I’m making a pasta dish, something I did when I was a mother of a living child. It’s the first time I’ve cooked pasta since my daughter died four years ago, aged 17. I put a pot of water on to boil for the durum wheat pasta – the best wheat for pasta, as Victoria well knew. She had been an avid devourer of cookbooks. I’m using shell pasta, whose shape reminded her of a cat curled up asleep. I make a white sauce. The basic kind with flour and milk, not even cream. I beat it with a whisk, to rid it of every glug of glutinous flour. This is for you, I mutter. My beautiful daughter. Victoria Skye Pringle McLeod. The smoothest ever. We never knew what really lay beneath her glossy surface, I allow myself to briefly think. I say briefly, because to not live in the present is to invite introspection, which leads to questioning, self-blame, and the image of her body, lying on a pathway beside an apartment block. And the memory of me turning my gaze upward, to the ledge nine stories above, from which she propelled herself on the first day of a new school term. Then down, to her closed eyes. I thought she looked regretful. My husband Malcolm says, peaceful. I’m going to need to grate parmesan cheese.
When Victoria was alive we used to have pasta in one form or another several times a week. I haven’t eaten it since. I avoid most meals that we used to eat then. One reason is that the memories are too painful. The other is that I can’t be bothered. I get Asian food such as fried rice or fishball soup from the canteen at my office in Singapore, or takeaways from a hawker centre, a name that nostalgically references the food pushcarts of the past. There is one up the road from the condominium where we live. The food-court offers plenty of choice, from the mild and light boiled soups of China, to the spicy stuff, like sharp papaya salads from Thailand, and vinegary adobo chicken of the Philippines.
Yet in our Singapore apartment, back when our little family was intact – myself, Malcolm and our Victoria – we used to make hearty, Western dishes suited to feeding farmers hungry from a day outdoors shouldering fence-posts: stews, scones, beef-mince lasagne, meat roasts. The time-consuming preparation of this fare turned us into pale pillars of melting fat in our sweat-box of a small kitchen. A fan twisting and turning in a corner was no match for the flames surging from the gas hob or the waves of heat from the electric oven squatting on a counter-top. As is common with Singapore kitchens, there was neither a built-in oven, nor hot water. Yet there we were, temperatures over 32 degrees Celsius, spooning meaty juices over joints in roasting pans, laboriously peeling expensive Japanese sweet potatoes (as they were similar to the unobtainable kūmaraof New Zealand), while boiling water in a kettle to wash endless pots and pans. All this, for a taste of home.
I open a drawer in my kitchen to find the old recipe books I’ve used since the time Victoria was a toddler. I planned to pass them on to her one day, with the hope she would in turn have children to pass them on to. Some are glossy hard-covers by popular chefs of the day: Real Food (Best-ever mash was the go-to in our household) by Nigel Slater, a harmlessly charming Englishman, and effusive Sophie Gray from my homeland of New Zealand, with her Destitute gourmet: stunning food from small change (Chicken pie with cobbler topping). Then there are simple books of comfort food, given to me as gifts by New Zealand relatives: Alison and Simon Holst’s Lunches and after school snacks (Onion Dip Spread – embarrassing to admit this, as it is made with evaporated milk and soup mix), or even more embarrassing, Ewing’s Phone People 1X, The best of the Recipes (Mary’s Nothing Pudding), from my mother, a fan of talkback radio and household hints of the mend-and-make-do variety.
Also in the cupboard are ancient stapled scraps of paper, repositories of recipes handed down from great grandmother, to grandmother, to mother. So there’s a sort of sacredness to them: The ancestors took a lot of care to preserve them, on a par with the family Bible. I had duly lugged them to Singapore even though the hot, energy-sapping climate doesn’t call for such hearty fare, Bible included, some might say.
Today I peer at comments pencilled next to the lists of ingredients such as “Bill’s favourite shortbread” or “Add tsp more baking powder”, or simply “Nice”. This is disappointing. The notes are not at all revelatory in a personal way that would make me feel more connected to the women who cooked. Why was it so important that Bill liked that shortbread? Why do most of the recipes have filling fare that doesn’t cost much? Were they poor or did they actually like that stuff? And what of indigenous Māori and Pacific Island fare? Where’s a boil-up recipe for pork, broth and local vegetables, or something with coconuts and juicy papaya? There are only hybridised recipes for toheroa soup and pāua fritters. The lovely shellfish is minced, disguised.
And there’s another question, a clincher for any woman after the 1960s: Didn’t you get fed up doing all that cooking for all those menfolk?
