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Cast in iron

The Shoemaker's Daughter. A memoir of days, both past and present, by Rhonda Mason.
It is Friday evening.

I am nervous as mum begins to cook dinner for us.

Whatever will she think when she opens our kitchen cupboards and spots our new cast iron cookware?

Out of habit, I predict her words before she’s even uttered them. “Ho Yee ah, why did you waste money on such a heavy pan? Ho yee ah, why don’t you just stick to Teflon pans? They are so cheap and so good…”

However, my mother surprises me as only she can.

I find her in the kitchen, with the five-quart deep skillet on the stove top. There is no surprise or disapproval on her face. Instead, she looks poised and ready for action.

“What do you think of it?” I ask, hesitantly.

“It’s good ah. Your Por Por used to cook with something like this.”

“What? Really?” I am suitably impressed and somewhat euphoric.

If truth be known, when I ordered the skillets, I had rather romanticised the notion of using cast iron. I had even imagined a connection between the traditional cookware with my own past. And here was mum, telling me that my own grandmother cooked with cast iron.

“Yes, yes. Your Por Por had a cast iron wok. Very big. Very heavy. Good health benefits ah. Last long time. Very good to cook with.”

I am incredulous. Not only is mum repeating to me everything that I’d read online, but it is clear to me that she wholeheartedly approves of my decision. I feel jubilant. And vindicated.

Mum goes on to tell me about Por Por’s superhuman abilities.

“Your Por Por was amazing. She would cook for thirty person all by herself when it was Chinese New Year. Eight courses. Three tables. Two stove tops. One wok.”

I am not at all surprised to hear this about Por Por. I have always known her to be a remarkable woman. She was a mother of ten children, after all, and she lost two of them when they were little. I may not have known Por Por very well, but this I know for certain: she was a woman of strength and grace. In a way, I can’t imagine her cooking with anything but cast iron.

As I watch mum wield the iron skillet with deftness and ease, it is clear to me that Por Por has passed her culinary abilities onto her daughter, my mum.

The cast iron does not faze mum in the least. She instinctively knows how much oil to add and what heat to use. She wraps a cloth around the handle before I even have time to get the oven mitts out. She knows when to put the lid on and when to take it off. Without skipping a beat, she cooks the choi sum to perfection: it is juicy, tender, and full of flavour.

As we serve up dinner together, I ask her again whether she is happy to come and stay over once every few weeks. I long to spend more time with her and to learn more from her – something which I (sadly) never bothered to do when I was younger. I long to learn all her recipes, but more importantly, I long to learn all about her childhood and her family. I long to learn her story – to document it, to write it down, to tell it to the boys. Because it is my story too.

To my relief, she offers the same answer she did when I first suggested it. “Yes. Just give me a week’s notice ah.”

Before the evening is up, mum asks me an important question of her own: “Ho yee, how much did the pans cost?”

She guesses that they cost a few hundred dollars. I tell her that the skillets were about forty to fifty dollars each. It is her turn to be impressed.

“Oh, that is very good ah.”

And with that, I know that I have done her proud.

How it began

The Shoemaker's Daughter. A memoir of days, both past and present, by Rhonda Mason.
My love for words began as an exercise in discipline.

When I was in primary school, my year 5 teacher informed my parents that I would always be five thousand words behind the others in my vocabulary. There was no judgment, no instruction. He merely stated it as a matter of fact.

In a child-like attempt to counter my teacher’s claim, I began to memorise words from my dictionary.

It was the Oxford Dictionary, with a blue, green, and red hard cover. The colours were not primary – rather muted, or faded, perhaps, from exposure to sunlight. It was three inches thick and displayed rampant signs of wear and tear. The corners of the cover were ragged, and the spine had long separated from the book itself – it literally hung on by a few loose threads. The pages themselves were far from pristine. Most were crinkled, but beautifully so.

I do not remember how I came to be in possession of this dictionary. Most likely, my parents gave it to me. Most likely, my dad gave it to me. Most likely, it had been his own.

(Perhaps he used it himself when he studied at college. In fact, didn’t he go to Oxford University for a year or so? My knowledge of such details are vague at best, and I know, with the strongest convinction of heart, that this is something I must rectify.)

And so, with the words of my teacher ringing in my ears, I began with the letter A and started memorising.

