a packet of penne.

Friday, June 25, 2010

How Property Writing & Home mix

When you spend your days writing about other people’s homes, how does that change your own thoughts about ‘home’? Lucy Macken is a property writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and here she tells us how her feelings about ‘home’ have changed:

‘My idea of home has varied over the years, from where ever the majority of my clothes were at any given time in my early 20s (I moved from share house to share house regularly and often in a taxi), to something far more cumbersome in my late 20s and 30s.

Prior to property writing though, the only pre-requisite was it had to be in walking distance from either Newtown or Darlinghurst with a great TV. Views became a must-have briefly, but that was ditched in favour of a backyard in my early 30s. Now that I had kids and I couldn't afford Sydney real estate that managed both.

Home is far more of an investment for us now, which is often a headache when I look up from my desk. After looking at all the images of minimalist, whiter-than-white living areas with sparkling and stark stone bench space, I often forget that that is a fanciful way to live when you're housing three kids, husband, dog and the odd school bag.

That said, I am constantly assessing our needs from a home within the context of the wider real estate market. So we recently decided, for example, not to renovate not because we don't love our house, our street, the parks around us and the schools, but because we would be over-capitalising. So sad, but true.

What defines our home has become increasingly related to our immediate neighbourhood rather than our own house, but that is more due to the kids than writing about real estate.

I finally get what they mean when they say location is everything. It's not just the name of the suburb, but how close are we to transport? How close are the parks or water? Is it a quiet street or a risk to life every time we run outside? What are the neighbours like?

Living in the inner west, the proximity of the neighbours makes it more important than ever before to get on with them. You don't communicate by lawyer but more over the back fence, asking for the ball to be kicked back or to apologise when it lands in someone's dinner.’

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

When Home is... Food Memories

I have been thinking a lot about food recently and the comfort a home-cooked meal brings. Maybe it’s because we’re in the middle of Winter when comfort meals (like the Shepherds’ Pie I’m in the middle of preparing for dinner tonight) always conjure strong memories of feeling safe, warm and secure.

Maybe it’s also because I’m writing up my interview with Natalie and Simon Thomas, owners of The Sydney Picnic Company, which will be all about how food makes a ‘home’.

Whatever the reasons, I thought now would be a good time to start thinking about the relationship between food and home. Last year I wrote an article that was published on the parenting website Sunny Days. It’s all about my food memories, recipes written on bits of paper, backs of envelopes and shoved inside a recipe journal...

Scraps of the Past
(first published on Sunny Days, 1st July 2009)

'It’s the making-food-book!' says my son excitedly as I search through the multifarious scraps of paper that live inside this book to find our banana bread recipe one recent Sunday afternoon.

I bought this blank-paged journal soon after I left home when I realised I didn't know how to cook spaghetti bolognaise, tuna mornay or whatever other childhood comfort dishes a 21-year-old thinks she needs to know. I had planned to write all the recipes in it, just as my mother had done and continued to do throughout my life. But after neatly writing a few, the book remains blank and unopened. The spine threatens to break though; it has begun to tear thanks to all the loose paper recipes I 'one day' meant to transcribe but instead are just shoved inside.

My husband walks into the kitchen as I begin to sift. 'I don't know how you can find anything in there.' He adds as he passes, 'We don't even use half those recipes.'

And, as I stare at the mountain of paper in front of me I realise he's right. There are recipes I cut out of magazines five years ago and have never attempted. But now is not the time for a cull. My son has already pulled a chair over to the kitchen bench and is on his way to collect eggs from the fridge. Not the safest job for a three-year-old. It hadn't taken long to find the banana bread recipe anyway. I know the scrap of paper it's on -- my father's old company's letterhead -- and it’s heavily stained with coffee cup rings and traces of, perhaps, egg? As I grab the beaters I wonder why I never bothered transcribing this. Five ingredients and three steps is hardly many words, yet it's been sitting on that piece of paper, inside that book for years.

Once the banana bread is in the oven I decide to declutter. One more recipe could be the metaphorical straw. So it begins: the Coconut and Raspberry Bread torn from a magazine, dated a few months after my daughter's birth nearly six years ago. The same recipe I used for the morning tea after her Naming Ceremony. Instantly I'm back in our first marital home, the sun streaming through the window as I baked. I don't want to throw that memory away.

Moving on, there's a lemon syrup cake recipe which I remember taking on a weekend trip to the country when I was eight months pregnant. We weren't near any shops and had to bring all the food. Next to the list of ingredients are little ticks made by my husband's hand. Obviously it was his job to pack the food. We ate that cake drinking cups of tea while watching the cows and ducks as we contemplated life with a baby. Another memory, another scrap of paper kept.

An old printed email appears from a time before children; a risoni recipe a friend had sent me -- at 10am -- that apparently I wanted to cook that night. Obviously it was a slow work day. It's strange to see the sign-off with my position and company details: another life. Both of us are now home with children and it's not long before I find a handwritten note from that same friend for a kids’ version of chicken casserole. No longer does she end her recipes with 'serve with a full-bodied red'; now it's 'add some chilli and it becomes an adult dinner'.

Some shiny paper unfolds and I realise it's fax paper -- a faxed recipe! -- with writing so faded some letters no longer exist. I notice the measurements are in pounds and ounces. It's the apple crumble recipe from my oldest school friend. Her British mother used to make it for us frequently when we were kids and when this friend's grandmother died she was given the Wedgewood dish her grandmother used to bake this crumble. I've always known it by heart and think of her family whenever I make it. I can't bear to throw out the memory of using our parents' fax machines to communicate when we were 14. Also, how many recipes end with 'Put in a bowl and eat with spoon’?

There’s the 'San Choy Bau' recipe I secretly tore from an office magazine, now crinkled at the edges. I fondly remember this ‘phase’: my husband and I were living together and this recipe became the 'dinner party' one. What could be better than friends, a bowl piled high with iceberg lettuce leaves and a few bottles of chardy? Oh, the mess. The lettuce breaking, the sauce running down chins... the carpet... but who cares when you're 23? Actually, if we cooked this now for our three children it would be a similar experience. Best kept; those were good times.

