Aug 23, 2022Liked by Tanya Shadrick

The messiest corner of our study contains several piles of my Russian family photos. Some hold happy memories, others – just memories or the absence of them.

There is a photo in that pile that unsettles me. It is black and white and slightly yellowed from age. There is a brief handwritten note on the back: Moscow, 22 August 1970. The day of my parents’ wedding.

It shows eleven people standing in a haphazard line against a lightly coloured and totally blank wall. You don’t need to understand much about photography to see that it was taken by an amateur and with little care for future memories. There is a certain awkwardness about this photo - in fact every detail of it reveals clumsiness and unease. Most people in the photograph are staring into space with a frozen expression of indifference. Only my mum looks radiantly happy and beautiful in the photo, as beautiful as she always looked in all her photographs taken before that day… but never after.

To the right of my mum is dad. Their arms barely touching. He is dressed in a suit and tie, probably the same one he wears to work every day. He is gazing across the room and straight through the camera.

For reasons I can only guess, my grandmother is not in the picture but what I do know for sure is that I’m in that photo. Yet invisible to anyone, I can see myself in my mum’s shining happiness that looks so out of place on that fading grey background.

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Oct 27, 2021Liked by Tanya Shadrick

Hi Tanya. You have shared such incredible writing and encouraged so many others to do the same. It has been a battle to overcome imposter syndrome and write some words to join them. As you know from your kind mentoring session earlier this year, I found it incredibly difficult to start to write about the loss of my Dad and the grief I feel, even now. This short thought came to me today, just a couple of weeks ahead of what would have been his 80th birthday. Thank you for your encouragement, as always.

In Sepia

The 3D you is a sepia photograph now. Colours faded. I squeeze my eyes tight in a bid to bring you back to life, channelling Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. The edges are fuzzy, and I can just about make out the crinkles around your eyes. I can’t see your hands or the shape of your body in your red jumper anymore. But it is smell and sound that sharpen the lens a little.

That red jumper now sits amongst my own in the wardrobe. I inhale it, but your scent has dissipated and mingled with mine long ago. There is just one drawer I can open, though. Your old bedside table sits in the hallway, which I filled with Dad things: a hammer, spirit level, screwdrivers and alum keys. And it is here where the last molecules remain of a life once lived: a faint whiff of tobacco and the sweet woody mustiness of you.

The catchy piano chords, the snap of drumbeats and the line, “put a pony in me pocket, I’ll get the suitcase from the van” take me back to the sound of you laughing. An uncontrollable belly laugh that I otherwise rarely saw. I see you slapping your thigh with tears running down your face saying, “Bleedin’ wrap up” or “Sod my old boots”. Never mind the Only Fools and Horses catchphrases; you had your own.

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May 5, 2021Liked by Tanya Shadrick

Tanya, your wonderful story has both broken and lifted my heart. I can’t wait for the book to come out! I recognise parts of my own story within yours, and you have unleashed so many memories and feelings, in this piece in particular about my great grandmother, Amy.

The story we grew up with, passed on to me by my father, strangely, not my mother, her grand daughter, was that she had been in service, fell prey to the attentions of the master, or his son, or someone, anyone, and had become pregnant. Because of this, she had been locked away in the crazy house until she died, nameless and forgotten. It’s what happened to unmarried women then, just one of those Victorian things.

Thirty years later, my work on our family tree uncovered a different story. My great grandmother was feeble-minded, deaf and dumb, and also a scholar, depending on which census you read. She had worked at the local mill with everyone else, lodged with various family members in a succession of tiny tied-cottages, swapping about here and there, weavers all the way down. The birth certificate named a father I could not trace, a name made up to save face no doubt, but she looked after her only child until he went to fight in the French trenches.

It wasn’t until she was forty-one that they took her away, just as they had taken her mother and her sister to a different asylum, the reasons unknown or concealed. She died inside that place after 46 winters, in the spring following the birth of my sister; they could have met, but my mother didn’t know about her grandmother then, and realised only years later that she must have been ‘the old lady’ that her parents went to visit ‘in hospital’ on occasion.

My sister’s own daughter bears her name.

