Cooking By Heart
What she longed for was cookbooks. What she got was two boxes and a leg.
Catherine stared down at the scant pile of her aunt’s possessions, and for the first time since she’d learned of Lily’s death, she felt close to tears.
Lily had been fading gently for years. She shouldn’t be sad that she’d died, but… was this all?
`That’s all,’ the nurse said. `We’d be grateful if you’d take it now. There’s another lady needing the room.’
`I was overseas when Lily came in,’ Catherine managed. `I assumed she had things in storage.’
`This is it. I’ll help carry it to your car, shall I?'
So ten minutes later, Catherine Lucas, corporate lawyer, was standing in the car-park of the Birrarra Creek Nursing Home, figuring how to get two boxes and one leg into her sportscar.
What do you do with a leg when all you want is Lily - and her cookbooks?
A ute pulled in beside her, battered, mud-spattered, a dusty kelpie in the back. A guy climbed out. He was in his late thirties or early forties, maybe a little older than she was. Tall, rangy, weathered, everything about him said farmer.
He glanced at her - and then he looked at the leg.
`Is that Lily’s?’
They hadn’t even removed Lily’s shoe. Navy lace-up. Sensible. Missing its pair.
`I… yes.’ She couldn’t help herself. She sniffed.
Memories were flooding back, of all those school holidays when she’d been packed off from her too-busy parents. Lily’s kitchen. Lily stumping from stove to table, step, stump, step, stump… She’d lost her leg in her twenties when a tractor rolled, but she’d never let its loss slow her down.
`I’m Jack Maycomb,’ the guy said, and before she knew it her hand was being shaken with a strength that… well, shook her. `You must be Cathy.’
`C… Catherine.’ No one called her Cathy except Lily.
`Lily talked about you a lot. She looked forward to your visits.’
Catherine winced at that. Once a month had never seemed enough, but it was an hour’s flight from Melbourne and then two hours by road. It was time she could never afford.
Thankfully Jack was focusing on practicalities. `I know you’ve already made the arrangements,’ he told her. `But if you want to change your mind and have it at the RSL, Lily’s mates will bring food. The funeral-home food’s crap.’
`Thanks, but I don’t want to put anyone out.’
`Fair enough. You’re in town for the night?’
`Yeah.’ She’d wanted to do her normal fly in fly out, arriving just for tomorrow’s funeral, but the nursing home had insisted Lily’s stuff be moved today, and she’d thought there’d be organising to do. Packing stuff to send to Melbourne.
She looked down at the boxes and Jack did the same.
`That’s why I came,’ he said. `I heard Elsie Sandson’s been given Lily’s room. I thought I’d hold this stuff for you.’
She’d finally figured who this was. Lily had told her about him - the present owner of Five Gum Hill. She knew he’d visited Lily. He’d never been around when she was here, but she’d thought he’d been generous, visiting the old lady who’d once owned his farm.
`So what are you doing with her leg?’ he asked, and she saw a twinkle behind those sun-creased eyes. Yeah, okay, the leg did look weird.
`I guess it beats an urn on the mantle-piece.’
She smiled at that, thinking Lily would smile, too. No matter what the disaster, Lily found something to smile about.
`I was overseas when Lily had to leave the farm,’ she ventured. `She said she kept everything important. I’ve found photos and jewellery, but what I’d hoped for was her recipes. When I asked her, she always said she had them safe.’ She took a deep breath because this hurt. `Did she leave them at the farm… or did she throw them away?’
`I never saw any cookbooks.’
`She must have had dozens. She was always trying things out, swapping recipes - she cooked all the time. I remember scraps written on the back of shopping lists, envelopes, all sorts of stuff. Whenever anything was great, she’d say this goes straight to the files.’
`Her cooking was legend,’ he said. `So was she. She and her Ted.’
Legends. Catherine could only agree.
Catherine’s overworked, professional parents had divorced when she was eight. Lily and Ted were childless, elderly even when Catherine was small, and they’d welcomed her into their farm; into their lives. She’d stayed here every school holidays, and she’d loved them. Not enough to want to live here, though. She’d become a lawyer, but she’d kept visiting.
Lily had been in the nursing home for six years now, but every time Catherine asked, she’d been told the same. `They're safe.’
She should have pushed before this.
It shouldn’t matter.
`You’ll never get that in the boot,’ Jack said, motioning to the leg and to the open boot. Her cute, red, leather weekender took up half. One box would fit beside it, one in the passenger seat, but the leg…
She could open the top and balance it.
Drive with a leg poking out the top?
`How about I take it back to the farm until you’re sorted,’ he said, his voice surprisingly gentle. `Where are you staying?’
`Streuth.’ He grimaced. `You could always kip at my place.’
At his place. At the farm.
The farm…. A blast of longing hit her, so powerful, so sweet, it almost made her knees sag.