I highlighted each word as I committed it to memory, storing each one away for future use like nuts for the winter. It seemed mundane at first. But gradually, I gained momentum. The more words I learnt, the easier it became.

Each word was labelled a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. Each word was placed into a sentence with both clarity and precision. Sample sentences, I used to call them.

Over time, it became clear to me that I needed to read books rather than simply memorise a dictionary. Henceforth, a new system emerged. Every time I came upon a word I didn’t understand, I wrote it down. Once my list of new-to-me words grew long enough, I looked up their meanings and copied them en masse onto loose A4 pages. I included their derivatives as well as the sample sentences. I stored all these pages in a plain white binder, and I referred to them often. It was like my own private version of the Oxford Dictionary, selectively pruned for my usage and purposes.

Despite my strict and clinical approach to learning new words, the habit set me in good stead. My vocabulary flourished, yes, but more importantly, my love for words both widened and deepened.

The binder itself no longer exists. I suspect it was discarded somewhere between our second and third moves. I wish now that I’d kept it: documented proof of my love affair with memorising new words.

As for that red, green, and blue dictionary with the dangling spine, I long to hold it in my hands once more.

I hope against hope that my dad has it still, that he held onto it when I moved out, perhaps casually flung into one of the deep cavities of his office cupboards. An unassuming keepsake, waiting to be unearthed and cherished once more.

Our (unusual) table

The Shoemaker's Daughter. A memoir of days, both past and present, by Rhonda Mason.

It is Saturday evening.

We head out to our favourite Japanese restaurant for the first time in more than two months.

I fall asleep in the car, and it is Pete who taps my window to wake me up. For a moment, I am disorientated. Then I remember the occasion. Jap food!

We arrive and find that our usual table is taken, so we squeeze into the next booth instead. Pete happily sits on my side of the table, but all the other boys want to sit with daddy. I feel slightly rebuffed, that nobody wants to sit with me. In the end, we attempt to distract Bear by pointing to the various pictures of ice-cream on the wall. It works. He stays put between Pete and myself, and finally, we all relax.

The menu has changed, which throws us off momentarily. I quickly discover that most of our favourite dishes still remain, but there is no udon (except as part of a kid’s set) and there are no sushi rolls with cooked tuna, which was one of the boys’ favourite dishes. In their place, we order miso ramen and avocado rolls with black rice.

Angus has not been well, but he is in good spirits this evening. He participates in our usual family game of Celebrity Animal with much fervour and energy. I smile at him across the table. He is so grown up now, this boy of ours.

Dinner arrives, one dish at a time.

First, the agadeshi tofu, which is primarily for Bear’s benefit. He eats it with great gusto, insisting on doing so with his spoon instead of the fork which I’ve carefully laid before him. Next, the karaage chicken – or ‘Japanese nuggets’ as we like to call it. Rick deftly deals out the pieces with his chopsticks. Everyone clamours for “More please!” but we insist on even distribution. The gyoza is served and disappears just as quickly as the nuggets. Pete is thrown by the black rice in the avocado roll, so his ends up in Rick’s bowl. The ‘sticky chicken’ (aka teriyaki chicken) is well-received by all, especially in the wake of the Japanese nuggets. The miso ramen, though spicy, is comforting to eat. Our table becomes cluttered with a dozen or more plates and bowls, but even though the table is tiny, we somehow manage.

We continue to play Celebrity Animals as we eat. I miss a few turns as I become pre-occupied with getting food for (read: into) Bear. Eventually, I stumble upon a winning combination: miso soup mixed with rice. He happily feeds himself and “More sou! More sou!” becomes his little catchcry. To my pleasant surprise, he polishes off the rice and is then happy for me to substitute ramen in its place. Miso soup for the win. I can’t help but capture him on video as he slurps up his noodles without any assistance.

Afterwards, Rick takes the boys outside while I get ready to pay. They pull their jackets on with little commotion and make their exit with great animation. The two women seated at our usual table watch the boys with great interest. They turn to me and smile. I smile back.

I pay, cast a glance back at our ‘unusual’ table, and walk outside into the crisp night air…

“He’s one of the brothers.”

The Shoemaker's Daughter. A memoir of days, both past and present, by Rhonda Mason.

