Peanut Butter and Parenting: A True Story

I want to thank Jennifer Blanke for her submission ‘Peanut Butter and Parenting’, a true story about parenting and being parented.

Jennifer Blanke has a BS in Elementary Education and a Master of Fine Arts in Writing degree from Lindenwood University where she was an editorial assistant for two issues of The Lindenwood Review. She is a wife, mother, teacher, and writer in St. Louis, Missouri and has writing published in Mum Life Stories and Her View From Home.


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Peanut Butter and Parenting

   My fondness for peanut butter began at Rowan Elementary School in Mars, PA when I was somewhere between the ages of eight and ten. My exact age is a bit fuzzy because let’s be honest, elementary is an age. I was teeter-tottering, rocking my Jordache jeans, and could barely close my mouth around a wad of the newest trend, Hubba Bubba gum, which for some unknown reason was allowed in school. The monstrous pink glob flew out of my mouth as if it were escaping into freedom and unfortunately for both of us got captured in my stick-straight, long blond hair. I tried to remove the gummy mess, but there was nothing I could do except make it worse. My mother was called. I braced myself for a lengthy lecture on the short drive home.

I am the oldest of four children; I was five when the baby was born. My mother loved and cared for us, but she did not have time to coddle us. Growing up in the 70s and 80s was perfect for her authoritarian/authoritative combo parenting style which was a healthy combination of enforcing rules, focusing on obedience, (mostly) fair punishments, and positive relationships. My childhood is filled with happy memories and I attribute that to clear parameters that helped me feel safe and secure to roam the neighborhood with the littles tagging along behind me from morning until the dinner bell (which was basically the yelling of our names for all to hear). Of course, we’d head home mid-day and find a PB&J waiting for us on the back deck so we didn’t drag in dirt or extra mouths to feed. I grew up on peanut butter by choice because the alternative was hot dogs cut up in scrambled eggs or baloney and cheese on white. 

MLS Micro-Fiction Anthology, Vol 1

As I was sitting in a chair right outside of the school office, I saw my mother approaching with a scowl on her face and a jar of peanut butter in her hand. Wait? What is she doing with that? I honestly thought she would take me home and work her magic until every last piece of sticky goo was out of my hair, but nope, as she got closer I could tell that Mom, me, and The Peanut Man, cane and all, were about to put on a show. 

I’ve never had a gum and peanut butter moment with one of my children, but there have been a few shows. I parent just like my mother. I’m tough and I’m driven by an unwillingness to allow my children to become less than their destiny demands. Words like you’re so mean and I bet other parents wouldn’t… and I’m over eighteen have bounced across the wood flooring of our tiny ranch on many occasions. These words echo back:  I’m not your friend, I don’t care what other parents do, and as long as you live in this house. It’s called tough love and thankfully their father is a stable presence in all of our lives because he brings calmness and balance to my crazy.

My two kids never slept in bed with us, they toddler marched to timers and routines, and they know the embarrassment of not having their homework or PE uniform because their mom refused to bail them out. They both have jobs because one wants to replace the 1997 Chevy that his grandpa gave him and the other wants a new phone. I’ve gotten plenty of sideways glances from the helicopter moms as they’re flying their darlings from one sporting event to another with a stop over to pick up the homework paper forgotten at school or from the lawnmower moms plowing a path and eviscerating anyone who stands in their child’s way of success. My children are fiercely independent and fiercely loved. I firmly believe that my responsibility isn’t to rescue them every time they falter and fall into the deep end, but rather to teach them to swim so they can at least tread water long enough to drift to the shallow end of the pool while I cheer for them from the deck. There have been a few near-drowning experiences, but they know how to do their own laundry and pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.

