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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Now You See Me: A Short Story

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We’d like to thank Alison Drury of the UK for her short story submission entitled ‘Now You See Me…’. This story is based on true events and has been accepted for an anthology by the Open University Write Club, called ‘Generations” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Generations’, copies of the anthology are available on ebook or in paperback through Generations” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Amazon.

Alison is studying for a BA(Hons) degree in English Literature and Creative Writing with the Open University. She has lived in Kent’s Garden of England for more than forty years and knows that everything comes to those who want it badly enough. A daughter, Mother, professional plate-spinner and writer, she believes now is her time to dance.

Alison’s descriptive prose paints a relatable picture in this beautifully written, true-to-life story about the ravaging affects time can have on the mind of an ageing Mother.



Now You See Me…

‘Suddenly, as rare things will, it vanished.’
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Outside, here in the garden, the fresh air has blown away the cobwebs and the sunshine has fused her neural wiring. Pulling up the roots, teasing apart the strangled knots, picking up the windfalls and turning over and over the soil that clouds the water. I stand there, at the top of the path, watching. She hasn’t seen me yet. I don’t want to jinx this moment where, in this one place, her world makes sense. She’s tiny now, with the tenacity and strength of a little sparrow.

I’ve seen her doing this same activity, in this same garden, year after year and I’m reminded of when we first came here. They say your earliest memories tend to be few and traumatic – you rarely remember the more numerous happier times.

So then, why is my earliest memory of me sitting on my Father’s knee in the lounge of our brand-new house? It was so new there wasn’t even carpet on the floor. The earthy sweet scent of his pipe tobacco lingers, like dried hay, blended with the fresh sawdust left by the builders and the wooden tea chests stacked in the corner of every room. This smell, and the noise. We were one of the first families to move in and the estate was still a building site. Between eight in the morning and four in the afternoon the thunderous hammering and drilling was unrelenting – for months. But after a while it was only noticeable by the intense silence once the workmen had left for the day; the eerie, un-echoing sound like when everything is muffled by a blanket of snow or water or ash.

Time distorts memory.

It was unusual he was home before my bedtime; work or sport generally kept him out till late. I hung on, to him and his words. I devoured his stories as we snuggled in the high-backed winged armchair in front of the electric fire. His bristly whiskers tickled my cheek and my skinny spaghetti legs, in their knee-length white socks, draped over his lap. That’s all I can remember. There are photographs, of course, of other times, but they’re not memories – they have no lingering aroma nor give out any tingling pops of electricity. Nobody shared that moment except him and me. I was four years old, and a few months later he was gone – my Mother was a widow at thirty-two.

It wasn’t until I was thirty-two, also with a child of four, when the grief brought me up short, like I was trapped momentarily in a turnstile on the London underground. I remember it vividly. I tried to imagine how that situation had been for my Mother. One of those things that can never be prepared for, like losing a limb or a sense. My Mother had been amazingly pragmatic; no histrionics, or wallowing in self-pity. She just quietly shut that door and walked through the next one, and the next one and the next – throughout various episodes of her life.

Her ‘episodes’ read like a soap opera and are equally numerous, funny and tragic. Over eighty-three years she has had her appendix out, a baby out, her womb out, wisdom teeth out, nose, wrist, bladder and bowel repaired, and now sports a titanium knee. She has lost an eye, two husbands, two dogs, two guinea pigs, three cats and a rabbit. She has swum for Sheffield, travelled the world, para-glided in Florida and, water-skied in Corfu. Even now she swims, drives and dances and the garden remains a constant where she still digs her potatoes. It has grown and flourished, changing with the seasons; the Wendy House is now a hot house for her tomatoes, the swing has been replaced with a Victoria Plum, and the exotics have been composted and replanted with root vegetables and raspberry canes. I think back to the time I first noticed the brick path becoming disjointed and furred over with moss, and the pond-life increasingly trapped in algae-infested stagnation. The bugs were sneaking in, burrowing and eating away the goodness, stealing her words: there was the gentleman friend who, ‘poor thing’, was in hospital having a ‘hysterectomy’; she excitedly told us how she had packed all the ‘furniture’ into her suitcase for the Retirement Group charabanc to North Wales. Her confusion at the drop in visiting birds – probably due to the fish food in the bird feeder – and her muddled days as she found nobody at the Doctor’s surgery on a Sunday.

We had time.

