Season 2, 009: Share a story of a gone loved one - their particular gestures or habits; what those meant to you...
You were certain that was the dress you must have.
Pristine white geese with yellow and blue bows tied around their slender necks danced around a skirt of scarlet red, and a white pique collar impractically topped rows of delicate smocking. I had visions of red bleeding into white on the first wash. You spun around, a full circle of anserine waltzing filling the dance floor of the tiny shop and knew this was your Christmas dress. I know how important dreams are, and watched, my fears unspoken, as the assistant folded leaves of tissue paper and handed a glossy carrier bag to my lignite-eyed, smiling girl.
I wish that I could say we feasted better on the day that you left us, but I can’t. Amidst the jobs that must be done, I hurriedly scored crosses on scrubbed and oiled potatoes and set them to bake. Even the sauce was from a jar. Your father burst through the front door, bringing a blast of freezing air and shaking the snow from his boots. At least we were together.
I had reached the half landing with a basket of laundry when your brother screamed for me to come. The Christmas tree lights sparkling, amidst the abandoned Lego and half-completed buildings, you struggled to breathe, your concerned brother, your protective angel, arcing over you.
Lifted into the crook of your daddy’s arm, the waltzing stopped, and a gaggle of crumpled geese fell still.
I never did wash your dress. When Christmas lights sparkle, I lift it from its wrappings and inhale the captured fragrance of a child who chose the perfect garment to celebrate the twirling, whirling, joy- giggling excitement of pantomimes, presents, and parties, and then, to slip ever so quietly away before the red could bleed into the white.
My great-uncle Carleton always greeted us with a handshake, even when I was very young. I am certain he was the very first person to shake my hand, taking it upon himself to teach us children the proper technique, to say “How do you do” and to ensure the correct pressure, gently correcting us if our grip were too tentative or too powerful. Carleton always expected this formal gesture, a handshake delivered with just the right balance of confidence and respect. He also was likely the first to call me “Miss”, another dose of formality that was foreign to my world but essential to his.
I don’t ever remember seeing Carleton without suit and tie and hat, but I do remember seeing him sitting in our den with a handkerchief on his bald pate. He had gotten chilly and had taken out his starched white gentleman’s handkerchief, tied a knot carefully in each of the four corners, and then placed it upon his head as if that was the most ordinary and proper thing for a chilly gentleman to do.
I was never entirely sure how seriously he took his proper gentleman-self. There was always a glint in his eye that suggested humor, a warm affection in his way with children, even while calling us “Master” or “Miss” and insisting on just the right handshake. Years later, when anyone reaches a hand out to me, my arm becomes a conduit for carrying on Carleton’s education, and somewhere inside me, formality and amusement waltz together.
by Susan Bennett www.shedwriting.com @shed_writing
One evening, I surprised myself by reaching into the cupboard and picking a bottle off the highest shelf. HP Sauce. Brown and spicy and now in a plastic bottle, rather than the glass one we used as kids. That thump thump on the end, trying to get some brown sauce to plop pleasingly on our plates, beside the sausages and bacon and soda bread. And the inevitable shout of frustration when nothing came for ages and then a massive slop. Ah, it’s all over my soda bread! It makes it all soggy!
Maybe plastic is better these days, I think, as I squeeze out a perfectly sized drop on the edge of my plate. It’s an Ulster Fry (of course) and it never tastes right without HP Sauce. This was a surprise tonight, though. I’ve told myself, over and over again, that I don’t actually like this sauce with a fry; I prefer some fancy chutney, I say with a middle-class sniff.
But here I am, dipping the sausage and enjoying the taste immensely. My brother was right. Stephen slathered the stuff on every single meal (except breakfast, but I wonder if, given the chance, his cornflakes would also swirl around in brown milk). As kids, we would pass the bottle round, watch intently as each person tried to control the amount coming out, and laugh and laugh when it went everywhere. I didn’t know that my big brother, with his freckles and wonky fringe and odd tastes, was wise and funny too. He was just annoying. And then illness arrived and, too late, pointed it all out: he was wise and funny.
And so here I am, missing him and licking the brown sauce that tastes now of spice and warmth and tears.
Here I am. Missing him.
Drumming like soldiers marching along his head, the table, the chair. My Father-in-law. Derek could not control them.
