If there’s going to be Panic, Let it be Organised

Mum was good in a crisis.

She was good when dealing with shock, when handling tantrums, when something unexpected happens, or just when things go to crap.

She knew that A Plan was needed – and that at the first sign of things going to crap, you first must stop and have a plan. Even if that plan was simply to make a cup of tea – it was still a plan.

Her motto: If there’s going to be panic, let it be organised…

The best example of this was when the Newcastle Earthquake hit in 1989. We first got the call over the radio (my father was a policeman back then). Both my parents were from that area – and my grandparents, aunts and uncles were still living around Newcastle when the earthquake happened. Within minutes, the word had spread and our phone was ringing off the hook. We weren’t the only people in our local town with family in Newcastle, and everyone assumed that we must know something because Dad was the local policeman. Soon people arrived at our house to wait for news. Our house had become Command Central.

With all these people, and everyone in a panic at this disaster, things could easily have gone to crap. But now on my Mum’s watch.

Mum immediately went into Action Mode. She did this without knowing if her parents were ok – or if her sister and their family were safe. She just starting organising people.

My older sister was in charge of our private phone. One of the local off duty constables manned the radio, and the other manned the police phone. Dad was sent next door to the police station with our address book to try and contact our family. My sister and I were in charge of the growing number of small children – we had to take them to the playroom and keep them quiet.

As people arrived – Mum gave them a quick update and then gave them a job. Someone made tea. Someone handed out the cups of tea. Another set up chairs in the lounge room near the radio. Someone else was in charge of making sure everyone had a biscuit to dunk in their tea. Someone was even in charge of handing out tissues.

I remember standing in the doorway – I had delegated the child minding to my younger sister and brother – and watching Mum. She was awesome. She gave directions, she consoled, she listened, she updated – but mainly she was calm and controlled.

It was only when Dad came in and said he had reached everyone in our family and they were all accounted for and safe – that she broke down momentarily. Dad held her and she had a cry for a moment, but then just as quickly, she wiped her eyes, lit a cigarette and said: “Right, who needs a coffee? I know I do.”

She was good in a crisis, my Mum.

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The Shopping List

A pen and a notepad went everywhere with Mum, and there were numerous ones amongst the house. In the kitchen, on the bench and on the fridge; by the phone; on the coffee table in the lounge; next to the computer; by her bed.

Lists were daily, weekly, seasonally, yearly. They covered cleaning, meals, shopping, To-Do, To-Buy, To-Make.

The first list I remember Mum teaching me – however inadvertently, like all her best lessons – was the Shopping List.

I remember her leaning on the kitchen bench, checking the cupboard and writing. Checking the fridge and writing. Checking the pantry and writing. She would send us kids to check the bathroom. And she would ask us what we wanted that week – this would sometimes and sometimes not get added to the list. If we asked for a new pen, we might have some success – but if we asked for Fruit Loop cereal – we nearly always missed out.

The Shopping List was written in three columns. The first was pantry and cupboard items – and would always start with bread and cereal, followed by any other items we needed. The middle column was fresh items – and it always started with milk and margarine, and continued to fruit and vegetables. The last column was toiletries and cleaning products. At the bottom right would be the list of meat – this was separate because generally this came from the butcher, not the supermarket.

Whomever went shopping with Mum – it didn’t matter which one of us kids, and nor how old we were – had the job of crossing off the list. I think I learnt to read by this method. Mum would push the trolley and as she loaded another item, she would say – ‘Did you cross off tinned tomatoes?’ or ‘Don’t forget to cross off carrots’. As we got older and could read a little more fluently, we would reciprocate: ‘Did you get gravy?’ or ‘Don’t forget the toothpaste’.

When times were tight, Mum also carried a calculator and added up as she went. This was always her job. But when we reached the checkout – it was our turn to add it up. We would each have to guess how much the groceries were this week. There was no prize here – just the personal satisfaction that you had beaten the others by getting closest to the actual amount.

Mum paid in cash – out of the budget envelopes she carried in her purse. I remember the awkwardness of miscalculating and having to put items back. But I also remember the joy at getting a milky way thrown into the trolley on good days too.

Online shopping has of course changed the way we can shop now. You can save your ‘trolley’ and add up as you go. There are now fridges with internet screens and apps to scan your barcodes when you empty a packet of peas. But nothing will ever beat the simply pen and notepad stuck on the fridge, or the very simply three column shopping list. It’s how I do it. Why? It’s how I was taught, of course.

Emergency Pack

Mum was pretty organised for most things. She loved lists and labels and being prepared.

This organisation was important living in the country. Not just because shopping was more infrequent but also for the emergencies that occur when living in the bush. Bushfires, floods. Natural disasters are unfortunately common.

So Mum had an emergency pack. This was generally in the pantry, but it would come out when an emergency was close.