It is evening.

Three of the boys have finished dinner and have gone upstairs with daddy to get ready for their bath.

I’ve stayed behind with Jamie, as he is still finishing off his lamb, rice, and yoghurt.

He wants to play with chopsticks.

Instead, I pull out Cameron’s photos from my wallet and we look through them together.

He says: “Cameron lives in heaven. He has a new body. But he’s one of the brothers.”

And then: “I’m also sad. He’s one of the big boys.”

And then: “Why does he have a hole in his cheek?”

(I explain that his skin got broken when he was coming out of mummy.)

And then: “What if we can’t talk in heaven and we can’t talk to Cameron?”

(I reassure him that we can.)

And then: “I really love Cameron…”

Summer memory

The Shoemaker's Daughter. A memoir of days, both past and present, by Rhonda Mason.

I have this memory. It is vivid, and it swims around in my mind.

I am a young girl. I am with my family. We are on holidays somewhere – perhaps the Gold Coast or the Sunshine Cost.

It is a warm summer’s day. Idyllic in every way.

I am standing on the edge of a lagoon. There are trees all around.

The water shimmers. It is blue, then green, then blue once more.

I am in the water. Somebody holds me close.

I look around me, and I look up at the sky, my eyes slightly blinded by the golden light.

In that moment, I know that I am happy.

Utterly and completely happy.

It is one of those moments in childhood when the world seems beautiful and perfect.

This memory is precious to me. It fills me with warmth.

Sometimes, I wonder whether it is real. Did it really happen? Or did I imagine it?

I suspect that I might never, ever truly know…

Spellbound

The Shoemaker's Daughter. A memoir of days, both past and present, by Rhonda Mason.

Friday night.

I am in Bear’s room.

We are sitting on the armchair by the window.

The blinds are pulled closed, and it is black outside.

We are sitting in the dark.

Bear is drinking his milk, and I am holding him.

Outside, cars keep driving by.

It’s been a hot day, but a cool breeze is finally filtering in through the window.

He finishes drinking and hands me the bottle. I place it on his dresser and give him his dummy.

I put my head back and drift off to sleep.

Many moments later, I surface, and I can hear Bear chatting to himself.

“Bear, Bear,” he seems to be saying.

I am spellbound. I try to encourage him to say more words, but he falls silent.

Perhaps he only speaks when he knows I’m not listening. Cheeky little monkey.

We exchange kisses. I tell him I love him. I lower him into his cot.

“Goodnight, Bear.”

I walk out, and I exhale…

Summer evenings

The Shoemaker's Daughter. A memoir of days, both past and present, by Rhonda Mason.

Summer evenings.

Patio doors wide open.

Eating dinner in bright daylight.

Icy cold ginger beer.

Boys in shorts and singlets.

Rick in pants and a singlet.

Myself in shorts and a tank top.

Flowers on the windowsill.

Golden haze in our lounge room.

Yoghurt for dessert.

Reading books in the family room.

Cicadas singing in the background.

Going upstairs while it’s still bright.

Opening all the windows.

Warm breeze wafting through the bedrooms.

Boys running up and down the corridors.

Boys shrieking with laughter.

Clothes down the laundry chute.

Two boys in the bathtub. Two boys in the shower.

Chaos.

Fun.

Chaos.

Hilarity.

Puddles on the floor.

Big fluffy towels.

Boys getting dried.

Boys getting dressed.

Boys playing with blocks.

Books being read.

Clothes being sorted.

Turning lights off.

Twilight seeping through the blinds.

Saying goodnights.

Endless hugs and kisses.

Bedtime songs.

Bible stories.

Prayers.

Bottle of milk for Bear.

Final kisses.

Closing doors.

Quiet whispers.

Cicadas still singing.

Summer evenings.

Six years ago

The Shoemaker's Daughter. A memoir of days, both past and present, by Rhonda Mason.

Monday morning. Six years ago.

Rick and I leave our little terrace house in Newtown at 6am in the morning.

I am wearing a white tank top, a black skirt, and my teal green cardigan with the thin white stripes. Rick is wearing the blue t-shirt his parents had bought for him from Boston, and khaki pants.

I buckle myself into the passenger seat while Rick puts my bags into the boot of our green Corolla.

