Kate Kerrigan’s novel The Dress has a dual timeline that brings the past into today. The modern-day protagonist Lily loses her grandfather whom she is close to in the early part of the book which triggers her journey into her own past. In this blog post Kate talks about the special relationship she had with her late grandmother, Anne Nolan.
In recent years I have found myself storing half-onions under saucers and saving bits of leftover bacon to throw into a quiche. I have also begun to suspect that supermarket sell-by dates are a con designed to make me buy more yoghurt. I know that my new-found thriftiness isn’t just a reaction to the economy then the other day, reaching for the bone handled knife I always use to peel apples, a picture flashed into my mind. My grandmother was seated at the table in her simple kitchen tearing the leaves off rhubarb stalks and in her hands was that very same bone handled knife.
My Mayo grandmother lived with us in London and she died when I was in my early twenties. I have always missed her humour and her presence but recently I have come to feel her legacy in the domestic details of my life and I miss having her to there to share them with.
I want to show her my own wonderful rhubarb patch, ask her advice on keeping the crows away from my gooseberries, have her show me how to darn the elbow on my expensive Lainey Keogh cardigan. Mostly I want to stand at her side in my mother’s kitchen and have her teach me to make her wonderful soda bread again. This time I would take real note as she throws the flour and bread soda into the bowl, measuring by eye alone, gradually adding in the soured milk then gently kneading the dough into a delicate round, gathering in every last crumb and leaving the red Formica tabletop spotless. I’m ready to learn from her now. I am ready to listen. I want my time back with her not as a girl in my twenties, my head full of new clothes and boyfriends but as a mature woman whose domestic situation reflects so much of her own.
When my mother refurbished the kitchen in her family home, she passed me on a number of Granny’s things. Her cookery books, the mixing bowl she had made her bread in for forty years, and crucially – the bone handled knife that she carried about in the pocket of her apron, always. The small, flat instrument with the rounded blade had started its life as a dinner knife, but, for some eccentric reason, Granny had sharpened the centre of it until the blade was concave. To this day it is extraordinarily effective in cutting everything from vegetables to bread. “Granny’s Knife” sits in my cutlery drawer and I use it everyday. My husband is mystified and slightly nervous of the thing and never touches it. With it’s ancient yellowed handle, and strange shaped blade it looks like a hybrid butter knife – but it still works, and using it is a way of keeping her with me.
Often, when I am chopping an onion, or peeling an apple she comes into my mind – stout and stern working at our kitchen table, then hearing something funny the radio, throwing her head back into a loud burst of laughter so suddenly you’d nearly jump out of your skin! Material possessions are not as important as people, but they often outlive them and for what they represent, for they way they remind you of a person, they are important. My grandmother’s knife had no significance for me until she died, but now I can remember her using it from when I was a child. My own children are unaware of these things now, but as they reach adulthood, the legacy of my grandmother’s generation will live on through them in the comfort of the home I have created. I let them know “this is my grandmother’s recipe” when I serve them up a traditional dinner.
They aren’t listening, they don’t care that I ate the same foods as a child but just as I by some mysterious process absorbed my grandmother’s ways I hope that my children will come to appreciate the history of their home lives. Despite their eye rolling, the meals I cooked and the knife that I used, which once belonged to their great-grandmother, will all log in their memories. Perhaps one day they will come to cherish the way history can enrich our everyday lives as I have.