Many battles have ensued with my oldest because stubbornness is a family trait and giving up a good argument is just not in our DNA. He’s been arguing since he could talk which was early compared to some and not surprising if you’ve encountered him when he’s pursuing one of his innovative ideas. The arguments now are about politics, religion, and why he shouldn’t have to follow our unnecessary rules instead of naptime, snacks, and why he should be able to wear his PJ top and inside-out socks to school. The sock thing really bothered me and it’s laughable now, because that was so insignificant compared to the struggles that followed. I’ll never forget the image of a kicking-screaming-thrashing little boy who didn’t get his way in the dollar store causing me to abandon my cart full of his birthday decorations. The scene that followed of me force-strapping him into his car seat as I uncontrollably sobbed, unfortunately, happened more than once. He is strong-willed, but I learned to be stronger. There is a fine line between parenting and hostage negotiating. My years of the former could probably land me a career in the latter.

My daughter is shy, but when she’s comfortable in her environment, her sassiness appears. She’s also brutally honest, if you can get her to talk. When she was in Kindergarten she told a classmate that her shoes were ugly and asked if she got them at the Goodwill. After a call from her teacher, a conversation about being kind to others took place with my five-year-old questioning me about whether or not she should lie next time. So, I should have lied and said that I liked her shoes? Well, maybe you could find something to like about them and only say that. Isn’t that still lying? In third grade at a sleepover, one of her friends called her fat. So, we had an honest conversation about beauty and body image and I gently reminded her that this is exactly why it’s important to think before you allow every thought to escape from your mouth. I hope she never forgets that God masterfully created her to be beautiful on the inside and when she lets the inside shine bright, it makes her radiant on the outside. A propensity for music has grown in the past few years and I find myself needing to push her toward growth. I’m always in a tug-o-war with these two kids; the oldest needing to be tugged back in and the youngest needing to fly.

I will advocate for them, love them even when they make poor choices, and they will always have a safe haven when life gets tough; I will give them exactly what my mother gave me.

            I can still feel my mother’s vigorous hands working the peanut butter through my locks every time I open a jar. She pulled that peanut butter through my hair so rough that day and removed every last stringy piece of bubble gum. Honestly, it’s a wonder that I can still eat the stuff. Her hands said more than her words ever could. I don’t remember much else other than hoping Ronnie, my first crush, was not walking down the hallway; I would have died if he’d seen my mother at school! I did get quite a few glances from my classmates when I returned to the classroom. Apparently eau de peanut parfum was not a fragrance trend at Rowan. You probably figured it out, but I was not taken home to shower and remove the greasy film that coated my hair; I was sent back to class, probably to make sure I’d learned my lesson. Tough love. It worked because I’m now a responsible mom showing up when my kids need it the most.

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My Mother, My Brother and Me: A Memoir

I’d like to thank Pat Tyrer of the USA for her moving memoir ‘My Mother, My Brother and Me’. This is actually the first memoir I’ve published on this site, so I’m thrilled that Pat decided to share it with us.

Pat Tyrer is a writer and lover of literature who hikes Palo Duro Canyon and loves Texas bird watching when the sun is up, and stargazing when it’s not. When not reading or writing, she can be found in the canyon with her dog Emma and any number of her five children and seven grandchildren. Her creative work has appeared in Readers’ DigestQuiet Mountain, Front Porch Review, and Plum Tree Tavern and includes two books of poetry, Creative Hearts and Western Spaces, Western Places.

My Mother, My Brother and Me

My brother and I spent our early years raised by a single mother who was desperate to keep us from harm and did so by telling us mildly horrible stories. We lived blocks from the ravine near the Missouri River and to keep us away, mom told us that the ravine was where the police thought the child killer of Donna Sue Davis (a famous unsolved child murder) hung out and so we were to stay out of the ravine. Of course, this only encouraged us to venture further and more often into the ravine, at times wandering nearly to the river. To keep us away from the train tracks, mom told us that her great uncle was killed by a train and the police brought his body home in a peach basket. He was in fact found alongside the tracks, but the police suspected he’d been murdered and placed there to hide the crime. No peach basket was involved.

My brother and I thus became quite good at telling stories ourselves, often entertaining people with the true stories of our childhood which at times verged on the ridiculous. We were happy as children even though we were aware of our poverty and of our mother’s struggles to maintain a stable home. One time talking to one of my many cousins, I commented that I had a happy childhood to which she immediately expressed strong disagreement. Her denial upset me so much that I called my brother, yelling into the phone, “did we have a happy childhood?” He said, “Yup, as far as I remember,” and that was good enough for me, although I’m still holding a grudge against my cousin and her disparaging remark. I can be small-minded like that.