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Mar 3Liked by Tanya Shadrick

Memory Game

Flick over one image, then the pair. Flick another, no, not a match. Try again, come on, get on with it. Remember, for goodness sake, there’s only a few pairs.

Only a few pairs, only a few photos, only a few years, then five years, ten years, twenty, thirty. I flicked over his image. It was faded. It’s match would also be torn and ragged, if I had one. His face smiled out at me, his youthful magic was an inward breath that never came out. It was any ordinary day. With some of our breaths we’d laughed at normal things, silly things, things that are importantly not important and then we’d said goodbye. The next caller to speak his name asked I sit down. The primal wail escaped my body and frightened my soul. No, it isn’t true. It couldn’t be true. I didn’t want it true. But, then it came, an explosion deep in my heart. My chest clamped a lock, but sparked a fire that melted rock which flowed deeply beneath, buried as lava set. If I hung up instantly I could make it not true. I knew I could. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t turn back time. For days, then weeks then months I sobbed the loss of never again. I screamed the ache of fragile memories. Tears tore at my throat, my eyes bulged to peer into the mist of fading light, with his fading face. My heart carried on, my breath it steadied. My feet dragged through the daily grind of a thick black quagmire. Seasons cycled, stars winked the moon and the sun parched us all. New love was tendered, bells rang and golden rings exchanged with promises. Children came and learnt the game. Match the pairs, count them all.

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Jan 14Liked by Tanya Shadrick

My grandma

She was born in 1929 in Liverpool and said her name, Mavis, came from a singing bird. She won the All-England medal for dancing at Albert Hall at age 7. She sang and danced to You Are My Lucky Star. Hitler invaded Poland and Prime Minister Chamberlain finally recognized appeasement would not work, declared war on Germany, resigned and died shortly after. Liverpool was bombed for the first time on August 17, 1940. She spent nights alone in a brick house with a slate roof and blackout curtains. Over 4000 people died, second only to London. She practiced wearing her gas mask at school. She remembers weekly rations of two ounces of tea, two ounces of butter and one egg, but typically only powdered eggs were available. She married an American GI in 1945 and the marriage certificate listed her as a spinster at age 16. Her husband was 8 years older than her and brought his war bride to the states in 1946 and unleashed years of cruelty. She gave birth to a baby who died 7 months later and then to my mom in 1949. Her divorce was finalized in 1955. She remarried in 1956 and had a son. When she found her brother again after forty-four years he was still mad at her for not coming back home. She never acknowledged that this could have saved a lot of pain in our family. He never acknowledged that it would have been hard for her to come home. She never changed her citizenship. In 1988 Father O’Connor was informed by the bishop that the first marriage annulment was approved, “was null from the beginning,” in fact, and charged her $150 and she and her husband could take communion. Her embroidery was nearly as good on the back as the front, neat, tight stitches. I once gave her a list of questions. She said the happiest day of her life was when her mom left England to come to the states to be with her. The other answers were all about the regret of giving up her dancing career to come to America. These are the questions she skipped: what people don’t know about you, what’s most important, advice for other women in the family, describe a perfect day, worst piece of advice you ever gave, dream vacation, something you are sorry for. She would have denied being depressed, at most admitting to being melancholy at Christmas. She kept a tight grip. She said her heart was like a hotel, there was room for everyone, but that was a past life. Her best years were over by age 16.

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Dec 2, 2022Liked by Tanya Shadrick

