Recently, the spirits from my mum’s side have been particularly active. I hear them when I am scraping the frypan after dinner or watering what is left of my lavender or dreaming of scootering up and down the driveway at my family home. One of these spirits is my grandmother’s mother, who was nursed by her daughter until she decided that death was easier than living. Some of these spirits are my grandmother’s sisters, who splintered away to make their own families, diluting our blood with men of their choosing. If I listen hard enough, I feel I hear some of my mum’s cousins, who joined the others so recently they might still be unpacking their suitcases. These women whisper among themselves without malice. Sometimes they pause and take a shared breath as if they have all closed their eyes for a moment – and then – back to it. In times of clarity, I imagine I can see them sitting on a bench and leaning against a wall in the sun. Or perhaps they are crammed onto a single church pew in the dark. Or sitting at the family table on the farm where all eight of my grandmother’s siblings were born. But just as I think I’m close, I hear them stifle a laugh, the steady whispering resumes and I lose any vision of where they might be.
As my grandmother lies now in a little bed in a run-down apartment in Lima, nursed by her older sister who is herself approaching 90, I know the spirits wish to ask me only one thing:
Where are you?
For Ghassan Hage, one of the fundamental characteristics of home is that it is a place where we can imagine ‘a better life.’ Feelings of familiarity, security and community are important, but ultimately, a home needs to offer us a place where we can hope. Without this space to dream of something more than what we already have, our homes would remain stagnant. Hage’s term ‘intimations of homeliness’ suggests that while we may have hints of familiarity, security, community and a space to hope, we are forever in pursuit of more of these things. I wonder if this perpetual process of homemaking is why my ancestral spirits are forever present – regardless of where I try to set up home. Is this why in my search, I feel obliged to remember the pursuits of those who came before me?
Before arriving in Australia in the eighties, Mum had her own experience with family spirits. I imagine her in her old world in Lima, attempting to pack her bags as she eluded the voices of the women who were begging her to stay. My Mum would have wanted to block out these voices for as long as possible, at least until she disembarked in a new country. Little did she realise that the spirits she had tried desperately to escape from had wormed their way into her luggage. When she opened her bags after arrival, the spirits sniffed the air and fled into the bush to make their home in a new land. The voices of the spirits might be less prominent, but she would spend the next few decades catching sight of them in the scrub, praying they would keep to themselves while she tried to raise her own children. The thing about spirits is you never really lose them, they always know how to find you and if you don’t make friends with them, they smother you.
Mum kept an eye on us kids, mostly me, through the kitchen window. Growing up, one of my favourite pastimes was hanging out in the driveway where I was either scootering or airing the concerns that 11-year-old kids have or shooting hoops through the makeshift basketball net against the wall. When I visit now I am impressed that I could spend whole afternoons on that concrete driveway, which seemed both longer and wider in my mind’s eye. I have vivid memories of talking to myself, usually as multiple characters in imagined scenarios. Conscious of Mum’s watchful eyes, I would mutter the different voices of all the members of my imaginary family. I often fantasised about having siblings that I could spar with, converse with, learn from or look up to. So while my actual younger sister rarely appreciated my desire to play rough, the siblings I constructed were full of grit: dirty under the nails, boisterous, rude and pushy but loveable.
In this imaginary world, we had a bigger house, more money, and neighbours who had big families of their own with good-looking boys my age who wanted to skateboard and climb things. It wasn’t that I was unhappy, but playing this game often made me feel happier and more connected somehow to the possibility of what could be. It is a running family joke that after my sister I was born, I had expressed the desire for mum to have ‘hundreds of babies’ so we could be ‘just like Peter Rabbit’s family.’ When this didn’t happen in real life, I did my best to bring it into my world of play.
