We have a new bread board at our house.
It’s smaller than a sheet of A4 paper. It has curved edges and a raised rectangular surface for cutting. This surface, crisscrossed by knife marks, has been worn through on the long edges to erode a hollow. A deep split carries through to the underside which is marked by the tree rings of the pine from which it has been cut. This side is even more concave.
I was holding the board as I made my initial notes and thought tenderly of its long life and the kitchens it has worked in.
I think I remember this board being present for all of my life. It was always in the kitchen of 25 Church Street, Eaglehawk, Victoria, Australia, The World, The Universe where I grew up. When clean and dry, it leant next to a larger round board tucked beside the bread bin. As a child, I remember being told to turn it over if I wanted to chop tomatoes or anything other than bread. “We don’t want the bread to smell of onions.” I think you were allowed to chop butter for pastry on the top bread side.
What a lot of meals it has been involved in! There were six of us, and sometimes seven, when Dad’s father came to live with us. We always had three vegetables, white, green and yellow, served with whatever meat it was. I now remember the vegetable knife: small, fiercely sharp and with a painted red handle. No wonder the chopping side wore thin and hollow.
When Mum, aged 86, moved bravely from her home of nearly sixty years to her unit at Donvale Retirement Village in Melbourne’s outer east, the bread board came with her. Here, they settled into a new kitchen with wide benches, a noisy fan forced oven and the wonders of a double sink. Instead of being washed up in a single sink facing a wall, now the board could be washed and rinsed and sit in a dish rack in the afternoon sun facing a gravel courtyard and a bank planted up with diosma, grevillea, westringea and agapanthus. For years, since the advent of sliced bread, it had become mostly a chopping board. However, her lunchtime sandwich would still be made on the top. Gradually the board did even less work when Mum increasingly ate bought frozen meals as her sight and energy faded.
By the time she was 92, she was getting very tired managing on her own, even with a lot of carers coming in to help, so the painful decision was made to move into supported care where she would be safe and looked after. This time, her world contracted to a single room which she furnished with her special cedar chest of drawers, her very comfortable reclining chair and some pictures.
Again, I had to clear her house. Such of a lot of it was my life too because what she had brought from Eaglehawk was a crystallization of what was important to her and most of that was very familiar to me. I found that there were items that I could quite easily put in the skip as rubbish, even though I didn’t want to think about that too much, then there were better items that were clearly suitable for the Salvation Army. Last, there were the items that swiftly brought pangs into my heart and painful tears to my eyes. The breadboard was one of these.
It lives with us now in our flat which we moved into at about much the same time as Mum moved from Eaglehawk. I like to use it, even though it rattles and wobbles on our hard benches. Its lineage stretches back to those childhood Eaglehawk days and the memories of food and eating in that big, family kitchen looking onto the grevillea bush with honeyeaters hopping around inside it.
The board has worn and hollowed, as has my mother in her increasing frailty. But it has endured, still displaying its original growth rings. My mother’s brave inner spirit lives on in her worn old body generating respect for the strength and endurance of age. This thin old chopping board reveals the work and nourishing of a lifetime.