The fork

Tonight, we have friends for dinner. While I fuss in the kitchen, warming plates and gently stirring the sauce for the broccoli, a friend steps in to help. She decants a bottle of Pinot Noir, finds the wine glasses, and begins to set the table. Knives go on the serviettes, forks on the left and dessert spoons above the placemats. I look over my shoulder and see that all is exactly as it should be. The candles are lit and we are ready to call the others to the table.

After serving up, I’m ready to take my seat. Without a second thought, I pick up the fork, walk to the kitchen and exchange it. My friend gives me a quizzical look. I feel I should explain.

‘I just like eating with my own fork,’ I say with a little laugh, trying to make light of an absurd habit. Thankfully, the conversation at the table captures her attention and I can return to my meal.

My fork is oddly comforting. Perhaps it is because I have small hands, or, more likely, because it is a memento from my childhood. I had the full baby set of cutlery until my mid-twenties but I lost the knife and then the spoon in one of the many moves over the years. I didn’t mind the knife so much; it was blunt and hardly useful. The spoon felt like a real loss.

My fork is beautiful to look at. The handle depicts a gnome with a pointy, forward-leaning hat. He has ruddy cheeks and a long, flowing beard. I have always thought of him as one of the seven dwarfs from Snow White. He has a broad smile as he looks benevolently at a squirrel and offers the gift of an acorn. The toadstool in the corner is nod to the best loved German fairy tales.

This magical scene transports me to the woodlands of my childhood where I often saw red squirrels scamper up trees and toadstools adorn the forest floor. Walking in the woods, I half expected to see a kind-hearted gnome hiding behind a tree and, in my imagination, I lived in this enchanted place where good invariably triumphed over evil. Regardless of what was happening in my life, I could always inhabit this other world I knew through stories and images, just like the one depicted on my fork. Perhaps this is the real reason I want it to accompany my daily meals.

Our plates are empty now and my guests are ready for the next course. The time has come to serve dessert. My choice: Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte or Black Forest cake.

The pencil case

The pencil case.

My pencil case holds a life-time of memories. I asked my father to make it for me in high school. He had leather offcuts tucked away on the top shelf in his workshop. One of these I chose for my pencil case.

My father had a steady hand and a good eye for detail. He drew the design and once I approved, he cut the leather and the inner lining. His cigarette smouldered on the edge of his workbench as he lined up the metal ruler and pressed on the handle of the small, razor-sharp knife. Once the leather was cut, he found two sturdy zippers, one for the main compartment and the other for the front pocket. These had to be glued before he could sew them on his ancient Singer treadle.

The glue he used was thick, yellow and pungent. I loved the intoxicating smell of the fumes in my father’s workshop and am transported to my childhood whenever I smell it. He had brushes of various widths and applied the glue in long strokes without it ever dripping. His work was neat and precision mattered.

My father made me handbags, leather wrist bands that I shared with my best friend and even a cigarette case when I started to smoke at fourteen. It was a rite of passage to begin smoking and neither of us entertained any health concerns. The cigarette case was an elegant navy blue and made smoking appear so much more sophisticated. Sensibly, I gave up smoking many years ago and I no longer had use for the case.

The pencil case, on the other hand, has accompanied me throughout the years. The leather has softened and its deep creases mirror my own aging skin. The patina beckons touch and I absentmindedly rub the leather through my thumb and forefinger. Recently, I applied Dubbin which has restored its moisture and shine. While the napa leather has retained its oakbark colouring, I can also see a spreading algal bloom in a corner. It is a legacy of a cross-threaded bottle of blue-black ink, spilled many years ago. It had not only bled into the leather but desecrated a professor’s desk in my first year of university. The inside of my pencil case reveals these ancient blots. They are a vivid reminder of the professor’s secretary and her rising irritation. She was to banish me to the bathroom, inkbottle in hand. She didn’t tell me the facilities had recently been painted: floor, ceiling and tiles, everything a uniform royal blue. Suddenly, I was Alice in Wonderland, trapped within a giant inkwell.

Many years later, my pencil case is still a prized possession. Out of curiosity, I empty its contents onto my desk. I discover felt tipped markers, a fountain pen bought in Zurich, several ink cartridges, a small ruler, my favourite lipstick, a photo of my daughter, Aspirin and an old set of rosary beads that never sees the light of day. Objectively, it all looks a bit shabby and tattered. Yet this random collection of objects is imbued with precious memories. I place them back safely and zip up my pencil case, made with love so long ago by a devoted father for his only daughter.

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Musings on memory

What are our first memories? Retellings of stories from our parents? A photo that brings back a moment in time? And how much of it is interpretation?

A sunny day, it must have been late summer…

We tell our stories after the event and we select the parts we wish to tell. This story is no exception.

My memories are a re-collection of what has been scattered long ago. Through them I call people back to life and give them voice. But it can never be their voice. For one, I am writing my story in a language foreign to me as a child. Now, as an adult, I can no longer think in the language of so long ago. Not only do I allow my parents, relatives and friends to speak freely in English, I portray whole countries to have this miraculous ability.

I am separated from the child I was in time, place and language. I am truthful to myself in what I recall but know that there are many such truths, some competing with the one I present. By re-membering my past, I re-collect some of the fragments and present them here as a unified text.

I acknowledge the revelatory power of memory. Some things can only be understood with hindsight and with the discernment of an adult mind. Yet I want to capture the essence of that child I left behind and how she sees and makes sense of the ineffable world she inhabits.

Maybe this is why I originally chose to write my story in the third person although since then I have reverted back to the more traditional first person voice. That young girl I summon is a part of me but she is no longer me. She can be conjured up at will and, as the narrator, I am the puppeteer making her dance once more.

How do we know what really happened? Who is left to contest it? I leave it to you to decide. I tried to verify as best as I could but much of my family history is shrouded in secrecy. No-one was ever keen to talk of the past.

I pay respect to you, my reader. For you bring your own thoughts, experiences and memories to make sense of the world I present. You will add meaning through your interpretation and each of you will see the fleeting scenes of my memory differently. Will they bear semblance to my internalised and lived past? Probably not. But there is a higher truth in imagination that goes beyond the exterior of things and, in reading, I trust you to inscribe that reality.

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