When I was 30 years old my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, at first it seemed like she would have the required treatments but could fight it off, we were naive and innocent and had no training in what to actually ask the doctors. They skirted around and said things like ‘it’s manageable. They never explained what manageable meant, but to us, that wasn’t death so it must be ok then. After a series of unsuccessful treatments, trials and operations the diagnoses came: terminal. Nothing left to do. The cancer was shrinking in her lung but there were now secondary tumours on her brain and spine and neither could be operated on. When this diagnosis was delivered I was standing in the room taking a photo of my mother, this same year I had made the decision to become a photographer as a profession, I had enrolled on a Masters degree in Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication at UAL. I started photographing my mother that year, we agreed I’d document her treatments, because we always expected her to get better, so she could look back at this terrible time when she was better. So as I was standing there taking this photograph the consultant relayed this terrible news. Everything changed.
I continued to photography my mother after the terminal diagnosis, but everything was different. This work we were making together was not for her to look back on, it was for me to remember her by, it became about me recording all the precious time we had left. What I discovered from photography was it allowed me to work things out, to explore feelings and understand difficult moments in my life. I photographed with my mother throughout that last year, up in till she died in October 2010. In 2016 I published a book of this work, called Tulip, named after her favourite flower. The book was met with widespread acclaim, perhaps because it tells a universal story of loss that unfortunately many of us will go through. It was named Photobook of the Month in The Observer, along with being reviewed in The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times Literary Supplement, Vanity Fair and many more.
When my mother died this need to photograph did not go away, in fact, it was stronger. I needed to understand what had happened, to try to work through these dark feelings of grief, a feeling I’d never felt before. Throughout my Tulip work, I had discovered a love of writing, writing personal diary-like passages, trying to resolve what was rolling around my head. This along with making photographs had really helped me, so I continued these both.
A couple of months after my mother died I started to clear up her house, to box things up I wanted to keep and to find homes for the rest of her things. The life had gone out of the house, the warmth and love I had photographed before was gone. It felt dark and glum, it was an empty shell without her.
My mother had been a headchef for 40 years, her home was full of kitchen things; plates, bowls, saucepans, cutlery, so much stuff. I’d now inherited all these beautiful items that I‘d not really paid much attention to previously. As I started to look through everything I begain to discover these beautiful old pieces of paper; her old recipes. I did not know these existed. I had never seen my mother cook from a recipe, she cooked from memory. It hit me then that I’d never taste her food again. I had taken it for granted all my life, I’d never learnt to cook the dishes she used to cook as I’d just expected her to. The recipes were beautiful historic documents, the idea of putting them back in a box seemed wrong.
I decided I wanted to try to cook them. So for the proceeding years I did, I learn to cook her food, to care for myself through my mother’s food, and to try to work through the grief. I discovered the process of cooking was a lovely distraction from the pain, it gave me something to do when I didn’t want to go outside. It gave me something to plan for, it filled those dark days, and it connected me back to my mother. The smells took me back to moments we had shared like nothing else, they brought back memories I didn’t even remember I had. It did first at her home, but after my brother and I had to sell her house I took all her cooking things to my new home and continued there. It felt like she was in the house.
My mother also loved gardening and I discovered when I got my first house with a small garden that I did too. I started to grow some of the food. I loved it so much I got an allotment across the street, and a whole other process of nurturing and caring started. I grew many of the seeds of my mother’s I had taken with me using all her tools.
Alongside the cooking and growing, I also started a process of discovery into her life. I visited places that she or we had connections to. She grew up in America so I visited there, the first time was just a couple of months after she had died, I arrived in LA expecting it to be like her photos from the 1950s, it wasn’t, so I escaped and drove around the desert landscapes, the places she’d told me about. I remember crying from most of it, whether this was cathartic or not I can’t really say! The second trip a few years later was very different, I felt calmer, it felt like something had shifted. I also visited Italy, where we had lived when I was eight years old for two years, my mother had a chef job there. I’d not returned since then. I stayed in our neighbourhood in Rome and the smells were the same, nothing had really changed that much. Italian food is sacred, you don’t fiddle with recipes, so the restaurants were cooking the same food that they had 20 years ago when we lived there. The neighbourhood smelt the same. This trip was different to the rest, it wasn’t upsetting, it made me feel like she was there, like these memories from food will always make us feel connected. Every time I cook at home, I used her saucepans, her knifes, her plates, her food, the things I learnt from her about cooking, there is this direct connection back to her that no one can take away, these things will stay with me forever.
This project took me six years to complete. The title of this work is A Stranger in My Mother’s Kitchen, it is a mixture of my photographs, writings on grief and her recipes. At the beginning grief was a stranger, I hadn’t met it before, no one had warned me of it, I was scared of this unknown. What this creative process did was allowed me to meet this stranger, to get to know it and learn to make a space for it within my life. It feels natural at first to try to fight or ‘get over’ grief, but it doesn’t feel like that now. The grief will never go, it’s become a part of me, it’s the trace of my mother. I’ll always feel this space where my mother was, but I have ways to connect with her that I can do everyday, I feel her presence in so many things that I do. This work helped me discover this.
By Celine Marchbank
A Stranger in My Mother’s Kitchen will be published by Dewi Lewis into a book in early 2022.
Celine ran a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to help raise funds for the production costs last month.
If you’d like to pre-order the book or find out more visit the campaign here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/celinemarchbank/a-stranger-in-my-mothers-kitchen-by-celine-marchbank
Or see more of her work on her website: