gail schimmel

The blog of writer Gail Schimmel: A bit of writing, a bit of parenting, a bit of thinking and some book reviews

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at my mother's knee

Recipe: Mayonnaise

My mother’s parents were not practicing Jews and they celebrated none of the Jewish holidays. But they also didn’t celebrate the Christian holidays. My father’s parents were atheists and from what I gathered, only celebrated St Nicholas Day which is a Dutch thing and involves St Nicholas (Santa) bringing children presents and a chap called Black Pete taking bad children away. My parents were far too politically aware to bring me up with that tradition. So what were we left with? Easter.

My mother was sent to an Anglican boarding school – a fact that I could write several pages about – but for the purposes of this story what is important is that in those days the boarders did not go home for Easter. So my mother was raised with an Easter tradition. . . albeit a boarding school one.

So we celebrated Easter. But because we…

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Cooking in the deep end

at my mother's knee

Recipe: Joyce’s Chops

The first time that I learnt what cooking for a family every single day was like was when I was 16. My mother had a hysterectomy – which back then was a bigger operation than it is now – and it got infected. She was flat on her back for six weeks, and my dad and I had to cook.

Two funny stories from that time before I go on:

The one is that my dad made this really dreadful dish of bananas wrapped in ham and covered with cheese sauce – only he couldn’t remember how to thicken cheese sauce so he just kept on adding more and more and more flour. . . it was inedible.

The other funny one was when I asked my dad to buy “a few” potatoes while I was at school, and he bought 20kg. For a family of three.

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Childhood tasks

at my mother's knee

From when I was three, my mom worked. But she arranged it so that she got home quite early in the afternoon, and a lot of the time that we spent together involved me helping her with the things that she loved to do – gardening (as we are doing in the main photo) and cooking.

There were certain tasks that were mine for as long as I can remember. When we planted seedlings, it was my job to draw lines with my fingers to mark where the seeds should be, and to put the little protective hats on the seedlings. And when we cooked, my tasks increased with my age. But the kitchen job that was always mine was topping and tailing the beans. With my small fingers and thumb nail, I would remove the top and end of the bean. If you do it right – which is…

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A hungry playdate

Remember to have a look at my new blog – here is the latest post.

at my mother's knee

Recipes: salad dressing; deep fried chips.

When I was about 9, a little girl that we will call Emma befriended me. Her name was not Emma, we’re just calling her that. Now Emma was the child of a very well-known Johannesburg business woman, who at that time was just starting to become really successful. Emma’s parents were divorced and what Emma had in financial comfort, she lacked in parental attention. But what Emma wanted, she got – and she wanted to be friends with me.

So a playdate was arranged (although back then we just called it “coming to play”) and Emma arrived at our humble abode. Now my mother, at this time, was fairly enamoured with our relative poverty. Remember, she had come from the world of white nannies and she’d even had her own pony called Gipsy (which she hated, but still). In her eyes, the hand to…

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My grandmother’s knees did not cook

I have started a new blog with a focussed angle – please go along there and tell me what you think !

at my mother's knee

I learnt to cook at my mother’s knee, but my mother did not learn to cook at her mother’s knee.

(She is pictured here ON her mother’s knee.)

My mother’s mother – Lilian “Lali” Kahn Klein – was one of 7 children born to Latvian immigrants Ida and Ludwig Kahn. Ludwig was a plumber (and by all accounts, a bit of a philanderer) and I can only presume that Ida cooked for her 7 children – I imagine kosher food from the old country. But Lali married well when she married my grandfather, Elias “Jumbo” Klein. Jumbo was the child of Russian immigrants – allegedly close relatives of Trotsky who fled Russia through Germany, abandoning the telling name “Bronstein” and becoming Kleins along the way. Jumbo was clever and with an engineering degree from MIT, he became one of the founding directors of Iscor.

So Lali did not need to…

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The Homework Question

If you had asked me in December where I stood on the homework, you would have found me faltering weakly on the fence. On one hand, I know there is a lot of research coming out that homework has either no effect or a negative effect on marks. On the other hand, I am a bit old school on issues like self-discipline and good work ethics.