A green note sticks out. It's the mussels in white wine recipe from an aunt. She and my uncle invited us over for dinner to celebrate our engagement. Afterwards, she wrote the recipe while washing up. It's still water-stained from a stray soap sud. A few years later they divorced and my aunt cut off contact with his family, including me. I was very fond of this aunt and now, with the benefit of age, I can understand her inability to stay involved with his extended family. I don't want to erase the last evidence of her in my life though. Another scrap to keep.

A recipe that has made it inside the book is 'Tim's flourless chocolate cake', written by Tim himself. I remember the night we ate this. He was going out with one of my closest friends and it was perhaps only the second time we met. Each couple brought a course and theirs was obviously dessert. They were late. 'It's my fault,' he began, 'I got stuck at work and got home to discover I was out of flour.' I looked at the flan tin he was holding with the very flat cake. 'But it's ok, it doesn’t need it.' And very quickly, after a few bottles of red, it became Tim's signature dish. He wrote the recipe down late that night and I wondered if years later I would even know this Tim of 'Tim's flourless chocolate cake' fame. As the oven timer goes off and I pull the banana bread out, I question how I didn’t realise he would go on to marry my friend and later become godfather of our youngest son.

Now, looking at the pile mounting in front of me I decide to stuff all these pieces of our past back inside the heaving covers. These scraps are the keepers' of our family's story; I realise this book is one of the most important objects in our house. My husband's trash is my treasure it would seem.

Later, my mother tells me about an old lady who didn't survive the recent catastrophic bushfires in Victoria. She was found in her car and next to her was a complete china dinnerset. The image haunts me. Imagine the tales those plates, soup bowls, cups and saucers would have to tell. What precious memories did they trigger which made the thought of losing that china unbearable for her?

I don't want to throw away my memory triggers. One day when the children are older I will share these stories about how those recipes have shaped our family and later it will be up to them to decide if those scraps of paper are ready to be binned.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

When Home is... a yellow bedroom

In 1892, a 6000 word story titled The Yellow Wallpaper was published in the New England Magazine, causing much hysteria. Charlotte Perkins Gilman had written a story so powerful that from publication it challenged the 19th century attitudes towards women’s physical and mental health, and it remains today an important early work of feminist literature.

Written in first person, the narrator and her husband are staying in a rented house for the summer. She has recently given birth and is recuperating from what her husband, a doctor, has diagnosed as a ‘temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency’, which we know today would be treated as post natal depression. He keeps her locked in an upstairs bedroom, instructing her to rest and not work, or see her baby or even think: ‘the worst thing I can do’. So, she keeps a journal in spite of him.

Here she sits and writes, in this room decorated with yellow wallpaper, ‘the colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.’ With nothing else to stimulate her, she becomes obsessed by the wallpaper and we, as readers, watch her decline towards psychosis.

Or is it psychosis? The beauty of this little book is that we are peeping into her journal and therefore we are in the hands of the most unreliable narrator. She thinks she is quite sane: ‘This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had! ... I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy store’.

But then she starts to see the swirling patterns of the wallpaper moving and realises there are women creeping around behind, ‘The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.’ And I won’t ruin the ending for you, except to say this. There are a couple of schools of thought on whether this book is a great example of Gothic literature for its illustration of powerlessness and madness, or whether it is, as many feminists read it, an example of a woman triumphing over her husband in the end. He faints, but I won’t tell you why.

I first read The Yellow Wallpaper during my early 20s when I was neither married nor a mother. It is even more heartbreaking and powerful reading it now. It is one of those books that has haunted me all these years (The Women’s Room by Marilyn French being the other) and I am yet to read anything as powerful and clever in so few words. If you get the chance to read this book, do. Afterwards I doubt you’ll ever want to sleep in a room with yellow wallpaper.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Homesickness cure... a Roast Chook

Jane and Tim Nice along with their three children have lived in New York for four years... and counting (well, I am counting since they are among our closest friends, we are godparents to each other’s children, their first son and our first son were born a month apart... anyway, this is meant to be about their homesickness not about me missing them so I’ll stop carrying on).

Over the years, Jane and I have had countless conversations about differences between Australia and America, and many more about how much she misses home, family and friends. So, I wonder... is there a meal she craves when she’s feeling particularly homesick; one that takes her straight back home?

‘It’s funny, but I always associate comfort food from home as something my mum used to make when I was growing up rather than food Tim and I used to eat as a young married couple in Sydney before we moved here’, says Jane. ‘Of course, we have barbecues over here all the time and it does remind us of Australia, but generally we only have 100 days of warm weather and although we have tried barbecuing in the cold, the barbecue sometimes doesn't even come to temperature (we are only allowed electric grills - no gas) because it is below freezing.’

The dish that Jane and Tim cook as real comfort food, while not necessarily ‘Australian’, is one Jane’s mum used to cook on a Sunday night when she was growing up: roast chicken. ‘I get mum to make it every time she visits because no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to replicate her homemade gravy. I don't know what it is about having your mum cook for you but in some respects I guess it makes me feel like a kid again and forget the responsibilities I have as a mum of three now. I think it is also the familiarity of the meal; you know what you are going to have and how it is going to taste that brings about a sense of real comfort.’

‘Whenever we have a roast (and it isn't every week like it was when I was growing up) our dinner conversation generally revolves around Australia - growing up in Australia and funny anecdotes about our childhoods. Although we may have changed how we do a roast since my childhood days, it still conjures up feelings of home and the comfort that home brings.’

