For the first time in ages, I had pea and ham soup last week. It was ‘soup of the day’ at the pub we frequented for dinner one evening while we were away on our knitting adventures in Bendigo – and it was certainly the weather for it.  Soup is my comfort food in winter – it’s hot and filling and comfortable and easy. Pea soup in particular brings back happy memories of my childhood, of our family sitting around the kitchen table chatting, squabbling and vying to be the first for seconds. Not that my Mum actually made pea and ham soup, mind you, but she did make split pea soup. Instead of a ham hock, she used some beef shin – which essentially performed the same task. It’s not so much about the meat as about the taste, the beefy (or smoky ham) flavour that permeates the soup and enriches it. Delicious!

Having enjoyed the pub-version immensely, I set about trying to recreate it – and a little slice of childhood – this week. I found a ham hock in the freezer (score!) and a packet of split peas with recipe on the back in the pantry (everyone has a packet of split peas in the pantry, right?). Next I hunted down the biggest pot I own, selected some appropriate veggies (from the over enthusiastic market purchases made on Saturday) and then set about making my first ever attempt at the iconic dish that is pea and ham soup.

Munching my way through cheesy toast and what I think was a fairly reasonable rendition of the dish that evening conjured up thoughts of other meals from my childhood. I found I could only remember happy, tasty things – other than the rare visitation of the dreaded liver-and-onions and the all-to-frequent boiled cabbage. The former was an occasional request from my father (and enjoyed by no-one but him) and the latter I must assume was simply always in season – it certainly felt that way! However, overall, my conclusion is that I either didn’t bother to remember the things I didn’t enjoy or that my Mum was a canny housekeeper and knew her family’s preferences all too well 🙂

Either way, it feels as though my childhood was filled with mealtimes sitting around the kitchen table enjoying plates of oxtail stew, split pea soup, shepherds pie, macaroni cheese, roast chicken (on Sundays), jam roly-poly with custard (a particular favourite), pineapple upside-down cake, flapjacks and eggy-bread. This last was our version of French toast, which was bread lightly smeared with bovril, dipped in egg, then briskly fried in a little butter – and never (ever!) served with syrup, cinnamon or sugar – a taste preference I still cling to, I may add.

Most of these dishes are winter foods, things that fill hungry children and are relatively inexpensive to prepare, which confirms my belief that Mum was a canny housekeeper. I actually have no idea what we ate in summer – the only things that come to mind is watermelon and tomatoes, but I’m pretty sure there was more to it than that!

Whilst I’ve an idea that Mum used to make her version of split pea soup in the pressure cooker (and I may give that a go next time to speed up the process a little), it gave me enormous satisfaction to recreate this much-love childhood staple in my giant stock pot and to share it and my ramblings about childhood food with my family. Best of all, there was some of the soup left over for lunch for today 🙂

tastes of childhood

Having watched The Jungle Book (again) this week, I now have an ear worm buzzing around in my brain.  With the strains of That’s what friends are for on internal auto-repeat, it’s not very surprising that I’ve been thinking about friendship – what it means, how we define it, how we live it.

So what ARE friends for?

I did a whole research project on this topic about a decade ago. It was (rather boldly, I now realise) titled Towards an understanding of the role of friendship in contemporary Western society. In about 20,000 words I examined comparative notions of friendship, from Aristotle forward. What I found, in essence, was that friends are broadly seen as being bound together by a combination of altruism, kindness and high levels of trust and support. After speaking to various people on the topic over the last couple of days, I would add that these relationships are based on trust, honesty, reciprocity and mutual understanding – usually between equals. Indeed, many people consider friendship to be the most meaningful of relationships.

Broadly speaking, it seems to me that choice, equality and mutual trust appear to have remained the foundation stones that encapsulate our notions of friendship as a whole. However, ideals such as these need to factor in the rapidly changing nature of our public and private interactions – and the constraints that these impose on us. Clinging to them if they don’t is, quite simply, setting ourselves and our relationships up for failure.

Friendship is complex and many-faceted. It doesn’t operate in isolation and there isn’t a set of formal rules that can outline how individual interactions can or should evolve, who one can be friends with or why.  This is simply because having such rules would limit the nature of what is an essentially fluid relationship. Perhaps the most, and the least, that can be said is that friendship is. It is part of our greater and ever changing social milieu, it is a source of support and comfort to individuals, and it is the one area where people feel that they should be able to be comfortable and relax with their peers.

These are relationships that clearly continue to be seen as providing levels of interaction not available from or in any other kind of relationship. A true friend is still seen as a treasure – something both to aspire to be and to have. With this in mind, perhaps it’s worth considering the words that Buzzie, Flaps, Ziggy and Dizzy (the vultures) sing to Mowgli and to come to our own understanding of what we think friends are for.

