Interpreting art

Rius Carson

Rius Carson The Other Side

It was the caravan that hooked me. It recalled a dramatic moment for me.

Between Gisborne and Bacchus Marsh in Victoria is a spectacular stretch of road. It runs along the top of a razor back. When you drive it, you feel like you are on the top of the world. It’s scary and exciting to have so little hold on the earth.

My aunt and uncle did a road trip years and years ago, pulling their 1960s caravan from Queensland to Victoria. On that stretch of road, a gust of wind caught their van and it came away from the car, plummeting down paddocks and into the valley below where it disintegrated into pieces so small that when dad drove us out from Geelong to take a look, there was no trace of it.

Two weeks ago I drove this road and told my partner the caravan story. I was surprised to be reminded of it after such a short interval.

Rius Carson, the artist, spoke about it at the launch. He talked about the stupidity of towing a caravan; of putting possessions in a small home and carting them around. He also spoke about his motivation for the body of work on display that The Other Side belongs to. He had moved to the country from the city and was starting a different sort of life with his partner. They built a house together and then the relationship failed. These works were about coming to a corner, turning it, and finding a whole new set of challenges.

His frank discussion was what turned me from a passive listener and viewer to a buyer. I have just come to a corner and turned it and I am standing at the end of a street that looks terrifying. I am struggling with a new set of challenges. I am 62, underemployed, keeping an eye on elderly parents and living in a city that does not feel like my home, and until the painting, I was miserable. My youngest daughter had just moved out and just like that my life felt purposeless.

But I get it now. It is just another corner like all the other corners I have turned and I just need to get on with it, flip that useless caravan that I am towing around and head down the street.

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Quinces

My mother never cooked quinces, so I can only imagine that my love affair with them started in my paternal grandmother’s kitchen. My strongest memories of smells and tastes come from the old house in Rochester. Early memories of ripe peaches on the tree, wet bran, peppercorns and the taste of cucumber and mayonnaise together come from there. And so for now I will allow the peculiar taste and smell of quince jelly to come from her kitchen.

Jane Grigson, my earliest culinary inspiration had a wonderful book called Good Things  and in it was a chapter on quinces. I cooked my first batch of quince paste from this book. Pasta di Membrillo. I peeled, chopped, boiled, drained, mashed and added sugar then boiled the paste until it came away from the sides of the pan and turned a deep burnished red. All the while my hand wrapped in a tea towel to stop the volcano like eruptions from burning me.

Very few years have passed that I have not had a ready supply of quince paste in the fridge all winter and gifted much of my supply to friends. In the years that I have been making it I have learned a great deal.

I have learned that I can make jelly and paste from the same quinces. I have also learned that there is no need to peel the quinces. A Country Women’s Association recipe for boiled quinces instructed to just wipe the fluff off the surface and boil them in a sugar syrup for hours and hours. The syrup then turns to jelly and the quinces can be served whole (and warm) with double cream. This is a magnificent dessert. The best thing I learned was from an early Australian cookbook, that slightly green quinces from the start of the season have a higher pectin content and always make the best jelly and paste.

Until this season I have always bought quinces, when I first see them in the shops, and made paste and jelly.

I wipe the fluff of the quinces, cut them on each side around the core then slice each bit roughly. I cover the pieces with water and boil until they are soft. In another pan, I cover the cores with water and boil them up as well. It is the seeds and peel that produce the pectin. Then I drain off the liquid from both and measure an equal amount of sugar and start boiling it for jelly. For the paste, I mash up the fruit with my bamix and put it in my slow cooker adding an equal amount of sugar. I cook this all day – or until the paste comes away from the sides and is a deep burnished red colour – stirring regularly. When it is cooked I turn it into a Swiss roll tin, lined with kitchen paper and set it in the turned off oven. For the next few weeks, when I use the oven I take it out then put it back in to the cooling oven after my cooking is done. This dries it out. I cut generous wedges of it and smear it on buttered toast or eat it with cheese. Each year it has a taste all of its own.

 

The jelly is ready when it starts to set as it forms drops on the wooden spoon. This is a hard process to describe … it’s a bit intuitive.