Tim is the chef in the Nice household and he always prepares the roast and the gravy (it’s a big responsibility knowing it’s Jane’s favourite but she seems pretty happy). Here is his recipe:

Sunday Roast Chicken & Veg

For the Chicken:
1 roasting chicken enough to feed your crowd
5 slices of proscuitto
100g of butter
fresh rosemary
fresh thyme
2 bulbs of garlic
1 lemon
olive oil

Wash and dry the chook thoroughly, inside and out. Then salt and pepper. Chop the herbs finely, zest the lemon and crush the garlic. Mix this stuff with the butter. Quarter the lemon and place inside the chook cavity. Gently put your fingers between the skin on the breast on both sides of the breast bone, creating a pocket: stuff some of the butter under the skin on both sides. Put the remainder on the outside skin including the drumsticks. Put the proscuitto slices over the top of the breast. Then using a little bit of olive oil, cover the rest of the skin. Tie the ends of the drumsticks together. Put it into the oven, in a pan on a rack, at 400F/200C for as long as it takes to get the juices from the thigh meat to run clear. Throw veges like carrots and onions in this pan after about a quarter of the cooking time.

For the starchy stuff (spuds and pumpkin): I bring them to the boil then immediately drain and put back in the pot to dry them out a bit. Dress with olive oil, salt and pepper. Take another roast pan and heat some olive oil on the stove top and then throw in the spuds and pumpkin for a minute before putting them in the oven. They need to cook as long as the chook - or not.

For the gravy: once you take the chook out of the pan, drain off some of the fat and juice from the roast pan, but not all. Use a big spoon of flour and throw that in the pan and stir it into to make a paste. Then add some water or chicken broth - start making a looser paste and then apply gentle heat (on the stovetop). Add more liquid until you get the consistency you want. You might need to strain it before putting it in the gravy boat. The more sticky stuff you have in the pan, like onions, the more flavour you will get. Use salt and pepper to season.

And there you go. Make sure the chook is cooked, the spuds are dark and sticky and the veges are to your liking.

Tim’s final word of advice: Pray your gravy is as good as your mother-in-law’s.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Neighbour tales

Not long ago on our daily walk from the front door to the letterbox, my two-year-old and I bumped into our next door neighbour collecting her mail at the same time. Our neighbour is her late 70s. She and her husband are from Portugal and have lived in their house for 47 years. Their two children grew up here and in the five years we have lived next door their backyard has always been filled with the noise of grandchildren, extended family and friends.

They have created a second kitchen in the garage, the driveway capturing much of the sun, and they live most of their lives outside. The smells coming from her garage have always been appetising and we know when big dinners are planned as the smell of onions and garlic frying starts in the early afternoon.

We’ve not had much to do with this couple, lots of waves and smiles in the street and every Easter and Christmas our neighbour will bring over a freshly made plate of churros. Lately I had noticed their garage and driveway had been very quiet. It had been a while since I’d listened to laughter and garbled Portuguese voices from over the fence.

‘Hello darlink’, she said to me from her letterbox on this particular day. She tickled my son under his chin with her manicured hands, nails painted bright red. ‘Beautiful baby’, she cooed.

‘How are you?’ I asked, ‘Lovely day.’ Our conversations rarely strayed beyond the weather or the children as her English was quite broken and my Portuguese was, well, non-existent.

‘Not good, not good. My husband, he no good.’ She looked up at me shaking her head. ‘It’s very bad, very bad, this alzheimer’s thing.’ She put her hands inside the front pocket of her apron and sighed.

I had no idea he was unwell, although I remembered recently turning into our driveway to see him wandering down towards our front door only then to see his wife lead him away, berating him in Portuguese. I thought he looked bewildered but I hadn’t realised the extent of his condition.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I began, ‘that must be really hard for you.’

She smiled and took my son’s hand, ‘no, it’s hard for him. He doesn’t recognise his own son anymore. He sees our baby and says “who is this man?” “I don’t know this man” and I say “What do you mean? It’s your own son!”’ She picks the mail out of her mailbox, ‘He still remember me because I love him so much. Every day I keep holding his hand and telling him how much I love him.’

She grabbed my hand as she told me this and looked at me fiercely, ‘I tell him everyday how much I love him so he won’t forget being loved. But today no good, no good at all, he is very confused.’ She looked up to her house and shook her head again.

‘Is he still living at home?’

She nodded and looked at me, her eyes wet. ‘Fifty-seven years we been married. Fifty-seven years!’ she rolled her eyes skyward as though she herself could not believe how much time had passed. ‘Fifty-seven years and that man has never given me a day of trouble.’ She was crying now. ‘Not one day of trouble’. She wiped her eyes while still holding her rolled up Coles supermarket catalogue and assortment of envelopes.

‘I’m so sorry’, I said again feebly, trying to absorb the magnitude of losing a lifelong partner so slowly and painfully. I wanted to ask her over for a cup of tea or give her a hug but she was already wandering back up her driveway.

‘I must get back to him’, she said to me over her shoulder, ‘bye darlink.’

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Moving around the world again and again

Some of us will live in our country of birth all our lives; some will perhaps live in one other country during their lifetime while others will move between countries not only during their childhoods but throughout their adult lives as well.

For those who have made different lives in multiple countries over many years, how does the concept of ‘home’ change? Tori Grimes lived in Scotland, the USA and England during her childhood; as an adult she moved back to the USA with her English husband before moving to Australia. Sydney is where they currently live, although now their family of two has expanded to five.

Tori was nine years old when she moved with her sister and parents to the American city Philadelphia. On the flight from Glasgow, Scotland she remembers feeling excited and even received a ‘Wings’ lapel badge. Quite a big deal for a child flying internationally during the 1980s. The first day of school was definitely not as exciting. ‘They made me sit in the Principal’s office alone, all day, because my parents didn't have the right documentation to prove that I had been given all my immunisations... not a very friendly welcome,’ says Tori. At first she felt like an outsider, ‘I had a strong Scottish accent didn't know all the tv shows and pop groups that the other kids liked. But I made a friend very early on and our families remain good friends today’.

