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Three Embraces by Any Rake

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Thank you to Any Rake for sharing her eloquently written piece Three Embraces. The piece was featured in “The Return of the Thursday Travellers – A Second Anthology of Life Stories” by the Thursday morning Life Stories group at the New Horizons Centre, Chelsea, London, September – December 2014

“Members of New Horizons have come from all parts of the globe and travelled widely through the course of their lives. This term we listened to stories set in South America, Japan, South Africa, India, Ireland and the UK. It makes for a rich mix of histories.” – Mike Loveday, Open Age tutor.

Three Embraces by Any Rake

In May of 1961 I was chosen to deliver a poem at a Mother’s Day celebration at school. I was selected not for my particular eloquent way of reciting poems or because my diction was better than most eleven year olds. The Nun in charge of arts had been best friends with my grandmother while in school so she chose me and my sister for all the public appearances where we fitted in.

That Saturday morning was warm, sunny and we the students were all wearing the white school uniforms used for special occasions. Our parents were sitting in the auditorium while we got ready for our presentations.

My turn came.  My passionate performance of the sugary poem brought an enthusiastic response from the audience. Some were even standing up applauding.  I must be very good at this -I thought – for how else could these people be so responsive?  And who the hell was that mother in the poem? That saintly person who with a benign smile takes patient and loving care of her children? Do mothers like those really exist?  -I wondered. Following the script I had my eyes fixated on Isabel, my mother, who being in the second row, was easily recognizable among the four hundred parents present.

My mother was five feet nine, highly unusual for women of her generation. Curly auburn hair which she kept fashionably short, well defined brows and long nicely kept hands. In her wedding picture in 1945 her high cheeks stand out as well as the firmly outlined contour of her face.  The small brown eyes look at the photographer and the joy of that moment was perpetuated in the picture.  Friends from her youth remember her as a happy going, flirtatious young lady, the soul of the party.  Mother taught me to read while making the process so entertaining that at three and a half I was reading without realizing it was not just a game. A rich cousin from my father’s side would send glamorous dresses from last season. Some nights before going out she would go to my bedroom and do a little run away walk with these dresses. I was so proud of her looks and believed that among those of my friends, she was the best looking mother.  From her I learned to love the sea, the sun, the ballet and to search for creative ways to solve a situation. Isabel was a lot of good things to me but never the sweet tender mother of the poem I recited as a young girl of eleven. I remember wishing for that mother. And hating the one I had when her demons took hold of her and extended to me.

One could not anticipate the breaking of those fragile gates containing the dark powerful shadows that got the best of her. When the dam broke it was so sudden and fierce there was no way of avoiding the tsunami that would involve us in seconds.  If an answer of mine was not of her liking, she fiercely slapped me on the face. Or it could be that I did not act or react as she expected. If she was on those explosive days I would find myself at the receiving end of a glass, a metal spoon or a shoe viciously thrown at me.  At seven I started to devise ways to disappear from the situation while enervating her. If she got hold of me and pulled my hair until whole locks were in her fist, I did not cry or scream or try to run.  I started singing silly little songs that kept my mind distracted from what was happening. I did not understand at that time that I really had two mothers.  One who nurtured me and helped me grow into a curious and resourceful person. Another who believed her enemy lived inside me and had to be destroyed. I was always listening, looking, feeling, smelling for potential signs while wondering which one of my mothers would be around.

She graduated from Art History when I was about eight.  She later went on to study Home Economics and Family Education.  Afterwards she got a degree in Interior Design and explained us why she could never work in decoration. Her logic was that if people needed help in decorating they must have very bad taste and probably be very difficult to deal with. My mother was very interested in current affairs and politics, a splendid story teller with the ability to keep a mixed audience entertained for hours with her wit and love of detail.  An avid reader of all genres particularly philosophy and historical fiction, she neither guided me nor censored my reading. I placidly mixed Bouvier, Stendhal, Swain with pink novels, juvenile adventures and the study of the catholic saints.

My mother liked to sleep until very late, at times forty eight hours could go by without her getting up from bed.  On those days, I could barely touch the floor or talk out loud for fear of the mood she would wake up in. My heart would throb and my throat close at her violent change of moods, but I was adamant not to show my real feelings.   Being deaf and blind to her demons, or making her believe I was, made me feel strong.

She liked to remind me what an affectionate little girl I had been and blank at why I had changed so much. I could not embrace her or kiss her nor get myself to be close to her even in her good days. We did kiss of course at hellos, goodbyes, birthdays, Christmas or New Year’s. I am thinking of the absence of those lovingly embraces I had seen exchanged between mother and daughter just because they liked to touch each other. No, I could not have physical contact with her spontaneously, though I clearly remember the three embraces I gave her throughout her life.

The first was a fake, selfish and well produced and successful affair when I was thirteen.  The wire holding together the braces on my upper teeth had broken.  I tried to put it back together with scotch tape. No luck. To avoid a furious reaction on her side I tried a different approach. My mother was sitting on my brother’s bed sorting out the boys’ laundry. I stood at her side and looked at her with the sweet insecurity of a docile puppy.  She turned her head surprised at my presence. I threw my arms around her neck, starting to sob uncontrollably. Between tears and snot I managed to explain my ordeal and fear. She comforted me kissing my forehead lovingly while telling me I should not worry at all.  -This things happen -she said softly – I will talk to your father about it.

