'There were just so many memories around the table' - Unislim's Fiona Gratzer on new beginnings following tragic death of husband Uwe
After the shock of losing her husband, Unislim's Fiona Gratzer fell out with food. She talks to Liadan Hynes about getting her life back on track
'I guess I fell out of love with cooking, and my kitchen," reflects Fiona Gratzer. Food is a way of life for Fiona. Her mother, Agnes McCourt, was the founder of Unislim; she herself is now the company's managing director. But after her beloved husband Uwe was killed in a traffic accident in the summer of 2015, she found her lifelong love of food deserted her.
"Because it really represented that he was missing for me; he was such a pivotal role in the kitchen. I found that so difficult that I had to leave the house in the morning and go for coffee. That would be my way of not falling into a hole of depression, thinking 'I'm sitting here on my own'."
This change in her breakfast routine was, she reflects now, part of a process of changing the many rituals she had had with her husband of over 20 years; "creating this new ritual, this new way of coping".
Currently, Fiona is renovating her north Dublin house, the family home, where the couple reared their two children, Luca and Mila, now 21 and 19. "Food and cooking as a family, entertaining friends, it's so important to me. But I needed to change my kitchen. There were just so many memories around the table. It's a new beginning really."
She and Uwe had a lot of rituals in their lives, she explains. "We would get up in the morning and make juices. We would always have a cracking brunch on a Saturday, which he would make; I would do the chopping or whatever. We used to call it Pappa brekkie. Actually I did all the jobs," she whispers before bursting into laughter. "He would take the glory. And then we'd have a pot of coffee and read the newspapers."
Food is Fiona's work, the centre of her family life, and her favourite way to socialise. "But I found that really difficult," she says now. "The impact of food in your life. It's such a bonding time. That was probably the biggest obstacle and challenge for me; to be happy eating food without Uwe. It had been such a big part of our lives; dinner parties, entertaining. I didn't realise how much he cooked. I'd be giving out I did everything, and now I go 'oh damn, I wish he was here, I wish he could make us pasta'."
It is a repeated reminder of the massive hole left in their lives after Uwe died. "You forget. Your life is so busy, and then suddenly that void is there, and you think who helps you share the shopping? Buy the food? Wouldn't it be lovely if you came home and there was food on the table? There's no milk in the fridge. You're doing everything yourself. Every decision. That's exhausting. There's nobody to take up the slack. And that has been a constant challenge throughout."
Uwe and Fiona's story was one of love almost at first sight. They met in Malaysia while they were both travelling, when Fiona was 24. She still remembers clearly the moment she first saw her future husband arriving at the hotel. "Oh God, yeah, I'll never forget it. He was absolutely stunning. It was during the course of those few days that we started to fall in love. He was six foot five, and had long blond hair at the time. A beautiful tall blond man that I'd never seen the like of in Ireland." Within days, she had called her mother to tell her she had met the man she would marry.
After a blissful few weeks though, Fiona continued on her planned, independent trip. Uwe followed her, tracking her down where she was staying in Australia. All he had was her cousin's name, but he found the house by calling every Paul Quinn in the book. By the time they came home to Ireland, on St Patrick's day in 1991, after some time in Uwe's native Austria, they were engaged.
They married the following May. Uwe, an optician, adapted well to life in Ireland. "He would have been a very affable, fun guy. People really took to him. He'd a big smile; he was great at the banter. He'd a great sense of humour. We really enjoyed ourselves," she continues with a smile. "To be honest, we'd flipped it around. We got married before we knew each other. It could have gone the other way; it didn't," she laughs. "We definitely spent the first few years laying down the foundations of our marriage, which most couples do before they get married."
Six years later, the couple's first child, Luca, arrived. "That was like a whirlwind," Fiona says now with a smile. "I was like 'what the hell? This is another dimension'. I remember not having the time to brush my teeth. It was a shock to me."
She's honest about the stress a small baby can put on a couple. "You need to have a strong bond to get through that. And there is such a shift of who does what. I remember taking mental note, 'well I've changed 55 nappies in the week, and you've changed one'," she laughs. "It's really easy to start mental scoring."
She and Uwe had a long-standing habit of date nights, another of their rituals. "The one thing that had always sustained myself and Uwe; our backgammon nights. We could stay up until three in the morning playing. We would always chat, and things would come out over the evening. You've got the music playing; a nice glass of wine, and the fire's lit. It's really soulful and quiet. Bit of time out. Playing backgammon was always our way of regrouping as a couple, and just having our time."
Fiona took a year off work after Luca, but with Mila she says she went back as soon as possible.
"I needed to work, for my own mental health. I felt I was a better person for it; for my sanity I needed to get back to work. Work is good for me. Unislim has never really felt like work to me," explains Fiona, who has always worked in the business her parents originally established in Newry in the early 1970s - giving up their teaching jobs to dedicate themselves to this new enterprise.