My mother was born in December 1929 and the ramifications of growing up through the depression years would be with her for her entire life. Her family was divided into two groups with several years intervening between the first five children and the last three. The older group composed of four girls and a boy, and the later arrival of two girls and a boy. At one time, my grandmother was caring for four daughters, aged 2, 4, 5, 6, and a baby son, too quickly followed by another son and two more daughters. I’m pretty sure grandma suffered a nervous breakdown after the birth of my mother, the eighth child, but there’s no proof of that. Four years separated the first group from the second, and according to the eldest daughter the arrival of the final three was the beginning of the family’s financial demise. While they were living in South Sioux City, on the Nebraska side of the Missouri, they were doing well. They even owned the house they were living in. Sometime around the last birth, grandpa sold the house— “the worst mistake he ever made” according to my eldest aunt—and moved the family across the river to Iowa. I’m not sure how long the downhill slide took, but family legend has it that it was a financial rollercoaster from then on, less feast and more famine.

Mum Life Stories: Micro-Fiction, Vol 1

By the time my mother was a toddler, my grandmother had been temporarily institutionalized, my grandfather had become a confirmed alcoholic, the family was barely surviving financially, and my two eldest aunts had already quit school at 14 and 15 to find jobs. Named Juanita in a family of Norwegian and English immigrants, the onslaught of troubles began early. Mother believed that grandpa had named her after a Mexican cook who worked for him and with whom he was quite taken. Few in Sioux City knew how to spell her name, and she was often listed as Wanita, the Native American spelling. Growing up in Siouxland, surrounded by the seven tribes of the Sioux nation, it seemed a logical assumption. Eventually she quit using her first name completely, going by Jean for most of her adult life. Ironically, the name Wanita, often spelled as Waneta or even the Spanish form, Juanita, is an old English name for girls meaning “God is gracious.” 1 According to Social Security Agency records, the name reached its peak during the years 1920-1929 in 1058th position. Whether mother was named after a Mexican cook or whether her own mother named her, choosing an old English name is uncertain.

One of the qualities my mother excelled at was telling stories, so I’m guessing the origin of her name might have been just one more in a long list of captivating tales. At one time mother told me that grandpa owned a large lake as well as the surrounding area which he lost in the crash of 1929. I remember swimming at Crystal Lake once or twice when we were young and supposed that to be the lake that grandpa had owned. The lake had a
metal slide about twenty feet into the water; the sand at the bottom of the slide was worn down into a rather good-sized hole. On my one and only attempt to conquer the slide, I slid into the hole and for a few moments believed my life to be at an end. Eventually, no more than two or three seconds, I got a foothold on a higher ledge thrusting myself out of the water and into a shallower space, albeit acutely aware of the possibility of death for the first time. I told the story of the lake and the land to my aunt who said, “Poppycock! He never owned a thing except the house in South Sioux, and he sold that.” And that, dear reader, was that.

Even though she had older sisters who might have cared for her, on the day she was born, mother was farmed out to her mother’s brother and his wife, her aunt and uncle. She remained with them for her first two years. I’m not sure she ever forgave her sisters for not keeping her at home, but by Black Tuesday, the family was already suffering financial hardship and keeping her at home in the care of her teenaged sisters would have undoubtedly been the wrong decision. Sending her to live with relatives was in all likelihood a harsh but necessary one. Mother claimed to have been told that grandma suffered from tuberculosis and had to be institutionalized for her and everyone else’s health. I’m not sure that’s the whole truth of it. Knowing the high instances of overwhelming anxiety that runs through my mother’s family, I suspect she was hospitalized for mental health issues, perhaps even postpartum depression after the birth of her eighth child. This would never have been revealed in 1929. In the years since, I’ve come to understand the wide swatch of anxiety disorders that affects my family.