Everything about living in the USA was different for Tori, ‘In Glasgow we lived in a 3-bed, semi-detached, sandstone house with a big garden. My school friends lived all around me and we went every year to the same community events, like a bonfire night on November 5th. When we moved to Philadelphia, we lived in a small 2-bed apartment. My father was a student so we didn't have much money and my parents got most of our furniture for free; either donated or picked up off the side of the road. My sister and I travelled to school on a big yellow school bus and we were a drive away from most of our friends.’

Tori remembers enjoying American summers swimming in the apartment complex’s pool but within three years her family moved back to the UK. This time it was Oxford, England and this time Tori had an American accent. ‘I was at a different place in the curriculum and this didn't make me popular with the teachers’, Tori says. ‘After my first year at school in England, aged 12, I ended up skipping a school year so in effect I had to start all over again for the third time. It was quite unsettling and although I don't have many negative memories of that time, I do remember being made fun of quite a lot.’

Moving into a larger, detached house in an affluent suburb, Tori had her school friends living around her once again and felt more surrounded by a sense of community. It is this house in Oxford, where her parents still live, that has enormous emotions attached for Tori. ‘I long for, and sometimes strongly crave again, the times we shared there. We're going back for Christmas this year and I can't wait because so many of my treasured memories are about Christmastime. Also, whenever I see a Golden Retriever I miss the house more because we had a beautiful dog and she's always there in my mind's eye when I think of that home.’

Moving overseas again with her husband Andy was perhaps easier, ‘I've always done a lot of nesting when we’ve moved to a new place to make it feel like home. I go to IKEA which is the same all over the world! I try to get pictures up as soon as possible, because they are our memories and stories and I hate blank walls.’

Today, Sydney feels more like home to Tori than anywhere else, ‘It’s the city we've lived the longest as a married couple and where all the children were born. They know no other 'home' than right here and that makes it feel like home for me too.’ And it’s the children who have given Tori the security and stability that home brings, ‘My children are the ones who I strive to provide the most sense of home for. I find myself deliberately trying to create 'traditions' or recreate the rituals of my own childhood with them, so that they will have a strong sense of home being wherever our family is together.’

Tori and Andy have just taken citizenship tests so the entire family will soon have Australian passports. ‘That was a big step but made easier by the fact that it makes perfect sense for the children.’

While Tori wouldn’t like for her children to move overseas at the age she did, she does believe that living overseas as a youngster is very formative. ‘It widens your worldview and enlarges your understanding of people. It creates resilience and maturity, I think, and that comes partly because at times it’s hard.’

But overall, where the family physically lives won’t be a concern for Tori, ‘I’ve been pondering it a lot and am convinced that, apart from Andy of course (we would not be a family without him!), the children utterly signify home to me.’

*photo by Tori Grimes

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Home without a loo

We had a near plumbing disaster at home last Friday. About half an hour before needing to pick up kids from school and preschool the toilet started making very strange noises. There was lots of banging and crashing from the bowels of the bathroom. At one point I felt the floor vibrate. The water in the toilet bowl was swirling and I wondered whether a waterfall of sewage would flood the bathroom at any moment. So, I did what any one with no plumbing knowledge would do. I closed the bathroom door, put my toddler in the pram and left the house.

When we returned from the school pick up, the toilet had stopped making the thudding noise but when I turned on the kitchen tap to get the kids a drink, the water was cloudy and dirty. What was going on? I started to panic: the Friday evening before a long weekend was hardly ideal for finding a plumber and if we couldn’t find one straight away, how could we stay here without a flushing toilet or running water?

It turns out panicking was unnecessary. The Water Board was working on some problem in the street and disturbed the pipes. Once the air bubbles cleared after running the taps for a few minutes, life was back to normal. But it got me thinking that evening as we munched on pizza. The thought of a house without plumbing that worked seemed catastrophic yet for the family who lived in my house when it was built in the 1880s that would have been normal.

When we moved into this house, the previous owners left behind spare keys, a swing in the backyard and a A4 sheet titled ’House History’. We are the eighth owners here, a painter named John Liddell and his wife Elizabeth were the first.

During the 1870s, the local press wrote about Sydney being an ‘unwholesome’ place. Sickness was everywhere: smallpox, cholera, typhoid, measles and diphtheria killed both adults and children. Mortality levels were higher here than they were in London.

Reading the book Leichhardt, On the margins of the city, by Max Solling and Peter Reynolds, I discover more. In the inner suburbs, where we live, ‘people still relied on the pan and cesspit for their sanitation... open sewers ran along the lanes fronting tenement housing. Supplies of piped water were irregular and drinking water wells were often contaminated by seepage from cesspits.’

As well as the smells of raw sewage, John and his wife Elizabeth would have lived with the strong smells of the jam, pickle and sauce manufacturers; meat-packing and preserving firms; and Pearson’s soap factory. There were also 33 dairies in the area and many people kept a cow and chickens in the backyard. I can’t imagine fitting a cow in our backyard although our house in its original state would have only been two rooms upstairs and two downstairs.

Actually I hope their family did have a cow because if they didn’t they would have needed to buy their milk from the corner store where it would have been ‘ladled out to customers from open buckets exposed to flies and dust’.

So while the Liddell’s who inhabited our home may have had room for a couple of cows, inside would have been significantly more crowded. The average family had seven children in the late 1800s. The children born into our home would have been described as coming from ‘the lowest strata of society’. In an attempt for urban social reform, free kindergartens began at this time to ‘improve the lot of inner-city children’. It was also hoped that ‘through the children families could be taught middle-class norms’.

If John and Elizabeth Liddell could have seen me last Friday, sitting in my heated living room, worrying about slightly cloudy running water and a noisy toilet I imagine they would have been laughing. Quite raucously too I hope, given their supposed lack of ‘middle-class norms’.

