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December 24, 2012

Midsummer Harvest cont.

Be Good

“Behave yourselves, you kids,” said Dad carrying an oven tray full of jam jars to the kitchen bench.  They were hot, straight out of the coal range, sterile and ready to swallow jam.  Dad didn’t want to burn a child and he didn’t want to drop the jars.
“Shoo, get out of the kitchen now.  You can fill the wood bin up if you like.”
It was called a coal range but they burnt wood on it, because they grew their own.  But that meant it needed a lot of attention to get the temperature up and to keep it at a steady heat.  Only Dad could drive the range evenly enough to make sponges; only Dad could drive it hot enough to bake scones. Mum cooked dinner on it - or in it, every day.
The kids fetched the firewood, making a hut in the woodpile for a bit, before they remembered to load the wheel barrow.  Then they heaved the lid off the box where it nestled beside the chimney piece, and started throwing in the wood.  Dad was pouring jam into jars, using a jug to scoop the plummy pulp from the jam pan. The first block of wood hit the inside of the wood box, which was also a little door into the kitchen, and the jam ran down the outside of the jar as Dad jumped out of his skin.
            That night Mum served roast mutton and new potatoes, and the plum jam spoke with cellophane crackles in ruby jars along the kitchen dresser. 
“Did you take the stones out,” asked Malcolm.
“No, I didn’t,” said Dad. “They are just the little plums, it wasn’t worth it.”
“I probably won’t eat that jam then,” Malcolm said. He was six and knew his own mind.  Mum said, “You behave yourself or else…”
“But I think I will,” said Malcolm remembering why he should eat jam with plum stones in it. “Can we have some on our custard?”
“Tomorrow I’ll do the gooseberries.” Dad was planning ahead.  He could see the pantry already; reaching past Christmas and into autumn, filling week by week, with berried treasure, crimson kings and golden queens, black boys and bon cretians; pears by halves and quinces reduced to jelly; stowed and glowing in juicy shades of red and green and yellow.
            They all picked the gooseberries, even Mum, who kept saying she was too busy for preserving.  Susan and Phillip were old enough to know the ripe ones; red and stripy, but Malcolm bit into green ones and threw them down in disgust. 
            “Hey, I need the green ones.  And the red ones.  Behave yourselves.” And Dad pouted at the kids. “Or else.”  He had to remind them again when they topped and tailed the stalks and dead flowers back into the bowl with the gooseberries.
Then it was blackcurrant time.  The days were getting hotter and so was the kitchen, and the tempers that lived in it.  Mum kept out of the way.  She was too busy sewing in her sewing room.  Dad didn’t want to top and tail all the blackcurrants himself.  It made his big fingers sore plucking away at tiny stalks.  “Many hands make light work,” he hoped..
            “Ooh there’s a red spider on my hand,” wailed Susan. She flapped her hand and knocked her bowl of currants over. Currants and spider mites ran away under the furniture.
            “They smell funny,” moaned Phillip. 
            Malcolm found out how to get blackcurrants off their stalks all at once. He picked them off in bunches with his teeth and spat them back into the bowl.
            “Can we go swimming Dad,” No, no, no, he thought.  “Yes,” He said, “I’ll just put some more wood on the fire.”
            Dad spread the towels on the warm stones and lay down to bask.  Long feathers of cloud stroked the hot sky and he thought it was nice to have a break from the kitchen.  Mum would have some peace and quiet too to get a few things done at home.  Children’s voices, river running, stones creaking underfoot…  Malcolm crying, “Daddy, Phillip’s splashing me.”
            “Phillip.  Behave yourself.”  Phillip was ten, and good at splashing.  But he remembered that he’d much rather be building a dam.
            Mum had so much peace and quiet that she got on with the blackcurrants and they were simmering on the hob when the swimmers came home. That night there was bacon and egg pie and lettuce and peas for dinner, and pints of black pearls cooling on the dresser.  Some escaped their jar and turned red over rice pudding.
            Early next morning Dad cleaned the coal range. Out to the garden with the ashes, then off with the hob plates and the chimney plate too; into dark passages; rattle, rattle with his rake, which was just a little slice of iron on a long handle;  soot gathered with tenderness into the ash pan… Dad was stirring the porridge when his children got up.
            Mum moved the preserves off the dresser and put them away in the pantry. Then she took a chook out of the freezer and put it to thaw on a dish where the currants had been.
            “I’ll take the kids to fetch the milk,” Dad told Mum.
            “Ah good,” and she smiled the smile of conspiracy.
Malcolm thought it was a long way to the milk. He wondered why they couldn’t just pick it up at the end of the road the way Mummy usually did. Or why Daddy didn’t go and get it in the car, which is what he did every weekend.
“It’s a nice day for a walk,” said Dad, and showed them a real cave inside a fallen-over willow tree.  “We can have a cuppa here,” he said. Let’s put the jug on.  Phillip giggled when Dad plugged the jug in, but Susan found a cloth in a drawer and laid the table.  They all sat down and drank tea from the finest Royal Albert cups and saucers, which Dad found on a shelf in the cave. 
“Ah,” said Dad, “Broken orange pekoe.  It doesn’t need milk at all.”  Which was a good job.
The milk lady had milked her cows while Dad was cleaning the coal range, but she took them to see Daisy and Buttercup.  Malcolm thought that maybe buttercups should be called cowcups because the cows were standing up to their knees in them.
Dad gave the milk lady empty plastic bottles and money and she gave him bottlefuls of milk. He put them in his old rucksack and looked for the children.  They were all on the top rung of the dairy fence looking out at the cows in the milk meadow, and chattering like starlings with the excitement of the day.
“Hey, get off that fence.  Behave yourselves.”  Silence fell, and wide-eyed they dropped all together and ran to him.  The milk lady dipped into her apron pocket for three striped candy canes and grinned at Dad.
“Or Father Christmas won’t come tonight, will he kids.”

