And then we came home again, after a summer that included our usual trips to Spain and the UK, via the two month mark of the three month Italian school holidays when we all started to feel like it was time to go back to school. Yet the holidays continued, and the UK was a round of the Great British seaside and visits old friends, a recall of memory, of tastes mixed with smell and images that roll by like some home video that was never made and appears in snapshots in mostly forgotten boxes.
We used to go to the North Sea coast when I was a girl. Staithes and Whitby, Runswick Bay, and the beach at Sandsend where the sands never seemed to end. Sand in your sandwiches, sand in your hair. The crisp sandwiches that I barely remember when I was young, although I know they were there. I have a thing about crisp sandwiches now. Crisp sandwiches in the UK, crisp sandwiches on the beach on Spain because we wouldn’t be on the beach without crisp sandwiches. And the wind and the windbreaks. I’d forgotten about the windbreaks until this summer. That part definitely happened, never being on the beach without windbreaks.
When I was a girl we’d stay in a cottage on the cliff in Cowbar near Staithes, walk down the hill and over the bridge and there was the shop selling the candy floss at the end. There was always the candy floss at the end, and a café selling crab sandwiches that I’ve never really liked. We went to Scarborough this year and after eating fish and ships on the front and watching the boats, my husband said to me: “Why didn’t you tell me they had crab sandwiches?” Because I never thought. Crab sandwiches were never a part of it for me. And now it’s always fish and chips in newspaper or more usually those plastic trays.
We ate fish and chips out of newspaper one summer, the summer my mother died. The boys were only little and they thought it was wonderful, this sitting and having a picnic of fish and chips in the garden. Or rather sitting and eating fish and chips out of newspaper on the step. And in a different garden, as by this time she’d become so ill. She was riddled with cancer and we were riddled with stomach bugs so had to stay away.
This summer we were in my mother’s garden once more. This summer I was in my mother’s kitchen once more, knowing that this summer could well be the last time. And grief poured out. You think that it will somehow stop or heal. That’s when it tricks you, sneaks up on you, behind you, throws itself in your face. It’s the cruelty of grief, the cruelty of illness, of loss and ultimately our own mortality.
And then we were home again, and it was September.
Every year it comes around, and every year I can feel that usual tug between feeling so grateful that we’re all back to our own lives, and nostalgia at the realisation that these times will never come back again.
So yesterday we made a cake, because some days are just for making cakes. I was reminded of Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” of how after losing her husband she talks of learning “to find meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life.” The cooking and “all those souffles, all that crème caramel, all those daubes and albondigas and gumbos. These fragments I have stored against my ruins… These fragments mattered to me. I believed in them.”
And so yesterday we made a cake, and food and memory all rolled into one and we sat on our sofa and ate that cake.