I remember one summer when I was little and Dad was called out to fight a fire on edge of town. The chances of the fire coming into town were slim, but out came the emergency pack. It was a plastic tub, and it contained:
A torch
Batteries
The map book
Spare keys
A little phone book (this was before the days of mobile phones)
A notepad and pen
A first aid kit
Drink bottles filled with water
A packet of biscuits
Copies of our birth certificates, and other important documents

Mum would move the tub from the pantry to beside the front door. Next to this would go the box of photos.

Thankfully this box never actually left the house, as we never had to evacuate. But it was always there, just in case.

Paint Your Toenails Red

Every woman (and man for that matter) should paint their toenails red occasionally.

These were the words of advice from my Mum.

Especially if you’re feeling down – and need a boost. If you’re feeling a little shabby, and you hang your head – you’ll always smile if you have red toenails.

Even better – you could paint your toenails a different colour for each toe. That way, you’ll laugh when you look down.

Try it.

Bored (aka Board) Games

Mum – we’re bored.
Go find something to do then.
But there’s nothing to do.
Go outside. Read a book. Play a board game. Or else I will find something for you to do.

Well we didn’t want that. That meant chores.

So we’d almost always end up playing a board game. Monopoly. Scrabble. Boggle. Cluedo. They were the standards. We’d play on the floor, with cushions. And more often than not, after about 15 minutes of playing, Mum would bring us a snack – acknowledging we had made a good decision.

Board games were fun – but they also taught us how to share, to take turns, to be competitive, to win gracefully and to accept defeat with dignity.

Sure – they created arguments. Like the Christmas we fought hard during a session of The Game of Life. So hard in fact, that as a result – a new house rule was instilled by Mum. For the rest of the Christmas holidays each time we interacted with someone Mum would make us say: ‘I love you, I’m glad you’re here.’ Every time. It became a joke eventually – but it did help give us some perspective. We never did play Game of Life again though. That was tainted forever.

But mostly these games gave us our best Playing moments. I remember the marathon Monopoly sessions, using books to hide our Cludeo sheets and building mammoth dominio stacks.

These were the best family moments. No separate sessions on computers, phones, etc in separate bedrooms – we would all be in the one room, playing a game together.

Bored? Play a Board Game. How long since you last sat down and played a game with your family?

Becoming a Woman

When I was 9, my Mum took me on a day trip – we went for a drive and had lunch and she told me about the time when I would become a woman. I was made to feel special – and I was excited about the day arriving. She explained to me that I would be joining a long line of women before me, that everyone had their period – and that it wasn’t something to be afraid of, or to hide from, but instead, it was something that I should be proud of – something that I should look forward to even.

She taught me that to have your period is something to celebrate. Once a month, women are physically, literally, reminded that they are women. That they are blessed with a uterus – and most importantly, that they are participating in a momentous cycle of womanhood – one that has continued from the beginning of time until this very moment in our world today.

It is a shame now, that I hear stories of girls who don’t receive this simliar information – and instead are forced to learn of periods from textbooks, or worse, the media. They are made to feel isolated, and are disconnected from this ‘long line’ of women that my mother referred to.

Stories of girls who have their period for quite some time before even telling their mother or anyone else. They just go through the motions of purchasing a product from the ‘feminine hygiene’ section of the supermarket and join the queues of people who go through their lives hating having their period, and thus hating being a woman, and even worse, hating themselves.

When the day finally arrived – and I got my period – my Mum hugged me and we cried a bit, but we laughed and loved that I had become a woman. I remember begging Mum not to tell Dad – I think out of embarrasment really. But that afternoon, Dad went to the shops and came home with ice-creams. He bought my younger brother and sister a Paddle-Pop, and a Golden Gaytime for Mum, me and him. I had been bought an adult ice-cream. I felt so grown-up.  Dad kissed my forehead and said ‘congratulations’. Mum smiled and cuddled me. Eating that ice-cream with Mum and Dad, made me feel like I was a little bit more grown up than the day before.

To embrace this cycle – to embrace the female, is to be free. A free woman amidst the patriarchal and often anti-female world that we today live in. A Woman. But that is a whole other lesson from my Mum – one for another day perhaps.

Stand Up Straight

Did your Mum always tell you this?

Stand up straight. Stop hunching. Get those shoulders back. Stand proud.

Mine did.

And she taught me a neat trick to get correct posture.

Pretend you have a pencil pointing out from your shoulder. Now, draw a little backwards circle with that pencil – so that you roll your shoulders up and back. Do that – and you’ll stand up a bit straighter every time.

Stand proud, as my Mum would say.

 

A Family Dinner Favourite – Sausage Noodle Bake

Because there were often a lot of people to feed at our house – kids staying over, friends over for dinner – and because we’re weren’t exactly financially flush, Mum would serve these ‘Family Dinners’ which seemed to be made out of nothing. She could stretch 1/2 kilo of beef mince to feed 12, or two chicken breasts to feed 10 – it was an art of cooking that I am glad I watched and learnt.

One such Family Dinner favourite was Sausage Noodle Bake. This meal would often grace our table – especially when we had friends over. Mum would plonk the big casserole dish in the middle of the table and we could help ourselves. It was delicious. It was also a good way to get us kids to eat beans.