Occasionally in my teens and early youth I wished my mother was dead. I wanted her gone to stop the abuse, the drama, the shouting, the chaos, the unpredictability.  Growing up very confused by her volatility I created mechanisms to confuse her. Once for example, I threw away a pair of her favourite shoes which she was looking forward to use at a coming event. Another time I quit ballet lessons. Even though we both loved ballet I knew she would be very disappointed. At last I turned sixteen and was almost as tall as her. For some unimportant reason she started going crazy at me like many other times.  This was not any other time.  I was her size now and I could stop her.  When she threw herself at me I held her wrists very hard and looked her fiercely at the eyes. I could almost feel my brown eyes turning black.  -Next time you hit me I will hit you back – I said. Holy remedy.

Her husband, my father, was forty four when he died.  A few months later she was diagnosed with a vicious cancer that almost took her life one year after turning into a widow at forty one.  She told me of her fears of dying and leaving us five children by ourselves.  I was seventeen and being the only of my siblings in transition between high school and university, I was appointed to be with her at the hospital, talking to doctors, bringing her things from home and generally nursing her into good health again. She got well in a few months and in her crazy and determined way, never again returned to the doctor for a check-up. Some years later new medicines started to come out in the market that partially calmed some of her darkness and aggression.

Twenty two years went by from the first voluntary embrace I gave my mother until the second one.  She had not been seriously sick but suddenly a bad reaction to a blood transfusion was killing her. She was around sixty two. Her complexion was very pale, almost transparent.  Liquids came in and out of her body through tubes and plastic bags.  Looking at her so exhausted and fragile, all my love and need of her came bursting out and was expressed without restraint.  I embrace her softly, placed my chest over hers, kissed her eyes, her chin, her cheeks while saying to her:  You cannot go, you cannot go. I need you. This time I cried without thinking or trying.

At sixty nine she accepted an operation to correct a mitral valve defect. I reminded her about the advice she received a few years back to never have open heart surgery. She preferred to die in the operating room than continuing living as a disabled person –she insisted. I did not think she had such a bad life. Swimming in the cold sea of Lima was forbidden for her as were her long walks through the city. But she drove her car, visited friends, enjoyed her grandchildren, went out to dinner with us and had her daily whisky at home. It is true that sometimes she was out of breath and we had to stop and rest because of her gasping. What I believed did not matter, it was her life and her decision.

The surgeon in charge came out to see us when my mother was still in the operating room.  Looking at his face, I knew.  He was a friend of mine and could not hold back his tears.

My mother was already dead when I gave her the third embrace. After dressing her with my sisters, I brushed her hair and put some light make up on, making sure her eyebrows looked as she liked them.  She always placed great emphasis on the importance of eyebrows. This third embrace was a good bye and thank you one.  I kissed her cheek and her forehead while caressing her hair. I told her she looked very nice. Which she did. Her demons were nowhere around. I lit a cigarette from my brother’s packet and smoked it quickly. I remembered then I did not smoke.

And I asked myself –whom will I spent my Saturdays with?

© Any Rake

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‘It had been years since I’d felt so excited’ by Dorothy Adibi

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Many thanks to Open Age member and writer Dorothy Adibi for contributing her wonderful, inspiring story to Wordwise – about the meeting of an old love:

“It had been years since I’d felt so excited”

It had been years since I’d felt so excited. I was going to see him again. We were now old people, and then, then we’d been misty young lovers. I suddenly felt anxious – would he even recognize me? Now I wished I had given him my address, and he’d have come to the flat and there wouldn’t have been any possibility of error. But sitting here in a café? But then I thought, “No, it’s all right, I’m the only elderly woman here.” But again I wondered anxiously if his memory of me would lead him to expect the same pretty girl he’d known? But surely I’d remember him and recognize him immediately, even though he’d grown just as old as I had.

I looked around, wondering if he’d arrived before me, but there was thank goodness nobody who could have possibly been him.

The café door opened, but it was only a stout woman carrying a bunch of flowers. Would he bring me flowers? I hoped not, because there’d be all that fuss about getting them into water, and I wanted us just to sit there over a cup of tea and talk. Talk about what? Well, of course, about what each of us have been doing since we parted. “Parted” – that’s a semi-poetic word. But it fits the situation. I remembered it so well. “Tell your parents,” he had said. Or would we talk about the old days, our time together, when we were in love? At least I had been, I know that for a solid-gold fact. I remember how for a long time my every thought ended with him. I likened it to a tram that runs along its lines and always ends up at the same spot.

The door opened again and this time, this time an elderly man came in. He wasn’t carrying any flowers, but there no doubt in my mind. I was sure I’d have known him even if we were rushing past each other at a station or something. The man looked round and I half-stood up. He looked at me and began slowly walking towards me. I was suddenly acutely aware of my clothes. A very ordinary blue trouser-suit, but obviously chosen with great care from the wardrobe. I was even wearing matching shoes and gloves, bought specially for the occasion the day before.

