63 comments

Sad Coming of Age Contemporary

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.”

NO!

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.

November 20, 2022 20:40

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

63 comments

Aeris Walker
11:05 Nov 21, 2022

Man. VERY well done. I think this is one of my favorite stories of yours, if not my favorite. The POV is powerful here; the voice comes through so raw, so honestly. The present tense pulls you right into this room like you’re a third party observer of this intimate moment. This dynamic you represent is universal; whether it's cultural or generational "space" between us and the people we love, it's really the "them-ness" that matters, the thing we want to sustain and preserve. Fantastic story, Michal. Loved these lines especially: "All thes...

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:47 Nov 21, 2022

Thank you, Aeris! Your feedback means a lot :) I don't normally (ever?) post sad stories, and usually closer to 3k than 1k, so I'm glad this one worked out. It's one close to my heart. The first thing that came to mind with this prompt was "the gift is unwanted". And then naturally, that led to "why?" Why would someone not want a thoughtful gift? That led pretty naturally down this road. I think you're right about the "space" between people. The specific kind doesn't really matter, because it's not about the space, it's about bridging it...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Suma Jayachandar
10:56 Nov 21, 2022

OMG, Michal, I am shocked to see how similar our stories are this week 😲. Now, I'm not sure whether I should submit it😂 Having said that this is a deeply moving story. I think this is the first time I have read such an intensely emotional piece from you. It feels believable, personal and tragic. There are no better givers of meaningful gifts than grandparents, that's settled then.

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:39 Nov 21, 2022

Great minds think alike :) Yeah, this was different from my usual. The prompt made me think of unwanted gifts, which led to this. It's fiction, but not entirely. There is a personal connection. I think you're right about grandparents (maybe not all, of course - seniors have as much right to be clueless as the rest of us). People who have a whole life to reflect on, and who maybe know time's running out, perhaps drop the BS and focus on what matters. Thanks for the feedback!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
AnneMarie Miles
06:29 Nov 21, 2022

Aw, well this is heartbreaking. So full of grief. And with grief, there is always love. It wasn't initially obvious to me the relationship here. And right when I thought, oh mother-daughter, you steered me into it: actually, granddaughter -grandmother. And how tragic to lose mom, and now losing grandma, but in a different, almost more tortuous way, but it adds layers to the story, creates depth. "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." This line stu...

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:48 Nov 21, 2022

Thanks! Yes, something different this week. I don't think I've really delved into sad stories so I wanted to give this one a shot, and I was hoping for something shorter. Actually, this started as a warm up for another idea, but then I looked back on it and thought, "Oh, this is it." Sad-mad is a great term :) I think irritation is fitting too, and probably a little pinch of fear. Losing someone suddenly sucks, but losing someone because their mind deteriorates in their old age is a whole different kind of sucks. I appreciate the feedb...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Marty B
05:28 Nov 28, 2022

Great story! To me what makes this story resonate is the distance between Cathy and her grandmother, and how one item can bridge this gap . There are several barriers that are being bridged in the story, the barrier of language (polish vs english), the barrier of a generations, (escaping war vs using a microwave), the barrier of the role of cooking (creating a meal vs fast food) and most impactful, the barrier of beginning of a life vs ending of a life. The cookbook connects all these together, even though it is 'the spine is bent, lik...

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:54 Nov 28, 2022

Thanks, Marty. Yeah, I like that line too, definitely pulled it from real world experiences. "one item can bridge this gap" I like that. It amazes me how a seemingly common object can be imbued with so much personal meaning. I appreciate the feedback!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mike Panasitti
18:18 Nov 21, 2022

Michal, I agree with the others who comment that this is, perhaps, one of, if not your most, emotionally touching story. It brought tears to my eyes, given that every week my aging mother jots down a recipe in a tattered notebook, an heirloom she intends to leave to me...and I, like your MC, denying the inevitable, stubbornly resist the love that she invests this object with. Thanks for sharing a story written from what seems to be a deeply personal perspective.

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:33 Nov 21, 2022

Thanks, Mike! By resisting, we can trick ourselves into thinking we have some control over things. But it's just a trick, isn't it? Maybe it buys us enough time to make sense of things. Yeah, a different kind of story this week, and yeah, there's a personal connection here. This particular story is fiction, though I've met people that have gone through various aspects of it. But for me, my grandmother suffers from a heartbreaking cognitive decline. It's sobering, realizing there's conversations we'll never have. I appreciate the feedba...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
16:15 Mar 04, 2023

Had to stop and read this one as I had Polish grandparents. But, I am third generation and all I had from her life were stories from a mining town in PA, a hard life but nothing like having to be in Europe during Nazi occupation. While I wish I knew more about my heritage, I am glad that my family escaped the horrors they would have faced there. That they had horrors being so poor, with the female cycle of violence instilled in the women of my family, well, we had our own problems which came from us. And, really, when you think about it, tha...

