There have been a number of Australian memoirs written by adoptees over the last twenty years—Robert Dessaix’s A Mother’s Disgrace, Suzanne Chick’s Searching for Charmian, Tom Frame’s Binding Ties:An Experience of Adoption and Reunion in Australia, for example—as well as international adoptee narratives by Betty Jean Lifton, Florence Fisher, and A. M. Homes amongst others. These works form a component of the small but growing field of adoption life writing that includes works by “all members of the adoption triad” (Hipchen and Deans 163): adoptive parents, birthparents, and adoptees. As the broad genre of memoir becomes more theorised and mapped, many sub-genres are emerging (Brien). My own adoptee story (which I am currently composing) could be a further sub-categorisation of the adoptee memoir, that of “late discovery adoptees” (Perl and Markham), those who are either told, or find out, about their adoption in adulthood. When this is part of a life story, secrets and silences are prominent, and digging into these requires using whatever resources can be found. These include cookbooks, recipes written by hand, and the scraps of paper shoved between pages.
There are two cookbooks from my adoptive mother’s belongings that I have kept. One of them is titled Miss Tuxford’s Modern Cookery for the Middle Classes: Hints on Modern Gas Stove Cooking, and this was published around 1937 in England. It’s difficult to date this book exactly, as there is no date in my copy, but one of the advertisements (for Bird’s Custard, I think; the page is partly obscured by an Orange Nut Loaf recipe from a Willow baking pan that has been glued onto the page) is headed with a date range of 1837 to 1937. It has that smell of long ago that lingers strongly even now, out of the protective custody of my mother’s storage. Or should I say, out of the range of my adoptive father’s garbage dump zeal. He loved throwing things away, but these were often things that I saw as valuable, or at least of sentimental value, worth keeping for the memories they evoked. Maybe my father didn’t want to remember. My mother was brimming with memories, I discovered after her death, but she did not reveal them during her life. At least, not to me, making objects like these cookbooks precious in my reconstruction of the lives I know so little about, as well as in the grieving process (Gibson).
Miss Tuxford (“Diplomée Board of Education, Gold Medallist, etc”) produced numerous editions of her book. My mother’s is now fragile, loose at the spine and browned with age. There are occasional stains showing that the bread and cakes section got the most use, with the pages for main meals of meat and vegetables relatively clean. The author divided her recipes into the main chapters of Soups (lentil, kidney, sheep’s head broth), Sauces (white, espagnol, mushroom), Fish (“It is important that all fish is fresh when cooked” (23)), Meats (roasted, boiled, stuffed; roast rabbit, boiled turkey, scotch collop), Vegetables (creamed beetroot, economical salad dressing, potatoes baked in their skins), Puddings and Sweets (suet pastry, Yorkshire pudding, chocolate tarts, ginger cream), Bread and Cakes (household bread, raspberry sandwich cake, sultana scones, peanut fancies), Icings and Fillings, Invalid Cookery (beef tea, nourishing lemonade, Virol pudding), Jams, Sweetmeats and Pickles (red currant jelly, piccalilli) and Miscellaneous Dishes including Meatless Recipes (cheese omelette, mock white fish, mock duck, mock goose, vegetarian mincemeat).
At the back, Miss Tuxford includes sections on gas cooking hints, “specimen household dinners” (206), and household hints. There is then a “Table of Foods in Season” (208–10) taking the reader through the months and the various meats and vegetables available at those times. There is a useful index and finally an advertisement for an oven cleaner on the last page (which is glued to the back cover). There are food and cookery advertisements throughout the book, but my favourite is the one inside the front cover, for Hartley’s jam, featuring two photographs of a little boy.
The first shows him looking serious, and slightly anxious, the second wide-eyed and smiling, eager for his jam. The text tells mothers that “there’s nothing like plenty of bread and Hartley’s for a growing boy” (inside front cover). I love the simple appeal to making your little boy happy that is contained within this tiny narrative. Did my mother and father eat this jam when they were small? By 1937, my mother was twenty-one, not yet married, living with her mother in Weston-super-Mare. She was learning secretarial skills—I have her certificate of proficiency in Pitman’s shorthand—and I think she and my father had met by then. Perhaps she thought about when she would be giving her own children Hartley’s jam, or something else prepared from Miss Tuxford’s recipes, like the Christmas puddings, shortbread, or chocolate cake. She would not have imagined that no children would arrive, that twenty-five years of marriage would pass before she held her own baby, and this would be one who was born to another woman.