My hair hangs heavy like wet rope as I sit in the faded green bath always run too shallow so that my toes become hierarchical islands in a sea without a tide as an Imperial Leather boat bobs by. My teeth chatter not because I'm cold but because its part of the game and I like how it makes her care. 'Hair, face, feet and peach?' She asks and I giggle as I clamber over the side rewarding her with a toothy grin as my answer. A large terracotta towel quickly shrouds my squirming body and as she feeds my joy with requests of 'quick, quick, quick' the towels are always rough and I jump like a fish on the line. I escape to streak down the stairs leaving tiny wet toes on the carpet. I round the corner into the living room like a whippet. 'Cor blimey maid, you only just made it away from that towel this time' and he pats to the chair but he doesn't need to. I place myself neatly between him and the arm whilst he wrestles an old blanket from behind him and around my naked body. 'Can I have some?' I ask pointing to a big bottle of cider stashed next to him. His scuffed red cheeks swell with naughtiness 'You bugger! You'm just like ya ol'grandad' and he begins to sing drink up the cider whilst I'm thrown around on his knee, laughing from my belly. The creak of my nans footsteps sound and he puts his fingers to his lips which I copy whilst he gestures upstairs with his eyes. After a while the fire begins to speak 'weeeeeee pop' and it sets off a small ember that lands on the cats ear she hisses and glowers but remains sitting feet curled under bib. I don't like it and look to my grandad but he's laughing at the tv, he can't always be there I suppose and I don't like that either. The fire speaks again 'weeeeeee' but no pop, just suspense and I'm even more anxious waiting for the moment to break, waiting for the spark and the hiss but nothing comes.

I fiddle with a familiar loose thread on the seam of the chair running it through my fingers as it catches on the edges of my bitten nails. Tomorrow I will have to go home and I think about that as without any effort at all the thread gives way into my hand and I'm scared its all going to come undone.

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Apr 24, 2021Liked by Tanya Shadrick

Such a great piece... you convey a tangible sense of the layers of emotion in those moments, and also reveal so much of your grandmother herself, through the things in her life... now to be hastily collected in an attempt to scoop up a little of the familiar, as she sets off for the hospital. Certain objects seem to embody a part of us, and those we love... My own Mum passed in 2017, and I am still immersed in many of her things. Some are photos, or a small painting, family or other recipes written in her handwriting, furniture, bric-a-brac, bits of yarn, wooden thread spools, old paperbacks and so much more... the ephemera of not only her life, but her parents... a long line of People Who Collect Things : ) I can really relate to this passage: "Rifled every drawer and wardrobe as if I could steal and keep safe how I loved her: Cotton reels; shoe polish; jars of homemade jam and pickles; hat for Chapel; fifty-year old crêpe-paper Christmas decorations; smelling salts. Even heavy things I could never use, I wanted to take away in my arms:..."

It's a bequest as well as a burden of sorts that we take on when a parent or grandparent passes... and negotiating the memories/ambivalences and determining what those objects actually represent, is a complicated, emotional process. Ultimately the relationship transcends any material element, but these objects can trigger so many memories... It is challenging to tease out the meaning they had for one's parent, vs one's own feeling of not wanting to dishonor something they loved... Still working through it... Your grandmother sounds like a warm, wise woman.. no doubt she would be pleased she is still recalled with such eloquence and feeling,

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I've read this several times out loud now--reveling in both the sound of the words in my ears and the way my mouth is possessed by the need to chew them and tumble them around and deliver them into the air. Your writing, so lyrical....it's tangible in such a way that all the senses can feel it. As I sit here thinking about my own experiences of losing someone beloved to me, I'm struck by how little I have physically—no sand timer, no binoculars, no beads. But I remember…

Blips and beeps and bells from the other side of the ICU curtain mixed with feet scuffling and squeaking across the floor. He was gone really the moment the aneurism broke free, but his heart was still beating at an incredible clip; strong; a steady green line on the monitor, here and gone all at once. I wiped a drop of blood from the corner of his mouth, and as the sun rose and my grandfather Stanley lay dying I held his hand. I noted its squareness, thick knuckles, traced the gold band he’d worn for over 50 years, and I saw it for the first time: his hands were mine. Hands that held four children and grandchildren, and one great grandchild. That roasted lemon-stuffed chickens basted with olive oil and oregano over campfires. Fingers that tied flies before palms cast out over the water. Hands that planted two gardens of vegetables every growing season, watered, pruned, picked shiny green peppers. Other than photos I do not possess any objects treasured by him. He was buried with the compass he used to navigate forests, and I’ve no idea what became of his walking stick. But do I have his hands. My hands are the objects. My hands are the treasure.