A few months later his walking pattern changed. He used to sway from side to side attempting to negotiate an open door. Easy actions became difficult. Everything took longer now.
Walking downstairs turned into a chore. Step by step, clinging onto the wooden rails with clammy palms.
“I mustn’t fall.” He used to say to himself silently.
“Don’t fall. Take it slowly.”
The inner voice grew louder.
Shaving presented another challenge: Derek avoided the door frame and stood in front of the sink and the mirror. He had always performed a wet shave, but co-ordinating soap, shaving brush had become risky.
Derek researched his symptoms and visited the G.P.
“You’ve got a type of Parkinson’s.” The G.P. told him.
Derek found it hard to process at first, but he adapted: easy-to-hold knives, forks and spoons filled the kitchen drawer, an extra railing was attached to the stair wall and grab rails added in the bathroom.
Following a spell in hospital Derek pestered to return home. His house was his children’s inheritance so he must avoid going into a home.
Carers, social workers and occupational therapists invaded the house.
After several falls Derek waved goodbye to upstairs.
This independent streak persisted to the end – that fateful fall in the kitchen sustained between carers’ visits at the peak of the pandemic.
What made him get up that day? A knock at the door, a telephone call or simply a toilet urge?
All we know is that the bleeding was too extensive to consider surgery so he slowly slipped away.
No more tapping, thudding.
No more supportive chats.
But his legacy, his house will live on.
My father-in-law, Gennady Vasilyevich Ivanov, made the best pies I ever tasted.
In summer, he made large rectangular sheet pies. The bilberries, painstakingly picked in the forest by my mother-in-law, spilled over the edges of the thick bouncy pie bottom, and were sprinkled with sugar and topped with golden pastry greetings: ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘1st Day of School’.
For our wedding party, he baked small, individual pies filled with cabbage and hard-boiled eggs, mushroom and dill, minced meat, apple and cinnamon.
Sometimes, he would pop over with a box of warm pies, just because, and we would wolf them down greedily, never managing to save any for later, handing him back the empty box.
I can picture him now in his tiny kitchen on the 7th floor, his firm white hands, always wearing his wedding band, kneading the yeasty dough and covering it with a tea towel to leave to rise. He loved sharing his pies and we all loved eating them: oven-warm, crispy on the outside, thick, soft and bready on the inside with the generous fillings bursting out.
I once asked him for the recipe and my mother-in-law wrote it down for me, but the pies didn’t work out. My endeavours produced a thin-crusted pie, with no evidence that I had followed the Russian recipe, and I wondered if the secret was in his hands and not the ingredients and method.
After my mother-in-law died, he would spend Wednesday afternoons at our flat, sharing his baking secrets with his teenage grandson: mixing, kneading, covering, rolling, glazing. This Boxing Day, my son baked pies for us all. It took him six hours, but he did it all alone. My father-in-law may no longer be with us, but his pies are still being baked.
8pm. Thursday 3rd May 2012. My 7 week old daughter was breast feeding when the phone rang. My sister, in a wailing voice I had never heard before or since “oh god it’s awful. Auntie Lynn is dead”. I felt a cold, white emptiness radiate from within and I wanted to faint. She was 49, the same age I am now. She literally dropped dead at home while watching TV of a cerebral haemorrhage. Bam. Dead. On an average Thursday in May.
We were close. She was my Auntie, my mothers sister but also my godmother. 11 years apart. Both my sister and I spoke to her most weeks. She had texted me that very morning to tell me she was popping to the shops. Then bam. Dead. She never even got to meet her great niece, my daughter.
I read a poem at the funeral about the transient nature of life. About footsteps in the sand being washed away. I needed a brandy to do it. I was 7 weeks into breast feeding. I could barely get the words out. Absolute white cold shock.
The world span for months after. My maternity leave was a mix of the warm joy of my second child and the ice cold panic of loss. The jigsaw of my life had been thrown in the air and it took a year for the pieces to fall back again.