Reply

Michał Przywara
16:50 Mar 04, 2023

Yes - while this isn't a true story, it is drawn from a lot of real world experience. This comes from both the immigrant experience, as well as, unfortunately, dementia. I think wanting to know our roots is probably universal to all humans, but there are interesting complications with migration. Like you noted, common language between generations might disappear. On the other hand, it's amazing how much meaning we can convey without using words. And yes, the lastname is 100% Polish :) Good eye! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Wally Schmidt
21:02 Dec 04, 2022

Food is the universal gift of love and the grandmother's way of expressing hers is to give the grandchild the gift of food made from the heart, that will endure after her passing. So many of us can recognize the love for a grandparent that transends language, and culture, and generations and have it distilled to its purest form. That is what your story did.

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:52 Dec 05, 2022

Thanks, Wally! Right on. The act of passing things on is bittersweet, and binds generations together. I appreciate the feedback!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mary Lehnert
21:16 Dec 02, 2022

Oh Michal. What a tear jerker. It rings true with so many of us from the Old Country. I’m lost in my memories . Congratulations. must have been difficult to write.

Reply

Michał Przywara
17:16 Dec 04, 2022

Thanks, Mary! Would you believe, that once I got started on it, not-writing it would actually have been more difficult? Some stories demand to be written :) I appreciate the feedback!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Helen A Smith
20:21 Dec 01, 2022

Very beautiful poignant story Michal. Bridges the present and past so well. Beautifully written and touching. Thank you

Reply

Michał Przywara
04:14 Dec 02, 2022

Thanks, Helen! I'm glad to hear that :) I appreciate the feedback!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Caroline Smith
18:53 Dec 01, 2022

What I really liked about this story was how it was centered around such a small plotline: a grandmother handing her grandchild a cookbook. And yet you managed to create a touching and heartbreaking story just from that concept, weaving a history of family and culture in few words — all together, a very effective way of storytelling. The emotion and weight of the situation comes through in every sentence.

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:41 Dec 01, 2022

Thanks, Caroline! As an extra challenge, I wanted to keep this as short as possible, as a lot of my stories clock in near the 3k limit. So I'm thrilled to hear that each sentence still carried a lot of weight. I appreciate the feedback!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Amanda Lieser
20:43 Nov 30, 2022

Hi Michal, Oh my gosh! This story totally hit home for me-my grandmother is polish, my husband is polish, and we are learning polish together. I loved how you slowly helped up untangle this tale. I also loved how abrasive the anger is at the beginning. As my mother always says, “Anger is a secondary emotion,” and I think you paid tribute to that in this piece very well. I loved the line breaks you incorporated, especially, towards the end. Nice job on this one!

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:37 Nov 30, 2022

"Anger is a secondary emotion" - that's brilliant. We're never really *just* angry, are we? There's always a because, even if we don't yet know what it is. Thanks for reading!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
15:41 Nov 29, 2022

The perfect story for the perfect season. Relatable on so many levels: the food, the recipes, the conflicted emotions. My mother is lost to Alzheimer's and I understand this on a personal level. Teared up at this line: I don’t want this stupid book, this cadaver, this effigy.

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:37 Nov 29, 2022

Thanks, Deidra. It's a personally relevant story for me too, with my grandmother walking down that road. Items, even meaningful ones, are a poor substitute. Thanks for reading!

Reply

21:41 Nov 29, 2022

You are a wonderful, wonderful writer (and person!) Michal :)

Reply

Michał Przywara
22:49 Nov 29, 2022

Thanks, Deidra :) Same to you!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Susan Catucci
19:38 Nov 28, 2022

Brrrrr. I shivered at the end. Very effective. Honest, moving, tragic and lovely, all at the same time. The strength of family ties within the frailty of life's structure; your story has all of it. By the end, the differences - whether language, experience, education, lifestyle - ultimately all pale, while our tiny gifts and affection are what truly matter. Beautifully done.

Reply

Michał Przywara
02:53 Nov 29, 2022

Thanks, Susan! I think you got it exactly right. It's not about the things that separate us, but rather about the ones that bind us together.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Ela Mikh
17:09 Nov 28, 2022

Thank you so much for this story. I could so relate! it's very moving

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:41 Nov 29, 2022

Thanks, Ela! I'm glad it was a good read :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Edward Latham
12:38 Nov 28, 2022

An amazing story Michal! There are so many things to admire here, and so many lines I savoured. This piece was very nicely crafted: '“Before I forget." There is no before, anymore. There is only the forgetting now.' Seeing someone you love slowly lost to something as terrible as memory loss must be one of the most painful things to witness and you captured it beautifully. The last 10-15 lines read like glorious honey-dipped-in-sadness poetry.