He reached my table and smiled in a sort of perfunctory way, and said with a question-mark “Laura?” I have what I hoped was a dazzling smile back and said “Oh, Jean, how lovely to see you again after all these years.”

He sat down at the table and immediately looked round for a waitress. I felt a bit put out, that his first through would be about getting some tea, and not about drowning in my eyes or something. He ordered coffee and brought his attention back. “I wasn’t sure I’d recognize you, it’s good that you recognized me when I came in.” That wasn’t quite right, somehow, but his voice hadn’t changed, although his accent was less pronounced than I remembered. “But of course, I’d have known you anywhere,” I gushed, at the same time feeling even more put out.

“Anyway, how are you? How’s your family?” because in the last letter I’d had from him all those years ago he’d informed me that he was married and had a child.

“Everyone’s fine, look, I’ve got some photographs.” This was dreadful, two old buddies now. I glanced at the photos, two little girls who should have been mine, and a fair-haired woman who was, I had to concede, quite good-looking, although she didn’t look a bit like me.

“Oh, they’re lovely, I didn’t have any children.” I didn’t explain that the abortion had left me unable to have children.

© Dorothy Adibi

Yellow Cucumbers by Cornelia J. Glynn

A big thank you to Cornelia J. Glynn for sharing her wonderful story inspired by Christmas and childhood memories…

Yellow Cucumbers

I was not even four years old when my family and I had to flee from Russian occupied East Germany at a nano second’s notice with only the clothes we were wearing. It was the 23rd of December and I had so been looking forward to getting my annual orange. The choice of food available was very limited and I truly believed that we got only one orange a year.

So there we were, my father and I in his friend’s car, driving to West Berlin, where we caught a plane to Frankfurt and then hopped on a train to a mining town in North Rhein Westfalia where I was to meet my Grandfather (my father’s side) for the very first time. It had been a very traumatic experience to leave behind my mother, who made her way to Frankfurt on her own and my sister, who had been visiting my Grandmother in another town so couldn’t join us until a few months later. However, the mere thought of meeting my Grandpa kept my hunger at bay (we had no money to buy a sandwich although a kind lady on the train later fed us) and made me forget about the orange I so cherished at Christmas time. I liked its colour and aroma as well as its texture and taste and would not eat it for days, gently stroking it’s dimpled skin and smelling it in total amazement.

But this story isn’t about oranges, or my grandfather even, and yes, I loved him instantly, as I did my Grandma, which was a good thing because I wouldn’t see my parents again for another year until we received news that my father had finally been granted asylum in the West, and had found work in Frankfurt, where we would live for five or six years.

Living with my grandparents were also my Aunt Mia and her (rather ghastly) husband, whose name I don’t care to utter even and his son, my cousin, who was a few years my senior.

Auntie Mia was a wonderful woman and our bond was immediate. Since I had nothing to wear, she made me dresses out of old curtains, the idea of which horrified me when she mentioned it to my Dad.

Still, she was a great seamstress and as it happened, they were my favourite dresses and I felt good in them.

But this story isn’t about my favourite dresses either, or about Aunt or my bad tempered uncle, or my cousin. Although, it kind of is about her because one day, as a special treat she brought home a big bunch of bananas.

Until then, I had noticed that there was lot more produce in the shops and I was astonished to learn that I could have more than one orange not only at Christmas, but also at other times of the year. As for bananas, they were alien to me. I had never heard of them, or seen them so when Auntie Mia broke one off the bunch and handed it to me with a warm smile on her face, I eyed it suspiciously, before holding it in my hands and then to my nose to check what it smelt like. I wondered if it was a weird type of orange but neither its shape nor its smell resembled that of an orange and I was baffled.

“What is it?” I asked her.

“It’s a banana, Cornelia. It comes by ship from a hot country far, far away and is delicious” she replied.

I turned it around a few times and shifted it from one hand to another, intrigued by its strange shape and colour. “Well, what is a banana and what do you do with it?” was my next question.

My aunt let out a little laugh. “It’s a fruit and you eat it.”

“You eat it?”

“Yes, you eat it.”

Why anyone would want to eat such an extraordinary looking thing, was beyond me. Nevertheless, I bit into the bit where it had been separated from the bunch.  It was hard and sharp and scraped the roof of my mouth and I was not impressed by its taste.

Now my aunt laughed out aloud. “No, no, darling. The banana is inside.”

“Ohhh. But how do you get to it?”

“You peel it.” she explained whereupon I inspected the banana more closely before having to ask “How do I do that?” She gently took it from my hand, removed half of the skin and made the banana look like it was wearing a skirt.

Unconvinced, I took a big bite and chewed it a little, before spitting it out, disgusted and declaring “I don’t like these yellow cucumbers”.

Funny to think that these yellow cucumbers would become a staple part of my diet in later years, when I would eat several a day, but then, aged four, I could not have possibly imagined that.

© Cornelia J. Glynn

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