A decade on and I honour her often. She taught me to cook. The other vegetarian in the family, I think of her when crumbling veggie stock cubes into my cooking. That was one of her tricks. I play her Talking Heads vinyl and toast her on French holidays when drinking ‘pouilly fume’ her favourite wine. My daughter, now 10, wears her scarves and has a photo in a locket of a woman she never met. I sometimes speak to her. “Auntie Lynn would have loved that”
A little shake of the box and a mischievous smile. ‘But they’re yours!’ I’d say, in mock hesitance. She’d shake it again, and proffer it towards me. No words were needed because she knew I’d take one. So I would rummage around in the box, even though they were all the same, before finally selecting one, taking it out carefully as if it was a jewel. I’d slowly unwrap its gaudy red wrapper, postponing the delight, to reveal the smooth chocolate inside, and it would be the most delicious thing, because I knew they were her favourites.
Mum kept a stash of the boxes under her chair. ‘I only have one a day’, she used to say with pride as we munched, after that brief sweet moment of shared silence. None of us knew what else to buy her, especially towards the end. The boxes were an unusual shape, so it was hard to disguise the contents. A quick shake of the gift and the secret would be out, anyway. She’d grin, peel off the wrapping paper and pop the box under her chair to join the others.
The unspoken knowledge of something terribly wrong grew and grew. But she didn’t want to know. ‘She won’t eat!’ Dad’s voice betrayed the worry that must have nagged at him like an open sore. ‘All she has is those chocolates’. Each time I hugged her goodbye there was less of her, until she felt like a baby bird in my arms.
Now, I can’t look at those distinctive red boxes. I turn my eyes away from window displays, I hurry down another aisle. I haven’t tasted one of those chocolates since she slipped away.
Maybe, when the pain subsides, I’ll give a box a little shake.
Arthritic knees, vigorously rubbed before standing. Failing eyesight, the tugged hem of her jacket two-piece when entering a room, the imperious lift of the chin. Her reaction to unpleasant news – a vocal octave descent, accompanied by Bob Fosse jazz hands that would dance past her ear lobes, effectively repelling the delivery of such missives for most of her later life. And an incongruous sentimentality for such a stoic and proper soul that had stared down two world wars – there were always foxes welcomed into her garden – every season in every year, a vixen and her cubs given sanctuary under her shed, a saucer of milk put out every night under the kitchen window to tempt that primal creature ever closer – anarchy and rebellion just beyond the glass.
Her son. Large soulful hands, fat veined with wisdom and love, and tanned from summer drives. A passion for old comedy, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, and the Muppets – leaning forward, forearms on thighs, face rapt for mimicry and storytelling. Afternoon rehearsals for evening performances, DJ, dickie bow and viola case, returning in the small hours with always two cigarettes to unwind, stubs discarded in the fireplace. A shirt and tie, even on the beach, a penchant for banana ice-cream, steam trains, hardback books. And in the flyleaf of those books – are still his sums, ‘workings out’ scratched in pencil, lead chiselled and sharpened by a knife. Monies in and monies out, the worries of a gentle, profound, and wise man whose simple needs and happy life were weighed against an ever-hastening, modern and mercurial world.
My Nan and my Dad. Enlightened and contradictory old souls both. Their intonations still whisper and give my heart a peace.
(I took a bit of liberty with this prompt. It is about my son who I am grateful to say is still very much alive. I think the prompt still works because, in my experience, there is a grief and a joy to all stages of parenting. He's 22 now and I look fondly on these days as I celebrate the life he lives now.)
What is missing? Well, the boy is missing, the boy who wanted to quit school in second grade to be a farmer, the boy who had his own egg business, made his own labels for the egg cartons, kept track of who he sold to. The boy who never forgot the guy who didn’t pay. The boy who set up a desk in his dad’s woodworking shop, complete with pictures of his dog and one of our favorite hens along with a book of agriculture facts from the 1970s and an aluminum bean can decorated with construction paper for pens and pencils. The boy who wore International Harvester t-shirts and hats, who stood, hand on hip, leaned like he had spent hours on a tractor.
What is missing? The boy who already had around 30 chickens and his mum and dad weren’t paying enough attention to the number of eggs he was giving to his uncle to incubate and when his mum finally asked he said around 70, but don’t worry, they won’t all hatch and nearly every one of them did hatch. The boy who had chickens everywhere.
