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When Delia Bennet—author and domestic advice columnist—is diagnosed with cancer, she knows it's time to get her house in order. Fresh, witty, deeply moving—and a celebration of love, family, and that place we call home—this unforgettable story will surprise and delight the listener.
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Table of Contents
Sources and References
About the Author
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
Publishers Since 1838
Published by the Penguin Group
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Originally published in Australia by Pan Macmillan Australia 2008
First published in the United States by G. P. Putnam’s Sons 2009
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The household guide to dying / Debra Adelaide.
eISBN : 978-1-101-02921-3
1. Terminally ill—Fiction. 2. Self-realization—Fiction. 3. Advice columnists—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the
author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living
or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses
at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for
changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does
not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Dedicated with love to the memory of
Adam Wilton and Alison McCallum
The first thing I did this morning was visit the chickens. Archie had already given them the kitchen scraps, so I leaned over the fence and scattered handfuls of layer pellets. As always, they fussed and squabbled as if they’d never been fed before and never would be again. Then I opened the gate and went to the laying boxes, where they crowded into one corner, although there was plenty of room. There were three clean eggs: two brown, one white. Not so long ago I could tell which chicken had laid which egg. Now sometimes I couldn’t even remember their names. I picked the eggs up carefully. One was still warm. Touch is extraordinary, how it triggers memory, and so then I did remember that the tea-colored ones were from the brown chickens, and the smaller white one was Jane’s. I held it to my cheek for a moment, savoring its warmth, its wholesomeness. I wondered if this was something that poets would ever write about, because it was an experience I treasured. The comforting shape, the startling freshness. The idea that this egg, white and perfect in the palm of my hand, was a potential new life, requiring of the world nothing but warmth.
Ripeness is all. That was something a poet once said. Eliot, I think. Or Shakespeare. Perhaps both—it’s hard to remember now.
With the eggs in my pocket I made my way back up the garden. Inside the house, the phone was ringing again, but I didn’t bother rushing to answer it. It stopped after five rings. It had been doing that a bit lately.
The air was rinsed clean from the rain earlier. I could hear the clipping of hand shears. That would be Mr. Lambert next door at work maintaining his lawn; Mr. Lambert for whom a heavy dew, rain or even a snowfall—if such a thing were possible here in the temperate suburbs—never inhibited his devotion to the task. As if in his latter years, all his focus could only be directed down. I realized Mr. Lambert had avoided my eye for years. I wondered if he thought about returning to the earth, now that retirement had gripped him and even his grandchildren no longer visited. Or was that just me, thinking about my own future?
Did I say future? I really wish there was the right word for all this, because irony doesn’t come close, is completely inadequate. For a start, I discovered that Eliot was right about the cruelest month—except here in the southern hemisphere it wasn’t April, but October. Spring was mocking me with its glorious signals that summer was on the way. The wisteria outside my window making the most splendid mess of the veranda. The driveway littered with papery blossoms. My car confettied with them. If I’d been driving this morning it would have been annoying, but instead I was free to admire the way the flowers had been tossed across the windshield. The shabby old car was as radiant as a bride. And now the sun was out and the wind was warm, I could smell the wisteria. Or perhaps it was the jasmine, which was along the front fence, just out of sight. My sense of smell was becoming muffled.
What is it about mauve and purple flowers? I remembered now that Mr. Eliot (my high school English teacher always referred to him with respect) also had a thing about them—lilacs and hyacinths—but for me it was wisteria, and now irises. Archie planted irises in an old concrete laundry tub he’d turned into a pond, and each year they were more crowded and abundant. I’d been watching them over the past week or two. Their great long spears. The subtle swell of the buds on the stems. On the way back from the chicken shed, I noticed that the first one was out. It was bent over—perhaps the rain earlier was stronger than I thought—but the bloom was unharmed. I cut it and placed it in a vase on the kitchen bench. It was beautiful in a frankly genital way. Dark purple with a lick of yellow up each petal. And no scent at all. I think the scent of lilacs would make me retch now.
I’d always thought that this soft margin between winter and summer could never be cruel. But now I was as bitten by cruelty as the poet was. Spring is the time of hope. Of inspiring songs and rousing actions. Of possibility, of anticipation, of plans. People emerge from winter after tolerating autumn’s capricious start to the season, and know that if spring has arrived then summer isn’t far away. Every spring our local community has a picnic in the park nearby. Children have outdoor birthday parties. Spring is the time of action, of cleaning, of revolution.