Three years ago I started a garden in what was then my back yard. I planted a quince tree. The first summer it just grew. The second season I harvested one quince. This year the tree was covered in blossom in Spring and I have just harvested over 24 big, ripe, bug free quinces. I even left a few on the tree for later in the season. I am so proud of them. I just want to look at them for a while before I chop them up and turn them into this year’s jelly and paste.

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The Team

 

Sometime in the 1970s my mother enrolled in a Council of Adult Education course and made a puppet with Melbourne artist Mirka Mora. I remember having lunch with her whilst she was doing the course and I remember how much she was enjoying it.

I have the puppet she made. Mirka’s influence on its design is very obvious – there is a serious but playful element to it that I think she may have shared with my mother, or at least my mother then. My mother’s creative talent is obvious too. She has painted white flowers on the Mikado-like figure on one side. They are the same flowers that she embroidered on the bunny rugs she made for her grandchildren when they were babies. Her Mikado character has a cheeky grin, his little white teeth showing through partly opened red painted lips. On the other side her harlequin is observant – his lips are sealed, his eyes wide open.

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I have kept this puppet, along with a papier mâché wolf head that my father made for a fancy dress competition my sister and I were in the late 1950s. I remember parading around the hall in West Geelong wearing a Red Riding Hood costume while my sister wore a hessian sack with a furry wolf tail and the papier mâché wolf’s head on top of her head. We were not the winners but we each got an egg cup.

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I sometimes think how lucky I am to have these mementos of my parents. They are curious objects but each in its own way reminds me of an event – a lunch in the city with mum just after I started working and a fancy dress competition with my sister when I was very young. They also say a lot about my parents. Dad would have designed and constructed the wolf head and mum would have sewn the hessian bag into a wearable costume, hand sewing the tail on at just the right spot. Mum had a very creative eye. She loved Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Her sense of fun is apparent.

 

Dad is clearly exhausted by his role as her caregiver now yet he refuses to accept help or respite. These objects remind me that they were a team, they have always been a team … and they still are a team.

Places are like Hens’ Teeth

Finding our way through the system set up for the care of elderly Australians is proving to be more difficult than I expected it to be. Mum and dad have both been assessed and have qualified for what is called a Home Care Package. Dad has qualified for low care and mum for the highest level of care. The aim of this is to keep elderly people living safely at home for as long as possible and, I presume, to lighten the load on the residential aged care sector.

Now that they have been assessed and deemed eligible, I thought it was just a matter of contacting some of the registered care providers on the list that that was provided in the letter that notified them of the result of the assessment, and going on a visit, then settling into a new way of managing with a range of people coming to mum and dad to assist them with their daily needs and to give dad some relief from his role as caregiver.

But no: Today I was told that they are now in a queue and they will have to wait until a home care package is offered to them. I was advised to grab it if and when it happened as “they are like hens’ teeth.”

How long will it take? Well, the longest wait, I was told, was seven years and they were still waiting, and the fastest was six weeks. So it looks like there is some prioritizing that takes place once you get into the queue.

In a class I teach, we discuss the queue; its history, its form and how people feel when they are in one. For most, one minute in a queue feels like ten. Frustration levels rise and people get angry and impatient. Some queues are cool to be in – the line for a cool club or a fashionable eating spot for example. But for most the queue is not a good place to be in. Service providers should work towards managing the queue. They can do this by providing something for people to do while they wait or by balancing the service they offer with the people it seeks to assist: Put simply to balance needs with availability.

We can, while we wait, access a thing called “Take a Break”. This is four hours of respite a week, not on public holidays or weekends and only until 8.00 pm. It is not means tested and costs $40 per week. We can also do this privately through the agency. The cost then is $40 something dollars an hour up until 8.00 pm and $50 something after but at least we could get care after 8.00 pm and on weekends and public holidays if needed.For both of these options  a caregiver (with minimum Cert III Qualifications) will come to the house and mind mum while dad takes a break. The service they need, to keep them safe in their home, are not part of this.

But I question, why wouldn’t I just do this privately, place an ad seeking a suitably qualified person to come to the house and mind mum while dad takes a break? Rates for this sort of service on Airtasker are $25.00 per hour. I could, for just a bit more than the weekly price the government will charge, get a person with the qualifications and personality that suits us to come when we need it and have some control over the whole process.