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Wonderful Tanya, the sense of your gran, the sense of yourself ......"to prize routine and everyday objects more than people" so much to reflect on in that sentence. Thank you so much for the prompt. It's so lovely to write in response and to read everyone's different interpretations. Best wishes, Sheila

My Brother Mike

Sheila de Courcy

He was gone within 27 hours. There was no warning. It was a sunny evening, he was playing football, there had been no rain for weeks and the pitch was hard. We hadn’t shared a home for 10 years so there were few mementoes. Just some gifts from over the years but we were so young, I was left with more memories than things. All tinged with sadness. I looked for him in the streets where we met, gazed at the paintings he loved, listened for his voice at my side as I strode the hills or plunged into the Atlantic. Sometimes he visited my dreams and we talked. Often it was that he had survived the accident but his life had changed.

The years passed. I held him close and kept going. I gave birth to my first child at the age at which he had died. My children had reached early adulthood when tragedy began to enter their lives. I started to think carefully about when, at a similar age, my own world had disintegrated and how memories of a wonderful life were shaped by sadness. Now I found his beautiful voice on reel to reel tapes, loving letters in his exquisite script and photos of our childhood that, for three decades, had been too painful to revisit. I recorded interviews with my sisters, my mum, his friends, his son and we talked about how good he made us feel, protected and challenged and joyful, so alive. So alive. Even still. You never forget how someone makes you feel.

That summer a radio documentary I made about memory and Mike was broadcast. Some weeks later I was having a massage, a birthday gift from my kids. As I lay in the silent, still room a slight breeze glided across my bare legs and chimes suspended from the ceiling tinkled in an unexpected way. Afterwards the masseuse told me that we had had a visitor. A man. He had asked her to let me know that he was good and doing well and to say thank you.

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It was as if she was passing on a baton; a rich purple lidded tube that must one day have been handed to her and was now being handed to me. She ‘thought I might like it’.

My home has always been full of my parents, from the box of his tools Dad put together for me that first Christmas I was married to the king-size patchwork bedspread Mum made by hand when she had retired from teaching. Each patch is a memory from the clothes they wore to furnishing I recognised; a family heirloom. The tools in our house now are always mummy’s tools, though first they were Dads, including the old tobacco tins full of nails and screws.

Most of the items of theirs that I possess are of practical use whether made or passed on but this was different. Inside the tube were a number of papers. Looking at them now, I seem to be looking at another life, separate from mine, yet like a pattern I am following. The first is her Genreal School certificate, dated 1936, from ‘Raine’s Foundation School for Girls’, a Jewish School to which my mother won a scholarship in 1929. Her time as a scholarship ‘gentile’ is well known to me. Coming from a poor East London home, her attendance and success there, despite some of its traumas is impressive. However it was the range of subjects she had passed that struck me. English subjects, yes, but written and oral French and German too. Mathematics I knew she excelled in, but Inorganic Chemistry, Magnetism and Electricity? Art: elements of colour and design, model drawing and freehand. And singing. Suddenly I seemed to recognize threads of belonging, interests shared over years becoming part of me.

When I look at them now, I imagine her going to school in her second-hand uniform; her nights studying in their tiny damp terrace house, practising the violin my grandmother detested, looking after her brother while her mother washed doorsteps for a living. Another paper in the tube has a job application letter drafted on the back: ‘I have wanted to be a teacher since I was eight’. Eight; the age she was when her father died of cancer in a mental asylum. I resisted teaching but it was in my genes and I loved it once I started. I recognize those genes in my own daughter now she too is about to begin that process.

Only one paper is in colour: ‘Moray House College of Education’, Edinburgh, 21st June 1962. She was awarded an education diploma with merit which at last enabled her to pursue the teaching life for which she had longed. I was eight. Despite my resistance to the career I later came to love, I treasure the days I was able to go into school with Mum. The children loved her and flourished under her diligent care. To them, I was ‘Mrs Stewart’s little girl’, although I was twice their age. Sometimes I wonder if there is some kind of mycorrhizal network that ran between us, constantly building connections that fed into my life, nurturing me like Suzanne Simard’s mother trees. I am obsessed with colour, had a challenging school life, belong to a choir, studied maths to A level, became a teacher and create patchwork in a small way.

The papers in my ‘baton’ are a glimpse of a life lived until she had run her course. What has passed into my life is infinitely richer and still nourishes through objects and memoires.

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