Friday, August 6, 2010

"Pain, Amour, et Fantasie"

Ever get an action attack? You are looking for your one favourite t-shirt, and suddenly decide that you simply cannot stand the closet the way it is one second longer - so you spend the next three hours re-organizing. Or you shift a chair so you can sit in the light - and end up rearranging the furniture. Or you begin writing a quick note to a friend - and end up writing an epistle of biblical proportions.

This is the way our adobe oven got built. I suddenly decided I could not go for another day without an adobe oven - and a few weeks later it was done. Such activity attacks aren't surprising when you realize that they follow long periods of inactivity. In my case, we must rewind back to seven years earlier, to when we had just shifted in to our new home. Set in 12 acres of land, it had space all around for kids to play in, for noisy fights without annoying the neighbours, and for an horno - an adobe oven.

Rewind to fifteen years before that.

I was born in Argentina, where even in urban Buenos Aires schools we were taught about the hornero, a bird that builds its nest out of mud, to look like an oven. Those of us in the city knew these ovens existed, but would never see one unless we were to visit an estancia out in the country. So they always held a charm. The idea of an horno was a mythical something, a link to a truer sense of time and place, when being an Argentine meant more than gritting your teeth through 1000% inflation.

Fast forward fifteen years.

Wouldn't it be a swell idea to make an horno, I asked my husband Stephen. Oh, yeh, he said. An engineer friend, who spends part of the year in his own estancia with its own horno, drew me a lovely plan. A work of art in pencil, executed at my parents' breakfast table over mate. I handed the plans to Stephen, and waited.

Fast forward seven years.

I'm still waiting. But suddenly, I decide I must have my horno, right now. Why?

Rewind seven months.

The death of my mama, the most profound influence of my life. I could not ever hope sum up my mother in a few words, but she was that rarest of women: an earthy sophisticate. She was supremely stylish, and yet smiled when my father nuzzled her neck and told her he would rather she smelled like home-made bread than Femme by Rochas. Because Mama did bake: beautifully. A song by Peteco Carabajal, "Como Pajaros en el Aire" ("Like Birds in the Sky") always reminded me of her:

"Las manos de mi madre...
amasan la vida.
Horno de barro,
pan de esperanza."

"My mother's hands...
knead life.
Adobe oven,
bread of hope."

I began a naive painting showing my mother kneading life, the horno behind her, and my sister and I - as ever - looking to her. When Mama fell ill, I stopped painting it.

How does one deal with the death of a parent? In my case a lot of crying, soul searching, hugging, and then, business as usual. This business as usual thing is a cruel affair, because compassionate leave exists not only in jobs, but as an unspoken time limit in friends-and-relations minds. In an ideal world, compassionate leave would last a year minimum. But it doesn't, and we kid ourselves that work helps. But it catches up with you.

Fast forward some months after that. I'm a writer, and began to write a story based on one my mother had told me years ago. Although the story was totally different to the original, and it was neither about me nor about her, I decided to write it in Mama's voice, as if she were telling it to me. The story was about a girl who bakes magical bread in an adobe oven. It was more like a parable, and as the archetypes and metaphors and subtexts came thick and fast onto the page, I suddenly knew I had to have my own adobe oven right now. I knew building it had something to do with my mother, with something I'd postponed when I went back to business as usual.

I rang up Stephen and said, "I'm building an adobe oven right now. You're welcome to help."

So come in and break bread with me in El Horno, but a small note before you do: despite mentions of my birth country, this page is unabashedly Australian. Spellings and figures of speech are Australian, as are seasons of the year, measurements, dollar values and dates (ie. day first, then month, then year). Please don't e-mail me to ask if a tin of tomatoes is the same as a can of tomatoes!