Things I Didn't Throw Out

Marcin Wicha

Artwork by Mirza Jaafar

This is a story about things. And about talking. That is—about words and objects. It’s also a book about my mother, and as such it won’t be too jolly.
I used to think that we remember people for as long as we can describe them. Now I think it’s the other way around: they’re with us for as long as we’re unable to do it. It’s only dead people that we can own, reduced to some image or a few sentences. Figures in the background. Now it’s clear—they used to be like this or that. Now we can sum up the whole struggle. Untangle the inconsistencies. Put in the full stop. Write down the result.
But I can’t recall everything yet. As long as I can’t describe them, they’re still a little alive.
Forty years ago—I don’t understand why that conversation in particular recorded itself in my memory—I was complaining about some educational programme on the Polish Radio, and my mother said: “Not everything in life can be turned into funny stories.” I knew it was true. Still I tried.
In my book about design I mentioned that in our copies of the Ty i Ja monthly the recipe pages were missing. This time I’ll say how I found them.

The Estate

She never spoke about death. Just this once. A vague hand movement, a wave towards the shelves:
“What are you going to do with all this?”
“All this” meant one of those systems you buy at IKEA. Metal runners, brackets, planks, paper, dust, kids’ drawings put up with pins. Also: postcards, mementoes, little figures made of wrinkled chestnuts, bunches of last year’s leaves. I had to react somehow.
“You remember Mariuszek from our school?”
“He was very nice,” she said, because she remembered that I didn’t like him.
“A few years ago, Marta and I went to his mother-in-law, we were supposed to bring or fetch something, for the kids, a playpen or something.”
“How many children does he have?”
“I don’t know, but the mother-in-law spoke very highly of him. She said that when her roof started leaking, Mariuszek paid for a new one, in bituminous tile, very expensive, and told her: 'Don’t you worry about money, Mummy, everything stays in the estate.'”
“How is he doing?”
“I don’t know, he works at a law office. Don’t worry about the estate. There’s still time.”
But there wasn’t.
My mother adored shopping. In the happiest years of her life she’d set off to the shops every afternoon. “Let’s go into town”—she’d say.
She and my father would buy small unnecessary objects. Teapots. Penknives. Lamps. Mechanical pencils. Torches. Inflatable headrests, capacious toiletry bags, and various clever gadgets which could be useful when travelling. This was strange, as they never went anywhere.
They would trek halfway across town in search of their favourite kind of tea or a new Martin Amis novel.
They had their favourite bookshops. Favourite toyshops. Favourite repair shops. They struck up friendships with various—always very, very nice—people. The secondhand bookshop lady. The penknife man. The sturgeon man. The lapsang souchong couple. 
Every purchase was a ritual. They noticed some extraordinary specimen—in a shop with secondhand lamps, where the lamp man held court, a very nice chap, to use my father’s jaunty word.
They looked at something. Asked about the price. Decided they couldn’t afford it. Went home. Suffered. Sighed. Shook their heads. Promised themselves that once they had money to spare, which should happen soon, they really must. . .
For the next few days they would talk about the unattainable lamp. They wondered where to put it. They reminded each other that it’s too expensive. The lamp lived with them. It became a part of the household.
Dad talked about its remarkable features. He sketched it on a napkin (he had an excellent visual memory), pointing out the originality of some of its solutions. He stressed that the cable had textile insulation, barely worn. He praised the Bakelite switch (I could already see him taking it apart with one of his screwdrivers).
Sometimes they’d go to visit it. Have a look. I suspect it never occurred to them to bargain for it, too. In the end they’d make the purchase.
They were perfect customers. Kindhearted. Politely interested in new merchandise. Then Dad tried the green Frugo soft drink and had a heart attack in a shopping centre. We had time to joke about it. Even the doctor at the A&E thought it was funny.
A thin trickle was all that was left. The TV remote. The medication box. The vomit bowl.
Things that nobody touches turn matt. They fade. The meanders of a river, swamps, mud.
Drawers full of chargers for old phones, broken pens, business cards from shops. Old newspapers. A broken thermometer. A garlic press, a grater, and a, what’s it called, we laughed at that word, it featured in recipes so often, a spatula. A spatula.
The objects already knew. They felt they’d be moved soon. Shifted out of place. Touched by strangers’ hands. They’d gather dust. They’d smash. Crack. Break at the unfamiliar touch.
Soon nobody will remember what was bought at the Hungarian centre. Or at the secondhand shop. The regional crafts shop. The antique shop, in times of prosperity. Later, for a good few years, trilingual greeting cards would come, always with a photo of some plated trinket. Eventually this stopped. Maybe the shop owner lost hope of further purchases. Maybe they closed up shop. 
Nobody will remember. Nobody will say that this teacup needs to be glued together. That the cable needs to be replaced (where to find another one like this?). Graters, blenders, and sieves will turn into rubbish. They’ll stay in the estate. 
But the objects were getting ready for a fight. They intended to resist. My mother was getting ready for a fight.
“What are you going to do with all this?”
Many people ask this question. We won’t disappear without a trace. And even when we do, our things will remain, dusty barricades.


