Beverley Stevens

A Proper Sunday Lunch

Steam wafted from the chink where the serving spoon emerged from the lid of the blue-and-white willow-pattern tureen. A peek within revealed the bright green of the sweet, steaming peas. But the matching dish on the luncheon table with its blanched and bland boiled potatoes muted the momentary anticipation. 

The table, extended to its full length, was set with a cream linen Jacquard tablecloth and heavy silver cutlery. We six children were gathered in from play and seated along with Mum and Dad. Gran carried in the platter of overdone roast leg of lamb and laid it down at the head of the table for Grandad to carve. Plates were passed and thin gravy poured from the Wedgewood gravy boat. Linen serviettes were taken out of silver serviette rings and spread over Sunday-best dresses. We did as we’d been told, remembered our manners—no elbows on the table, wait for Gran to start, don’t use your fork upside-down like a spoon, not even for peas. We restrained our voices and stifled our squabbles, hoping to avoid the humiliation of a reprimand.

Gran’s father was there too, but on the wall—stern, upright, pencil and notepad in hand—in front of the railway bridge he’d been in charge of building in the rugged terrain of the remote King Country at the turn of the century. Eight years later, the sections of track north and south were joined together and the vision of a main trunk line was realized. 

From the other wall, larger than life, the eyes of Louis XIV followed our every move with unwavering balefulness, as watchful as our sharp-eyed grandmother.  Louis’ gaze was unsettling, his presence incongruous in the over-full dining area of that modest mid-century New Zealand bungalow. Why Louis XIV, with his long, curly tresses, was there in pride of place, I never thought to ask. The finely-etched black-and-white print may have been produced by Gran’s great-great-grandfather, a talented art engraver who had operated a copperplate printing establishment in central Berlin.

The first course of lunch was negotiated without incident, knives and forks laid down, side by side as we’d been taught, before the empty plates were collected and returned to the kitchen. The raspberry jelly and fresh fruit salad that came next for dessert brightened our eyes and lifted our subdued spirits. I watched as it was served, hopeful of getting one of the handful of crystallized cherries scattered amongst the sliced banana, oranges and kiwifruit. Then, having asked to be excused, rolled up our serviettes and put them back into their rings, we lifted the seat of the monk’s bench that stood in the hallway. From its depths, we retrieved a ball, a skipping rope, and a hula hoop and broke out into the sunlight, onto the green grass with its shiny-leafed citrus trees. 

Even out in the garden, we curbed our energies. We were wary of running into one of the lemon trees that dotted the lawn or throwing a wayward ball that might smash a window. The prospect of Mum’s displeasure and Gran’s unspoken condemnation, not to mention the flash of Dad’s temper, was a scary combination. I was on edge, watchful of the younger ones. And I was bored, felt dull and drear, wished I could have stayed indoors and read. 

When the grown-ups’ talk was done, I was allowed to go with Mum and Grandad to his shop. Though retired, he ran the drapery store on Te Puke’s main street. He unlocked the back door and we entered through a dingy passageway housing a cluttered bench and an old sink, battered with age. The closed-up shop with the front window blinds down was gloomy too, even with the lights on. Behind the long dark wood counter were the wooden shelves crammed with rolls of fabric. Mum examined the bolts of boiled wool, the smooth cottons and the textured crimplenes. She filled a cardboard box full of remnants that she’d turn into clothes for us kids, like the matching set of shorts and top in a tiny gingham check with tie shoulders that Trish and I got for Christmas, hers light blue, mine turquoise. 

Meanwhile, I was free to finger the array of laces, marvel at the minutely graduated shades of coloured thread, and pull out the compartmentalized trays with their countless buttons in all shapes and sizes. I ran my fingers over the skeins of wool reveling in the softness, dreaming of the coziness of being enveloped in a big, blue, baby-wool jersey. But not for long; I maneuvered the big thick pattern books—Simplicity, Butterick and Vogue—into position on the stand, flicked to the junior ladies sections, and turned the pages in quick succession. No, no, no, then yes! The perfect sundress. It had thin straps, a square neck, and a full skirt. I became the picture of elegance portrayed on the page before me, poised and confident. It would be a stylish addition to my sparse wardrobe. Please, Mum? And can we take a pattern book home? Often the answer was no. But sometimes new books had arrived and Grandad relinquished the old ones for us to linger over, sprawled in the sunny patch of living room carpet, in the days and weeks to come. 

Today though, was a coming of age of sorts. From the ones he stocked in the shop for the better-dressed women of Te Puke, Granddad presented me with my first pair of stockings: dark tan silk with a seam up the back and, inside the packet, a tiny sample phial of In Love perfume by Norman Hartnell. I breathed in the scent of lilies of the valley and sensed the euphoria that the name promised. I loved the smooth silkiness of the stockings, but hated the uncomfortable contraption that held them up—a suspender belt that hooked around my undefined waist—and feared laddering them with sharp fingernails or a too-sudden tug as I rolled them on for Sunday morning church. Lipstick was not permitted. What would I have to look forward to, Mum said, if I started wearing lipstick at twelve.     

When we got back to Gran and Grandad’s house, my sister came running to whisper that our brother Chris had kicked a ball too hard in the wrong direction. The garage window was broken and he would have to pay for the repair from his pocket money. The atmosphere indoors was chilly. Hanging back at the edge of the room, Chris looked crushed and mutinous all at once. Perhaps that was the beginning of the long-running antagonism between him and Dad. We were treated to a meager afternoon tea of weak watered-down lime cordial and two (no more) of Gran’s home-made sugar-rolled cookies (and never take the last one). Everything in moderation. 

Our visit over, we all clambered into the Vauxhall Velox for the long trip back up and over the hills of the Kaimai Range. Snug in a warm cardigan, I was at last able to sink into myself; to drift into a reverie of having my very own kitten snuggled, purring, warm and soft on my lap.

Nowadays, one of Gran’s silver butter knives lives in my cutlery drawer. My sister has one of the silver candlesticks, my cousin the other; Chris has the Louis XIV print. Who knows what happened to the Wedgwood soup tureens and the silver spoons. Those treasures of an earlier era are scattered, sold or broken.

Gone too are the drilled-in table manners, social constraints and frugality of that genteel upbringing. Now, family get-togethers are relaxed occasions. There’s lots of laughter, food in abundance, and we may not even sit around a table for meals. My bookshelves offer plenty of good reading, and no-one tells me to go and play outside or to come and do the dishes instead. More than enough stylish clothes hang in my wardrobe. I have an affectionate old tabby cat. 

So why is it that I have an uneasy sense that, in shaking off the tiresome restrictions of an earlier era, something of value has been mislaid?


Beverley Stevens is a writer of creative nonfiction by night and a web writer by day. Her work has recently been published in leading New Zealand literary journals, Landfall and Headland. She lives in Wellington, New Zealand, where she’s been developing her creative writing skills through workshops and courses over the last several years. You can follow her on Twitter: @beverleystevens