But this year, I started to fall off the fence. Because my son is in Grade 2. Yes, you read right – Grade 2 – not Grade 4 or 7 or 9 or matric. Grade 2.

“I don’t really believe in homework,” said our lovely teacher at the beginning of the year. I still think she is lovely, but if this is someone who doesn’t believe in homework, then I don’t know what’s in store for us in future years. From an adult point of view, it’s not a lot of homework. Maybe about half an hour a day.

But seven year old boys don’t work in linear time, and my whole afternoon is taken up yelling, “Have you done your homework?” and “When you’ve done your homework”. As a result, my son doesn’t hate the homework, he hates me.

And then this weekend I bumped into a Grade 3 mother from my school, and she told me that next year they start doing so much sport (which is great) that they get home late (which is not) and have even more homework to do than before (which is terrible). It sounded like such a nightmare that I nearly lay down on the floor at Sandton for a cry.

As adults, we don’t expect ourselves to do a 7am to 7pm day, and then still work in the evenings. (Well, I don’t. If you do, you need to take a good long look at your life. Sorry, but you do.) But apparently from mid primary school, we expect this of our children.

And while it may help consolidate what they learn in the day, and it may teach some elements of self-discipline, from what other moms tell me, it mostly just serves to make life at home miserable. And home is actually where our kids are supposed to feel safe.

I’m still a bit on the fence. I don’t know that homework per se is the problem. But something isn’t feeling right when the part of my week that causes me to take the deepest breathes is Grade 2 homework.



My name is Gail and. . .

It’s been one of those weeks when I have to start wondering if social media is at all good for me.

A long time ago, I was the most anti-Facebook person that you could meet. I had three reasons– the one that it cannot possibly be a good idea to have so much information about a person in one place. It’s all a bit Big Brother is watching us and it’s scary. Read Ben Elton’s novel, Blind Faith, if you don’t believe me. Also, I did not think that anyone could really care about the trivia of my life, or I about theirs. The last problem I had was that I was convinced that it opened doors for some sort of mass computer virus. I patiently waited for everyone else’s computer to crash so that I could say, “Hah!”

But then something happened – I’m not even sure what. Perhaps I realised that saying “Hah!” is over-rated, and that the CIA can find out all about me anyway if they want to. So I joined Facebook. And then Twitter. I even have a Pintrest account but I don’t use it. But Facebook and Twitter – let me make no bones about this: I’m an addict: I reach for my phone first thing every morning; I stop mid task to take a peek; I follow links that I have no real interest in; I feel an obligation to post things; and, most dire, I read comments on public postings.

My phone is always close to me – not in case it rings, but in case I feel a need to check something. I try to justify this to myself by telling myself that I have a very busy active mind that needs to be entertained and informed all the time. “Hah!” I can hear you saying, justifiably.

Here’s the thing. I’m a child of the 70s and I clearly remember my mother going everywhere with her cigarettes and lighter tightly gripped in her hand. I hated it! And now I go everywhere with my cell phone tightly gripped in my hand, and even though it doesn’t stink, I’m pretty sure my kids hate it too.

And it’s not even like it makes me happy. In the last few days, I have found myself making sarcastic comments in response to an advertising tweet, getting embroiled in twitter matters that I don’t even have strong opinions about and, worst of all, becoming completely enraged because if you read the public comments on some things you realise that most people are idiots. Just this morning I clicked on an article about David Beckham (in whom I have ABSOLUTELY NO INTEREST) and then found myself talking back to the comments on the article. Like a crazy person. Or an addict. . .

I think it’s time for me to take a break. But like all addicts, I have no idea how to begin. And anyway, I just have to post this blog onto Facebook and Twitter and then of course you might have some comments that I must reply to and I need to see how many likes I get and also if anyone retweets and also maybe there’ll be another article about David Beckham and I can’t miss that and maybe there’ll be a big news event and I wouldn’t want to be out of the loop and also what if I miss your birthday. . .

They say the first step to recovery is recognising the problem. I’m not convinced.