That’s What Friends are for.
From “The Jungle Book” Composed by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman.

We’re your friends…
We’re your friends…
We’re your friends to the bitter end

When you’re alone…Who comes around
To pluck you up… When you are down
And when you’re outside, looking in… Who’s there to open the door?
That’s what friends are for!

Who’s always eager to extend… A friendly claw?
That’s what friends are for!

And when you’re lost in dire need… Who’s at your side at lightning speed?
We’re friends with every creature… Comin’ down the pike
In fact, we’ve never met an animal.. We didn’t like, didn’t like
That’s what friends are for!

So you can see… We’re friends in need
And friends in need…Are friends indeed
We’ll keep you safe… In the jungle for ever more
That’s what friends are for!

I was at an outdoor event recently, a lovely afternoon concert in the park. Just in front of where we were sitting was a group that included two young girls, of perhaps four and six years of age. They’d been dressed in identical flimsy, embroidered, Chinese-style tunics and their mother went to great lengths to pose the girls together, arm in arm, smiling, for snap after snap. It made me wonder whether, in years to come, those girls will remember how much they disliked the posing and how they tried to escape, without success, from their mother’s determination to record the happy events. I wondered if any of the pictures where one or both were pulling faces and squirming with irritation and a need to be somewhere else would survive the culling process. I wondered how many times I’d done that to my children, unthinking.

This  in turn led me to reflect on whether our family album contained only ‘happy snaps’, or if it provides a range of different moods and expressions, situations and contexts that more accurately reflects our lives. These thoughts sent me scurrying off to find a picture that I’ve always thought portrays something of who I was in my early twenties. The girl in the photo is the person I’ve tended not to show, because she doesn’t fit the persona that the people around me are familiar with. But she’s as real now as she was then.

The photograph was taken at my father’s wedding reception, which took place in the family home less than a year after my mum had died. I was angry and lost and bereft, but had tried my best throughout to behave in a manner appropriate to the proceedings and to make June feel welcome in our family. The inevitable flurry of photographs had been endured, with various people snapping away indiscriminately all afternoon until my face ached from smiling and my heart from trying to behave in a civil manner. The cameras kept pointing my way, at the allegedly happy daughter of the beaming groom. Eventually one of my brothers took the brunt of my displeasure, his camera the last straw. I broke ranks, bared my teeth and growled at him (apparently quite ferociously), after which I was let off the hook and felt a lot better.

When the prints were collected, there I was – growl and all. I kept the photo, even though it’s not pretty, because it portrayed my feelings far more clearly than words can describe and more truly than any other photos taken on the day. Looking at it again today made me think about the kinds of images that tend to be included in family albums. By and large they appear to be the sort that allow people to re-imagine their lives as full of smiles and sunshine, no clouds, no sulks, no bared teeth.


What makes us weed out the sad and bad pictures and keep only the happy smiley ones? Is it social pressure that leads us to believe that our life must be seen and remembered in this way? Do we ever come to a time and place when we can say – ‘hey, hello, there’s more to me, more to my life’?

I recognised that girl when I looked at the photo today. I see her every day when I brush my hair. We’ve come to an accommodation over the years – l don’t hide her away so much and she hardly ever growls anymore. I’m rather glad I didn’t edit her out of my life.

When you were a kid, did you ever wish for something? I mean really, really wish for something – wanting it so badly that your teeth hurt, that you thought about it all the time, that it felt like nothing else mattered? I’d guess most kids do and that the things they long for are as varied as the day is long.

What I really wanted was a bicycle. I had a push scooter, which had served me well, but I was eight years old and felt it was time for a proper bike. I longed for one like my older brothers had, one that was all mine. It turned out that Santa (aka my Mum) was paying close attention, because that Christmas there was a bike under the tree and it had my name on it. It was exactly – exactly – as I’d imagined it. It was shiny and new and black and said Raleigh on the side. It had back pedal brakes and a soft saddle and, most importantly, there were no trainer wheels anywhere in sight. I doubt that any Christmas before or after brought with it such a rush of joy, of fulfilled expectation and delight.

As a parent I duly became Santa’s minion and kept my ears pealed, wanting to be able to create for my children that same sense of wonder and joy. I wanted to be perceptive enough to understand what they really wanted, the things that were core desires rather than whimsical interests in the popular toy of the moment. In many instances I was successful, but in one there was an epic fail.

By the time my daughter was almost six years old she had clearly articulated her firm desire to have a cat of her own. Specifically, she asked if she could get a kitten for her sixth birthday. After giving the logistics of this some thought – we already had three dogs, two guinea pigs and a male parental unit with a cat allergy – I came to the conclusion that it simply wasn’t practical. To soften the blow I suggested that we waited until she was ten, by which stage she would be old enough to feed and look after the cat herself and it wouldn’t just become yet another pet for me to maintain. This sounded reasonable to her and we agreed to do that.