In the one other cookbook I have kept, there are several recipes cut out from newspapers, and a few typed or handwritten recipes hidden within the pages. This is The Main Cookery Book, in its August 1944 reprint, which was written and compiled by Marguerite K. Gompertz and the “Staff of the Main Research Kitchen”. My mother wrote her name and the date she obtained the cookbook (31 January 1945) on the first blank page. She had been married just over five years, and my father may, or may not, have still been in the Royal Air Force.
I have only a sketchy knowledge of my adoptive parents. My mother was born in Newent, Gloucestershire, and my father in Bromley, Kent; they were both born during the first world war. My father served as a navigator in the Royal Air Force in the second world war in the 1940s, received head and psychological injuries and was invalided out before the war ended. He spent some time in rehabilitation, there being letters from him to my mother detailing his stay in one hospital in the 1950s. Their life seemed to become less and less secure as the years passed, more chaotic, restless, and unsettled. By the time I came into their lives, they were both nearly fifty, and moving from place to place.
Perhaps this is one reason why I have no memory of my mother cooking. I cannot picture her consulting these cookbooks, or anything more modern, or even cutting out the recipes from newspapers and magazines, because I do not remember seeing her do it. She did not talk to me about cooking, we didn’t cook together, and I do not remember her teaching me anything about food or its preparation. This is a gap in my memory that is puzzling. There is evidence—the books and additional paper recipes and stains on the pages—that my mother was involved in the world of the kitchen. This suggests she handled meats, vegetables, and flours, kneaded, chopped, mashed, baked, and boiled all manners of foods. But I cannot remember her doing any of it.
I think the cooking must have been a part of her life before me, when she lived in England, her home country, which she loved, and when she still had hope that children would come. It must have then been apparent that her husband was going to need support and care after the war, and I can imagine she came to realise that any dreams she had would need rearranging.
What I do remember is that our meals were prepared by my father, and contained no spices, onions, or garlic because he suffered frequently from indigestion and said these ingredients made it worse. He was a big-chested man with small hips who worried he was too heavy and so put himself on diets every other week. For my father, dieting meant not eating anything, which tended to lead to binges on chocolate or cheese or whatever he could grab easily from the fridge.
Meals at night followed a pattern. On Sundays we ate roast chicken with vegetables as a treat, then finished it over the next days as a cold accompaniment with salad. Other meals would feature fish fingers, mince, ham, or a cold luncheon meat with either salad or boiled vegetables. Sometimes we would have a tin of peaches in juice or ice cream, or both. No cookbooks were consulted to prepare these meals.
What was my mother doing while my father cooked? She must have been in the kitchen too, probably contributing, but I don’t see her there. By the time we came back to Australia permanently in 1974, my father’s working life had come to an end, and he took over the household cookery for something to do, as well as sewing his own clothes, and repairing his own car. He once hoisted the engine out of a Morris Minor with the help of a young mechanic, a rope, and the branch of a poinciana tree. I have three rugs that he wove before I was born, and he made furniture as well. My mother also sewed, and made my school uniforms and other clothes as well as her own skirts and blouses, jackets and pants. Unfortunately, she was fond of crimplene, which came in bright primary colours and smelled of petrol, but didn’t require ironing and dried quickly on the washing line. It didn’t exactly hang on your body, but rather took it over, imposing itself with its shapelessness.
The handwritten recipe for salad cream shown on the pink paper is not in my mother’s hand but my father’s. Her correction can be seen to the word “gelatine” at the bottom; she has replaced it with “c’flour” which I assume means cornflour. This recipe actually makes me a liar, because it shows my father writing about using pepper, paprika, and tumeric to make a food item, when I have already said he used no spices. When I knew him, and ate his food, he didn’t. But he had another life for forty-seven years before my birth, and these recipes with their stains and scribbles help me to begin making a picture of both his life, and my mother’s. So much of them is a complete mystery to me, but these scraps of belongings help me inch along in my thinking about them, who they were, and what they meant to me (Turkle).
The Main Cookery Book has a similar structure to Miss Tuxford’s, with some variations, like the chapter titled Réchauffés, which deals with dishes using already cooked foodstuffs that only then require reheating, and a chapter on home-made wines. There are also notes at the end of the book on topics such as gas ovens and methods of cooking (boiling, steaming, simmering, and so on). What really interests me about this book are the clippings inserted by my mother, although the printed pages themselves seem relatively clean and uncooked upon. There is a recipe for pickles and chutneys torn from a newspaper, and when I look on the other side I find a context: a note about Charlie Chaplin and the House of Representatives’s Un-American Activities Committee starting its investigations into the influence of Communists on Hollywood.