Among these tatters of culinary history is a New Zealand staple, a butter-stained, disintegrating Edmonds book. It has recipes that my grandma and aunts cooked, including pressed cow tongue of a violent mauve colour that I was made to eat as a child: “It’s good for ya, girlie”. Us kids would poke out our tongues and imagine cutting that off to eat. Yuk!
A dish Victoria loved from that Edmonds book was macaroni cheese. I can hear her voice reassuring me, “Mom, I really used to love it.” She preferred it absolutely plain, with no vegetables in it, and just a sprinkle of breadcrumbs on top. It was a carb-loaded comfort food classic. Healthy? Not much. I only made it because she liked it. I didn’t enjoy cooking it, but I was, at times, a drudge back then. I think I got too tired. I never made her eat cow tongue. I do console myself with that.
Getting the steel grater out of the bottom kitchen cupboard has become an unfamiliar action. It lurks amongst chopsticks, old baking paper and other bottom-kitchen-cupboard stuff. I find it eventually. Tiny bits of mouldy cheese are caught in its sharp nubs, from when it was last used, the night before Victoria died.
Our last meal was spaghetti bolognaise. We ate it on a Sunday evening, crammed together on the sofa, watching TV chef Annabel Langbein, whose New Zealand-based show screened on an Asian food channel. “Sooooo delicious”, Victoria said, imitating Langbein’s weirdly plummy vowels, a contrast to the cook’s jeans-clad portrayal of Kiwi informality. We laughed, and soon the living room was echoing with us all saying “Soooo delicious”. Vic helped with washing up afterwards, engaging in a tea-towel flicking contest with Malcolm which she won. Later I tucked her up in bed, kissing her good night. Yet early next morning – before I got up to cook breakfast and get her ready for the school bus – Victoria slipped out the front door, and never came back.
When the shock went away, and when loss was replaced by absence, we were left with ourselves and our redundant roles and identities. Victoria had been our only child. Without her, was I a mother? And what was it about our lives that led her to think it was better to be dead? We had believed our little unit to be a happy one. We loved her to bits. Tried to do lots together. Went for trips back to New Zealand to see relatives and friends. But it was not enough. It seems the child we thought we knew, did not exist. Yet, there are known facts: Victoria was of European New Zealand parentage. She was kind-natured and sensitive. She had a dreamy kind of attention deficit disorder. We never saw dreaminess as a deficit.
She loved going back with us each year to our cottage in the South Island. She talked of going back to the island to study in Dunedin once school finished.
But she also loved Singapore. Her favourite food was a hawker dish: Skinless steamed chicken, with rice cooked in the chicken broth.
She baked a beautiful pavlova, a type of meringue dessert with a squishy marshmallow centre popular in New Zealand. It was her Christmas ritual.
Suspected facts: She probably hated the chore – and pressure – of baking it every Christmas. But she would have wanted to please the family, and indeed, it did please me. I treated Victoria’s pavlova-making as if she had passed some rite of passage into Kiwi adulthood. And that this was of my doing. I was imparting the knowledge of baking a proper pavlova from my mother to me to her. However, after my daughter’s death we came to know the other Victoria through talking to friends and reading extensive diaries that we discovered in her laptop computer. (I’ve shared them with researchers into suicide and teen anxiety, and her writing has now made it into two books). After reading her diaries, I realise that Victoria was wise to the shallowness of pavlova achievement, its woeful inadequacy in being able to help her find an identity amid challenges arising from social media, globalisation and isolation from a close community to enfold us.
Facts to face: Vic was consumed by fears of failing exams, of losing friends, of changing countries, of life in a country she had never properly lived in. She was afraid of her future. All those visits back to the motherland, the watching of Annabel bloody Langbein, all that separating of yolks and whites for the pavlova, all those roasts and potatoes, had not given her an anchor at all.
The reality was that it anchored me – in a delusion. It took me back to my childhood, to food cooked with my own mother’s love, to known ways of behaving and being in a world. Unlike Victoria, I was rooted in a steady, familiar world of belonging utterly to one tribe, an amorphous muddle of calf-milk-fed, grass-raised dairy farm folk, the descendants of Dorset dwellers turned early globalisers, riding the sailing-ship wave.
And I had felt so happy. I was doing something worthwhile with my life, nourishing my child. That’s what parents are supposed to do, aren’t they? Amongst all the other things, a proper Mum cooks and stirs and stands in the kitchen and gives her family spoonfuls of love. Or that was that a message I had absorbed from my family, from society, from judgmental expat mums at the school gate? And also, from the friendly expat mums when we occasionally met up during the school day for wine-fuelled lunches? And then, there are the many Western women’s magazines sold in Singapore with food stories that are endless variations on how to feed your family fast nutritious food they will love you for.