I am trying hard to make sense of an incomprehensible system. I can’t do it. It is simply too complex and too crazy. I have all my faculties and still I struggle. Information is coming at me from all directions. None of it matches and none of it makes sense. I make sense of something then someone else gives me conflicting information that unravels what I previously understood. Yesterday I read a form that said, “If you don’t have a copy of this form, you can get it from …” It is a system where the blind lead the blind and the demented attempt to explain a process to the demented.

Mum has no idea of what we are doing on her behalf. When mum and dad argue, mum often threatens to walk to the river and throw herself in. Dad’s standard response is, “don’t be stupid, you wouldn’t even know how to find the river.”  Dad, half joking, suggested it may not be a bad option after all. I wonder how many elderly Australians just give up, eat toast, and rely on whatever help they can get from family and friends.

The So-called Service Sector

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My parents are aged in their 80s now. They are part of a generation of Australians that experienced WWII — too young to participate in active service but old enough for their lives to be ‘bookmarked’ by the austerity measures that accompanied it and the prosperity that followed in the 1950s and the 1960s. They built their own house in a new subdivision of Geelong when building materials were in short supply and when making a home, and raising a family were promoted by the Government as the most important ways to build a nation. They raised my two sisters and I in a place that brimmed with family and friends, they worked hard in a family business, they were active in community groups — Apex and Rotary — and my father did a stint on the local Council: They were the Mayor and Lady Mayoress for a term.

On Monday a nurse from the Aged Care Assessment Service (ACAS) came to assess their capacity to stay safe and continue to live at home. My mother has advanced Alzheimer’s and my father is legally blind. When he asked what they did, my father replied, “We just exist.”

Last night I made dinner for them, the food my mother cooked when she was able: Corned beef, baby carrots, mashed potato and broccoli. I even made parsley sauce. My father does most of the cooking now, with my sister and I taking meals to them twice a week. As I left to come home, my father gave me a bag of material that the ACAS nurse had left for him. There is a big book, DPS Guide to Aged Care, a brochure on how to access a home care package, one on changes to aged care packages, another on five steps to entry into an aged care home, an A4 envelope, information about respite services, information in your rights during an ACAS assessment, information on the assessment outcome, and an Aged care fees income assessment from centrelink; none of which my father or my mother can read.

Both my father and my mother have been assessed as needing care. My father is eligible for permanent residential care as is my mother. He is also eligible for low level residential care and a home care package. My mother is eligible for high level home care

Without even looking up statistics, I know that in Australia we have an aging population. I also know that it will be my turn in the next twenty years. I also know that the so-called service sector is the largest sector in our economy and that it is growing. I also know that technology is rapidly changing the way services are delivered. But what alarms me is the lack of service that the so-called service sector offers my parents and all other aging Australians.

For starters, how dare they give my father the material he needs to make decisions about managing his life in a format that he cannot access. In the digital age there are other formats … such as the spoken word.

But that is not all. On the information for clients sheets that my father can’t read, the sheet that informs him of the level of care they are eligible for, is the information on what they must do next:

To view your client record and support plans, you will need to create an account at www.mygov.com.au.

In fairness, there is a 1800 number for clients who need assistance or cannot manage that process.

This is just one example —albeit a critical one — where the service sector excludes older Australians. In our technology driven society we are encouraged to self serve, to drive through, to access information on line, but I can’t believe that even a service designed to deliver information and care to elderly Australians treats them and their particular needs with such disrespect.

Keeping the Fire Going

Just a year ago, mum would line seven glasses of water on the shelf above the kitchen sink and make dad drink them during the day.

“He doesn’t drink water,” she would say, “so I make him drink all seven glasses each day.”

On Friday I call in to have coffee and take mum and dad shopping. There is a two-litre bottle of Solo – fizzy lemon drink – open on the sink.

“She’s drinking one of these every couple of days,” dad says. “She insists that we buy three bottles every time we shop. I can’t stop her.”

Checking the label, there are 28 grams of sugar in each serve. I tell dad that he has to stop buying it.

Already it’s hot outside. Mum is sitting with woolen socks and moccasins on. I suggest sandals. She doesn’t know what they are or if she has any.