While Mum was keeping an eye out on me from the kitchen, I often found myself keeping an eye on her. I may have had full ownership of the driveway but the kitchen was my Mum’s domain. As our kitchen was a large space that opened up into the dining room, preparing the food was often a performance of sorts. Exquisite smells mixed with the sounds of frustrated clanging and running water. Variations of the same question (usually from me) about when dinner would be ready made me think that we were all participating in food preparation, even if this was far from the truth. Mum was a firm believer in ‘wash as you go’ and ‘clean as soon as you can.’ These maxims gave me good practice to carry into my adult life. I learned early on that for Mum, cooking with an absence of clanging meant an absence of enthusiasm, and also that tears before dinner were never a good sign. In a way, being in control of the kitchen was synonymous with being in control.
Today I like to think of the kitchen as my domain. If you know what you’re doing, the kitchen is a good place to make yourself look busy and useful. If you are feeling particularly confident you can boss people around, or at least offer instructions as to how certain things should be kept. At the most, you can assert some kind of superiority by cooking good food and at the very least, you can dictate who will be responsible for the clean up, even if that person more than often is you. If you’re living in a sharehouse, the kitchen is a place for gossip, sharing, teaching, learning, the polite assertion of personal space and keeping boundaries.
I’m also reminded of the legend of Babcia Bronia, my Dad’s grandmother, and the set of stories that were often recounted in our family home. She rules the kitchen with her strict, disciplinarian no-time-for-bullshit attitude. I imagine that Babcia Bronia’s dedication to the kitchen is part of what earnt her the status of the family matriarch, allowing her to live on in the memory of her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren long after she passed away. In some of my dad’s stories about Babcia Bronia, he was invited into the kitchen to help with a very specific task like peeling potatoes. There was no reward for helping but if the tasks were performed correctly there would be no shouting or stern fuss.
While Mum was battling with the voices of her family’s spirits, it wasn’t until many years after living, working and raising a family in Australia that the ghosts of the past caught up with my Dad. When his mother, our Babica Hela, died in Perth, Dad was detained in Sydney. Mum was having a particularly bad month, those spirits in the bush were trying to smother her, and we couldn’t be left without a second parent. At that time, it was as if all the memories from home came flooding back and Helena Florek, who had always been more of an imaginary figure for my sister and I, was suddenly so present in our house it was as if she was living in our kitchen. I was recently stunned to realise that without ever really knowing her, something of Babcia Hela had taken root in me.
When my partner and I decided to lockdown together, I mentally rehearsed versions of the following conversation:
Why is the dog allowed to sleep on the bed?
I like it, he keeps me warm and he’s a good companion.
But what about me, don’t I keep you warm? Aren’t I a good companion?
You’re a different kind of companion.
(I would have thought about that a long time, and then responded when I mustered up the courage):
I just don’t know if it’s all that sanitary to be sharing the bed with a dog…besides his fur gets everywhere…
That’s half the fun!
When I was growing up, the family dog wasn’t even allowed in our bedroom, let alone on top of the blanket. My tactic in this conversation? Avoid conflict, communicate differences, express the fact that this is something new and unusual for me. It was a worthy attempt, a little clumsy in its execution perhaps and definitely not clear enough. The dog still sleeps on the bed.
I reveal my thoughts about this dog-sleeping-on-the-bed business indignantly to my aunt and uncle during a walk one day. ‘I like dogs, I like having them, being around them, playing with them but they just don’t belong on the bed.’ They laugh. It’s funny, they muse, because Babcia Hela used to express the same sentiment. She had a friend in Poland, who was deeply enamoured of her dog. Letting it sleep on the bed was just the start. Babcia Hela believed, as I do, that you can respect all living creatures, you can love dogs, you can adopt your own, you can prepare their food with kindness and care but a line needs to be drawn somewhere. And unfortunately for some dogs, this just so happens to be in the bedroom.
While I was living with my partner, I spent a lot of time wondering just how appalled he might have been if he met my family’s dog, Ash. She was never mistreated, but she was left to her own devices for most of the time. She was small and our yard was spacious, so we felt excused from taking her on long, regular walks. For most of her life she ate the same food, wasn’t allowed into the bedrooms and although she was never properly socialised and lived simply, she lived to the ripe old age of 17.