Monday, June 14, 2010

At home with the Crafty Minx, Kelly Doust

Until recently, the author of The Crafty Minx and The Crafty Kid has never lived in one place for too long. Since leaving home as a teenager, she has moved between London, Hong Kong, Melbourne and Sydney. ‘In my lifetime I’ve probably lived in 35 or 40 homes. It feels like I’ve moved around a lot’, Kelly tells me as we sit at her kitchen table drinking tea in the late 1800s Victorian cottage she shares with her husband James and toddler Olive.

It’s hard to imagine a cosier kitchen: the sun streams through the window near the sink, we sip from floral patterned, fine bone china cups, a vase of roses in full bloom occasionally drop petals onto the hand-made tablecloth which has a placemat for each family member beautifully appliqu├ęd on top of it. Photos of her family and friends adorn the fridge, casserole pots are on the stovetop, recipe books lie opened, shelves are filled with crockery and more recipe books and the 1950s cupboard doors are painted pastel colours. Nothing feels transient here; this house is clearly a much-loved family home.

‘I’ve always been interested in styling,’ says Kelly, ‘even when I had no money whatsoever, I always used the small amount of disposable income I had to buy things like pretty paper lanterns or beautiful second-hand bedspreads. I like being surrounded by lovely things.’

Trawling flea markets and charity stores began out of necessity when she was younger and allowed her to create the ‘home’ she wanted in sometimes awful, tiny rented dwellings. As her career progressed, Kelly didn’t need to buy second-hand all the time and found her decorating tastes changed.

During her early to mid 20s, while living in Hong Kong and working in a high-powered job which involved travelling Asia and the world regularly, Kelly wanted a sleek-styled home and lived in a very modern flat with dark teak furniture. ‘I think different stages of your life bring out different parts of your personality.’

Living in England made another impact, ‘I love the cosiness of the English cottage and I think our house in Sydney has a lot of that English flavour. I love the architecture of that era and the character of the original features; the marble fireplace in the living room, cornices, picture rails, ceiling roses and archways’.

It is this house, in Sydney’s inner west, which has contributed to changing Kelly’s life in many ways. ‘Having a mortgage meant we couldn’t afford to fill our home with all the things we really wanted so I had to start making cushions, refurbishing furniture and trawling markets and second-hand stores again.’

Busy making things for the home and handmade gifts for friends gave Kelly the idea for her first book, The Crafty Minx, written especially for non-crafters who want to be more creative. ‘Craft is really simple but it can be overwhelming for a lot of people. It was for me before I started.’ Finding out she was pregnant was all the motivation she needed: she thanks her daughter Olive in the Acknowledgments page of her book for ‘giving me the best excuse ever to leave my job and get writing.’

Indeed it was the arrival of Olive that has helped make this house so special for Kelly and James. They were a married couple when they first inspected the house and both loved it. ‘I had a lovely reaction to it when I first saw it; I really wanted to live here and was thrilled when we got it at auction.’

The light streams into the kitchen as we chat on this cold, winter’s day. ‘On our first viewing we noticed how light the house was. We came back at a different time of day and it was still flooded with light. Considering it’s a little cottage it has a great feeling of light.’ In summer, Kelly loves being with Olive in their garden, lying on the grass and looking up at the dappled light shining through the gum tree, ‘It’s very peaceful and calming.’

Kelly often thinks of the other families who once owned their home, ‘I think you can feel if a house has been loved and had happy times.’ The people they bought from had brought up two children here and were thrilled that a young couple was moving in. ‘When we told them we were planning to have a family you could see that it took them back to their own time, when their children were babies in this house.’

The combination of living in this house and falling pregnant strongly affected Kelly’s emotional feelings about ‘home’. As a book publicist, she was always travelling and staying in hotels for a night here and there. Over the years she had found ways to make her hotel rooms feel ‘homely’ by taking framed photos, room spray or scented candles, books, magazines and her slippers with her. ‘I relished those trips, loved staying in nice hotels with room service and would always look forward to them.’

Then those feelings changed. ‘From when I found out I was pregnant to when I left my job I took perhaps 13 flights around the country. Those 13 trips were the hardest I’d ever made.’

All she wanted was to be home with James. ‘I felt like I’d spent years focussing on helping other people and now all I wanted was to focus on us and our family.’

And that focus hasn’t changed since Olive’s arrival; ‘I do all my work at the kitchen table. We did have a study but I didn’t like sitting in there so it’s now the spare room. I prefer being amongst my family and working because then it doesn’t feel like work, it feels like fun’.

That work also involves making all the craft projects she writes about in her books. Her second, The Crafty Kid, filled with craft projects to make with children, has just been published. ‘I’ve learnt so much more about craft from writing these books and I think you offer something to people when you’re learning yourself. I thought I’d write one craft book and now I’m onto my third and I’m really enjoying it.’

While ‘home’ for Kelly is a constantly evolving concept, ‘you need to keep adding things and changing them to keep the house fresh’, this house is Kelly’s favourite of all her homes. ‘It feels like it’s very much us, it’s been given a lot of love and we had Olive here which will always make it very special.’

At the moment Kelly can’t imagine selling, but if the time comes she already knows the story she’d like to leave behind: the overwhelming feeling that a family was created here and grew happily within its walls.

*Photos by Kelly Doust

Saturday, June 12, 2010

When the seasons change

It’s getting cold in Sydney now; the warmer Autumn days are making way for the colder mornings of Winter. The leaves seemed to have stopped falling from the trees and the bright yellow, red and brown colours are fading as they disintegrate into the ground.

Our walks to school the past couple of weeks have been punctuated with comments about the crackly sounds of the leaves, the bare trees and why some trees don’t ever lose leaves. I have been digging back deep into my primary school brain, trying to explain terms such as ‘evergreen’ and ‘deciduous’ and hoping I sound convincing enough for my six-year-old and four-year-old. The detailed information they want is ridiculous. I will need to Google soon.

I never really thought Sydney had much of an Autumn and while it doesn’t compare to other parts of the country and most definitely other countries in the world, there is certainly a time of change between Summer and Winter. It’s amazing how children open your eyes to the most basic elements.

