Journey to my mother

Last week I hit a new lockdown low. Or was it? I made dog biscuits. That’s right. Dog. Biscuits. And I don’t have a dog, says Jo Knowsley.

Finding things to do during the third lockdown has proven difficult…

First I forensically cleaned the house; next I cooked up a storm. Then I took on ‘creative’ projects: painting and gilding furniture (it worked, sort of); redecorating a bedroom and even reconditioning my old wooden chopping board.

There’s clearly a pattern here. And I’m not alone. Recent studies showed the sales of DIY handcrafts such as knitting and crochet – together with jigsaw puzzles and piano lessons – have gone through the roof during Covid lockdown as we seek to elude the boredom that sometimes seems as deadly as the virus.

But last week I hit a new lockdown low. Or was it? I made dog biscuits. That’s right. Dog. Biscuits. And I don’t have a dog; though I’m best friends with a pooch I walk almost every day. (And yes, she loved them. Not high praise though when you consider the animal greedily snaffles stale bread left for the ducks in the park).

What drove me to it? Well this is where it gets more interesting: I found the recipe in my late mother’s ancient Aunt Daisy Favourite Cookery Book, first printed in 1952 in New Zealand where my mother was a very modern housewife.

And since I retrieved it from a cabinet tucked away out of sight – when, I had reasoned would I ever bake, let alone this old stuff! – it has taken me on a very unexpected journey; back to less complicated, if, for women, more suffocating times, and a route into the life of a young married woman over 50 years ago.

First, I made shortbread, one of my mother’s favourites. Last night I attempted pavlova, one of her fabulous signature dishes. No-one made pavs like my mum. Well, not until last night.

But as I struggled to separate the egg whites from the yolk I was unexpectedly overwhelmed with unbidden childhood memories: my mother marching pertly ahead, like an impeccably dressed and coiffed sparrow, towards the front door of an aunty’s home; laden with Tupperware containers full of whipped cream and tinned fruit, while my father ambled gently behind, carefully purveying the pavlova itself. ‘Do be careful Jack’ I can still hear her saying in a cautionary aside flung towards him over her shoulder. 

It’s maybe important to note that I didn’t particularly like my mother, though I loved and respected her hugely. She was warm, kind, clever and incredibly generous (and this included her baking). But her love never seemed to leak inwards towards me. 

As I have baked her favourite recipes, however, something peculiar has happened, as if I am somehow inhabiting and for the first time understanding the person she may have been when she made them. There are some key differences: my mother always wore elegant clothes, good shoes and had immaculate hair and makeup – even indoors. My jeans and trainers, bare face and sometimes uncombed hair would have been anathema to her. (‘If you marry, always make sure you freshen up and change your clothes, before your husband comes home’ was one of her many pieces of advice). As I went on to enjoy a career where I was always the breadwinner and never had children to keep me at home, this had always seemed laughably redundant.

The 50s housewives’ mentor, Aunt Daisy, though, would have indubitably sided with my mother. A British-born housewife, she became a star radio presenter in NZ after she emigrated there with her husband. She began to work only after her husband was made redundant.  Despite the fact she became so famous she later toured America with her lectures and recipes she had also encountered that specially-crafted-for-women Glass Ceiling; being fired from one radio station because it was allowed only one woman on staff as most of the jobs had to be reserved for men. 

Reading about her, while I made her recipes gave me insights into the limitations facing women at a time I thought I had known, as a child, but which I never really, thankfully, had to deeply understand. (A page on the back of her book, helpfully converts llbs and oz’s to ‘cups’ and is headed: For the Inexperienced House Wife Weights and Measures).

There was a clue to this world in my final year at school when the career options I was offered were ‘nurse or teacher.’ University was becoming an option then, though my mother had disparaged other mothers who had her at an educational disadvantage. When I talked about all the books on the shelves of a school-friend’s living room, when I was a child, and commented in awe that her mother was a doctor my mother acidly replied: ‘yes but I’ve been in her house. And she’s certainly no housekeeper.’

Quite how I became such a feminist firebrand growing up in this conservative home has always mystified me. But perhaps it was the confidence imbued by a mother who never let life, or any person, defeat her. You could be anything you wanted, she insisted, though her relationship with me, as I went on to prove this, remained deeply conflicted.

It’s a source of lingering regret that we never properly understood each other of the very different worlds we inhabited. And that’s why I cried a little as I made her pavlova.

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Jo Knowsley

Jo has held senior staff writing roles on some of Britain’s leading newspapers including the Sunday Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday, and is now a freelance writer. She has reported on major breaking stories around the world and has written for magazines and newspapers in Britain, Australia and New Zealand in publications as diverse as Marie Claire, the Daily Mail, Metro, Saga and Grazia. In the past she focused primarily on news-lead reports and interviews. Today she writes across a number of platforms on subjects ranging from property and travel to theatre and features. She grew up in New Zealand and has made her home and career in London since 1990.

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