Relatives have all handled their anxiety in different ways; several are alcoholics; many take prescribed medications; there are a few
addicts in the group, and some just suffer. During an annual physical recently, my doctor asked about family history, questioning whether there were any issues of alcoholism or drug use. I told her that listing family members without issues would be a shorter list. At that time, we lived in a little yellow house at the top of a very steep hill. The yard backed up against a huge unclimbable cliff that not even my brother, who could scamper up the tallest hill, would attempt. One night just after getting into bed, me in my own room, and my brother with mother, there was a pounding on the outside walls going all around the house. I was terrified. Whoever was racing around the house, pounding on the walls continued for only a few
minutes before he or she disappeared—not nearly long enough to be caught or even sighted by the police. At first mother believed it to be a prank, but after several nights over several months, we all took it more seriously, even the police, who at one point stationed an officer in the coat
closet in an attempt to catch the person in the act. I imagine this would be a case of stalking today and a much more detailed investigation would be undertaken, but at the time, it seemed an annoying, if terrifying prank, and the perp was never caught. Shortly after this episode we moved
once again.

The little yellow house was also the place where we got our first dog—long before the wall-knocking prankster appeared. The dog was a large yellow lab who just seemed to show up in the backyard one day and since we had a backyard, mother agreed we could keep him. He wasn’t much more than a puppy at the time he arrived, and since he slept under the house, he required little more than food, water, and occasional petting. All was well until the day we went to play with him and he couldn’t get out from under the house. We coaxed and coaxed, but he simply had gotten too big too to escape the small opening of the den he’d created. Never one to leave solutions to others, mother got her shovel and began the arduous work of digging a tunnel out of the hard-packed earth to allow the dog escape. I don’t recall him being around much after that. I don’t even remember his name, but it would be a long time before we got another dog.

Around 1962 my mother remarried. Her new husband was a Fuller Brush man or an insurance agent, or a magic-potion seller—frankly, I have no idea what he did. He wore a suit and tie, carried a briefcase, drove a company car, and moved us two-hundred miles south to Ankeny, Iowa, a town of fewer than 25,000 souls which had no movie theaters, no swimming pool, and no one we knew. We’d moved in the summer, leaving everything familiar behind including dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins with whom we’d grown up. We were miserable, but thankfully, our misery didn’t last long. Within days of our arrival, our new neighbors who were the same ages of my brother and I introduced us to others in the neighborhood.

Mother’s wedded bliss, however, was not to last. The new husband, who had no children of his own, turned out to be uncomfortably petty and childish himself, staking out food in the refrigerator as “his,” and having a fit if my brother or I touched it. He had no patience with children and we had no love for him. Not realizing that her children were her heart and soul, he made no effort to abide us and so within the year, he was a forgotten piece of our history. And he was truly forgotten. Mother never referred to him nor acknowledged she was once married to him. Years later I mentioned to my husband that mother had been married three times. He was astounded that this information had never surfaced. There were several interesting bits of information my mother never spoke about and that second husband was one of many of them.

Once settled in Ankeny, mom went to work for a general practitioner who was a Doctor of Osteopathy. In his employ mother became known as competent and proficient. For the first time in her life she was an acknowledged professional. She was active in nursing and at one time
served as president of her organization. Although we went to Sioux City as often as we could, our relationships with family became less intimate and more formalized with weddings, funerals, and yearly family reunions.

No sooner had mother divorced than she began dating. My brother and I reveled in the irony of these events as mother had been single throughout our entire childhood, never dating, never introducing us to a man she might be interested in, never having any close male friends. In fact, because of her divorce from our father who she claimed was oversexed with various unacknowledged offspring spread across the country, we assumed she hated men. None of these so-called progenies ever showed up on our doorstep, so this may have been another of mother’s small exaggerations, further exaggerated. The move to Ankeny seemed to erase that assumption as mother prepared to go out on Saturday evenings with the “girls.”

