The Apron

Originally posted here

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This blog post appears as the Museum begins to pick up the threads and we welcome visitors once more after a quiet period. It is written in gratitude for two great gifts – those of friendship and insight. Yet again, here at the Museum we find it is the objects which connect us and draw us closer into narrative. Today Sonia Boué writes an personal post about growing up with food, kindness and love at the end of two sets of apron strings.

I’m on the 17.33 Birmingham to Reading train – just pulling out of the station and I feel a strong wave of emotion pass over me as I reflect on my day spent in the company of strong women.

Sunshine and a smooth arrival by train. Birmingham is my hometown and despite the endless rejuvenation of this incredible city I still know my way. The route to today’s meeting is all about the changes – about noticing what is new and what remains of the Brum I knew decades before. I feel easy and light.

I’m meeting with artist and fellow a-n blogger Elena Thomas, who’s become both friend and now also now collaborator. Today Dr Jacqueline Taylor (artist/researcher) will join us to discuss a project we’re developing together. Jacqueline can provide the kind of theoretical unpinning to our project I’ve dreamed of ever since my earliest adventures with my grandmother’s handbag led to my use of objects in my work. This is exciting.

We sit around the table and talk a while about the genesis of the project, filling Jacqueline in. It’s going well. Elena has a gift for me – but I decide to wait to open it. I want to savour the moment and do it justice. But as the conversation flows Elena needs me to unwrap it – we need it to illustrate a point she’s trying to make about the draw of objects in our lives.

It’s beautifully wrapped with a kind of braid that looks Tyrolean to me. I’m making it up but I like the sound of the word as it trips from my mouth. The real point is that it looks to have unwound itself from Heidi’s waistband. Heidi as we know had no suitcase and wore her entire wardrobe up the mountain. This feels relevant somehow. We will be discussing suitcases too.

I pull it open, unfold the silver tissue, and gasp. It is the most charmingly beautiful homemade apron I have ever seen, I say. Jaunty, with tulips in the design! I thought it looked Spanish? Elena said. I thought of you! Yes – it could be. It could also be Tyrolean. As we take turns at feeling it and enthusing I declare it an apron of perfection.

Performance rose up in my mind and I wanted that apron about my waist, only the cafe inhibited me!

Part of my fascination with Birmingham lies in my schooling, surrounded by warm and powerful women of working class background. Mine was a rough school, in a predominantly working class area, a culture quite apart from my intellectual refugee/immigrant roots across the city in leafy Edgebaston. But a complex learning disability – unrecognised at the time – rendered me alien in my own home in one important way. I was rebellious and not intellectual. At school I was an oddity – hispanic and middle class with outrageously frizzy hair (this naturally was the era before proper “hair products” though we did have tongs and blow drying).

And so I shuttled between cultures on the journey to and from school – a long, winding, and cigarette infused bus ride. I could have, and did at times feel estranged from both my destinations, yet there was enough warmth to draw me into both. Looking back, the “Tyrolean” apron safely stowed in my backpack, I suddenly see that it was the aprons at both ends that kept me going.

My mother on one hand, statuesque at the helm of our galley kitchen (apron at her waist) and the dinner ladies on the other, their deep humanity unconstrained by the white starchy uniform apron. My dinner ladies, wore their white hats askew and twinkled. The food in those days was freshly made in the school kitchen and mainly good. We chatted and queued nudging one another glad to be out of class, we sniffed the air in anticipation, and the chain of whispers would begin. Crumble and custard! Or, oh no! Pilchards!

In my memory of those days I was unfailingly greeted with a wink and an extra scoop of whatever was going. Food, served with kindness, and love.

And so it was at home, equal doses from my mother’s kitchen of food, served with kindness, and love.

At both ends, it seems to me, this was never wavering. The apron – jaunty and joyful with it’s home machine stitched seams nicely fraying in parts – is soft because it has been washed often. It has been washed because it has been used often too, probably in the service of food, kindness and even love.

At the end of the meeting Elena drove me home. I wanted to have a cup of tea with my mum before leaving the city. Aged 89, mum still takes infinite pleasure in doing the honours. Tea and a Mr Kipling apple pie. Not homemade, she remarked, but not bad!

I have a large and capacious apron too. I’ve used it for performance but it also stands by in the kitchen. It strikes me that the apron is one of the great unsung garments of past and present, containing powerful associations. We often talk about apron strings as constraining, but the connotations for me are warm and wonderful.

Please watch this blog for further news on our collaborative project, which is in development.

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