I wonder if my parents talked about these events, or if they went to see Charlie Chaplin’s films. My mother’s diaries from the 1940s include her references to movies—Shirley Temple in Kiss and Tell, Bing Crosby in Road to Utopia—as well as day to day activities and visits to, and from, family and friends, her sinus infections and colds, getting “shock[ed] from paraffin lamp”, food rationing. If my father kept diaries during his earlier years, nothing of them survives. I remember his determined shredding of documents after my mother’s death, and his fear of discovery, that his life’s secrets would be revealed. He did not tell me I had been adopted until I was twenty-three, and rarely spoke of it afterwards. My mother never mentioned it.
I look at the recipe for lemon curd. Did my mother ever make this? Did she use margarine instead of butter? We used margarine on sandwiches, as butter was too hard to spread. Once again, I turn over this clipping to read the news, and find no date but an announcement of an exhibition of work by Marc Chagall at the Tate Gallery, the funeral of Sir Geoffrey Fison (who I discover from The Peerage website died in 1948, unmarried, a Baronet and decorated soldier), and a memorial service for Dr. Duncan Campbell Scott, the Canadian poet and prose writer, during which the Poet Laureate of the time, John Masefield, gave the address. And there was also a note about the latest wills, including that of a reverend who left an estate valued at over £50 000.
My maternal adoptive grandmother, who lived in Weston-super-Mare across the road from the beach, and with whom we stayed for several months in 1974, left most of her worldly belongings to my mother and nothing to her son. He seems to have been cut out from her life after she separated from her husband, and her children’s father, sometime in the 1920s. Apparently, my uncle followed his father out to Australia, and his mother never forgave him, refusing to have anything more to do with her son for the rest of her life, not even to see her grandchildren.
When I knew her in that brief period in 1974, she was already approaching eighty and showing signs of dementia. But I do remember dancing the Charleston with her in the kitchen, and her helping me bathe my ragdoll Pollyanna in a tub in the garden. The only food I remember at her stone house was afternoon tea with lots of different, exotic cakes, particularly one called Neopolitan, with swirls of red and brown through the moist sponge. My grandmother had a long narrow garden filled with flowers and a greenhouse with tomatoes; she loved that garden, and spent a lot of time nurturing it.
My father and his mother-in-law were not each other’s favourite person, and this coloured my mother’s relationship with her, too. We were poor for many years, and the only reason we were able to go to England was because of the generosity of my grandmother, who paid for our airfares. I think my father searched for work while we were there, but whether he was successful or not I do not know.
We returned to Australia and I went into grade four at the end of 1974, an outsider of sorts, and bemused by the syllabus, because I had moved around so much. I went to eight different primary schools and two high schools, eventually obtaining a scholarship to a private girls’ school for the last four years. My father was intent on me becoming a doctor, and so my life was largely study, which is another reason why I took little notice of what went on in the kitchen and what appeared on the dining table.
I would come home from school and my parents would start meal preparation almost straight away, so we sat down to dinner at about four o’clock during the week, and I started the night’s study at five. I usually worked through until about ten, and then read a novel for a little while before sleep. Every parcel of time was accounted for, and nothing was wasted. This schedule continued throughout those four years of high school, with my father berating me if I didn’t do well at an exam, but also being proud when I did.
In grades eight, nine, and ten, I studied home economics, and remember being offered a zucchini to taste because I had never seen one before. I also remember making Greek biscuits of some sort for an exam, and the sieve giving out while I was sifting a large quantity of flour. We learned to cook simple meals of meats and vegetables, and to prepare a full breakfast. We also baked cakes but, when my sponges remained flat, I realised that my strengths might lay elsewhere. This probably also contributed to my lack of interest in cooking. Domestic pursuits were not encouraged at home, although my mother did teach me to sew and knit, resulting in skewed attempts at a shirt dress and a white blouse, and a wildly coloured knitted shoulder bag that I actually liked but which embarrassed my father. There were no such lessons in cakemaking or biscuit baking or any of the recipes from Miss Tuxford. By this time, my mother bought such treats from the supermarket.
This other life, this previous life of my parents, a life far away in time and place, was completely unknown to me before my mother’s death. I saw little of them after the revelation of my adoption, not because of this knowledge I then had, but because of my father’s controlling behaviour. I discovered that the rest of my adoptive family, who I hardly knew apart from my maternal grandmother, had always known. It would have been difficult, after all, for my parents to keep such a secret from them.
