We’d squint our eyes and look for gold, sifting the dirt back and forth. On the side lay our little piles of treasure, purple, green, pink, orange.
When we got home we’d sit facing each other and lay everything out on the table in a line. The fire at our sides would give us lopsided rosy cheeks. We’d go along the lines and swap so we each had our favourite colours and an equal number of tiny gold flakes, always fair and never fighting. Grandma would be in the kitchen making something with mash. She’d check on us occasionally and smirk at our serious little faces. Plastic to her, jewels to us.
Grandma’s mash was the kind mum would tut at. Slabs of butter went into the pan with the boiled potatoes, then milk and cream cheese. We’d pile our forks high with glistening mash and shove the mounds into our mouths one after another until we couldn’t eat any more. Whatever we got with the mash would be leftovers for the next day’s lunch.
Somehow the sight of the marshmallows always cleared a space in our tummies. We’d strip down to our pants and sit cross legged in front of the fire, waiting patiently as Grandma speared marshmallows with skewers and passed them down to us. My sister always stuck hers straight into the flames, watching it blacken and bubble before pulling it out and puffing up her cheeks to give it a good blow. I always held mine just above a glowing log, rotating it slowly, letting it brown evenly all round. I’d pull it out, let it cool, peel the hardened layer from the outside then hold the gooey, naked marshmallow back over the log. I would see how many times I could repeat this process of browning and peeling. My record was five.
Once our fingers started to stick to the skewers, Grandma would wipe us down with a hot flannel and lay our pyjamas out by the fire. We’d press our palms to them every couple of minutes, raising our arms when they were just the right kind of warm to let Grandma slip them over our heads. Taking us both by the hands, she’d lead us through to our bedroom, my sister’s bed by the door and mine by the window. She’d tuck our duvets in extra tight around our little bodies, kiss us each on the forehead and wish us sweet dreams. The light in the hall was always left on, the bedroom door left ajar. Through the night, Grandma would come and peek in through the gap, a black figure against the yellow light of the hall. Even now we never turn that light off in the night.
When we visit my Grandma we tell the kids to look for gold, but not in the dirt at the panning centre or in the pan she used for mash, nor in the embers of the fire or in the light around their bedroom doors. Instead we take them through the woods behind the house, let them skip ahead beneath the leaf speckled sky.
We reach the clearing and they scour the trees around it before grouping around her favourite one. They point just above the faded initials carved into the bark, cheering and jumping on the spot where we spread the ashes. A little golden plaque.