“You have some mum. I’ll get them.”

I find her sandals in a drawer at the bottom of her wardrobe and bring them to her. She looks strangely at them and puts them on.

She has a nasty ulcer on her foot. It needs a dressing and a doctor.

Finally dad has reached his limit. He has organized and assessment. My sister and I turn up unexpected at the appointed time. We both sense that we are not welcome there. We both sense that the people who do these assessments look on us as the greedy daughters who want nothing for our parents but want only to divide their assets. That is how we feel we are seen. We are there because we want to make sure the assessor gets the correct information from them. My sister says my dad is the dumbest smart man she knows.

The last assessor told me how well my parents were doing. What a lovely couple they were and how well they were managing things together.

The assessor was a nurse. He was about our age and he was gentle with mum. She responded well to him and laughed at her mistakes.

“What year are we in?”

“What day is it?”

“What season?”

Mum is strategic. She gets the day and the date from the newspaper on the table in front of her. She knows the season. She recognises that he is holding a pen and that he is wearing a watch on his wrist. But when asked to draw a clock face on a piece of paper and put the numbers in, she is muddled. She draws the clock face and puts numbers in. When asked to put the hands in for twenty to four, she puts in the four with a small hand pointing to it then looks hard at what she had drawn.

“I am missing something … a twenty … there is no twenty.”

He moves her quickly past her mistakes and onto the next set of questions.

“What did she like doing.” Blank. “What was the name of her daughter in America.” Blank.

She covered up, she used humour; she was sweet and compliant. When asked if she ever got angry she fudged an answer. When she was asked about the cleaner she said how lovely she was; how she had known her family forever and how she did a wonderful job. She didn’t mention that she has cut her back to two hours a fortnight and that she is not allowed to clean the kitchen, the bathroom or the toilet and that she follows her around putting two fingers in the air behind her.

He asked her if she thought she could manage on her own. “What if it were just you alone, no Bruce?” That was the question that everything else hangs off. What if any thing happened to dad?

Two years ago dad had a bad flu. I called in to see him.  Mum was bringing in logs of wood from the wood heap at the end of the garden – for the only heating they have in the house – one at a time. What if he gets sick in the winter ahead? Could she keep the fire going?

Chocolate cake and shower chair

I am surprised how quickly things change. In the two weeks that I have been away mum has slipped further and further away: Even dad now wants an assessment done so that he can get some respite. Dad needs help with two things. He needs me to distract mum so that he can make the call to arrange for an assessment and he needs to cancel a payment she receives as his caregiver. She no longer helps him to get around. She has given up cooking – even though she still looks at her recipe books and buys ingredients for things she used to make.

I sit with mum and copy out a recipe from her cookbook while dad makes a call from the phone in the back room. She repeats the name of the cake, “flourless chocolate cake Sue Candice”. She has no idea who Sue Candice is nor does she remember the cake. I doubt that she even understands flourless.

“So I should make this tonight,” she says.

“No, I am going to make it,” I say. Then offer to bring the cake I will make later that day so that she and dad can have it with dinner.

She keeps saying that she will make the cake and I keep correcting her. She wants to mark the page so that she can find it and make it later. We mark the page then, as dad is still on the phone in the back room, we go through the book looking at the pictures and other recipes.

When dad comes back into the kitchen I tell him that I am going to make the cake then mum says that she is making it. Dad then tells her that she bought the ingredients, cooking chocolate and ground almond meal, some time ago. He gives me a block of cooking chocolate and the almond meal so that I can make the cake. This seems like a good compromise.

At home I make the cake. Then I try to call Human Services to arrange for the cancellation of the payment. I am on hold and listen to a Mozart concerto over and over and over. After 20 minutes I put the phone into my pocket, leash the dogs and take them for a walk. After another 45 minutes Vanessa asks how she can help. I explain. She asks for mum’s date of birth. I have two wet dogs on a leashes and I am carrying a bag of dog poo. I tell her it is sometime in April, the 28th I think and that she is 84. She asks me to tell her the year. I tell her that I can’t do the maths in my head as I am out walking. I ask her if she could work out the year. She is frustrated with me as I explain that rather than sit around waiting for my turn in the queue I have left home and I am out with my dogs. I tell her I have a bag of poo, two wet dogs and I add that I too am frustrated. I add that I don’t have pen and paper to subtract 84 from 2017. She puts me on hold. When she comes back she tells me that she has searched five dates around the date I told her and that she cannot find my mother’s record with the information I have provided. I ask her if she can search under address or full name. I try to tell her how difficult this is for me and that I just want to do the right thing and stop a payment that my mother is no longer entitled to. I wonder who created such a rigid system.