Because of this life of constant moving, my estrangement from my family, and our lack of friends and connections with other people, there was a gap in my experience. As a child, I only knew one grandmother, and only for a relatively brief period of time. I have no grandfatherly memories, and none either of aunts and uncles, only a few fleeting images of a cousin here and there. It was difficult to form friendships as a child when we were only in a place for a limited time. We were always moving on, and left everything behind, to start again in a new suburb, state, country. Continuity and stability were not our trademarks, for reasons that are only slowly making themselves known to me: my father’s mental health problems, his difficult personality, our lack of money, the need to keep my adoption secret.
What was that need? From where did it spring? My father always seemed to be a secretive person, an intensely private man, one who had things to hide, and seemed to suffer many mistakes and mishaps and misfortune. At the end, after my mother’s death, we spent two years with each other as he became frailer and moved into a nursing home. It was a truce formed out of necessity, as there was no one else to care for him, so thoroughly had he alienated his family; he had no friends, certainly not in Australia, and only the doctor and helping professionals to talk to most days.
My father’s brother John had died some years before, and the whereabouts of his other sibling Gordon were unknown. I discovered that he had died three years previously. Nieces had not heard from my father for decades. My mother’s niece revealed that my mother and she had never met. There is a letter from my mother’s father in the 1960s, probably just before he died, remarking that he would like a photograph of her as they hadn’t seen each other for forty years. None of this was talked about when my mother was alive. It was as if I was somehow separate from their stories, from their history, that it was not suitable for my ears, or that once I came into their lives they wanted to make a new life altogether. At that time, all of their past was stored away.
Even my very origins, my tiny past life, were unspoken, and made into a secret. The trouble with secrets, however, is that they hang around, peek out of boxes, lurk in the corners of sentences, and threaten to be revealed by the questions of puzzled strangers, or mistakenly released by knowledgeable relatives. Adoptee memoirs like mine seek to go into those hidden storage boxes and the corners and pages of sources like these seemingly innocent old cookbooks, in the quest to bring these secrets to light. Like Miss Tuxford’s cookbook, with its stains and smudges, or the Main Cookery Book with its pages full of clippings, the revelation of such secrets threaten to tell stories that contradict the official version.
ReferencesBrien, Donna Lee. “Pathways into an ‘Elaborate Ecosystem’: Ways of Categorising the Food Memoir”. TEXT (October 2011). 12 Jun. 2013 ‹http://www.textjournal.com.au/oct11/brien.htm›.
Chick, Suzanne. Searching for Charmian. Sydney: Picador, 1995.
Dessaix, Robert. A Mother’s Disgrace. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994.
Fisher, Florence. The Search for Anna Fisher. New York: Arthur Fields, 1973.
Frame, Tom. Binding Ties: An Experience of Adoption and Reunion in Australia. Alexandria: Hale & Iremonger, 1999.
Gibson, Margaret. Objects of the Dead: Mourning and Memory in Everyday Life. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne U P, 2008.
Gompertz, Marguerite K., and the Staff of the Main Research Kitchen. The Main Cookery Book. 52nd. ed. London: R. & A. Main, 1944.
Hipchen, Emily, and Jill Deans. “Introduction. Adoption Life Writing: Origins and Other Ghosts”. a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 18.2 (2003): 163–70. Special Issue on Adoption.
Homes, A. M. The Mistress’s Daughter: A Memoir. London: Granta, 2007.
Kiss and Tell. Dir. By Richard Wallace. Columbia Pictures, 1945.
Lifton, Betty Jean. Twice Born: Memoirs of An Adopted Daughter. Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1977.
Lundy, Darryl, comp. The Peerage: A Genealogical Survey of the Peerage of Britain as well as the Royal Families of Europe. 30 May 2013 ‹http://www.thepeerage.com/p40969.htm#i409684›
Perl, Lynne and Shirin Markham. Why Wasn’t I Told? Making Sense of the Late Discovery of Adoption. Bondi: Post Adoption Resource Centre/Benevolent Society of NSW, 1999.
Road to Utopia. Dir. By Hal Walker. Paramount, 1946.
Turkle, Sherry, ed. Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT P, 2011.
Tuxford, Miss H. H. Miss Tuxford’s Modern Cookery for the Middle Classes: Hints on Modern Gas Stove Cooking. London: John Heywood, c.1937.