Without wishing to sound clichéd I begin my thoughts this week by asking the question: How long does it take a man to tidy a pantry? The answer in my case has been four weeks. Well to be more precise four Mondays! Before minds begin to think that the pantry in question must be attached to Castle Howard or Buckingham Palace it certainly isn’t. It is under the stairs of our two-bedroomed home in Otley. The origin of tidying the smallest room in the house began as a relatively random thought oozing with good intention. Having, on the first Monday, begun to put the idea into action, by simply removing a row of condiment jars from an upper shelf, something behind the containers dislodged itself. It was the box containing the inner workings of the house alarm. The external and internal sirens rang out bringing an ever vigilant neighbour at the speed of an Olympic athlete to the door to see what had caused the commotion. Guilty as charged from the look I received, and attempting to have a socially distanced penitential conversation over and above a noise that appeared to be hailing an imminent nuclear attack, profusely apologising for bringing such uproar to suburbia, I did what I felt was appropriate, and reached for the nearest useful tool that I could lay my hands on in a vague attempt to take charge of the chaos of the moment. In this instance the tool was a pair of scissors. Armed and on a mission I cut the first wire. The racket continued. A second wire was likewise guillotined, and still the uproar went on. Never having used a code, our neighbour’s plea that I should try to remember four little digits before I continued the butchery of wires wasn’t really an option, so with a third slash, silence was eventually restored to the neighbourhood, although for several hours the piercing screech of the alarm rang in my ears. It was the eerie spectre of what felt like Original Sin. Unable to comprehend what I had done and feeling about four years of age as I tried to grasp the enormity of having to explain the scenario to Dad, I decided to postpone any further exploration of the pantry, at least for the time being. My attention for the remainder of the day was concentrated on the garden where, having new founded prowess with a sharp implement I tackled a couple of jobs Dad had mentioned to me that he’d intended doing after Christmas. My attempt at gaining some brownie points involved pruning Hydrangeas and Pampas Grass, the latter of which I discovered can bite back with its sharp stems.
It goes without saying that I am not the most practical of people but as I have heard many times over, usually from Dad, I inevitably know a little man who can help me. So on the second Monday given over to tidying the pantry, the small space was occupied by the near sainted, Stuart, who had been dispatched from Harford’s in Dewsbury (other alarm companies are available!) to assist this cleric in distress. With doors and windows open, Stuart worked indoors whilst I found more gardening jobs to do. Having workmen in the home during Lockdown isn’t an easy feat to juggle. Needing to go to his van for some parts, afforded me the opportunity of being hospitable offering Stuart refreshment which he eagerly accepted. I then had to ask him to remain outside until, as I played the role of the masked coffee-maker, we could swop locations, allowing me to once more return to the great outdoors. Occupied for some hours, Stuart eventually said that his task was complete. In our parting conversation he consoled me with the fact that as the alarm box was indeed held in place by the containers that I had inadvertently moved vibrations from traffic on the nearby road could have dislodged the precarious scenario at any time, going on to say that what had happened the previous week was better than getting a phone call from not too pleased neighbours at two in the morning, who would then have to endure further nocturnal disturbance until I arrived bleary eyed from Cleckheaton. After about a quarter of a century in service, Stuart also said the alarm was somewhat out of date. A comment made thankfully out of earshot of some fixtures which are approaching the completion of their sixth decade in the service of the Hird family. The consoling words and ultimate feel-good factor that was a part of the service received were clearly included in the subsequent bill that fell through the letter box, devoid as it was of mates-rates!
A fortnight later than intended work in earnest began on the pantry. The work of the previous Monday meant that as well as the new alarm system, I would also have to explain the disappearance of a shelf to provide wall-accommodation for the box containing its internal workings in a future conversation with Dad. The condiment shelf was now gone, space reduced and that which was familiar and frequently used had to be found a new home. The lot of a tidier with good intention is not always a happy one ! In trying to find an explanation for the length of man-hours it took me to tidy the pantry all I can offer, through discovery, are its Tardis-like proportions. Tins and packets were stored deep and high, every space, nook and available inch on shelf and floor were filled, so much so that I began to wonder if my parents in earlier times had used some kind of adapted fishing net to reach items stored at its rear. Then I recalled as a small child having to step – with care – over numerous things on the pantry floor in order to retrieve an item stored deep within it. Back in the present, not unsurprisingly, knowing Dad’s good household management, when removing jars, bottles, tins and packets, I discovered just one item that was out of date, and it was respectably so, stamped with the date November 2016. Other items were lined up for washing and replacing, with perhaps just a little sorting out going on in and amongst too.
My Mother was a gatherer, at times over and above any scale of known measurement! Not everything that she acquired was used, but at the time of purchase or other means used to obtain things (all legal I hasten to add!), something within her convinced her that there was no living without the item. It was a trait that she shared with Queen Mary, the present queen’s grandmother, who when visiting friends would often comment on an item of china displayed in their home. More than one reference to the item meant that she had her eye on it, and if she made a move to inspect it at closer quarters, perhaps even removing gloves to handle it, then the implied expectation was that the hostess or host would insist that she took it home with her! The presence of so many baking bowls, measuring jugs, and other culinary related items being lined up for a bath in the kitchen sink would have done the likes of Rosemary Shager proud. For the life of me I could never recall when the glass jelly moulds I was liberally dipping into hot water enhanced by soapy suds had ever held their intended contents, nor when juice had been extracted from any form of fruit using the plastic or glass squeezers I was drying with vigour. Regrettably Queen Mary is no longer with us, otherwise I may have been tempted to invite her to Otley for tea, displaying our vast array of pantry-housed accessories, hoping that one or more may take her eye! Although I doubt that the host of mainly English pottery-makers’ marks on the base of many of them would have carried the same clout in her eyes as Dresden, Royal Copenhagen or even Wedgewood!
