You hand me a book I cannot read. There’s a wooden spoon on the cover, and though the language on it – your language – is impenetrable to me, I know this is a cookbook. The paper is jaundiced and brittle and the spine is bent, like yours, and loose sheets spill from between the pages like the stuffing of a disembowelled teddy bear. What could I possibly do with this book?
“It belonged to my mother,” you tell me. Again. This story I know, as you’ve told it many times. It was your mother’s, and the only thing of hers you still have. The mother you only knew until the tenth year of your life, before the war took her from you. I know she cooked with you. I know those were your happiest days – not anything that happened on this continent; not any of my milestones or my victories; only those oldest of long-ago years. I’ve made peace with that. I know times were hard when the Germans came. I know they were harder when the Russians replaced them.
I know why you hate the people you hate.
All these stories I know, because they are an anchor that keeps your mind moored to a turbulent sea, and prevents you from sailing to a safe harbour. I wish I could be your jetty. I wish I could hear your other stories, the ones I do not know, the ones I fear I will never know. But if these are the only stories you have, I’ll take them.
“I collected many recipes,” you tell me, pointing to the mess of loose papers shoved into the book. Your hand, warped by arthritis, trembles, but your lips trace the ancient canyons that laughter carved. You speak slowly for my benefit, with a child’s vocabulary. “And I made notes in the margins.”
The book is heavy in my hands. Heavier than it has any right to be. It’s a corpse of better days, and its rubbery limbs flail every which way, making it ungainly to hold. I can’t read it. Hell, I can barely understand you some days, when you get going. The old tongue – your language – is alien to me. It’s a mess of arcane rules and guttural utterances, and the noises stumble over my English tongue. You never correct me. I know the language is precious to you, but you never point out my mistakes. But I know that you know that I make them. I know I sound like an imbecile. And what kind of an imbecile could read such a book?
I hate this book.
“I want you to have this book,” you say.
No. I hate it.
I hate it!
I don’t even cook. Who has the time? The world’s moved on from what you used to know. People have fridges now and microwaves, and there’s fast food everywhere. Yeah, maybe it’s not healthy, and yeah, maybe traditional food is okay sometimes. I love pierogi, sure, but if I never see another cabbage I wouldn’t be upset. But I don’t have the time to learn cooking, and I don’t want to learn either. You cook the traditional food. You always have, and nobody does it better.
No. I hate this book, and I won’t take it. I don’t even know why you’re giving it to me. You need it.
You place your hand on the book, which sits in my hand; a paper void separating us. When I was a child you were always so big, and your stories ten times the size of life. But now, you shrink every time I visit.
I see your eyes shimmer with unshed tears.
“I wanted to give it to you,” you say, “while I still can.” You carry a tissue in your rolled up sleeve, and you wipe your eyes with it, but your glasses get in the way because you forgot you’re wearing them. You chuckle, lift them up, and dab the wet away. Then you add, “Before I forget.”
There is no before, anymore. There is only the forgetting now. Every time you offer to make coffee, you forget I take neither sugar nor milk. Every time you cook dinner, I need to remind you to turn the elements off. You used to tell me your shopping list for groceries, letting me know all your amazing plans for the week. These days, I recite it to you, and I have to scold you if you don’t eat all your fruit.
“I want you to enjoy it, Basia,” you say.
I’m not Basia. I’m not your daughter. I’m her daughter.
I’m Katarzyna – except I’m not even Katarzyna, I’m Catherine. Always have been. My friends call me Cathy, and once, you did too, but it must have sounded as alien to you as your language does to me. I know the th is an impossible sound for you.
I’m Cathy, and I give you a moment to correct yourself. Usually you do.
Today, you don’t.
Lately… you don’t.
I fear my correcting you won’t help anything. I also refrain from reminding you that Basia died five years ago. It grates on me that you forget, that I’m the only one of us who carries the burden of her cancer. In truth, I’m envious. If I could forget what the disease did to my mother – how gaunt she was, the constant pain – I think I would. I only want to remember her as she was before. Just the laughter. Even the scoldings. Just like you remember your mother.
You misplace things in your apartment all the time. Keys, TV remote – the phone buried in the couch cushions, for goodness’ sake! And I help you find them, because I remember your hiding places. But if you’ve misplaced the memories of the cancer, I won’t point you to them. Maybe forgetting those is a mercy.
Then you say, “All of my best memories are in there.”
It’s just a fucking book! Your memories are in you! Your memories are you! You can’t just give them away. You can’t. What will be left? What will remain? You’re already so small!
I don’t want you to give me parts of you. I don’t want you to break into parts. I don’t want to mourn you while you still live. I want you to stay you. I want you to remember. I want you to remain with me.
Every day, you unravel a little more.
Every time you stumble, one of the threads catches and a seam comes undone.
Every time you put your pills in the cupboard, or your coat in the bathtub, or your glasses in the fridge, more stuffing comes out and you shrivel.
You’re leaking and I don’t know how to plug the holes. You’re sinking and I don’t have a life vest. I don’t want to lose you.
I don’t want this stupid book, this cadaver, this effigy.
I want you.
“It means so much to me, to pass this on.”
There’s silence between us.
Then I hear a dull puh, and then another puh. I look down at the book and I see two wet splatters on the cover. There’s another puh and a third splatter, and my eyes blur.
I run my palm across my tears.
I take a shuddering breath.
I hug the book, and I hug you.
While I still can.