She tells me she is very busy.

I tell her that I too am very busy.

She tells me I will have to ring back with my mother’s date of birth.

She terminates the call.

When I ring back a few hours later, the line is busy. I cannot even get a place in the queue. I wonder how old people navigate a system that is there supposedly to help them but that really doesn’t want to help them at all.

I take the cake up. I also take a shower chair up. Mum and dad are not showering and this is a concern for us. I think it is months since mum last washed properly and she smells. She also has a nasty rash that looks like a yeast infection on her neck. I hope that with the assessment dad has arranged, there will be some personal care for her.

I adjust the chair legs so that the height is good for her and put it in the shower then I take mum into the bathroom and show her how to use it. I fix the height of the shower and the soap so that she can reach them. I show her how she can put her towel on the rack inside the shower.

Then I take dad down and show him what I have set up for them. I explain where everything is and tell dad that all he will have to do is to make sure the temperature is adjusted and help her into the shower. Whilst I am with dad in the bathroom she says to my daughter, “I don’t need that person to show me how to shower.” When I bought it, I knew that the shower chair had the potential to make her angry. But when I demonstrated it I was surprised at how OK with it she seemed.

The next day I phone dad. He is tells me they have had a bad night, that she is angry about the shower chair, that she fell out of bed and was disoriented. He tells me that she cannot cope with people coming to the house, that she tries to follow what is going on but can’t. I think he is telling me kindly not to interfere. I know that mum would be horrified if she could see how she and dad present themselves now. I am just trying to preserve her dignity. I think she would want me to do this for her.

Miss Molly

Mum is disappearing very quickly now. Last night I went to visit – en route to walking the dogs –  with a  Lancashire Hot Pot for their dinner. Dad is doing most of the cooking now and craves the foods we used to eat. I said I would take the dogs to the oval down the end of the street and she was not aware there was an oval there.

She has forgotten who we all are when we talk about each other but knows us when she sees us. I suspect forgetting us completely is not far away.

She is dressing in strange combinations of clothes. On Friday she had a blouse over a blouse and her woolen tartan scarf wrapped around her neck.

Still I see the strategies she uses. I notice that she focuses on the things she knows and won’t let them go. At lunch on Friday she was preoccupied with a dog tied up outside the restaurant. So much so that she did not have to be part of our conversation.

Last weekend I picked her and dad up and brought them here to have coffee and cake. Kezia was here with Monty. Monty wasn’t well and we were singing songs to help cheer him up. ‘Miss Molly had a dolly who was sick sick sick. …’ Suddenly mum realised that she knew the words. Pardon the cliche but it was as if a light went on. She swayed from side to side keeping the rhythm and joined in for the last line … I’ll be back in the morning with my bill bill bill.

Lost at Sea

My partner and I made our first joint purchase, an artwork ‘Lost at Sea’ by Tasmanian artist Catherine Stringer. It was highly commended at the annual Mission for Seafarers’ Art Prize 2016.

It is a beautiful piece of art; a night gown made of seaweed using the technique for paper making adrift on underwater currents; a feminine piece in a masculine art show celebrating sea faring men and ships; a memorial to women lost at sea; shipwrecks, and the treachery of voyages on boats.

‘Lost at Sea’ spoke to me on many levels: The ephemeral, almost sensual beauty of the almost transparent night gown buoyed by currents; a feminine work in a masculine show; lives lost at sea past and present; the treachery a sea voyage for refugees now, and immigrants then. But there was something else about the work that made me want it. I needed to own it.

