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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

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63 comments

Delbert Griffith
12:24 Nov 24, 2022

This story is not merely good, and I will not sully it by stating that it's excellent. No, this story is transcendent. How you captured the emotions of three generations of women in such a short story is breathtaking. Rembrandt was known for using a few deft strokes from his paintbrush to create hands and fingers in portraits; you did the same with characterization and historical/cultural context. Fucking genius, Michal. There are so many great lines in this tale, but my favorite has to be: "The paper is jaundiced and brittle and the spine ...

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Michał Przywara
21:43 Nov 24, 2022

Thanks, Delbert! That's high praise indeed. I was a little worried posting it, as I don't normally do the sad ones, and this is on the short side - by design, to see if I could get at the meat. That, and it's a bit personal too. So hearing that it struck a chord is rewarding :) But, please, no shame. I read your story and enjoyed it. In fact, it seems like there's quite a few submissions that deal with intergenerational topics. Maybe it's the holiday mindset? In any case, lots to explore here.

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Francois K
19:04 Nov 23, 2022

What a touching story, Michał! There's so much emotion here and so many powerful lines, but one thing that stuck out to me was the echo of "while I still can". Also, what a heartbreaking twist that the older woman turned out to be the grandmother and thought she was talking to her daughter.

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Michał Przywara
21:32 Nov 23, 2022

Thanks, Francois! I'm glad you picked out that line, as I like it too. I think ultimately that's what the story is about. We're powerless to stop these processes, but there are other things we *can* do, even if they're on a timer.

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Tommy Goround
09:37 Nov 23, 2022

Dustcover quote: "I was moved to drinking after reading 'The Polish Cookbook' by Michel Pryzywara. That was a few days ago and I have not stopped drinking. The story has changed my life." Bittersweet? Idk. I have to have the holidays without my own mom again. You're writing was so good that I actually finished the story.

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Michał Przywara
21:51 Nov 24, 2022

Thanks, Tommy. The holidays are always loaded with memories. Maybe that's not a bad thing, but it can be hard. I like the quote! It's a decent micro story in its own right.

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Tommy Goround
02:00 Nov 23, 2022

Clapping

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Murray Burns
00:46 Nov 23, 2022

Very nice, moving. I have an old music box handed down to me. It fills the role of your cookbook so I could relate.

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Michał Przywara
01:32 Nov 23, 2022

It's always fascinated me how seemingly ordinary objects can take on so much extra meaning. Or rather, we imbue them with that meaning. They kind of become physical stories. Thanks for reading!

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Sjan Evardsson
21:54 Nov 22, 2022

Wow. Raw and real emotion. It hit especially hard as my mother-in-law has dementia, and watching her mind disappear has been heartbreaking.

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Michał Przywara
22:30 Nov 22, 2022

Thanks, Sjan! I'm sorry to hear that. Yes, it's definitely hard to watch. I think the worst of it is the powerlessness, for me. I can help, but I cannot fix. But it's given me a deeper appreciation for life. Thank you for reading :)

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Calm Shark
22:28 Nov 21, 2022

This was an emotional story and you brought out the mood very well. I understand why the MC doesn't want to receive the cookbook because that's not what she really wants. She just wants her grandmother to live longer because of the death of her mom. It's sad to see our grandparents deteriorate especially with dementia or Alzheimer's. The worse part about it is that they forget us which is very depressing. This story made me appreciate my loved ones more. Thank you for writing this story.

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Michał Przywara
23:28 Nov 21, 2022

Thanks, Shark! Yes, you got it exactly! Death/dementia is a terrible thing to face, but just because we don't want to, won't make it go away. That's kind of the last great struggle of life, isn't it? And it sneaks up on us. Appreciating our loved ones is about the best thing we can do, I think. Thanks so much for the feedback!

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Calm Shark
00:41 Nov 22, 2022

Hope you write more sad stories

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Cindy Strube
22:22 Nov 21, 2022

No question - this is my favorite of your stories*. It’s complex, deep, emotionally draining to read because it resonates with so many of us. I read through it 3 times before writing this. The first line… Even if I didn’t know your writing, that would’ve got my attention. It immediately brings us into the frame of mind of the narrator. And the description of the cookbook - that’s almost eerie, because I have a story fragment written that’s very similar. (Not ready for public consumption at this time, if ever. It’s about a real cookbook I h...

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Michał Przywara
23:23 Nov 21, 2022

Thank you so much, Cindy :) Three reads is very humbling! If you ever do turn that into a story, I would love to read it. I don't know what it is about cookbooks. Maybe it's because a) everyone has to eat anyway, and b) family traditions form around them. Recipes are a natural, practical thing to pass down, but before that point, generations often cook together too. Again, a natural way to bond. Incidentally, this is based on a real book called Kuchnia Polska (An example of the cover is at https://thepolishbookstore.com/p/10354/ptitle.html...

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Cindy Strube
18:47 Nov 22, 2022

Ah - thanks for putting that link in. That’s great! We have a multicultural cookbook collection - if I could read Polish, I’d be sorely tempted to have a copy! ; )

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Unknown User
17:38 Nov 28, 2022

<removed by user>

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Michał Przywara
00:18 Nov 29, 2022

Thank you, Hannah, for your lovely comment :) You got exactly what I was going for. There's a lot of struggling here because both of them belong to different worlds. In Cathy's case, she's got one foot in one and one foot in the other, and any plans she might have had to reconcile that have been jeopardized by time - we just never have enough of it, do we? "because they are hard to handle" is a great summary. I appreciate the feedback!

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