What was wrong with her? She’d expected Lily’s death. She’d come down to tie loose ends, say goodbye and then get back to the city. To her law. To twelve hour days, corporate needs and frenetic pace. To her high rise apartment and no time to cook…
What was she thinking? She was engaging in lifestyle analysis while this guy was looking at her with sympathy. She needed to move on - back to the life she’d chosen.
`Thank you but no. Will I see you at the funeral?’
`Yeah.’ He grabbed the leg and tucked it under one arm. `I’ve heard these things can be donated to land-mine victims. Lily’d like that, but it’s up to you. Meanwhile, a few local oldies have asked whether they can come out for a cup of tea in Lily’s kitchen after the do you’re putting on. I said sure. You’re welcome as well.’
`No wife.’ He shrugged. `Mags died the month before we took possession, so the kitchen’s pretty much as Lily left it. The old stove cooks a decent steak. There aren’t any cookbooks, though.’
`It’s me who’s sorry,’ he said gently. `Lily was one hell of a lady. The locals say her kitchen was the heart of the district. Come tomorrow and say goodbye.’ He placed the leg in the ute beside the dog. `Meanwhile, I’ll take care of all we have left of her.’
The funeral, in the country church Lily had attended all her life, was simple, meaningful and lovely - exactly what Lily would have wanted.
The `light luncheon’ after was appalling - party pies, sausage rolls that tasted like cardboard, stale sandwiches and tasteless cake.
It didn’t matter. She told herself that as she listened to old timers telling her how Ted and Lily could alway coax ten percent higher yield from their cropping, how their lambs always seemed to avoid fly strike, how good their dogs were…
How they’d danced their legs off before Lily lost hers. How they were district tennis champions.
How much they’d loved each other.
Jack had brought his dog to the service and the dog stayed by his side afterwards. She wondered why, until someone told her Bluey was Lily’s dog - Lily’s pup, taken over when Jack bought the farm.
`Jack’s taken him to see her every time he’s in town,’ an old lady told her. `If he didn’t have time to stop, he’d leave him with her, then fetch him on the way home. He’s a lovely man.’
He was, Catherine thought. He is.
He’d organised afternoon tea; the last part of the day. It meant she had to go back to the farm - which hurt.
She drove in the farm driveway, parked under the ancient gums and felt the place envelope her as it had as a child. Home.
Only it wasn’t home. She was thinking of Lily, of the kitchen, of laughter, of cooking… The past.
She headed automatically for the back door. `Front door’s for the Queen,’ Lily used to say.
Bluey came out to greet her, as dogs had always come out to greet her.
She stepped inside, and the smells…
They were Lily smells. Kitchen smells.
Recipe after recipe… She could pick them. Savoury scones. Lily’s famous beef pie. Chicken pie with leeks.
She swung open the kitchen door and people turned to greet her, clearing a way to the table as if saying, here, these are for you.
Sponge cakes, six inches high, loaded with cream and strawberries she knew had come straight from the dairy and the strawberry patch. Lamingtons. Gem scones. Vanilla slices. So much more…. Each dish was a memory. Each dish was something that occasionally on bleak city Sundays, she’d struggled to recreate, but the internet and her expensive oven had let her down.
People were beaming at her. To these people she was Lily’s niece. Lily’s family.
Beyond the table was the ancient Aga cookstove, and propped beside it was Lily’s leg. Jack had draped what looked like one of Lily’s pinnies over the top.
Pieces of paper were heaped on top of the pinny. Some were typed, some hand-written. Some were torn from magazines, one was written on the back of a cereal packet.
`We found your cookbooks,’ Jack said, and everyone was watching.
`We've always shared recipes,’ one of the ladies explained. `Every time Lily fancied something, we’d give her the recipe, and if it worked she’d say it goes straight to the files. Anything she loved, she’d cook and remember by heart. When Jack told us you were looking for them, we brought all the ones we could think of. You can type them out and start a proper file.’
Cathy gazed at her, and then at the pile of recipes. She looked at the leg and the pinny, at the dog by the door, and at the crowd of Lily’s friends clustered round, waiting for her to respond.
She looked at the food, made from recipes from a childhood she’d loved and walked away from.
She looked at the man who’d brought this together. Jack was watching her with a faint smile. A question.
`I… I need to cook them before I file them,’ she managed, and he motioned to the Aga, the gentle warmth, the centre of the kitchen.
`You’ll need the right equipment,’ he said. `But you’re welcome to come here. Any time, Catherine Lucas.’
And there was something about his words. Something about his smile.
She looked again at the pile of recipes. Where do you file such memories, such tastes, such skill?
But she knew. She glanced again at the food, the stove, the friends, and she knew.
She’d file them where Lily filed hers.
`I’d love to.' She smiled right back at this man she’d just met. The keeper of her aunt’s kitchen. The keeper of her aunt’s legacy. `I'll cook them until I have them all by heart,' she told him; she told them all. `And my name is Cathy.’