“This is supposed to be me? Well, if that’s how you see me. . .” It wasn’t easy to give her a handmade greeting card. She wasn’t an easy model. In fact, nothing was easy with her.
Homework in Year 4: “Describe your mother,” or rather “mum” because the school relished diminutives. God, forgive me, because I wrote: “My mother has dark hair and is rather stout.” Children have a different idea about weights and measures.
The Polish teacher weighed a hundred kilograms and underlined the phrase “rather stout.” She pressed the pen down so strongly that she sawed through the paper. On the margin she etched the words: “I wouldn’t agree.” Mother rarely agreed with the education system, but that pleased her.
She also had what respectable compatriots called uhm. Let me repeat: “respectable.” Less respectable ones had no problems with pronunciation.
There was something disconcerting about the ostentation of her features. She had the, uhm, look. The look of someone of, uhmuhm, descent. What descent? UhmUpf.
There should be a special punctuation mark. A graphic equivalent of a contraction of the larynx. The comma won’t do. The comma is a wedge for catching your breath, and what’s needed here is a typographic knot, bump, or stumble.
It’s a tough thing, this look. An acquaintance of mine used the phrase: “N. is not dissimilar to Jerzy Kosiński.” But N. did not have to resemble the famous writer at all. He could be, say, a short, tubby, good soul with no dog collar, riding breeches or whip, but equipped with obvious uhm.
In keeping with this terminology, my mother was also not dissimilar to Jerzy Kosiński. “I’m an old Jewess now”—she said one day in 1984. In fact, she was younger then than I am now. But yes. She had uhmUhm for days.
When she died, people wrote various nice things. A titled friend recalled that in her time she was an excellent student. People foresaw a future in academia for her. Everyone expected her to stay at university.
But she spent her whole life in career counselling in Muranów. The counselling service moved around the district, finally settling into a house right at the Umschlagplatz (so many problems with the historic buildings conservation officer).
And so she worked among the invisible rubble of the ghetto. Wearing a standard-issue white coat—her surname had been written on the trim, but the marker ink dissolved in the wash—she would give children boxes filled with clever puzzles. There were tests bearing the names of German professors. Mazes. Locks with catches. Holes in geometrical shapes. Decks of picture cards. Trick riddles testing general knowledge. Think carefully which picture doesn’t match the others. You’ve got plenty of time. Ticktock—confirmed the stopwatch eagerly.
In the spring she informed pained young ladies who failed high school entry exams that there were still places in the tractor-building technical college in Ursus.
Throughout most of the year she played the part of a kind of court-appointed attorney. A one-person committee for saving the unfortunates mauled by the education system. Defence counsel for children at the edge of the norm who got pounded during all their years of ordeals at school. Guardian of persistent truants. Of the poor wretches with bad handwriting and spelling problems, so that nobody—apart from my mother—noticed that they were impressively knowledgeable about explosives, samurai swords, and field marshal Paulus.
In 1987, she was at war with some monstrous teacher of chemistry, biology, or what have you. The teacher belonged to the pedagogical elite of Warsaw, and had many adolescent depressions, neuroses, and suicide attempts under her belt.
While talking to the teacher about one of her patients, my mother said: “You are ruthless, madam.”
“You have such a rich vocabulary,” a friend praised her when she recounted the story later.
“I have to talk like that,” she explained. “After all I can’t tell this stupid bitch that she’s a stupid bitch.”

