Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Kitchen Domain


I have long meant to come back to this subject because important things remained unsaid. The earlier postings were here, here, here, here and here, in that order, with an extra one here. What is missing is the time in England, but that's for another time. Here I want to look at the end.

Why now? Because I have just been doing the washing up after dinner. I generally do it because C, the kitchen goddess, does the cooking. I did it for myself for three months in Dublin and it was OK if limited. She does wash up sometimes though, especially when I am not around.

Let me get technical here. When I wash up I put the various parts of cutlery into discrete parts of the plastic rack: the spoons in one, the forks in another etc, the principle being that when drying I pick up all the spoons in one go, then all the forks. It is not a matter of major importance but it seems logical and, in every sense, fitting. C, in her office as goddess, generally flings them in wherever she fancies, as is her perfect right.

There is nothing at stake. She has never said to me: why not do it like this? or why do you do it like that? Nor do I ask her why she does it like she does and why she doesn't do it as I do. Who cares how it is done? But in any case, my principle is: never quarrel with a goddess when in her domain. Recall the case of Diana and Actaeon.

As a matter of fact I have never quarreled with women. It's not in my nature to do so, and my nature is, naturally, greatly formed by my mother and her domain. I don't mean I do as instructed, I mean I do as I do, while remaining as courteous, charming and obliging as I hope I can be. It's not an act: it's how I am. I never question how they go about things, or even think of ordering them about. We both have worlds to bear on our shoulders. The world is as it is and our shoulders are as they are.


My mother's last domain was the kitchen. The condition of her heart began to deteriorate and going to work was out of the question, as was house cleaning. She was on her own. My father was at work, sometimes travelling from building site to building site in various parts of the country; my brother was at school and when he came home was expected to practice at least four hours on the violin because the violin was to be his lifeline, as indeed it became; I came home from school and sat down to homework. I was also expected to practice the piano, which I did, though I was of very average talent and musicality. There wasn't much TV.

They were quite difficult years, filled with talk of euthanasia and depressions. After a while the council arranged for cleaners to come in. Or maybe they just helped with cost - I can't remember. This was the point at which resting actors and waiting-to-be singers called in to hoover and dust, one of them being Mr David Bowie-to-be. That is about 1965 or so. I am sixteen or so.

My mother was as she was - a furiously intent creature in a state of intermittent pain and exhaustion - who had always lived partly through her family. That was a legacy of her own circumstances and history. The house we were living in was the house she was determined to have, and it was the kitchen, the kitchen in the picture above, that truly mattered. As ever, she got her way. It was, after all, she who was going to be at home, her life that was going to be at the heart of the house, the kitchen being the heart.

Through the window she could see the back garden. We set up a small greenhouse and there she tended plants. This was a middling suburb of London. Lower management. It was relatively quiet and out of the way on a small Edwardian-period estate where the roads were named after poets: Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey. We were Shelley.

The kitchen having become her domain she both did and didn't want us there. We would be called upon to help then summarily dismissed because we weren't doing things quite right. Oh, get out of my way! You're more hindrance than help! My brother and I didn't know quite what to do. We wouldn't be let anywhere near the cooking even if we had asked. Domain meant authority. Domain gave her pride and justification. I may be a sickly woman, she might have thought, but here I am indispensible. Here things are under my control. Here my fury is my own.

The kitchen was where we generally ate, at the table where she is sitting in the photograph, unless there were visitors when we used the through-lounge. There is something about the whole house now that makes me shudder. The kitchen seems to me one of the possible models for a room in hell. I didn't like it then and looking at it now is troubling. If kitchen is self, this was an alien self to her. In the end, after I had gone, it became intolerable to her too. Whatever is intolerable is there in her face, in her very posture.


That is the trouble with domains. They come to dominate and then consume. I have to remember how she loved that kitchen and how important to her it was that we should have it, even at the cost of being gazumped at the last stage of purchase.

I look at my domain now, which is essentially this desk, this room, this keyboard. I see the mass of papers on trays, the books not quite in order on the shelves. It looks unfinished but that is how I prefer it most of the time. I have another domain in language, in poetry. C has her studio and her office. She has her visual domain. The rest of the house is common ground. I know the danger of kitchens as domains and am glad our daughter is not forced into it, willy-nilly, because there is no other option. I also know the world is not a creature of our convenience, that it is as it is at any given moment, though it is open to change between such moments. Our shoulders are as they are, but we can always do a bit more . So we think and hope.

I think that kitchen explains something of me too. I think it is part of the poetry, pat of the demon that keeps things burning.


Anindita said...

That's beautiful and very moving. My mother's kitchen was her domain, strangely, until my father died at which point she seemed to abandon it altogether. I wonder what that says -- that it wasn't a chosen domain and once she could leave, she did. Or that without him, it simply didn't have as much meaning anymore. As you say, our shoulders are what they are. I'm going to make that my new year mantra.

Nicole S said...

My mother went out to work for a while, hated it and happily went back to her kitchen, where her skills were much admired. She did get tired of it all towards the end, though, and started filling cupboards with instant mash and bulky labour-saving devices. George, it is good as you say to have options, but also a shame not to love the kitchen.

George S said...

Thank you, Anindita. It is hard to be sure of anything regarding other people, especially our parents who were living before us and who continued having private lives out of which they rarely stepped. We piece them together afterwards for the sake of coherence, but we are never quite coherent even to ourselves, so we know the coherence we make of others is bound to flawed. That's why we tell stories. I sometimes think that it is the lack of coherence in ourselves and in the world at large that makes us write poems.

And Nicole, of course you are right. The kitchen can be one of the great places of joy and, if it is your domain, you are in charge and nobody is going to tell you what to do. I once wrote on the blog that the popular notion of men having freedom and careers has been true only for very few men, and that most never had any but the smallest domain. They were, generally, expendable.

But the kitchen (and indeed the house) for all its joys and autonomy, is limited if you have to spend your life there and would rather not. So I am delighted my daughter and other women of her generation have the opportunity to use their intelligence and energy in other ways too. Now, when she is about to become a mother, she will redefine her relationship to everything domestic, but it will, within general human limitations, be her definition, not an imposed universal.