real life

'How 'grief baking' was my greatest comfort - and hardest task.'

Baking is something I’ve done sporadically throughout my life, starting when I was little in our (first) family kitchen. I’d watch my Mum stirring sweet, doughy mixtures with a wooden spoon. After a while, she let me do it too.

Sometimes, she’d also let me use the electric eggbeaters after careful instruction (“Mind your fingers!”), whizzing dough at the speed of sound in her  heavy ceramic bowls with ‘Made In England’ stamped on the undersides. She’d received most of them as wedding presents in 1964.

Author, Megan Spencer. 

But ‘baking’ – making sweet things like cakes, biscuits, slices, desserts, cupcakes and such – didn’t tattoo itself upon my soul until my husband and I opened a wee hole-in-the-wall café in 2011. Then it was on for young and old.

I was amazed at how the lessons I’d learned at three, four, five and six in that 1960s Laminex kitchen came flooding back.

I churned out slices, muffins and cupcakes like a machine; the zucchini loaf was a speciality and people would travel miles for a piece of my hedgehog.

It was inspired by a recipe from one of Mum’s old cookbooks, published by the ‘O-So-Lite’ flour company, complete with sprung spine and imperial measurements. Customers would sit silently – reverently – in the corner, holding an earthy, Spanish-style cup of coffee in one hand, and in the other, a giant piece of pistachio-nutted/dried-cranberry/gooey-butter-crème-icing/crazy-choc goodness.

Perhaps an altar of super sweet donuts? Image: @annaklotz720.

I was born into an era when most suburban backyards were still crowded with fruit trees and women and mothers made everything - from clothes, food and compost to jumpers, rugs, macramé wall hangings and crepe paper flowers.

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Every Wednesday I would come home from kinder, get changed, climb up onto the stool, lean on the sharp-cornered bench (“Mind out!” she’d cry again), and watch intently as Mum baked biscuits, an apple or rhubarb pie, or a cake. Then I’d go into the back garden and imitate her by making mud pies in the dirt.

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Later we moved further up the highway to another bayside suburb, the birthplace of my father and his before. Mum cooked and baked in the ‘new’ kitchen, which had been reno'd on arrival. Fruit cakes, birthday cakes, casseroles, ice cream, ‘spag bog’ (with raisins), Anzacs, ‘chow mein’, spiced date loaf, rissoles (also with raisins), fridge-set cheesecake with Maori biscuit base… it's an endless list, very of its time:1971 – 1984.

Eventually, as a teen, I finally had a ‘proper go’ at baking, my hand forced by high school home economics. I have no memory of anything good ever coming from those hot, boring Friday afternoons, spent brushing white flower from my sack of a uniform and being yelled at by Mrs Slaney. We turned out appalling baked goods: sago pudding, over-floury English scones. It was ‘How To Put Your Kid Off Cooking For Life: 101’.

What a scone is supposed to look like. Image: @restaurantfoodpictures.

But other baking teachers were all around me. My Coventry-born great-grandmother in her kitchen in then semi-rural Croydon in Melbourne’s outer suburbs; other mothers whose kitchens I visited over the years with mine. Baking/cooking was communion among these women.

(Here come the tears. I’m getting good at typing through them.)

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Baking for me too is a kind of a communion, but a very different, solitary pursuit by comparison. My husband calls it ‘Grief Baking’; it’s become a way of healing after my mother’s death.

Mum died about a year after we opened our café. We couldn’t shut the business of course, so I ended up ‘cooking through’ the periods of time around the tumult: in the days after her death, her funeral and in the arduous year afterwards until we decided to sell the business, a year and two months after she died.

I ended up ‘cooking through’ the grief. Image: iStock.

It was a surreal time. Everything changed. In the first few weeks I felt as if I had grown 10 feet tall, towering over myself while still being ‘in’ my body. Some say your brain ‘inflames’ when you experience grief; that it expands, gets bigger physically and changes from its regular shape. This is why perception distorts. This happened to me, I’m sure.

I soldiered on, as one does, only now I’m reliving my early baking memories as I’m baking. I look down (from the ceiling) to see not only my hands but my mother’s - our hands - at work. My hands were her hands, and hers mine; it was our shared DNA, layered over our shared experience, like being in dual bodies and parallel time zones at once. Sometimes it was more than I could bear; it was both comforting and incredibly upsetting, an axis of total recall and loss.

After we sold, a good 12 months passed before I could bake again. Now I bake for pleasure - something I realise I haven’t really done before.

Spurred on by our old fig tree dropping its fruit, plus the tiny strawberry patch we started at the beginning of this fierce summer, I’ve picked it up again. Like Mum, I can’t bear to see good fruit go to waste. I started eyeing off our cupboards now filled with her cookbooks, bowls, Tupperware and baking tools, well worn from use over many eras and yet somehow, miraculously, still intact.

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Now I bake for pleasure - something I realise I haven’t really done before. Image: iStock.

At home in my own kitchen now, I bake with Mum. We are together. I feel her and the 75 years she spent on this earth. Whispers of her float through me; I imagine Mum as a little girl being taught how to bake knowing full well that in her troubled, orphanage-like 1930s childhood, her lessons around the kitchen bench might not have been as enjoyable as mine.

I marvel at the pores of my/her hands, while I mix batches of dough in her baking bowls. I watch my/her hands, as I grease her baking tins with butter. I hear the same sound she/we did, when I tear baking paper roll along the teeth of the box – the one and the same sound that filled her ‘first home buyers’ 60s kitchen, alongside her desperate yearning for an idyllic family life.

And I marvel at the alchemy of it all as I know she did, every time she pulled a cake from the oven.

In life we couldn’t really share a kitchen together; we’d drive each other mad and often there was tension, such were the tricky parameters of our relationship.

So this is what we share now. Baking has become communion with my mother. It’s desperately sad, but also beautiful. And somehow it helps me to honour the life she gave me, and the one she was given.

I’m so grateful; beyond words, and soaked in tears of regret, humility and love.

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