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The tests called on her artistic skills but she was better at drawing water to feed the flowers, than five past five on a clock-face. She would curse at the bindweed, anchoring her peonies, but could only identify an anchor on the Doctor’s sheet as ‘that thing that stops a boat from floating away’. In another picture, she knew it was a musical instrument, miming how it should be played, like Lisa from The Simpsons. When asked, she thought it was Tuesday (‘or was it Thursday’), and recalled the Prime Minister’s name was David ‘something’ – he had the same name as her childhood sweetheart. The amber warnings of bleak times ahead led to sandbags and countermeasures at the ready. The boost from the medication was like the heater in the hot house or weed killer in the rain; the memories blossomed and the woolliness evaporated. The side-effects, however, were impatience and sheer bloody-mindedness. These would, of course, have been perfectly harmless if they’d helped in solving Sudoku, or deciphering the bus timetable. However, it’s a different story when they stimulate super powers to ascend into the loft to sort through the ‘keep list’, or climb out of the window to prune next door’s hedge, because the side gate was rusted shut.

It was early enough in the diagnosis that she understood the concept that things die eventually: branches fall from the old apple tree, and leaves become brittle and shatter. She accepted the fact that a certain amount of chemical fertiliser could help, but it couldn’t prevent the inevitable. She was driven to do anything that would enable her to remain in her house with her beloved garden; ‘the only place I can think straight because of my bloody brain.’

I quietly slip inside to put the kettle on and glance at the charging unit for her shiny new pendant blinking expectantly. I smile as I think back to the reason for inviting ‘Big Brother’ to be her chaperone; like the time she disappeared without leaving a ’flight plan’ having taken the scenic route across the fields to the church, the precariously rigged steps to facilitate the hedge-pruning incident when she could have been trapped in the passageway for days. This had been an exercise in patience; not for her, but for us. She had been more than willing to have it but couldn’t quite grasp that (a) she needed to wear it at-all-times, and (b) it needed to sit in its cradle occasionally to recharge the battery. Her trajectory of understanding is precariously heading for an escarpment but we are holding her hand every step of the way, encouraging her to seek new and easier paths through the increasingly befogged jungle. As I look around the house, our way-markers are everywhere; the sprinkling of pink and yellow Post-it Notes, like long-blooming perennials, written with instructions and diagrams on how to use the washing machine, how to switch from the radio to the record player, when to take her pills, and how to reinvigorate ‘Big Brother’.

We have time.

The house is clean and tidy and her slippers sit waiting to be exchanged on newspaper by the door. Her lunch is prepared on the side and her diary is full of appointments and social engagements.

I walk down the garden and surprise her with a cup of tea. We sit on the bench, her little legs swinging like a child’s in her red wellies, and admire the trench she has prepared for the potatoes.

‘I’ve been thinking Mum, if you want to go on the next trip, perhaps I’ll come with you.’

‘What trip pet?’

‘The next trip with your retirement group, the Turkey & Tinsel to the Isle of Wight in November.’

She wiped away the constant tear from her unseeing eye. ‘Oh darling, are you sure? That would be incurable, I’d love you to come.’ Leaning in conspiratorially, ‘Jane said she didn’t think I should sign up for it. I think I was an annoying whatsit in Wales and she got a bit stressed.’

‘I know, she told me.’

‘It wasn’t fair! My room was miles from anyone else’s and I kept getting lost. I couldn’t sleep, thought I’d miss breakfast.’

‘Shhhh! Also, you can’t just go wandering off without telling anyone.’

She flung her arms up in exasperation, spilling her tea, ‘I only went for a walk for heaven’s sake, I couldn’t bear being cooped up inside. And anyway, I couldn’t find anyone to tell.’

I stilled her hands and saved the tea, ‘Well, we can do our own thing, we can be rebels together, and they won’t have to worry.’

I want more time.

A mother-daughter relationship is like a cat’s cradle: the care threaded around our fingers, controlled by one, and then passed to the other in varying sequences. Like the convolvulus, strangling her herbaceous peonies, my Mother’s changing character needs liberating and befriending. Letting go of that other person is hard for both of us but, hands clasped, another door awaits and we step through it together.

~ Alison Drury


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The pace and intensity of our lives, both at work and at home, leave many of us feeling like a person riding a frantically galloping horse. Our day-to-day incessant busyness — too much to do and not enough time.

With this ebook you will learn to approach your days in another way, reducing stress and getting results through prioritizing, leveraging and focus!

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