December 3, 2012

Father Jack

Father Jack Witbrock would have been 76 today. He died a month ago on Saturday 3rd November, from a tired heart and blocked arteries. 

His full title was: The Very Reverend Father Jack, Dean Emeritus of the Antiochan Orthodox Church in New Zealand. 

I had missed his celebration of 40 years of ordination - the first ten as an Anglican minister - on 21st October, so I'm glad that I made the effort to pop in to the Deanery late on the Ashley Church's saints' day after I had set off borer bombs in the church - 28th October is the Feast of St Simon and St Jude, but also my mental marker for woodworm treatment.

Father Jack was saintly material himself. He and his family came to live in the village about thirty years ago, adopting the neighbouring inter-denominational church as the seat of worship for a far-flung Eastern Orthodox congregation. Father Jack and Julia, his wife, developed a community garden and hosted many young people who were floundering in life. This work was tireless and selfless and quite often it seemed to me thankless. Father Jack was as devout as he was practical and the arcane business of daily offices, complete with robes, chants, bells and censer not only fascinated me but gave life to a little country church that would otherwise have been an empty shell.  I almost take for granted the icons and bright altar cloths but how remarkable to walk into the vaulted  Anglican architecture of Benjamin Mountfort and find Christ the Pantokrator, and his attendant images, basking in the afternoon sunbeams, or to spot Father Jack swishing through hip-high cocksfoot along the country roadside, in black robes, purple satin and his stovepipe hat.

Of course he would have loved me to join his flock, but although I probably exasperated him, he treated my personal brand of atheism with good humour and once when there was no congregation about, I stopped mowing, kicked off my gumboots and read the refrains for him.  He didn't appreciate being interrupted mid-office however, and I remember slipping away once rather than disturbing him, only to find that he had been saying a Requiem Mass for Elwin. I wish I had been bolder that day. 

Father Jack was a scholar and when I asked him to say a final committal in Latin for Elwin's otherwise secular funeral, he asked me whether I wanted German pronunciation or not. He could have come up with any dialect I thought of, I'm sure. I rather envied him his scholarship since I used to fancy myself translating ancient texts in my own ivory tower, which I never imagined could be here in rural North Canterbury.  In recent years he worked on translating the Monastic Office, aquiring texts dating back to 1703 in order to translate the reference into current idiom, so that modern priests might no longer "be tied to the innovations of the 1925 edition."  More prosaically Father Jack compiled an extensive history of the Ashley Church of St Simon and St Jude, which is a valuable addition to local archives.  

His departure also means the loss of the Orthodox tenancy, but there is no hurry to remove its presence. As this door closes another will open when the time is right. In the meantime I remember that I had my first lesson in dressing the altar at Father Jack's funeral. I learnt in no uncertain terms that one should "never cover the tabernacle with black," and I think the priest who did, will never forget that!
But Advent is here and maybe Julia and I can dress the altar in violet.

Father Jack's was the most elaborately religious funeral I have ever been to, proscribed and full of ritual. It was also the truest religious funeral I have been to. It was Father Jack.
There was nothing false at all about him and his eulogy which likened him to Tolkien's Niggle from Leaf by Niggle summed up his character perfectly. I will miss him.