In my mid-20s I worked for a very corporate company in a very tall office tower in the middle of the city. One of my colleagues had returned from maternity leave and when I saw her in the office kitchen, I asked what she’d enjoyed most about having the time at home.

'Watching the seasons change’, she answered straight away. I nodded politely, thought her a bit odd, and busied myself by making a cup of tea. The only time I felt aware of the seasons was when I came home from work in the dark during Winter and in daylight during Summer.

I have often thought of that woman since leaving that office tower and staying home with small children. If someone asked me today what I enjoyed most about being home with children I would also have to say ‘watching the seasons change’.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

When Flowers make a Home

Nine years ago, when Amanda Bates stepped off a plane in London, England she had no idea she was about to head down a completely different career path. Having given up her banking job in New Zealand to move overseas with her partner, Amanda assumed she would continue in the same industry once settled in their new home.

Arriving at 6am and in an effort to ward off jetlag, the couple took a walk around the south-west London streets. It was a sunny, Spring day and Amanda was struck by the stands of bright flowers, particularly tulips, on every corner. ‘I couldn’t believe I was surrounded by all these beautiful flowers and it occurred to me that perhaps I didn’t have to go back to banking at all. I could become a florist instead.’

She did return to banking for just one year but during that time worked at a local florist some Saturday mornings. She quickly moved to working full-time as a florist after that first year and has not looked back. ‘Being a florist doesn’t feel like work; how can it when you’re surrounded by beautiful flowers every day? I remember wondering why I had waited so long to do this.’

Flowers have always played a role in Amanda’s life. Both her grandmother and mother were keen gardeners, ‘Mum always grew freesias and Nanna had the most amazing flower garden and grew lots of hydrangeas.’ While staying with her Grandmother as a child, Amanda’s fondest memory was being given the responsibility of going into the garden and cutting fresh flowers for the house. ‘Collecting flowers from the garden was such a part of growing up and it still feels like a real treat to have them in my home.’

Working in London gave Amanda the opportunity to learn about the many different flowers that come from Amsterdam, ‘the seasons for softer flowers are much longer in Europe and those flowers have now become my favourite.’ Peonies remain her favourite flower despite the season being so short in Australia. ‘They remind me of my time in England; they’re old-fashioned and so British.’ Such a popular flower, Amanda found that many people would book weddings according to the peony season.

For Amanda a home without flowers feels sad; even a single bud in a glass jar lifts the mood of any room. She has found, since moving to Sydney with her family and not working, that she is drawn to flowers in other ways too, ‘I sew felt flower brooches and I’m always attracted to clothes with floral designs before anything else. Flowers are a huge part of my life.’ As they are for her children, with sons who regularly bring home fallen frangipani flowers for her and a toddler daughter who can’t walk past any flower without sticking her head into it and sniffing loudly.

Flowers do not only create a luxurious atmosphere in any room, they surround us when hit by the highs and lows life throws. They lift all moods, whether celebratory – weddings, new babies, congratulations – or more sombre occasions – illness, funerals, sympathy. They are used as a way to express many emotions but as Amanda says, ‘flowers are a common denominator in all happy occasions’.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Renovation flashbacks

Last week I wrote about how we recently lodged plans for a major renovation with the Council. I also wrote that I was crazy to want to renovate again given I was only just over the kitchen renovation we undertook three years ago.

Well, after the kitchen experience I wrote a piece that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald (posted below).Reading it a few years later brings it all back to me. What am I doing?!

When life goes to hell in a misplaced colander, Essential (SMH) 19 June 2008
‘The kitchen is where the heart is, after all’ a wise friend emailed me today and as soon as I read her words it all made sense. My heart has gone out in the skip, along with the cream chipboard cupboards, ugly blue/grey laminate bench top, the dishwasher that hasn’t worked all year and the ancient, tiny upright oven with the door that wouldn’t close properly, a broken light and deeply stained cook top.

In its place have arrived the brand new glossy white, no handle cabinets, the large stainless steel upright cooker and the integrated dishwasher. But my heart is yet to return for it’s still not a kitchen. A kitchen carcass does not a kitchen make, it seems. For now, we remain in limbo while we wait for the stone bench top to be fitted. Only then can the plumber and electrician return to fit all our appliances before the tiler and painter make the finishing touches.

I had no idea I would feel so glum during our first foray into renovating our first family home. After all, I was a renovation veteran thanks to a mother who insisted on renovating every home we lived in (there were seven) including one major undertaking of adding a bedroom and bathroom during my HSC year. This is a woman who, aged almost 60, is currently rebuilding a warehouse apartment from scratch.

I had expected my husband would be more unsettled by the chaos than I was. After all, he had never known another bedroom, let alone house, until he moved out of home at the age of 21. It appears I was wrong. He saunters home happily on the weekend having collected ingredients to grace the only cooking surface available to us for the week – the barbecue. He is still cheerful as he rolls up his sleeves to wash dishes in the laundry tub, leaving them to dry, neatly arranged on top of the washing machine. In fact, the only time he has been snappy during this whole process was when he could not find the corkscrew and I refused to help search through the dozen or so boxes that hold the contents of our old kitchen and are piled precariously in the dining room.

Even the children appear unfazed about having the heart ripped out of their home. My two-year-old has not noticed that his change table now houses the toaster and kettle, while my four-year-old has found the empty kitchen drawers the most useful spot for hiding her jewellery from her brother. The extra floor space means they have a new play area for their cars, trains and doll’s pram. They do not see the bare walls, rendered but not yet sanded or painted, or the white dust that seems to magically reappear on the floor every time I sweep or mop.

And rationally, at least, I know I should not notice either. I should just be excited about the future, about how much more we will be able to enjoy our home once the work is completed. We have saved up long enough to do this. After all, what are two or three (or four, five or six) weeks of discomfort when the end result will be a brand new kitchen we will certainly enjoy for at least the next five years?