Sausage Noodle Bake

6 sausages

tin of tomato soup

tin of baked beans

a rasher or two of bacon

a packet of pasta (spirals preferably, but any old bits and pieces are fine)

some grated cheese

Cook the sausages (or use leftovers from last night’s bbq) and cut them up into bite size pieces. Cut up the bacon and cook that until just crispy. Cook the pasta.

Then mix everything together – pasta, baked beans, bacon, sausages and the tomato soup. Put all of this in a casserole dish – sprinkle the cheese over the top and pop in the oven for 10 minutes until golden brown.

You could serve with a salad – and this would make it go even further. But trust me – this could feed an army. It certainly fed all of us!

 

May I Leave the Table, Dinner was Nice?

After setting the table, we would all sit down to eat. Usually this started with a yell of ‘Dinner’s Ready!’ – from Mum or from whichever of us kids was helping with dinner. One of us always helped. Sometimes because we wanted to, sometimes because we were asked to – sometimes just because we wandered past the kitchen and Mum would say: Here, stir this or Here, taste this or Here, grate this.

The first to the table would pour the water for everyone. Never starting with themselves, always starting with Dad or Mum and then making their way back around the table – pouring their own glass last.

We would come to the table and sit down in our usual seats. I don’t really know why we had our own seats – but we did.

Mum would usually serve dinner in the kitchen – so The Helper would then bring the meals out. Again – a ritual here: it started with the youngest and finished with The Helper, and then Dad, and then Mum. Mum would bring her own meal out to the table.

We would all have our plates in front of us – taking a whiff of the yummy dinner wafting up to greet our faces. But we wouldn’t start – not yet. Not until Mum had come to sit down at the table.

We weren’t religious – so there wasn’t a prayer to start. But sometimes Mum would say “Cheers” and raise her glass of water. But mostly Dad would say: “Two, Four, Six, Eight – Bog in, Don’t Wait” and that would be our cue to start eating.

A few mouthfuls in, Mum would kick off the conversation – asking one of us kids: “What was the best and worst bit of your day today?” – and we would then take it in turns to tell a bit about our days. Mum and Dad would also tell us about their days.

This created a little safe space in which we might mention somewhere we needed a little help. We might say – “The worst part was eating my lunch by myself today” or we might say “The worst part was my maths test today”. And this would prompt some questions after dinner from Mum or Dad. Gentle questions of course, but because we had the safe environment to slightly open the door into our own day-to-day world – this allowed Mum and Dad to get a glimpse and they would peak inside and see if everything was ok.

Dinner would continue with a talk about what tomorrow would bring – what we had planned for the weekend.

At the end of the meal, we had to wait for everyone to finish everything on their plate. It was only in exceptional circumstances that you could leave the table before everyone else. I remember my little sister having to stay at the table once to eat all her peas. She was there for a very long time.

When we were very small, and in order to leave the table – we had to politely say: “May I leave the table, dinner was nice?” and Mum or Dad would say Yes.

This little phrase became infamous – due to my little sister (the one who wouldn’t her peas), being very brave one night. Perched on the end of her chair, she started to say the little rhyme: “May I leave the table, dinner was…” and before Mum or Dad had a chance to react she yelled out “YUCK!” and bolted from the table.

Let’s just say that Mum served peas with every meal for a while after that.

Setting the Table

Dinner was nearly always at the table. Breakfast rarely was, and lunch only occasionally. But dinner – almost always. The only exception was having hot chips on a rug on the floor if we arrived home late. Or if we had visitors, and the adults sat at the table and us kids were relegated to the rug on the floor. But even that rug had precision – it had etiquette. There were expectations about how to set the rug and the table.

I remember being very young and carrying plates to the table. I remember the moment Mum let me carry a glass to the table, and when she let me carry two – one in each hand. I must have only been about four.

We always started with a tablecloth or placemats of some sort. We also always had napkins – even if they were just squares of paper towel folded in half. We did have cloth napkins and napkin rings with our initials on too. But sometimes a slice of pizza works best with a paper towel napkin.

There would be cutlery – and not just a fork – the whole kit and caboodle: fork, knife and a spoon for pudding. Yes, we ate pudding most nights – generally fruit and custard, ice-cream or a baked dessert like apple crumble or rice pudding. Sometimes just bread and jam. Not a gigantic bowl – we’re talking a small spoon of ice cream and a couple of pieces of fruit.

There would be a jug of water and glasses.

And often a centre-piece – it might just be a candle, it might be a flower from outside in a little bit of water. It might just be an ornament. But we would have something in the middle of the table.

Lastly – condiments. Salt, pepper, tomato sauce, hot sauce, mustard, olive oil, vinegar.

These were The Basics.

This is how we sat down to eat dinner. As a family. Perhaps it sounds strange now because one of the saddest things some families have absent-mindedly misplaced – is the Family Dinner.

To set the table, is to set your intention. To set your family a place to come together and share a meal – to break bread, to talk and listen. To set the table is one ritual I am glad Mum instilled in all of us.

Does it still sound formal? It wasn’t. It was normal.