Scones With My Nanna
Madeleine James (University Of Technology, Sydney, Australia)
On the Kookaburra plate, cream filled and patient, scones attend morning tea. A box of Roses chocolates sits on a doily.
‘I thought,’ Nanna gestures with a half eaten lamington, ‘you might want some Aussie food after all the…’ she grapples for a word and her cake hovers like a microphone. Chocolate residue is smeared on her tongue. Any minute now Nanna, any minute, just put the lamington inside your mouth, close your lips and start the process of swallowing.
She clears her throat and finds the word: ‘tacos.’
‘Did you make these yourself, Nanna?’
‘Oh dear no, it’s such a fiddle with the coconut. What with my hair appointment this morning, there was really only time for the pavlova. Now, where were we?’
I pass the next photo to her, holding the corners in my fingertips. Guatemalan children, five to a seat on a crowded chicken bus, look around with wide eyes and shy smiles. Above their heads, in the racks of the bus, Nanna’s thumbprint smears a cakey residue.
‘I made the scones yesterday,’ she tells them.
‘Guatemalan women carry their babies, like this,’ I tell her and hold out another photo. For Mayan women, there are no strollers, no prams, no bassinettes. Their babies are never further than the length of a breath. Tightly bound to their mother’s backs in brightly coloured shawls, they are squashed and squished through markets, buses and fields. Not once in Guatemala did I hear a baby cry. The moment I crossed the border into Mexico, children started tugging at their mother’s skirts, wailing to be carried and fed, wriggling and giggling and shouting.
‘I took this photo at the limestone pool I told you about, the one on the edge of a cliff.’
A man in tight speedos looks up at Nanna, inquisitive. His dark Mexican skin contrasts with the green of the rockpool.
I took a local bus to get up there, crammed in with sweating Mexicans who hollered at the bus driver whenever he slowed down. Even when we were on blind hairpin bends on the edges of cliffs: ‘Vamonos! Vamonos!’ And they stamped their feet and threw their chip packets out the window.
‘I think there’s an interesting correlation between patience and poverty,’ I begin but Nanna is leaving the table.
‘When you say you caught the bus,’ her voice calls from the kitchen, ‘how much would that have cost you then? I can get a train from here all the way to Sydney for only two dollars, you know.’
When Pa was dying, she came to stay in Sydney with us. Just for a few days, while Pa was getting treatment.
‘But of course, Vera,’ my mum commented to Nanna one night as they reminisced about Pa’s shop, ‘you were the brains of the partnership. Without you doing the books, it wouldn’t have been nearly as successful.’
‘Colin did everything for that business,’ Nanna bristled. ‘I won’t have you say another word about my husband.’
She doesn’t come to Sydney very often. She travelled more when she was younger, back in the band days. She played piano and her younger sister Vida played the saxophone. They called themselves ‘The Vera Mason Orchestra’. That was Nanna’s maiden name, Vera Mason. They played all over the Goulburn shire and once they even played at the jail, and ‘wasn’t that a story!’ Nanna had business cards made up with her name and a phone number for booking engagements. The cards have a scalloped edge and they’re stuck in her photo album at a jaunty angle. The Vera Mason Orchestra kept the people dancing right the way through the war. That’s how she met my Pa, playing piano at a dance. Then the war ended. Vida took her saxophone on a boat ride all the way to Europe. Nanna stayed and married my Pa. She still plays organ on Sundays for the local church.
‘This is the cathedral in Oaxaca, it was built by the Spanish in 1535.’ The stone, quarried for much of the city’s colonial buildings, is a shade of cool green.
‘And that’s where you were at Easter,’ Nanna reminds me. ‘Pete showed me the email about the parade.’
Her word choice turns the solemnity of the Oaxacan Easter procession into a mardi gras. It crowds an oompapa band to the edges of the photo and hangs rainbow banners just out of shot.
In reality, the only sound made by the procession was the scraping of homemade crucifix on flagstone. My camera lens was muggy with incense.
The men in my photo, cloaked and hooded, keep their eyes on the path to the cathedral. They don’t look up at the hushed crowds massed on the pavement; they ignore Nanna when she says they look just like the Ku Klux Klan.
‘Oh dear, you want to be careful of your bag in a crowd like that.’
As she takes photos from me, I notice that Nanna no longer wears her wedding ring. Her fingers are swollen; high blood pressure, I presume.
A month or two after Pa’s death Nanna had a garage sale. The furniture they acquired in the first two years of their marriage, and wore out over the next fortyseven, was sold. She bought a new lounge set and a new bed and the catalogue people threw in five matching towels for free. It all moved with her into her refurbished villa at the retirement village. Pa’s photo sits on top of the television he never watched and, for over half my life, he has smiled out to a room he never knew.
‘How much did you pay per night?’ Nanna asks, as I show her the photo of the hostel with its central courtyard and birdbath and hammocks.