What is missing? The boy who would hang out in the kitchen with his mum as they washed all of the eggs and discussed the idiosyncrasies, how some eggs looked like they hurt and some had surprising speckles. The boy who would clean the nest boxes and reline them with fresh hay. The boy who made sure their water dispenser was clean and full. The boy who would go down in the evening after the ladies were back in the barn and made sure the door was shut tight and learned that sometimes the raccoons get in anyway.
What is missing? The boy who had an old John Deere riding lawn mower that he did not weigh enough to keep running so he added a cement block to the seat and chains on the back tires so he could spin the mud in our yard. The boy who stuck a bumper sticker on the back of his seat that read: I Farm So You Can Eat.
What is missing? The boy who would sit on the board fence and stare out into the pasture, lost in those thoughts that a young boy has that no one ever gets to know. The boy who had time to watch the grass grow.
What lovely stories have been posted for this prompt. They are beautiful and poignant. And happy new year to you.
Here is my contribution on this theme:
I have no idea how it got there. But there it was; a piece of photocopied paper with instructions for a cake containing Dad’s favourite tipple. For every birthday, Christmas and Easter celebration, it would grace the table at our family gatherings.
We found it clearing out his flat after he died. His handwriting etched out amendments and additions in the margins. Glacé cherries replaced candied peel. Scrap the marmalade.
Other unwritten directions were discovered through trial and error when my sister vowed to pick up this baking baton. Less black treacle, more golden syrup. With a modern oven, lower the temperature and shorten the cooking time. And add at least double the amount of Guinness stated to feed the sponge. No doubt Dad would have had an extra bottle on the side, too.
There is, of course, an ingredient that was never written down. But intrinsically kneaded and stirred into every ounce of that cake mix.
Dad’s way of showing how much we all meant to him. My sister’s love for Dad to honour the gesture, and her love for us, by continuing this tradition. There is always a lot of cake.
You lay unconscious between us as we shared our memories of you across the bed; could you hear us? Every now and then you raised your left arm in the air, gently and slowly, almost balletic, leading from your elbow, your hand nearly reaching your brow before you gently and slowly, and with such quiet, lowered it back to your side. This graceful, silent movement stopped us in our tracks each time. We wondered if you were in pain or responding to our words, but we couldn’t tell.
This gesture reminded us of your love of dance, and we reminisced, retelling the stories you shared from your childhood - of meeting Margot Fonteyn whilst your mum cleaned her friends flat. We both held vividly in our minds the beautiful photo of you in your early teens in your ballet outfit, a simple white tunic, with a wide pale pink satin ribbon tied round your waist, your feet elegantly crossed over each other, wrapped in soft pale pink ballet shoes. We remembered you taking us to buy our own ballet shoes and the delicious smell of them in the tiny little ballet shop down a side street somewhere in busy central London.
Sometimes, when I feel your loss most, I move my arm this same way, gently, slowly up in the air. There’s a tenderness in it that somehow connects me to your love and to stories and memories that are so detailed and vivid.
We listened to the clink of metal shackles tapping irregular rhythms on the masts in the small harbour. I have no idea what we ate for those last days together, but I remember huddling in the cottage around a too-small wooden table. Peals of laughter swirled and danced, particularly precious because he had never expressed joy so freely.
Grandad was smaller than his formidable wife, who threw shards of bitterness at him whenever she could. But, bent over his daily paper, the world would expand beyond their walls and his imagination was free. And as he read, he would slice the top off his boiled egg, slipping it to the snuffling Pekingese by his feet.
He was a man of routine, held firm by propriety. Every morning after he retired from his reliable job at the bank, he would walk to the shops, recognisable for his baggy trousers and jacket which stopped neatly at his waist. Tucked under one arm would be his ridiculous dog, who shared his passion for fresh air.
He had a love of plants, of their roots in a gentler existence. Working together in a communal rock garden, I pulled out a plant I didn’t recognise. “That is not,” he said crossly, “a weed.’ His rebuke hurt. Unable to frame his apology in words, emotion swirled unspoken between us as we ate our sandwiches.
Once home, he pulled open a stiff wooden drawer filled with brown paper bags. They cradled a sugary world: humbugs, chocolate limes and bulls eyes; flavour bombs that made your eyes water. Normally, I was allowed to reach in for just one, but his apology took the form of several sweets. Their crackling wrappers shaped the sounds he couldn’t: Sorry. I love you. You are my universe too.