We pull out of Little Queen Street and onto King Street. We turn right at Broadway, cross the Harbour Bridge, and less than twenty minutes later, we enter the car park at North Shore Private hospital.

We make our way up to the maternity ward. It is quiet, and dark. There are no windows in the foyer.

We sit side by side. We wait – apprehensively. I am slightly unnerved by the lack of sound.

My mind is blank, as I try to remain calm and focused on the task ahead.

All of a sudden, I realise that we are missing one of our hospital bags – the one which I’d filled with drinks and snacks for sustenance. I stare at Rick, in disbelief. Realisation dawns on him, and he is both apologetic and slightly amused. He reassures me it will be okay.

We have a lovely midwife. Her name is Jenny. She is tall, with dark blonde hair, and her smile is warm and friendly. I immediately feel at ease with her.

She straps the fetal monitoring unit to my belly. I lie back on the hospital bed, and Rick takes a photo of me. I do the cheesy victory sign with my fingers, as all good Honkie Asians do.

I am still dressed in the same clothes, but I am also wearing Rick’s khaki socks – the same socks I wore when I gave birth to Cameron. They feel rough on my feet, but their familiarity brings me comfort.

It is only 7am, and I am desperate for some extra sleep before labour begins. I move over to the couch and put my feet up. Rick covers me with my dress robe.

I manage to drift in and out of sleep.

By 10am, I am back on the hospital bed. Professor Morris has already been in to see me with a promise to check back around noon. The induction gel is in, and labour is under way.

Rick has received messages from both sets of parents. All four of them are in the cafeteria at the public hospital. Waiting together for what they hope to be celebratory news. My Aunty Eight, mum’s closest sister, is also there.

By midday, my waters have been broken, I am wearing Rick’s high school jersey, and contractions are almost a minute long.

Rick and I count through each of my contractions together, him with a stop watch and me banging stress balls together.

Now and again, he attempts to count in Cantonese but after missing a couple of numbers during one of the contractions, I demand (loudly) that he stop doing so. “Just do it it English!” I yell as the contraction finally subsides.

In between contractions, I stare at the stress balls in my hands. I can still see the nail marks from a year ago when I was labouring through Cameron’s birth.

The contractions grow stronger and longer and the breaks between each one grow increasingly shorter. I can feel myself losing control, but Rick is my rock – over and over again, he tells me that I can do it and that we’ll get to meet Angus soon.

Ready Steady Cook comes on television at 3.00pm. I start sucking on a lemon icy pole to keep myself hydrated. Rick has one as well.

All of a sudden, the contractions begin to blur into each other. I am loud with moans and groans, and I have almost given up counting as I can’t tell when one contractions ends and the next begins.

Panting, I ask Rick to make the bath, as I have a desperate urge to immerse myself in warm water.

Our midwife runs the bath, and Rick helps me over to it. The contractions are thick and fast, and it is all I can do to swing my legs over the tub and lie down in the water.

The warmth brings immediate comfort, but not for long.

Before I know it, I have an incredible urge to bear down.

Panicking, I look at Rick. “I need to use the toilet!”

Within a split second, it seems, the midwife is by our side.

“Get her back onto the bed – it’s time to push!”

I’m completely confused. I’m convinced I need to use the toilet, but the midwife thinks otherwise.

Around me, everything becomes a blur. The one thing I focus on is Rick’s face. He tells me to push, and I push. He tells me to pant, and I pant. He tells me to breathe, and I breathe. He keeps his face close to mine, and I do exactly as he says.

With less than five pushes, Angus’ head is out. With another push, his entire body is out.

Relief overwhelms me. I look over at Rick, and his eyes are moist with tears.

The midwives look like they are holding back tears as well.

Professor Morris arrives just in time for the last stage of labour.

Over at the cafeteria, our parents receive news of Angus’ safe arrival, and my mum breaks into tears.

Rick places Angus in my arms. I gather his little body as close to me as possible. He is all warm and slippery.

He opens one eye and looks at me. I offer him a finger and he takes hold of it.

My son.

Cameron’s hair was black. Angus’ hair is lighter.

Angus Peter Mason.

Born 3.55pm at 37 weeks with ten little fingers and ten little toes.

Our second son. Our treasure.

Thank you, God.

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