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When the prizes were announced the story of ‘Lost at Sea’ was revealed. The artist had made it to commemorate the shipwreck of the Cataraqui on 4th August 1845. The Cataraqui an 800 ton sailed from Liverpool for Melbourne in April 1845 under the command of Captain Findlay. On board were 369 men women and children from Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, and Staffordshire all eager for a new life in the colonies. The migrants were mainly women but there were 120 married couples, 73 children and 46 crew. After hitting bad weather on 3rd August, the ship struck a reef off Fitzmaurice Point on the west coast of  King Island 4.30 am. Many of the sleeping passengers struggled to the deck only to be swept away by the huge seas. Others were trapped below. By daybreak about 300 people were clinging to debris. During the day lines were cast along the ship to give people something to cling to but by nightfall only 70 people were left clinging to the deck and by morning 30 more had drowned. More died as night fell again.

The beaches presented a terrible sight that day – strewn with wreckage and about 300 bodies. Only nine people survived. Eventually the bodies that washed ashore were buried in four mass graves.

In August 1995 my parents went to King Island to Fitzmaurice Cove to a special service to commemorate the wreck of the Cataraqui. Joshua Black my mother’s great great grandfather’s son was one of the passengers who died that night. My parents bought a print of a painting of the Cataraqui and had it framed along with a piece of slate that they found on the beach. The slate was part of the ballast the ship was carrying. I was vaguely familiar with the story and our family connection to the shipwreck.

But what of a joint purchase? Do I feel safe now in the danger of new relationship or does this make me more vulnerable. What happens now if we don’t make it?

Lost at Sea

Lost at Sea by Catherine Stringer

The Photo Albums

 

Yesterday I went to the post office to collect a parcel. At the counter I looked at the flip side of the parcel pick up notice and saw that there were three to collect. The two unexpected parcels were from Apple Mac. They were photo albums compiled by Simon. The photo albums remain the only contested item in our separation after 18 years together.

 

Simon took on the role of family photographer. He documented, sometimes annoyingly, every event over the time we were together. He spent hours fixing the photographs into albums. When we separated, there were, from memory, at least 10 volumes.

 

Elena in particular loved looking through them. They documented almost her entire life up until then. When we separated and packed up our house, Elena argued that we should put the photos in our boxes. She argued that they were all of her; that her life was in those books. Knowing this would cause a problem, I suggested she tag the photos she wanted and we would sort it out later.

 

Simon argued that he took them therefore they were his. We argued, that they were all of us therefore they were ours. He had them and there was not much we could do.

 

First he sent CDs with scanned copies of the photos, but scanned images on a CD were no substitute for flipping through the albums. Yesterday he sent Apple books. It was clear that he had spent hours compiling them and the production by Apple was not cheap. My first thought was to send them back, then, I thought they were better than nothing, the books would do. But they won’t. My memories are of photo albums with stuck in photos under protective plastic, photos missing where the girls have removed one or two for school projects, with short annotations on the side, who, what, where, and when. The books have tidied up, and distorted the way I remember things.

 

The problem was that Simon had given the books a title: The Adams’ Photos. Then he wrote a descriptive foreword about how they were photos that he had taken of our family over the time that we were together. He wrote on the front cover that he was the Author. What I was looking at was not a representation of our lives but his representation and his edit of our lives. There were more pictures. The ones he selected reminded me of others. There was a large picture of me in bikinis I bought on a trip to Bali. I would never have selected this picture; pictures of my niece’s parents-in-law from a marriage that ended 10 years ago. Another picture that I would not have selected. The photos in the book reminded me of our house, parties, dinners, celebrations, school events, my open water swims, my friends, my sister’s visits from America, Christmas at the farm, my dogs, my parents when they weren’t frail and my mum before dementia.

 

The rational person in me knows that his work was an act of kindness and his narration was putting his stamp on the books as their proud compiler. The emotional side of me was angry. When I met Simon, the photo albums that he compiled of his first wife and their life together were stashed in boxes in our attic. I know that he has boxes of the photo albums of us stored out of site somewhere and this is about power.

 

The books made me sad.

 

Today, I had one last try for the original albums. I sent an email offering thanks and saying how I appreciated the effort he had gone to. “But it’s just not the same,” I wrote. “Could we borrow the albums for a month so that we can select and copy the photos we want?”

 

Finally he agreed. And like arrangements made between hostile parents for an access visit of a young child, he asked me to get my daughter to make arrangements with him to pick them up.