"It's been a lifestyle -in my bones since I was born," says Fiona, who has two siblings. "It's just what I do, and I love it."
Growing up in Newry during the Troubles was to experience a "constant sense of fear", she explains.
"You grow up questioning who the people are beside you on the bus, or what religion they are, what are their names, because you are fearful of everybody. I'm very glad that we got out of the Troubles."
Her parents moved the family in 1978. "They didn't know where they were going. The Troubles were quite bad. There were people just being shot indiscriminately on their doorsteps." In a bid to get out quickly, temporary arrangements were made for each of the siblings, with Fiona going for six months to live with cousins in South Africa. While she credits the adventure with being the start of her independence, and love of travel, she says it was the height of apartheid, something that even as an 11-year-old she felt deeply uncomfortable about.
Ultimately, the family moved to Dundalk, and Fiona went to boarding school in Wicklow.
When Uwe died - following a tragic motorbike accident - she had just launched a new brand, called Gorge Us, Unislim's food range. The last dinner party the couple hosted at their home was to celebrate the launch. "I had that project which was like a little baby starting out. I had also decided to rebrand the company, create a new look," explains Fiona, who has overseen the launch of the company's Instagram account, @unislimclubs, and its app. "That happened to be around that time too. That took a lot of my energy, but it was really good, because it meant that I had a project to see through."
In retrospect, she says, she sleepwalked through those first months. "I wasn't there. The time is really quite vague to me. I was definitely in a haze, and I didn't know what was happening. I was so numbed by the shock of what had happened. But I just kept doing the steps; going into work, seeing this project through, making decisions."
She has just launched Unislim's new cookbook, Delicious, the creation of which proved a way back in to her enjoyment of food, and cooking. "I love food so much. I'm having breakfast and I'm thinking about where we're having lunch. I read cookbooks in bed. I think about food and I talk about food, and it's so much part of my life. And as I say I had fallen out of love with cooking. I just found not having Uwe around, I found it difficult to be back in love with food."
This book is specifically about meals for dinner, with a section on vegetarian options. Fiona explains that after her father died she became a vegetarian, while her daughter Mila became a vegan in the aftermath of Uwe's death. A small measure of control, when everything seems to be spinning out.
Dealing with grief, finding a way forward, is a constant journey, she reflects. "I do get knocks every now and again. It hasn't been easy. Thankfully I have my mum around; she's always been so inspiring. She'll drop me a little text, and she just knows how I'm feeling. Weekends can be difficult, when you're on your own on a Sunday, and it just reminds you that you're on your own." She credits her close circle of friends with always being there for those moments when loneliness creeps in. But she also says that she is facing into the grief, not denying it, doing her best to process it.
"Uwe's still so prevalent in my life. We talk about him every day. I really enjoy talking about him. And we laugh about him."
This is not the first time Fiona has suffered a great loss. Her father died of pancreatic cancer when she was a teenager. "I lost my father when I was 18. In a sad way, history has repeated itself. My daughter was 15, my son was 17. And from my experience of losing my father, I know that you need some space. You need to go through your own grief as well. People will find their own mechanisms for coping with grief. I just really wanted my children to feel comfortable with me, and that they could talk to me, and we could talk about Uwe."
It is quite obvious that her children are a huge source of happiness. "I just adore my children. I love hanging out with them, and I love being in their company," she says. "I try to parent as best I can as a single mum. Initially I was almost second guessing myself; 'what would Uwe do, what would he say?' And then my mum said 'Fiona you're now the parent and you have to do what you feel is right, and not always be thinking what would he do if he was here'."
Grief is exhausting, she acknowledges. "It wrecks you. It's inside you; guttural, right in deep." Among other things, her already existing lifestyle has stood to her in coping with her husband's death.
"Exercise is very important to me, and I've been very fortunate that I've had good eating habits, and that's really stood by me. I've looked after myself by eating well, and I've continued to do that. Uwe was a funny guy. He liked to laugh. And if you can find a way of finding humour in the grief, you have to. I know it's not a funny thing that happened to me, it's very serious. But this is life. In the strangest way, and I've always said this since losing my father, sometimes losing somebody when they're young, is almost like a gift that they give to the person they're leaving behind. Because you realise that life is so precious, and that you have to live in the moment, and enjoy what's around you. Why would you spend time with people who are negative, when instantaneously your life can change? That is a gift that not everybody has. And I believe my children have that gift, and I have that gift."
Life can change in a moment, she reflects, revealing that she was in a car accident two weeks previously.
"It really shook me. It just touched a nerve, and I could not stop crying. I could not get out of the car; I was in floods of tears. It just really brought me back to the moment of losing Uwe, and how instantaneously your life can change. It reminded me that things can change so easily. And to just grab life. Just enjoy it."
'Delicious', €12.99, from Unislim.com
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