On the other hand, my Singaporean friends and colleagues had no expectations of me as a mother-cook. My main identity to them was, and remains, framed in terms of my economic contribution to their society. This pragmatism is a relief now. It is un-complicated identity. Being a mother is irrelevant, though they have always been curious about my cooking, asking if I baked “meaty foods” such as shepherd’s pie and lasagne at home, which places me as a foreigner and raises its own issues of personal identity beyond that of motherhood. At first, I used to see it as them seeking confirmation about the colonial habits of the Other. But it is more complicated than that. Once, in the time long before we lost Victoria, a Singaporean-Chinese colleague at the newspaper where I worked as a copyeditor asked what food we missed from my homeland. We were gathered around the food table at work – it is common in Singapore offices for some makeshift space, even the tops of file cabinets, to be commandeered as a communal dining space. Someone had brought back goodies from a trip to Japan. (Another tradition: if a colleague from your department goes away overseas, they bring treats to share with fellow staff, and also as a thank-you for covering for them). While being urged to try dried sour plums, which I don’t like, I blurted, “Oh, bread-and-butter pudding”. I don’t know why I said that, as it is not a particular favourite. Perhaps it was to end the conversation – I might have assumed my colleague did not know what it was. But she smiled and said: “Oh, I miss it, too. I used to take it at halls during my study years in Britain.” Then she added: “It was such a treat. So beautifully cooked. They used brioche. And there would be added sauce on the side in a little jug, beautifully fine vanilla crème.”
I didn’t know what to say. It confused me on many levels – that while I am a New Zealander, was she seeing me as a quasi-Brit? That we are just interchangeable white people who look and behave and eat alike? And then there was the class thing. Was she not aware that at that time, I had never even been to university? My family could not afford it. Hers was not the bread-and-butter pudding of my Kiwi childhood. Mum cooked it as a way to fill us up when there wasn’t much food to go round. It also had the advantage of using up stale bread, and could be made with ingredients to hand – butter, milk, a few raisins, maybe grated lemon peel. It was of the mend-and-make-do, Depression-era approach. It was as far removed from high tea at Oxford as I could imagine. But my colleague was looking at me hopefully. I realised that her comment was an offering, a kindness to acknowledge she understood I didn’t like the sour plums and that she, too, had experienced the awkwardness of being a foreigner around food. It was a comment to do with a different kind of “class”, that of inherent good manners. Should I squash that with an uncouth rant about the economically-gutted, neoliberalised New Zealand that had led me to seek work in her country? I blinked and said, “Yes, with vanilla crème. That’s what I miss.” As I spoke, I tried to imagine her vanilla crème coating my tongue with its fine privilege. But the image that came was of crisped triangles of breadcrusts atop a sugary lumpen-ness in a Pyrex cooking dish, and my mother’s look of triumph and weariness as she plonked it on the kitchen table. And a simmering, barely-contained anger and resentment, I now realise, looking back. So much for my imagined comfort zone of the motherland.
The bread-and-butter pudding incident is irrelevant to me now. I have little interest in food, let alone cross-cultural culinary confusion. I’m not cooking. I’m not the old me. It’s not just because I never liked cooking. It’s because I am no longer defined by motherhood, and no longer have to meet the expectations of my tribe and western society. I’m not cooking, even when we go back to New Zealand to visit. It is Malcolm who does the cooking. He grills mutton chops for his elderly widowed mother, who seeks memories of the high-country kitchens of her youth, of joshing rabbiters with their bundles of floppy fur, of larking shepherds home from the mighty muster. At least, that’s how she rosily recalls it in her suburban house in Oamaru, staring out at her clothes-line with its unsettling, beseeching iron arms. A garden-centre statue of a Greek goddess crouches nearby, frowning. Victoria, in a filigree-framed photograph, winks at me.
I’ve cleaned the grater and rubbed parmesancheese against it until there is a soft, airy bundle of strands ready to be sprinkled over the pasta and sauce. I don’t even know why I am making this dish. Perhaps it is the desire to recreate something of my past that is palpable. I pat the strands of parmesan, they bounce like curls of hair. I would brush Victoria’s bouncy hair for ages. She loved that. In the coffin, it felt stiff, like strands of uncooked spaghetti.
As I drain the little pasta shells and the hot steam hits my face, difficult thoughts squeeze through under the guise of pain. My role as nurturer should have included asking the awkward questions to find how a child really feels inside, instead of simply filling that inside with food. To find out more, even though she is dead: “Victoria, when you ate that spaghetti bolognaise on the sofa with us, did you already know it was your last meal? Why did you pretend everything was normal? Why couldn’t you have just been real with us and told us that you were so worried about your exam results that you wanted to die?”