What seemed like the passage of only a few months since the divorce, mom introduced us to a local man whose family had been in Ankeny since the founding of the town. Nearly everyone in town who had lived there for more than twenty years was related in some way. It was also the only place I’ve ever lived where I didn’t have to spell my new last name or explain how to pronounce it. Within the year, they were married and shortly thereafter, my brother and I were adopted. In their wedding photo, they look happy; my brother looks delighted (he was young) and I look condemned. I became a member of a large clan of people I didn’t know, with a family legacy I didn’t understand. Everyone was kind, including new grandparents who I don’t think ever took to any of us, but concealed it well.

By the time I began high school I was pretty much disgruntled with everything. I’d lost my birth father and my grandma through death, my school, my extended family, and my name. I didn’t think life could ever be worse, but of course, I was wrong as growing older has shown. Unfortunately, only in hindsight do I realize that this was probably the easiest time of my life. For once we had enough money, a secure home, a stable environment, and two parents who were both concerned about our welfare. We weren’t the Brady Bunch or the Huxtables, but we got along okay. It turned out that my adopted dad, who quickly became “dad,” was honest, ethical, and responsible. He rarely interfered with mother’s disciplinary methods, but he stood up for us when it counted.

Physically I take after my birth father’s family who leaned to the chubby side,
and as a child, I was always directed to the “plus” side of the department store. To counteract my physique, mother chose clothes in muted colors. I was the complete physical opposite of my mother who was thin, small-boned, olive-skinned, and brunette. I was chubby, blonde, and blue-
eyed and in love with pastel clothing of which I owned none. For that first Christmas that we were officially a family, my new dad bought me a fluffy, pink bathrobe with silk edging. It was the most beautifully pastel garment I’d ever owned and right there I decided he could probably stay. He’s gotten better ever since or perhaps I’ve gotten more accepting—nah, he’s gotten better. Finally, mother had made the perfect choice. She was happy and secure and so were we.



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The Memory Box – A Life In Letters: Short Story

I’d like to thank Alex Grey for her short story submission “The Memory Box – A Life In Letters” a touching tribute to the memories that make up a life gone by.

After a lifetime of writing technical non-fiction, Alex Grey is finally fulfilling her dream of writing poems and stories that engage the reader’s emotions. Her poems and short stories have been featured in a range of publications including Siren’s Call, Raconteur, Toasted Cheese, Short Edition and Little Old Lady Comedy.  Alex is married to her long-suffering partner of 36 years; she does not have any children but is “mum” to two fur babies – greyhounds Alex and Saffy. Her ingredients for contentment are narrowboating, greyhounds, singing and chocolate – it’s a sweet life.

This story is a fictionalised account of a remarkable life and is dedicated to Renia, Alex’s mother-in-law, whose courage and resilience has always been an inspiration.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

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The Memory Box – A Life In Letters

That day, the nursing home’s ever-cheerful Activities Leader told us to use a memory box to reminisce with our loved ones.

I groaned. I knew the Activities Leader meant well but chasing my mother’s memories had become a tedious scavenger hunt as dementia hid them in the distant recesses of her brain and destroyed the clues that might lead me to them.

“We’re going to use the alphabet to think about places that your loved ones may have visited. Remember, don’t ask them to remember…” she paused, waiting for our weak laughter, “just ask them to tell you a story about a place that begins with that letter. Take your time and see how far you get.

I sat at the table with my mother, her blue-veined hands tapping out a tune that only she could hear. She smiled at me vacantly. I knew she couldn’t remember who I was, though she seemed to acknowledge that I was benign, something simple and pleasant like the institutional tea set and the cheap biscuits. My mother devoured them greedily, like a little girl at a rival’s birthday party. The activity room had a dozen tables like ours, covered with cheerful chintz tablecloths and circled with residents and their visitors in various degrees of torpor.

My eyes met those of another woman sitting at our table; her mother slumped in a wheelchair, crooning. We smiled briefly and looked away. You’d think there would have been some spark of empathy between us, but the long goodbye we were enduring was too painful, too personal to be shared.

“OK!” trilled the Activities Leader. “Let’s make a start. As you complete each card, just drop it into their memory box.”

“Look, we’re going to put things in here today.” I said.