Babcia Hela wasn’t the only woman in the family who felt dogs should be banned from the bedroom. When Ash finally decided it was time to go, my Mum was overseas taking care of my grandmother. For the best part of 17 years we heard the reasons as to why Ash should never be allowed past the kitchen tiles. It was a kind of ongoing battle between Mum and us kids, who felt that it was ‘really mean’ to exclude Ash from family time in the living room and that maybe Ash craved human company more than she did her own bed. Dad preferred not to get involved, although when Ash did manage to worm her way into the living room occasionally, he was the last person to raise the alarm.
In our family home, cooking, conversation, crying and consolation all took place in the kitchen, occasionally at the same time. That argument I wanted to have with my sister? Best done near the microwave. Preparing the Christmas pierogi? A team effort on the dining table. Crying over a high school drama? This could be performed while pacing up and down. The faster you paced, the more advice you would get and preferably your dilemmas would be solved before dinner. To be in the kitchen was to be on display, anything that happened there would be up for public scrutiny and discussion.
‘Being clean’ began in the kitchen. You had to make sure the bench you were working on had been wiped down. You needed to know the vegetables had been properly rinsed before you could start chopping them. You had to wash your hands before preparing food and the process of tidying up would take as long as it needed to so that the kitchen could be returned to its original, organised and orderly form. If you could master these simple rules, keeping other things (yourself included) clean would only become easier.
Kitchen living wasn’t always easy, but it was a safe space where most kinds of behaviour could be tolerated, or if not, forgiven. When I think about many of the habits I have inherited and taken with me into my own living experiences, they come from my family kitchen. Perhaps some of these things, like cleanliness, I am still refining but if there are moments of generosity, acts of kindness or times when I am most inclined to ‘look after’ another person then I can trace the origins to that shared space at home.
Sometimes the thing I miss most about my family home is consistency. Besides whatever sense of homeliness they were trying to construct and regardless of whether they were successful in coming to terms with their own ancestral spirits, it was a world in which I knew what to expect. It was a small world containing a single version of what life was, but it was all I knew. I know now that when I spent my many afternoons riding my scooter up and down the driveway, that was the beginning of me imagining what might have been different. Of course it’s exciting to be out in the world and try to construct your own version of it. Despite this, I often feel that everything that looks new is actually just the same set of bricks of grief and joy and struggle and suffering that have been recycled for generations before me. The spirits that left Mum and supposedly fled into the bush have never really left our backyard. My dad’s family ghosts have always been watching from the kitchen, if only to click their tongues when the dog leaps onto the bed. When I think about the home I once had and the spaces I call home today, I can’t shake those family voices I hear as I cook, garden and clean.
In the writing of this piece, my mum has been preparing for a long journey across the Pacific Ocean. She has decided to go and look after her mother in Lima. Were it not for COVID, I might have gone with her. Perhaps I could have helped return the spirits she took with her on her first-ever voyage across the world. Perhaps we could find where they came from, return them to the soil from which they arose. Somewhere in the highlands of the Andes near a little farm where a cunning, handsome businessman took my grandmother for a drive to town one day, where her sisters waved goodbye with teary smiles, before returning to their humming as they soaked kernels of white maize for their evening soup. For a second I see them, but then I hear a chuckle, a moment of silence without breath and the hushed chatter resumes.
This essay was commissioned and published as part of a digital residency program for Western Sydney writers offered by the SRB and the Bankstown Arts Centre.
Hage, G 1997, ‘At Home in the Entrails of the West,’ in Helen Grace, Ghassan Hage, Lesley Johnson, Julie Langworth, Michael Symonds (eds). Home/World: Space, community and marginality in Sydney’s West, Pluto Press, Annandale, NSW.