And, it’s not like we haven’t renovated before. My husband and I remodelled a bathroom in the first apartment we owned soon after getting married. I have no memories of the stress, only of the excitement of choosing tiles, sinks and towel rails. It seemed such an adventure then; such a grown up task to be undertaking. But that was before children, before I was working from home — in a tiny space shared with the laundry and make-shift kitchen — before I had to prepare five small meals a day.

Perhaps I am only just beginning to learn that I really do like order, that I feel a sense of calm when everything and everyone is in its rightful place, that my heart does actually lie in my (to be) cosy kitchen with my family all around me and not a builder in sight.

A close friend, who has already weathered a kitchen renovation and more this year, tells me I will be fine; that they did well with the barbecue, camp stove and takeaway. The alarm bells should have rung loudly. I have never been one for camping.

Monday, June 7, 2010

When Home is...a Country

'Home’ conjures so many images for people. Perhaps it’s a house, family, friends, the surrounding environment – the beach, bush, mountains or city – or maybe it’s a country. It’s certainly that for Australian author Nikki Gemmell who last year published a book about this very topic: Why you are Australian; a letter to my children.

Gemmell and her husband left Australia for England 12 years ago. Now, with three children fast growing up, she feels the pull to her homeland and her extended family more than ever. Moving to Australia for a summer, she wants her children to get to know the country of her birth. She writes, ‘before England settles over you all completely and you never want my country... I want you to experience something of my own childhood for a little while, if possible; that feeling of being burstingly alive under a high blue sky, grubby feet and mozzie bites and bindi eyes and all’.

An extremely emotive read, Gemmell skilfully conjures up a vivid picture of the Australian childhood of 30 years ago; a childhood my children don’t have today, for example, living in the inner city away from the beaches where I grew up. And, for the first half of the book I wonder whether Gemmell’s quest for home is actually locked in another era; in a time that has passed.

It’s not. As the book progresses, along with her time back in Australia, Gemmell writes less about the memories and instead observes how she and the children change as they surround themselves with the landscape, climate and extended family. ‘Facing home again, I have to confront what I’ve been running from for so long: myself.’

This memoir offers a fascinating insight for anyone living overseas with a growing family: ‘The situation’s so complicated if your children were born elsewhere. What accent will they have? Where exactly is home? For all of you?’ It’s a nostalgic read for those of us who experienced an Aussie childhood and a vicarious read if you have ever yearned to break away from your homeland and settle in a different country.

So, what’s the answer for a lifetime of contentment? Move countries? Never leave the country you were born in? Only stay away for short periods of time? I think Gemmell sums it up best: ‘Home. Such a loaded word.’

Stay tuned for a series of interviews I will be posting with people who have made different ‘homes’ all over the world.

Why you are Australian; a letter to my children
By Nikki Gemmell
Fourth Estate (An imprint of Harper Collins Publishers)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

When Home is...a 1950s Dinner Party

It’s Saturday night. The children are asleep and dinner is finished. I am on the lounge enjoying another glass of wine while I read a book published during the 1950s. It’s titled the Australian Woman’s Complete Household Guide Illustrated. My husband is watching rugby and washing up. He cooked dinner too, as he often does. The scene in my home tonight does not echo the 1950s Home Entertainment scene I’m reading about.

Let’s play a game and pretend it’s a Saturday night in June 1956. After all, ‘a wise hostess will organise games in which all may join’ and such a game may make this blog post ‘go with a swing’. We’re having an informal dinner party, although I realise there are still ‘rules of etiquette to be followed in setting and arranging the dining table’.

We’re having dinner for eight. I will use a linen tablecloth as they are now more popular and I can’t use place mats as my table is most definitely not in ‘almost perfect condition’. (Didn’t children use textas in the 1950s?!) I will allow my place settings to be spaced so that my guests have sufficient elbow room and the base of my cutlery handles will be a ‘straight line one inch from the edge of the table’. The napkins will be folded in the ‘customary rectangular shape and placed at the left of the dinner forks with the fold outside’ and I will have a small vase of jonquils in the middle of the table, as flowers ‘are still and probably always will be the most suitable decoration for the centrepiece on the table’.

Because I want to be a good hostess, I will plan the seating arrangements beforehand. My husband and I will be at opposite ends of the table and we will separate married couples and seat the opposite sex alternately. Being the mid-1950s, the number of courses presented at dinner parties is ‘now very elastic’ and as my food will be ‘well chosen, beautifully cooked and presented’ I am apparently able to be as free as I like in the choice of dishes.

After our black coffee in demi-tasse and liqueurs are served at the table, a tray of drinks – whisky, gin, beer or soft drinks – will be brought into the living room before our guests leave.


As we don’t have a separate living room or dining room perhaps we shouldn’t be having this dinner party after all. I should have organised a buffet dinner party instead. All we will need to do is remove all the chairs and leave our dining table in the middle of the room. As a ‘buffet meal is mostly informal, the tablecloth can be gay and interestingly patterned and the centrepiece can be made up of flowers or fruit’. There are ‘no fixed rules for setting the table for a buffet party’ and ‘it needs comparatively little preparation’. It will be a much shorter evening too – 5pm – 7pm – ‘excellent for a hostess with many social commitments’. The only other preparation we will need to do is ‘fill all the cigarette boxes and see that there are matches and large ashtrays on occasional tables’.

Seems like it will be relaxed and fun evening, don’t you think? Well, perhaps not for me. I’ll still be busy working. At a buffet party food and drink will be the least of my worries. Once my guests arrive I’ll introduce them to each other and ‘put them at ease’. If there are a couple of late-comers, as always, I’ll have to ‘lead them to one group or another and see them established so that they will not feel embarrassed or ill at ease’. But what will happen if a ‘certain amount of group forming in corners grows into a number of impregnable private conversations’? A good hostess will not let this happen. This is a shame as I wouldn’t mind being a part of a few ‘impregnable private conversations’. However, because I am a good hostess I will ‘apparently casually drift into different groups in turn, drawing some together and breaking up others’.