I made that short walk several times as a child. Across the highway, down the street named after my mother, and in through my grandparents’ door.
Each time I arrived, I’d find Grampa sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, while watching the bird feeder outside the window. He knew all the birds by name – Blue Jay, Robin, Chickadee, Crow, Starling... He taught me their names too - Cardinal, Red-Winged Blackbird, Dove, Pigeon, Baltimore Oriole…
Grampa’s side of the table was on the right. Gramma sat knitting on the left side. Gramma’s ‘princess’ sat at the end of the table with my milk and cookies.
Grampa was a kind, loving man. As we sat together, he would show me a picture book of Norway, his childhood home, and translate the captions into English. It was a magical land full of snowy mountains, fiords, and chalets. Somehow that picture book was lost, perhaps in the move after he died. One time when I sat with him, I tried to draw a nearby chair as he sipped his coffee. Gently, he took the pencil from my hand and transformed my stick chair from two to three dimensions.
As I see him now, through the haze of imperfect memory, he is still sitting at that table, watching his visitors at the bird feeder. His coffee is served in a cup and saucer. He raises his hand to pour the hot coffee into the saucer to cool before he raises it to his lips before placing it back down on the table.
One hot summer’s day Grampa came by to inspect our newly installed pool. Mum served coffee in mugs, without saucers, but he didn’t complain. The last photo we have of him was taken on that day, Grampa with his coffee.
My dad departed nearly 30 years now had this funny whistle, he was Mauritian came to this country to nurse and met my Mother who is Irish and was nursing , small island people meeting on this island of the UK
Along came me and my siblings and I will always hink of myself as an gal for sure !
My dad had been born with a spinal complaint and lost mobility after a huge operation when my brother was a new born
it was a gradual loss and he fought well to keep as much movement as possible
Long rehabilitation stays in hospital ,exercise bike in the kitchen after dinner and an adapted Gold Ford Granada he would use to drive us gaggle of kids to sweet shops ,zoos and to care homes to pick my mum up after her shifts at work .
It was unusual maybe but not for us and I felt the happiest I've ever felt being part of this whole unit .
My dad mobility worsened and soon it was a walking stick from the car proped up by the wall round the garage that would get him back inside the house after an adventure
and on those tentative walks back this whistle would come ,a kind of I don't know maybe thinking back a kind of cheerfulness ans defiance but also I remember a kind of cuckoo noise it was a birds call a family noise a heart song that was ours and imprint within me without me ever realising
and when at my lowest in my late 30s questioning and in pain from life itself
I found that whistle calling me back to myself and a song passed my way a very old one Cucurrucucú Paloma
the lyrics of the song made so much sense of my pain I was in and the Cuckoo sound within the song was I know my dad calling back to my home ,myself like he had done all those years ago .
Betsy Bertha, also known fondly as Nanna. We visited every Sunday, a chore for my Mother and yet just seeing her made everything ok in my World.
Her wide smile took over her round face, it wasn’t the smile that I first saw though, it was the palest blue eyes that spoke to me, I haven’t seen this particular eye colour since. They were rare beauties. Jewels.
She called me her little sugar loaf. I was so proud, no one else had this title in the family, only me. It has come up in conversations with friends whilst speaking about their own names they were given by loved ones, no one has ever heard of it. To this very day, I’m bursting with pride, it’s something for me to gently and quietly hold.
Nanna reminded me then and now of the Queen Mother only a bit taller and with better teeth. She wore a selection of polyester house coats, she liked pale pink and blue, which matched her colouring perfectly.
I have to assume not like the Queen Mother. This was the signature attire. I don’t believe I ever truly saw any clothes she wore underneath.
Always welcoming by her grounded presence, always asking if I had ‘seen the vets’ on the TV. This was in the days of ‘All creatures great and small’ she loved it too, trying to find a connection for us both. Nanna was an older Nanna, as I had older parents. I look back now and see how it must have been hard for her to know what to say being the only grandchildren, and being the age she was, she however found this one thread and it was shared almost immediately when we arrived.
Nanna has gifted me so much, she was always unapologetically herself, I’m still learning, a lover of nature and the countryside. Home cooking, and making the best of what you’ve got. She’s still here. If I’m lucky enough, one day I hope to be someone’s Nanna, to pass on and continue her beauty in the World.