Doing Time

I can’t say I’ve ever liked porridge. I probably should. I have a good Scots name, I grew up surrounded by my mother’s Scottish family, have pasty white skin and freckles, ginger flecks in my hair and beard, I like the pipes, have a fondness for a wee dram every now and then, but even though I always think it should taste nice, it’s just not the case.

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Many times over the years I’ve tried to eat it with the enthusiasm friends and family do, but I never could get it into my mouth, that is until last year.

I can date my distaste for the smell and thought of porridge back to a few days I spent in hospital 40 years ago. I’m not sure exactly how many mornings porridge was served up to me during my stay in Burwood Hospital in 1972 but I would guess at least three, maybe four. I was in for a minor operation but back in those days you stayed in a lot longer than you do now.

It felt special being there. I remember going to the little classroom and playing with other kids on two occasions but then not going on other days and feeling ripped off.

As a just-turned 5 year-old I was quite excited by the whole thing and in no way scared. I had two big colouring-in books and a pack of crayons bought especially for the occasion so that I wouldn’t get bored in my two-bed room (I was alone except for one day when there was a girl in with me).

One of my favourite memories is the young nurses who sat on my bed and coloured in the pictures with me. This was a level of care probably not possible now given that nurses spend all their time administering drugs and cleaning up human mess rather than doing any actual nursing.

I also distinctly remember the injections in the bum. That wasn’t fun.

The ride down to surgery was very exciting and I clearly recall the anaesthetist telling me to count backwards from ten, how I thought that was silly, and that I only made it to six before I went la-la.

I woke that night and wandered the dark, empty wards looking for Mum. I remember the distress and loneliness; it was like a nightmare but real. Now I know she had been there but I had slept longer than expected and they had decided to let me rest.

I don’t blame any of this for my distaste for porridge. I can’t really blame the hospital food either as I gobbled the rest of it up without any concern. There was just something in that smell that has stayed with me: it turned my stomach. And if that’s all I took from my time in hospital, then that’s fine (I also got a nifty 3-inch scar as well as an annoying habit of never being able to say what the operation was for whenever I need to fill out a medical form).

But now I have a 5 year-old daughter who quite likes porridge and I blame my mother.

When she came to visit two years ago she had just had a stent put in her bowel and had to eat a fine porridge in the morning to ‘keep things going’ without blocking it. Fine. There was nothing lovelier than seeing my then 3 year-old help her Gran E. make porridge and then sit at the table together cleaning their bowls.

It was the week Wellington was hit by a once-in-lifetime snowfall which hung around day after day so porridge was just the trick.

As sentimentally inclined as I was to join them, my stomach lurched at the thought. I knew my mother only had two or three months to live and that each moment was precious but it wasn’t so precious that I had to eat something that literally smelled like vomit to me.

Then, last winter, with both my parents now dead and gone, on the anniversary of the very week that my mother had visited, my daughter pulled the remains of the oats Gran E. had left out of the back of the pantry and asked if we could make porridge.

They say you never truly grow up until your parents are gone. I had to push away a lot of grief on that day. There was no way I was going to make it for her and let her eat alone. But I made sure my serving was maxed-out on the trimmings.

Cream, brown sugar, toasted almonds, sultanas and sliced bananas.

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That’s how I ate it again a couple of weeks ago after the cold snap that followed the mildest of winters when, in the same week as the year before, my daughter asked if we could make porridge.

She’s a helpful kid so I let her add the ingredients and do the stirring until it starts to bubble when she hops down from her step and passes the wooden spoon to me. We then add our respective fixings and sit down to eat it together.

I suspect she got more of the Scots genes than I did as hers’ is a lot less tarted-up: just a bit of cream and a slurp of maple syrup (she is half-Canadian).

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While I’ve now eaten porridge at least half-a-dozen times in the last year, it’s not something I would make for myself.

Despite all the yum I try to cover it with it still has that whiff of the hospital, and whatever it was that turned my stomach.

Maybe it will change, given enough time.

14 Nov 2013

Well, I see it’s exactly 2 months since I posted this. Since then, despite the arrival of warm and summery weather, my daughter still asks for porridge, and I always eat it with her.

I can’t say I like it, but I do enjoy the fixings of almonds, banana, sultanas & cream I use to tart it up.

Yesterday, I had my first general anaesthetic since that time 41 years ago when I wandered the darkened wards looking for my mother.

This time I slept little but felt great. I read Hazlitt, listened to Game of Thrones, and awaited my breakfast, which, unsurprisingly, was porridge.

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Without my fixings it was a bit dubious (and totally amused) I am pretty hungry after yesterday’s fasting. I added the milk & peaches but skipped the sugar.

It was fine.

But the peaches were the best bit.

One thought on “Doing Time

  1. bp

    Nice work! I have similar childhood memories of Burwood – vomitting milky porridge all over the ward; the injection in the bum ‘just like a little bee sting’; waiting six hours for mum to collect me after all the other kids had gone..

    Reply

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