Well, I hope everyone else had fun because I don’t know that I did. Our guests will leave, piling out our front door, gaily laughing and swapping phone numbers with one another and I imagine I will be exhausted. Hearing them say what a ‘wonderful hostess’ I am as they climb into their cars should be enough for me to want to entertain every Saturday night. After all, ‘to describe a woman as a wonderful hostess is the highest compliment that can be paid, for it means that the person so described has the capacity for taking pains; that she has tact and charm and a genuine interest in other people. The art of entertaining needs practice, and involves a great deal of hard work’.

Back here in 2010, with three children aged under six, I know myself too well and should have paid heed to the warning at the beginning of the Home Entertainment chapter: ‘She should never undertake more than she can accomplish with ease as the pleasure of guests will be spoiled if the hostess appears to be tired’. My wine is now finished and I head off to bed with renewed appreciation and wistfulness for a conversation with my Nanna. I don’t know how she, as a mother of four, managed it back then.

I’d love to hear some real-life 1950s entertaining stories. Please leave me a comment if you have any.

*All photos are taken from the Australian Women's Complete Household Guide Illustrated. Colorgravure Publications (The Herald and Weekly Times Ltd)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

When Home is... a Shop

When my sister, Justine Joffe, opened her vintage, retro and handmade store Retrospections a year ago she had no idea about the feelings the space would evoke amongst her customers. After years of working in a highly pressured environment, she was burnt out, desperate for balance and looking for a complete lifestyle change.

Her dream was to open a shop filled with collections of her favourite things: vintage ‘kitchenalia’; retro furniture; handmade toys, accessories and jewellery; and second-hand and new books. She stumbled upon a corner shopfront, full of windows and complete with vintage black-tiled walls in the Sydney suburb of Cammeray and immediately signed the lease.

She expected to love the shop like a second home; what she didn’t expect was that her customers would feel the same way.

‘The lovely thing is that most days at least one customer tells me how much they love the shop. Often they say they “get it”, it's all their favourite things in one place (which of course it is for me!).’

But for Justine one of the best compliments of all was when a lady walked in and said 'it's just like coming home'.

It’s not only the feel of the shop and the objects living inside its walls that has surprised Justine. It’s also the conversations that occur even between customers, ‘More often than not we are all virtual strangers, but there's something about the space and the objects in it that triggers memories, stories and feelings ... and people seem to just open up.’

Justine feels she learns pieces of wisdom and humility each day, ‘I have heard more unique stories of strength, courage, tragedy and love in this shop over the last 12 months than I did working in the publishing industry for a decade - and that includes all the fiction blurbs I used to write!’

On any given day she will have a story about making someone feel at home inside the shop’s walls. It might be the day she had a customer say she had been to the dentist for a horrible procedure and wanted to visit the shop on her way home because she knew just being there would make her feel better.

Or the day when a lady came in to have a browse and asked Justine why she had started the shop. After sharing her story the customer replied 'I think I was meant to come in here today, I am at a crossroads in my life right now and I think I needed to be here for some reason. Thank you.'

Customers continually come in and share very touching or sad stories. A regular customer’s husband is terminally ill and undergoing treatment so she pops in for a break from her current carer's life. Another customer came in directly after she had attended the funeral of a close friend and purchased a beautiful vintage crocheted blanket in her friend's memory.

‘When things like that happen it reminds me that everyday this place and these objects can have a lasting effect on people - more than I could have ever imagined.’

Retrospections is open Tuesday – Friday 10am-5pm; Saturday 9am – 3pm
498a Miller St

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Full house

How big a house do you think you need for eight kids? Personally, I can't imagine giving birth eight times let alone finding a house with enough bedrooms (and bathrooms) but it turns out that this pretty two-bedroom single story terrace in Brunswick East, Melbourne was once home to a family of 10 during the 1940s. Yes, eight children and two parents on a six-metre wide block.

My friend Liz lived in this house until earlier this year with her husband, a toddler and baby and still wonders how that family managed. Both bedrooms were 3m x 3m and six of the eight children (all girls) shared two double beds in one bedroom while the other two slept with their parents. During the 1940s, bed bugs were perhaps the biggest night-time threat for so many bodies in such a small space. Maybe, in an effort to stop her six little girls being covered in bright red welts by morning, this mother would lay a candle on top of newspaper on the bedroom floor and light it. This was apparently one of many methods used during those days to eradicate such pests. The idea was that the heat from the candle would bring all the bed bugs out of their hiding spaces and in the morning they could be wrapped up and perhaps burnt in the wood stove. You can only imagine how many houses burnt down in the name of bed bugs.

The wood stove housed in the 3m x 4m kitchen would have been central to the home in those days. Not only constantly burning for mugs of tea and meals, it would have also kept the family warm. There were no hot water bottles, due to the wartime rubber shortage, but I doubt this family would have been cold at night with so many bodies in so few beds. During waking hours, the kitchen would have been where the family spent most of their time. Perhaps they had a radio for entertainment? Although in the 1940s you needed to purchase a licence and renew it every 12 months and maybe they didn’t have enough spare money for this. Liz was told that the husband was ‘a bit of a gambler and liked a drink’ so perhaps there was never any spare money. Maybe those children sat at the kitchen table by the stove playing Snakes and Ladders, Draughts or cards while their mother soaked nappies and washed clothes all day wondering if they would have any money to buy food that week.

The lean-to laundry/utility space would have had a copper for washing and one or two concrete troughs. In this working-class suburb there was probably no hot water service so water may well have been boiled in the copper for the whole family to wash, perhaps once a week. The children and babies were probably washed in one of the troughs. This mother must have spent most of her waking hours here – or at least between the wood stove and the copper. The one toilet would have been far away from the house, at the back fence.

Of course, like all families in all circumstances, they seemed to make it work. And whenever Liz felt her own family was outgrowing the space, she would think of that mother and ‘only hope for the kind of patience she must have had’.


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