Virtually every item brought out of the pantry held a memory; from the selection of plates and saucers retrieved from successive sets of tableware we had used over the years, to the basin in which the Yorkshire Pudding was prepared as Mum’s first job on a Sunday morning, the Pyrex-ware that held vegetables on high days and festive times, the mixing bowl used on a weekly basis for the making of cakes and buns and from which, prior to its washing, I would almost beg a taste of the unbaked mixture in my pre-school days, the iconic and trusted enamel gravy jug which made an appearance in the kitchen every Sunday lunchtime, to the floral and Bumble Bee bedecked food cover that Mum had somehow managed to obtain, Queen Mary style, from the cream tea stall at a Summer Fayre in Dewsbury. Not one item seemed random, all had a history, each had a part to play in our family life, collectively and individually they were more than they seemed on opening the door and seeing them stacked together. There were also near relics of other regular visitors to our home in times past, such as the Rington’s Tea distributor and the selling abilities of the Betterware Rep, typified in the presence of a pyramid shaped humanitarian insect catcher dangling at the end of a short pole. Another must have item, which had clearly remained unused.
A fourth Monday given over to “Operation Pantry” saw shelves being wiped down, a floor washed and the replacing of what had been disturbed. There was a lesson for the learning, as I soon discovered the interior of the Tardis appeared to have shrunk, as I replaced crockery and utensils in places from which I thought I’d removed them. Clearly a plot was afoot and they had either multiplied in protest at my handling of them or had enlarged when coming into contact with hot water. Either way a little culling took place, and those for which I really could not see future use (whilst others, i.e. Dad, may well have done) were discreetly placed into a waiting large and strong bin-liner. Eventually the task was complete, and rather like God at the end of some of the days of creation, the stories of which from Genesis formed our daily Mass readings at the beginning of the week, I “saw that it was good.” However any further similarity with the creative work of the Almighty ended there as unlike the Trinity the rest that They were able to enjoy on the seventh day failed to arrive for yours truly. Instead, my wandering eyes began to look around for further tasks needing my fettling skills.
On closing the pantry door I didn’t notice the “cherubim and flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24) that were posted by God on humanity’s departure from the Garden of Eden, but I couldn’t help thinking how extraordinary the ordinary can be. The odd plates with their “Indian Tree” or “Willow Pattern” design that provided the tableware used at our household table rituals were not dissimilar to the precious metal church plate housed and displayed in Minsters and Cathedrals such as York or Durham. The placing of them on our trusted yellow Formica kitchen table at a given time, the saying of Grace before tucking into the delights of a menu that had a familiar weekly appearance to it, and of the use of serving dishes, napkins and decorations, marking special times, reflected a kinship to the kitchen of Martha at Bethany or the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Table fellowship is at the heart of our Christian tradition: the sanctifying of the ordinary and the gifting, in return, to the Faithful of the ultimate Extraordinary. Around tables stories were told that gave material for the authors of Sacred Scripture to use, instances and names forgotten by one but remembered by another. Across an array of dishes and foil packaging tales continue to be shared of work, rest and play. Conversations that become the very stuff of shared family memory, perhaps also forgotten until vaguely recalled at the time when a significant component of the unit is taken away leaving the remnant to give increased worth and value to that which was previously every day, mundane and routine, as the words of the poem, The Old House poignantly convey: “Lonely I wander through scenes of my childhood, They bring back to memory the happy days of yore, Gone are the old folk, the house stands deserted, No light in the window, no welcome at the door.”
None of us has to walk into the likes of St. Peter’s in Rome or even either of our own churches to sense the awe and wonder of what it is to stand on hallowed ground or to feel the sanctity of a space. The holy and sacred can be much closer than we think and found where we least expect them. Faith adds a further dimension to our surroundings as we acknowledge a Creator God who gave us a role, as steward or custodian, preparing, in our turn, to hand on to others something that – it would be good to think – is in better shape than when it was entrusted to us or at least has been well tended and cared for during our watch.
Wherever you can identify spaces, places and most importantly people sacred to you, cherish the encounter. Sometimes there can be no going back to them, but we have the God-given capacity to carry them with us and not discard or leave them behind forever. Life’s journey presents us with many doors to open. The greatest is that of the heart of another human being. It is the Holy of Holies, the place where we are most likely to encounter something of the face of our Creator God in another human being. May our exploration of this sacred space be with an awareness that we are indeed treading on holy ground, and may the door to it always be ajar for us to enter freely… and discover its hidden mysteries.
United on a daily basis in thought, prayer and affection.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas
P.S. I hope that for all entering their pantries this weekend it will not take four days for you to emerge from them!