She’s shocked I would be forced to share a dorm with guys and so I don’t tell her that I barely slept in that room at all. I spent most of the time in the room behind reception. I tell her about the Spanish lessons I took for a month at the school but while she fossicks in her telephone desk, I neglect to mention the classes I took in Roberto’s bed. The names and words and phrases I learnt in a slightly more interactive lesson. Chucha (n). Pene (n). Lamer (v). Joder (v). Communicating with a foreign tongue, on sweet afternoons, I learnt that our skin tones mixed to form dulce de leche. I didn’t ever get a photo of Roberto. Just his doorway behind reception. But could that be his leg stepping out of the shaded interior?
‘Here it is,’ she declares, and hands me the scrappy certificate from L’Escuela del Sol. ‘It was very crumpled so I ironed it for you.’
My handwriting is scrawled on the back:
‘Hola Mum and Dad, thought you might want to see what a bueno estudiante I have been. Hope you like the cushion covers. They’re from the market in San Cristobal. Besos, M.’
Nanna suggests I stick it in my photo album.
My dad looks too much like her to have been adopted, so I know she’s had sex at least once in her life. I want to ask if she has ever kissed anyone besides my Pa, why she only had one child, why she played the piano and not the saxophone. She knows what it feels like to fall in love and give birth.
She’s watched her husband die.
I wouldn’t want to upset her.
‘Now why would you go somewhere that makes you sick and miserable all the time?’ she demands, and I brush off the question. It comes with the territory. She wouldn’t want to hear about the ignominy of asking the pharmacist in my best gringita accent, ‘Quiero comprar…’ and pointing to my Lonely Planet phrase book for the Spanish equivalent of ‘morning-after pill’. I don’t tell her so she doesn’t ask about the feverish night in my hostel dorm and how I woke up the next day with tonsils like overstuffed tacos in my throat, nor how it felt when the wooziness and the fever opened the door to my old friend, the amoeba. How I lay in a hotel bed for four days with a wet towel on my forehead and pus on my tonsils. How I once fainted in the scramble for the toilet and my friend Rachel had to clean up my vomit and my shit.
‘Well I still don’t know why you wouldn’t go somewhere with normal food,’ Nanna says, and then interrupts a story about ancient Mayan ruins to ask if I wore sneakers or sandals.
Of course she’s not going to ask how it felt when I snorted my first line of coke in a toilet cubicle in Antigua. Nor how the cool stone of the Oaxacan cathedral supported me as Roberto pushed into my hips and whispered words in Spanish that I didn’t understand. But where are the other questions? The smells and tastes, the fears and dreams?
‘Entire Guatemalan villages were locked in their local church and burnt to death while I was in high school. Can you imagine that, Nanna?’
‘It beats me why you would go somewhere so dangerous,’ she answers. ‘Bet you were glad when you finally got to London.’
She wants neat portraits of contingencies, 6×4, glossy.
And so I don’t tell her about the bus that dropped me on the side of the highway at 3am. How my passport was shoved down my undies and how, as I lay curled around my backpack in the gravel, I dreamt of machetes. And because I don’t tell her this story, I can’t describe how I woke with a start as something brushed my cheek. How I jumped in a panic to find an elderly lady nestling beside me, rearranging her blanket over the two of us and speaking to me in a dialect I couldn’t understand. She held onto my eyes with such warmth that I barely needed her poncho. We lay side by side, on the edge of the road, quietly waiting for the dawn.
Gracias, Signora, gracias.
When I gather my things to leave, Nanna asks whether I’ve filled up the tank because once I get on the freeway, it is 64 kilometres to the next petrol station. And then we discuss the rising price of fuel for a few minutes and she says ‘if you put your foot down on her hard, she’ll love it on that freeway’ and I wonder why she’s using this oddly misogynistic language to describe my car.
We go through the usual checklist – did I get my bag, have I gone to the loo, did I need a bottle of water? They’re not the questions I want, but they’re the ones she keeps giving me.
‘See you again then, bring the rest of your photos next time,’ she says, as we walk to the car.
‘Or maybe, Nanna, we could look at your album instead?’
‘The Orchestra one? Oh no, you’ve been much more exciting places. Why would you want to look at those old things again?’
It’s partly true. I don’t want to watch her puffy fingers turn the pages of an album I already know. What I would like though, is for her to slip with me around the photo corners.
As I lean in to hug her, she remembers the scones. Thrusting the plate into my hands, she repeats, ‘It’s great of you to come all this way.’ This plate of cream and cake is more eloquent than any of the words we share. It is her direct hit to my heart, threads of a blanket she’s been knitting over me since I was born.
Next visit, I’ll ask her to play the old tunes on the piano. Perhaps she’ll take my ringless fingers in her own and, on the carpet she bought as a widow, we’ll dance the steps of her youth. Perhaps we will find questions that can only be asked in a realm beyond language, questions that will bring us, grandmother and granddaughter, woman and woman, together.
I wave out the window and drive home with my grandmother’s scones on the seat by my side.
On good days, Madeleine can be found selling books. On better days, she tucks herself in a sunny spot and reads them. She is currently studying postgraduate writing at UTS.