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:47 Nov 28, 2022

Thank you, Edward! "honey-dipped-in-sadness poetry" Lovely :) The topic is an ugly one for sure, very difficult. But like all such things, worth exploring. I like that set of lines too. Once things start going downhill they don't really recover. I appreciate the feedback!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Jennifer Cameron
08:01 Nov 28, 2022

Wow this is an incredible story, so beautiful and moving.

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:42 Nov 29, 2022

Thanks, Jennifer! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
01:33 Nov 28, 2022

Good story, well-written. I kinda want closure with regards: is she going to learn Polish in order to be able to read the book, in order to be able to make the recipes, in order to be able to honour the memory of her grandmother once she's gone? Also, I know that with a 3k word limit it's hard to do more, but the whole story is, "Please take this book." "No. Well, okay." I kinda want more... But there's no doubt that you have a story-teller's gift to bring us right into the story, and feel the emotions at play. Overall, this was very ...

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:50 Nov 28, 2022

Thanks, Marcus! Yes, this story is less action focused than my usual, that's true. The entire conflict happens in Cathy's mind, so to an external observer, it might look like little has happened. I'll bear that in mind for future works - though you're right, 3k sneaks up on you :) "What happens after" would be a great idea to explore in a follow up story. I've seen it play out both ways - doubling down on the connection and using the gift, or locking it away as a bittersweet memento. I'm not sure what path Cathy would take. I appreciat...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Rebecca Miles
06:11 Nov 27, 2022

I have a sense this is a story that has been waiting to be told by you for quite a while. The voice of Katarzyna is urgent, beautiful, reflective, frustrated; she is fully human, you have breathed her to wonderful heartfelt life. The central symbol of the cookbook is so haunting because it's so true; that older generation and their connection to their collection of recipes; the struggle to come to terms for both with how the book might represent different things to each of them and then a final cathartic coming together over it. Short storie...

Reply

Michał Przywara
22:00 Nov 28, 2022

Wow, thank you, Rebecca! Your feedback has made my day :) I hadn't considered a serious contemporary story for a novel before, but now I'll have to revisit that. You've gotten exactly what I was hoping to convey, and you're right, parts of this story have probably been building up for years. Some, inspired by my life, and others, observed. Thank you so much for the wonderful feedback. It's given me a lot to think about.

Reply

Rebecca Miles
05:08 Nov 29, 2022

It's a pleasure Michal. This story is more than worthy of a book.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Laurel Hanson
12:38 Nov 26, 2022

This is flat out brilliant. Deeply moving, very genuine and real feeling. It's hard not to imagine personal experience behind this. Every detail paints the Grandmother and the reality of the fading of age. The internal narrative feels so authentic. Loved the line - It’s a corpse of better days, Really loved both the "paper void" and the characterization here - 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,...

Reply

Michał Przywara
17:15 Nov 26, 2022

Thanks, Laurel! Yeah, while this story is fiction, it is inspired by personal experience. Glad that came through. This kind of POV isn't one I normally do either, but it seemed to fit. I've seen some great stories on this site, where they have that 1st/2nd kind of POV, so naturally it became a writing challenge :) I appreciate the feedback!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Sophia Gavasheli
22:49 Nov 25, 2022

Oh, that last bit made me cry. This was very moving Michal. So many deep themes in the story: generations gaps, grief, memories, language difficulties. I found this very relatable because my dad is Georgian and I'm always self-conscious when I talk in Georgian, afraid of making a mistake. At first, Cathy is outwardly annoyed at her grandma, because she realizes that this is a step on the road to her grandmother's death. But this annoyance is her manifestation of grief and resistance to the inevitable. The way you characterize the grandmother...

Reply

Michał Przywara
17:12 Nov 27, 2022

Thanks, Sophia! You got exactly what I was going for. It's that grief and resistance, that unspoken "I'm not ready for these changes!" But life doesn't much care what we want or feel, and it falls to us to make peace with that. The immigrant side of it adds its own complications, especially language, as you highlighted. That alone is probably something that could be explored much more deeply. How do you keep close ties to people, if you do not share a common language? If both of you are reduced to using broken children's vocabulary and han...

Reply

Sophia Gavasheli
17:24 Nov 27, 2022

Yeah, that's a fascinating point you bring up about language. You'd think that language could be an enormous barrier in a relationship, but love goes beyond words. Apparently, only 7% of communication is about the words spoken; the rest is tone and nonverbal cues. That makes sense that she wouldn't want to open the cookbook. The cookbook is the crux of this story and a repository for Cathy's emotions. She probably doesn't want to acknowledge that grief and despair.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.