Revolution. I thought a lot about the precise meaning of words now. And their sounds. Revolution is like the word revulsion. Disgust. Rejection. This morning I hadn’t yet faced breakfast, which would only be half a slice of toast, no butter (there was no question of eating one of those eggs in my pocket). The poets were right about one thing, ripeness is all, but I’d like to tell Mr. T. S. Eliot that his spring represented an insipid kind of cruelty compared to mine. A laughable cruelty. It didn’t get more cruel than this: the season of expectation, of hope, of growth; the season of the future, when there was none at all. It was spring when I’d had the first operation, giving me just long enough to recover by the end of the year and face my Christmas responsibilities, instead of languishing in bed as I’d have liked. Spring again when I discovered the operation hadn’t arrested the cancer. Further removal of body parts and intensive chemical treatment represented a Scylla and Charybdis between which I was pounded for another six months or so. Really, I would have preferred to row backwards, but Archie begged me to keep trying, my mother persuaded me, the fact of our two young daughters reproached me, and so I pushed on. And up until the last operation, when my body was sliced, sawed and prized open (the head this time), I still retained a scrap of hope.
But now the cruelest season had arrived again with an unmistakable finality. At least Mr. Eliot had his dry stones and handful of dust to look forward to.
Can you settle an argument I am having with my friend (we play golf together)? She says you should only do your grocery shopping with a list. That I waste time and spend more money without one. I always take my time and think about it, and it’s true I sometimes come home and forget that I needed lightbulbs or rice flour. But then so does she.
P.S. We are both sixty-five years old.
I’m sure that the incomparable Mrs. Isabella Beeton would have maintained that the efficient housewife never undertakes her grocery shopping without a list. It is said that impulse buying is curbed by taking a list. That a list prevents the unscrupulous vendor forcing unwanted goods on the customer. However, life is short. There’s a lot to be said for spontaneity. You might occasionally forget the lightbulbs but I bet you buy those dark chocolate Tim Tams when they’re on special, or extra tins of salmon when you already have stacks in the pantry. I bet your list-carrying friend does, too.
P.S. Mrs. Beeton was only twenty-eight when she died. Your friend might want to think about that next time she’s writing her list.
Home Economics was promoted to a science sometime in the 1970s. I never took the subject myself, already being domestically taught by my mother and grandmother. Both believed in the deep-end school of home training. And so my grandmother, who cared for me when I was a preschooler, simply pointed me in the right direction and I started to scrub, soak, mop and sweep along with her. When I was a bit older, my mother, Jean, whose specialty was the kitchen, took over. I had to whip, fold and poach (later stir-fry) with barely a lesson. Their theory was that I’d simply pick it all up, that as a female I would learn all this by osmosis. A ludicrous idea, one might think, but there must have been something in the osmosis theory, for I learned without blinking. I understood sewing, cooking, cleaning and knitting. By the time I reached high school and was forced to take a term of cookery, I realized there was nothing more to discover. Learning a subject like domestic science seemed as elementary as learning how to catch a bus or post a letter. Didn’t everyone just do these things? And by then I liked movies, books and music and couldn’t see much scope for that down in Mrs. Lord’s austere kitchens or Miss Grover’s sewing class.
Thirty years later, it was different. We women of the early twenty-first century knew we were poised somewhere between domestic freedom and servitude. The home was ripe for reinvention. Even the theorists were claiming it. Angels were out, they’d been expelled years back. Now you could be a goddess, a beautiful producer of lavish meals in magnificent kitchen temples. Or a domestic whore, audaciously serving store-bought risottos and oversized oysters and leaving the cleaning to others. Goddess or whore, both were acceptable.
For Isabella Beeton, on the other hand, home management was a matter of martial discipline and political strategy, with the mistress of the house both the commander of an army and the leader of an enterprise. By the early twentieth century, housework was a matter of economics. The housewife was the linchpin of an autonomous economic unit. Then it became a science, and all that occurred within the home was accountable to clear logic and linear process. Making a batch of cupcakes was the same as distilling a chemical formula. Children given the right quantities of affection and punishment could be raised as successfully as a batch of scones at exactly 170 degrees centigrade for fifteen minutes. Not that domestic science meant a woman was a domestic scientist. That could never be entered on forms under Occupation.
Finally the home became a site. Housework, like everything else from surfing to jelly wrestling, has now been hijacked by theory. Whatever the present name for the subject is in the secondary school system, I bet it doesn’t include the word home. No doubt there are numerous research projects and dissertations under way right now on the house as locus, the discourses of vacuuming and the multimodality of the food processor.
Though perhaps not. It is women’s work, after all.
One morning, I was contemplating a list that I’d retrieved from the kitchen bench. I was still in bed, the same bed in which I had cavorted with my husband for the last dozen or so years and had the most tender and exciting sex of my life, though, I now realized, not nearly enough of it; conceived two children and borne one of them (the other came close, but stubbornly exerted her right to enter the world via hospital intervention); read innumerable books, many of them excellent, a lot of them trashy but wonderfully so; drunk countless cups of tea every Sunday morning while skimming the tabloid papers with an equal mix of cynicism and delight; and made notes on all sorts of things, including writing lists.
Lists were not essential to my life. Nothing would change now if I never wrote another, and I suspected that without them I might still have got things done. But this particular morning’s list was not for me, and I’d written it late the night before.
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Book Description Bolinda Audio, 2012. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M1743108974
Book Description Bolinda Audio, 2012. MP3 CD. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P111743108974