And now I’ve read her diaries in her computer, I’d like to know: “Did you sick up that last meal later in the toilet?” I want to know, so I can face the fact that the food I slavishly cooked to nurture her, was being vomited up and flushed away. It was the complete rejection of all that stirred, salted, whisked, basted love. I had not fed her, after all. In any way. I was not enough of the mother she really needed – not simply a cook and organiser and occasional hugger, but someone else, I don’t know quite who. Perhaps it is bigger than me. Perhaps it was several mothers that she needed. And aunts as well. There, in her life in Singapore, not absent in New Zealand.
Small triumphs: I have managed not to burn the meal. However, while I have been standing there thinking about cooking, motherhood, cultural identity and death, the parmesan cheese and slithery sauce have congealed in an unappetising way. What was I thinking? I’m not hungry. And Malcolm’s not here to eat it. He has taken one of his Patrick O’Brian books that are his mainstay now and gone to the nearby hawker centre. The 18th century world of battles at sea, the comradeship of men at war, provide for him a passage through his sadness. There, he’ll sit amongst food-court diners, get out his book, and tuck into the Malay stall’s roti prata. He’ll have checked out all the other offerings, simple street food: chicken rice, the pad thai, the dim sum, the wonton mee. But it is always the Malay stall Malcolm goes back to. The Muslim hawker knows him. They chat and laugh as the round of dough is spun and slapped down on the hot-plate, and as the halal lentil gravy is ladled into a plastic side-dish. And then Malcolm will find a place amongst the swirl and chatter of diners from all over Asia – they are Malay, Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi, Filipino, Indonesian. It is a place that creates a space for Malcolm when we eventually return to New Zealand, too. For that is another reality to face, as well as the issue of nurturing: The life we created for our daughter by cooking food from our childhood was based on a New Zealand that no longer exists. Most of the fare at this hawker centre can be found there, now, along with food from Pacifica, indeed, from all parts of the world. And the stodge of our childhood has been rebranded Kiwiana, a quaint retro treat for anyone from anywhere.
I didn’t go with Malcolm to the food-court as I hate sitting in the humid air with only a fan to cool me. And being stared at, the only westerners there. It didn’t used to bother me, but it does now. It is not the fact that we stand out as different. It is because, I wonder, who do they see, beyond the whiteness? A foreigner, yes – but worse, a lonely, older woman with no family, marooned with her husband at a circular plastic food-court table. Him, reading a book. Her, imagining her dead daughter alive, imagining her placing an order of chicken rice, pointing to the cooked chickens hanging with hooks through their necks, telling the hawker in Singlish (Singapore’s English-based creole) to take the skin off and “Chilli, mei you (cannot)”. Yet at the other tables are old folk surrounded by an enviable real life – laughing, chattering children, teenagers, cousins, and neighbours. I, on the other hand, am clearly not part of any sort of loosely-connected group. I don’t belong to a discernible tribe making its presence felt. It must be puzzling for them to observe, this woman eating amongst them, without the support and protection and enfolding love of an extended family. Any family.
Besides, I’m not hungry. I always cooked food for Victoria’s sustenance, not mine. There’s no child left to sustain. There’s only Malcolm and me, and there’s no Kiwi comfort food for what we are going through. A ‘Kiwiana’ pink lamington sponge stuffed with whipped cream isn’t going to do it, though I am tempted to try. The only recipe I need is one on how to survive this. But there is nothing in my grandmothers’ cookbooks. No pencil marks recklessly urging, “Bill’s favourite. Then add rat poison”. (On a visit to the family farm, I found my grandma crying. Her nephew Bill, a beefy man-child, was sitting on the porch cleaning his shotgun, having culled all the mummy cats and their kittens).
No, the margins are empty. I was foolish to have looked for directions from them for any of what has happened to me. Their world is gone. As has mine. If only my world was that imagined by my Singapore colleague, one of vanilla crème, uneventful, smooth on the tongue. But then again, she had mentioned her high-tea memory to me while savouring sour plums. That is what I must learn to do.
Singapore-based Linda Collins has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters, New Zealand. Her memoir, Loss Adjustment, is to be published in September by Ethos Books Singapore. Linda’s non-fiction and poetry appear in Turbine, Swamp Living, The Fib Review, The Cordite Poetry Review and The Freerange Journal. Last year she was shortlisted for the Hachette Australia Trans-Tasman mentorship, long-listed for an NZ flash fiction award and Highly Commended in a Glimmer Train contest.
Disclaimer: This is a work of creative nonfiction. The events are portrayed to the best of the author’s memory. While all the stories in this essay are true, some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.