The Family Table

Girl in the white dress: Stephanie Wood, in crochet dress, with her brother, mother and grandparents

Girl in the white dress: Stephanie Wood, in crochet dress, with her brother, mother and grandparents

Sometimes when I can't sleep I walk through my grandparents' old house in my head. I sit in the breakfast nook and watch as my grandmother shakes from a jar the handful of raw almonds she would eat each morning. Or I watch myself – I'm six and wearing a dress Grandma crocheted for me – pester her for the liquorice allsorts she always kept at the back of a cupboard.

I might bump on my backside down the worn green carpet on the staircase, tiptoe past the dim cloakroom where Great Aunt Amy's frightful fur coats gathered dust and moth holes, and find myself in the dining room, where the fire is blazing and Grandma is setting the table. First, to protect the old table, a blanket goes down, then the lace tablecloth. Cutlery comes from the sideboard where she stores the plum jam she makes each year.

Back in the kitchen, I'm given a job to do: pod the peas from Grandpa's garden. Little fingers opening the peas' velvety sheaths. Enjoying the sound as the freed peas hit the bowl. Watching then, as Grandma washes and hulls Grandpa's strawberries. Her lifelong friend, "Aunty" Helen, smoking Benson & Hedges and talking politics as Grandma works.

But the carefree travels through this house cannot last forever. At some point, lying there trying to sleep, I walk into the old kitchen and smell corned beef cooking. By now, I am 16, on school holidays. My grandfather is frail and dementia is gnawing at my grandmother's brilliant mind. My mother, an only child frantic with worry and unable to get away from work, has put me on a plane. I've flown to Sydney to help my grandparents pack their bags and return with me to Queensland.

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There are tears in my stern grandfather's eyes when, carrying my suitcase, I push open the back door leading into their kitchen. By now they are barely managing but, somehow, together, they have cooked a special meal for my arrival. Corned beef and white sauce.

For me, food is inextricably tied up with memories of family. And it has an emotional resonance, a visceral kick, far greater than the sum of its nutrients and the nuances of its flavour. Corned beef and white sauce is not corned beef and white sauce but a family story: the story of two proud, healthy people's decline and my grandfather's realisation that an independent life is over. It's also my story – of stepping from childhood into adulthood, of taking on responsibility that, at the time, was terrifying and seemed beyond me.

The memories of my grandparents' peas and corned beef are fuzzy now, no matter how I push a sleepy brain to bring them into sharper focus. The memories that are more vivid are of cake. A lemon polenta cake. An oozing little chocolate torte. An orange-frosted marmalade cake. But cakes are not cakes. They are medicine, love, desperation, hope.

In May 2006, my father was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer. His was not the only world to be ending. Through swollen eyes I scoured the internet. Then I started to fill my father's inbox. With links and tracts of text from sites about how diet might slow the progress of this ugly thing the size of an apple growing in my father's abdomen. With recipes – for dishes using tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables, salmon, tofu.

And when I visited my parents, I cooked, I cooked desperately, wishing upon that food miraculous powers. And I watched as my father, wasted by radiotherapy and a wretched regimen of hormone therapy, ate my food. Sometimes his face lit up and he came back for more. Once I texted him just before I boarded a plane home to Sydney, reminding him that there was leftover cake in the kitchen. "Do you think I'd forget that?" he quickly responded.

But as the disease pushed its twisted life through his body, my father's diet was more often hospital mush than my mother's nourishing cooking. He would push his tray away, his food barely touched. And the offerings that I would take him? I think the nurses enjoyed my orange-frosted marmalade cake. Cooking for him had allowed me to pretend, for a while, that I had some control over the situation but the delusion was coming to an end.

Still, the food we shared as a family left its mark and gave us a store of memories to summon and stories to tell. Take Aunt Mabel's Christmas pudding. It's a member of the family, that pudding, a gorgeous, moist, boozy, fragrant thing; never mind that no one has a clue who Aunt Mabel is or where the recipe came from.

It was an annual family ritual, and Dad enjoyed it more than anyone. He especially enjoyed teasing my mother about it. "Oh no," he would wail annually as he attempted to upend the pudding from its basin. He'd wink at me and turn to Mum and, in tragic tones, say, "Oh, it's a disaster." Of course it never was. It would flop delightfully onto its serving plate and he would eat more than anyone - with cream and ice-cream.

Christmas 2009 and I knew my father's winks could not last forever, that this family story was nearly over. The act of eating with him had become difficult; it was a torment watching him try to find an appetite, to suppress the nausea that increasingly overwhelmed him. For him, meals were no longer occasions of pleasure but of endurance.

I'd like to write of the miraculous power of Aunt Mabel's Christmas pudding. I'd like to report that it brought, even momentarily, my father back to life. I'd like to say that he threw off his rug and rose from the couch and gave me his cute, sly little smile as he undertook his annual role in the pudding preparation. But that would be a lie. His interest in food was gone. His interest in life was gone. The pudding made him violently ill. He died in hospital three weeks later.

Of course, Aunt Mabel didn't kill him. But for me, Aunt Mabel will never again be that twinkling, benign presence. Christmas pudding is not Christmas pudding. Christmas pudding is a cold hard knot in my stomach. Walking through houses in my head when I can't sleep, I throw the pudding in the bin and close the door on my mother's Christmas kitchen.

From Sunday Life

Visit Stephanie Wood's blog at dailylife.com.au/blog/short-order or follow her on Twitter: @StephanieAWood1.

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