I rattled the vintage biscuit tin that we were using as her memory box. I remembered when she’d bought the tin as a souvenir of a rare sightseeing trip to London; we’d eaten the biscuits with ceremony every Sunday teatime for a month. The lid had a picture of the Tower of London and the crown jewels.  When it was empty, she kept her sewing things in there. Every time she reached for it to darn a jumper or patch a dress, she would rattle the tin and laugh,

“Will we find jewels in here today?”

I remember looking over her shoulder excitedly; she always hid a treasure in the tin for us – an amber bead, a tiny rag dolly or a fat toffee wrapped in shiny gold foil.

I shook my head; my mother’s sewing days were over. Today the faded and rusty-edged tin contained some trinkets and photographs from a previous memory exercise. On good days, we would take them out and she would nod, her wandering mind briefly meeting mine at a waypoint. On bad days, we drank tea and stared, the tin a bewilderment of junk between us.

I forced a smile and picked up the first alphabet card. My mother looked the other way, distracted by the conversations going on around her. I touched her hand and she frowned, unwilling to concentrate on the activity. She had always enjoyed people-watching, that was the best part of being in a nursing home, she told me, back when she had been aware of where she was.

“Look, mama.” I said, “Can you tell me a story about a place that begins with the letter A?”

She fingered the card, and then started talking. I wrote little notes on the cards – it helped me to keep track of her disjointed thoughts.

AUSTRIA: My uncle saved me from the slave farm, a miracle; I had a bath, when I was free of filth I was as light as an angel in heaven.

BELSEN: They measured me there, height, hands, head – I was judged – Aryan enough to live, but not enough to be free.

I sighed; she’d been telling us tales of her wartime enslavement all of our lives. We’d always moved her on, embarrassed, but now I was afraid that her mind would be trapped in that nightmare for the rest of her days.

“No mama, don’t think about the war, what about our lovely holidays?”

She looked rebellious, then carried on…

CHECKPOINT CHARLIE: We went to Poland with treats for my uncle hidden in the car seats; frightened, we willed the children not to betray our innocent smuggling.

DULWICH: We made our life there – our own house, large enough to last a lifetime, a green place to raise our children, respectable, rich, peaceful.

EALING: We all went there after the war; we spoke Polish and dreamed of the old country. Some sneered that it was just a new ghetto; stupid people – we had freedom, money, education. I went to college, met my Olek and made a new life.

I missed my father so much; he’d looked after Mama when she first became ill, back when we pretended that she was just tired, that it was normal to forget things from time to time. We told stories to make it alright, but it wasn’t. He died of grief and worry, leaving me with this responsibility.

I realised that I’d drifted off – I held up the F card…

FRANCE: A truckstop on the road to England; so scared; so alone, each girl so alone, together only in body and hope.

“Not the war, Mama, please…”

GHANA: Olek’s business trips, violence, distrust; I worried at home with the children; the money never came home, but Olek did. I was grateful.

HARRODS: The SALE on our doorstep, a proper sale – I bought a fur coat for a song; I was an aristocrat again.

That fur coat! I loathed it, but mama’s friends from the old country wore fur, it was what they did, a symbol of how they’re recovered from their refugee poverty. Who was I to tell her it was wrong when she was so proud? She made me try it on, said it would be a legacy for generations if I looked after it and kept it in the freezer. I cut it up and turned it into dog beds, horrible thing.

ITALY: Our first holiday after the war; We went to the eternal city. We went to St. Peter’s Square where the Holy Father prayed with us. I was so sick, I thought it was the food, but I had been blessed, with YOU my daughter, reaching for life.

Suddenly she reached for my face and looked straight into my eyes. A lump of hope leapt into my chest, I’d so longed for her to know me again.

“Mama!” I said

“Sandra.” She said, “Are you here to cut my hair?”

I turned back to the cards, trying to hide the tears in my eyes, the heat of my hope igniting my anger. She couldn’t help it. I gritted my teeth; she really couldn’t help it.

She grabbed the next card…

JAMAICA: Our first Caribbean cruise, the sun so hot, the island so green, the sky and sea so blue.