What I didn’t take into account was her tenacity or her patience – she never forgot. As every year passed she’d remind me that she was now one year closer to being ten – and thus one year closer to getting her kitten. She didn’t nag or whine or fuss, just reminded me – in case I’d forgotten…

What none of us took into account was that we would end up relocating from Johannesburg to Perth or that Australia has (and had) one of the strictest set of quarantine regulations in the world. To import a dog or cat into Australia at the time was not only eye wateringly expensive, it also involved lengthy quarantine periods, both pre-export in South Africa and after arrival in Australia. This meant no kitten after all, since it would have to be rehomed when we emigrated – and that, I was told, was definitely not an option.
In the end it took a total of 27 years for the kitten dream to be realised – and it’s been a bittersweet joy to watch my no-longer six year old with her kittens, knowing that she’s missed out on so many years of pleasure, so many years of purring. I continue to marvel at her capacity as a child to understand and accept my inability to live up to that one promise, so glibly made and so tenaciously remembered.

Does delayed gratification enhance the pleasure one takes in the rewards later? It turns out that the capacity to delay gratification is widely considered to result in more successful outcomes in one’s personal and professional life, in health and in finances. It develops willpower – or what my Mum would’ve called strength of character. This does make me wonder what might have happened if I’d had to wait that many years for my bike…

The harsh reality of having a pet in one’s life is that they will almost certainly die before you do. I am told that dogs – my preferred household pet – sometimes live up to 19 or 20 years and can be hale and hearty for most of their lifespan. My experience, however, has been that 10 years is the best that one can realistically hope for. This indicates a clear need for acceptance and understanding of this outcome from the start in order to minimise emotional upsets further down the track.

Advice of that sort sounds sensible and is easy enough to give, although implementation can be a tad more problematic. What seems to happen in my case is that pets come into my life, become part of my family and that I give little thought to their possible or probable demise. I/we feed them, walk them, take them with us to the beach and on holidays, make sure they have regular checkups at the vet and that they get their inoculations on time. In short, we simply live our lives and enjoy the companionship they provide.

In due course, however, some or other event catches up with us and brings home the stark reality of their relatively short lifespan. In every case this has left me saddened and – in some cases – quite bereft. Looking back across my life, I remember each of my furry buddies – and the gap they left when they died. Time eases the ache and new furry friends come into our lives, but I’ve found that it’s impossible to simply replace a friend with another friend.
Most recently Nuschka came to us. She was two years old, seemed fit and healthy and was in need of a secure home. We all thought she’d be with us for a long time to come and incorporated her into the family post haste.  In the yearn that followed we had a lot of fun together, but there was also a good deal of dog stress – low levels at first, but mounting over time to quite significant proportions. After months of her suffering chronic diarrhoea, numerous vet visits and all manner of investigations, we agreed to a procedure called a fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) for her in mid-December. Essentially this involved surgical intervention to empty her intestine and bowel and to then repopulate them with healthy bacteria. At the same time biopsies of her gut and intestine could be done in order to eliminate cancers as a possible reason for her ill health and to establish whether there were any other issues.

We brought her home after her surgery and, although she was clearly happy to be at home and pleased to see us, after a week she had lost weight, was vomiting and dehydrated. Despite  calming words from the vet, we rushed her back to the surgery at 3am on Christmas Eve. The week that followed was spent waiting. We waited to hear from the vet each day – and each day brought no new plan, no improvement and no clear idea of any resolution. The biopsies had shown that she had both inflammatory bowel disease, as suspected, as well as lymphangiectasia – a chronic and pathologic dilation of the lymph vessels.

We finally ran out of options just before New Year.  The surgery was very busy when I got there to see her and we ended up sitting together in a back room, my Nuschka and I, until our turn came. She was so happy to see me, her great plume of a tail swishing back and forth as she sniffed me and licked my hands and face. We sat there for four hours, cuddled up on the floor, my hand compulsively stroking her as I talked to her. I think I even dozed off with her at one point.

In due course the vet came back to give the lethal injection via Nuschka’s intravenous drip, after which we just sat with her as her life slowly ebbed away – and then for a while longer, chatting quietly about dogs and loss and life. This was the final thing I could do for my girl – to be there and take responsibility for my decision to end her life. Even though the decision was certainly in her best interests, I could not leave the implementation completely in the hands of others. She was my responsibility, not theirs.

It’s hard to sit by and watch a beloved family member fade away – but it is much harder to watch them suffer, particularly when there is an alternative. By the time I got home I thought I was all cried out – but I was wrong, apparently. Dear Nuschk – what a damn shame it ended up this way.