KRAKOW: We bought amber in the market, dined on Fois Gras in Wierzynek; toured the salt mines, grateful for our freedom; we bowed our heads and sobbed in Auschwitz.

We’d all sobbed there. I hadn’t wanted to go. I still wish that I’d never been there, but Mama said we must never forget. I will never forget. I hoped that she could let the camp’s silent eloquence slip away, but some experiences refused to sink into the pit of her lost memories.

LINZ: The slave market, sold into hard labour; I had a price, yet I was worth nothing.

MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: The undertaker said Olek should have a magnificent seven burial. I said yes, of course, Olek was a magnificent man, his ashes went to Brompton, where we had joined in marriage – I told him we’d meet again there.

NAZILAND: A plague of evil; they came to the house, took my father, shot him dead in the woods; my beloved daddy, his only crime was teaching the truth.

I willed her memory to reel back to happier days, before the war destroyed her childhood, even if meant that her memory of my childhood would be destroyed too.

ORATORY: Brompton, where we married; where we ate Polish doughnuts filled with rich plum curd.

POZNAN: Home with daddy and my beautiful mother; they were tall, like me. I remember servants.  My sisters played with their dollies, but I wanted to run with my brothers, mother frowned, girls don’t run; daddy laughed. It was always summer in the sunshine of his smile.

QATAR: Olek’s business went international; so glamorous; we sipped vodka in our expat compound and forgot the world.

RUSSIA: Betrayal – they destroyed the Third Reich for you, but we paid the price; the bear steals babies in the night, unseen, you didn’t know?

SEVEN SEAS: The children left home; we cruised the world. Oh, the on-board buffets, food 24 hours a day.

TULSE HILL: Olek left his soldiering behind and became an architect. How hard he worked – apprentice, partner, owner – his business was a lifeline and a legacy for our children.

UNIVERSITY: Daddy said I was too clever to be a girl; after the war, welcomed me, I became a draughtswoman, I became someone.

VICTORIA MANSIONS NURSING HOME: They said I wasn’t safe at home, I pleaded with mother to let me stay, but they took me away. They are kind here, servants bring my tea, mother stands by the desk and watches them. I clean my plate like a good girl.

I let go of a breath that I hadn’t realised I’d been holding. Moving mama into the home had been the hardest thing I’d ever done. At first, she knew where she was, visits were difficult as her eyes accused me, but we were past that now.

“You’re almost there,” said the Activities Leader.

Her voice made me jump. I had been lost in my thoughts, but I felt a touch of satisfaction when I saw how far we’d come. The other old woman at our table was fast asleep in her wheelchair; her daughter had vanished – I could hardly blame her.

I took a deep breath, willing the last of the alphabet to pass quickly.

WARSAW: We went to the old town, it was good as new, as if the war had never been, as if the past had never been torn from the future. We drank coffee in the old market square and laughed.

I flipped the X card over quickly, but mama grabbed my wrist.

XOCHIMILICO: Our first cheap package holiday to Mexico. I never knew so much colour could exist; travel, holidays, it was freedom beyond imagination.

I laughed, she was full of surprises, but I knew from her photo albums that this memory was real, unlike some of her more colourful fictions.

YESHAK: A saint’s school for my children. I wore my fur coat to the school gates so they would know we had money, that my children were not the spawn of poor immigrants; that my children belonged in England.

ZAKOPANE: My uncle’s farm in the lovely mountains; I am there now, skipping with the dogs, mother frowns, girls don’t run, but daddy smiles….

My mother dropped the last card into the box, her transparent skin luminous with joy as her face was lit by sunshine from another time, another place.

The old biscuit tin bulged with cards; her jagged memories captured by my spiky handwriting – her life in letters. Her remarkable life in letters. I kissed her forehead, promised I’d see her next week. Her carers wheeled her to the dining hall; she was already asking about pudding; she’d always had a sweet tooth.


To this day, I do not know who she was smiling for when she put that last card in the box.  Maybe it doesn’t matter; I know that my last smile was for her, my beloved mother…


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