She terrorised people, telling them the truth in their faces. She would not be silent when her silence suited others. She didn’t react to our “Shh,” “Give it a rest,” and “Not so loudly.”
Many people said she was strong. Probably not, but she disdained helplessness. She had Medicines of Modern Therapy on her shelf (so as not to be dependent on a doctor). She had a hundred cookbooks. A notebook with a million phone numbers for every occasion. At the turn of each year there was a nervous search for refill pages, difficult due to an immensely non-standard arrangement of the holes and rings in the binder. Finally, it would succeed and the notebook swelled with new pages, until the press stud on the strap refused to snap shut.
As Don said in the third Godfather: “The richest man is the one with the most powerful friends.” I think he meant the washing machine repairman and the doctor that gives you his private number.
She taught me that friends are more important than family. That one can only count on one’s high school friends.
Furthermore: she made a fuss at newsagents' stands. She made the owners take out the flyers from Gazeta Wyborcza. In case of resistance she shook the newspaper herself and a rain of leaflets, price lists of electrical goods, discount coupons, and samples fell out from between the pages.
She was especially irritated by series of brochures like Saints and Miracles. Part Four: Levitation, Bilocation, Healing. She was also pitiless towards the cyclical anthology of pilgrimage sites.

“But you won’t die?” I asked her once.
“I will. Everyone will.”
“But you won’t die?”
“I will, but only when you don’t need me anymore.”
I was five and at first, I considered this answer satisfactory. Negotiations about death are not easy. As trade unionists say, I achieved the maximum of what was possible in the current situation. I didn’t understand until later that this was her condition. “Only when you don’t need me anymore.” Un-needed, she languished. One hundred per cent Jewish mother.


Heavy, brown, almost black, shaped like a lump of butter. There was an object like this in every household: in the summer it weighed down the lid of the stoneware jar with pickled cucumbers, dill, and garlic. My mother’s stone.
Father’s stones were useless. He particularly liked pebbles. With pale convex veins. Or red and porous. Or white. Dark grey.
He had no interest in geology. He knew flint, granite, limestone with shells in it. Sandstone for elevations, marble for headstones, grit for lining paths. But he was one of those people who watch their step. He was incapable of indifference towards perfect form. At the seaside he collected pieces of glass and shards of porcelain. He never passed by a chunk of water-smoothed brick. A brick pebble, co-produced by man and nature. He liked that.
He carried them in his pockets. He brought them home from holiday, and then, for want of a better idea, poured them into plant pots. In our house, unfortunate rubber plants grew out from between miniature cobblestones, sharing, on a smaller scale, the sad fate of city trees.
They didn’t argue about this. They rarely argued at all. They were like two opposing forces. Tectonic plates pushing up against each other. Mother complained. Father staked claims. They marked out their positions and remained in equilibrium. At times—some lava, some ash.  
After Dad died, Mum kept taking care of her plants. She bought fertilizer and aphicide spray at the florist. Before going away, she fitted in drips with a ceramic drain, so that the water fell drop by drop. But the water struggled to reach the root system because my mother never got rid of the cobblestones.
Only sometimes would she pick a particularly beautiful pebble and take it to my father’s grave. She would immediately, however, fill the gap with a new find. If the geranium and the hoya hoped for a thaw in the regime after Dad’s death, they must have been sorely disappointed.


The book buyers are happy, the book sellers suffer.
Yuri Trifonov

And now she’s dead. I’m sitting in her flat. Everything’s gone. Only the books are left.
They were our background. They were in every frame. I knew their spines before I discerned letters in the black symbols. I’ve told fortunes with them my whole life. I’ve looked for punch lines. 
First, I try calling friends.

Attempt number one.
“We thought you might want to. . .” The plural “we” is supposed to suggest a long family discussion, something along the lines of “the executors of the will would like to entrust” or “who else could possibly take over.” “Maybe you’d like to come and see, there are lots of psychology books.”
“No way.”
“At least take a look?”
“We’ve run out of space for books. Anyway, Zygmuś and I have agreed that every time we buy a new one we have to get rid of an old one.”
“But who said anything about buying?”
Attempt number two.
“I’m sure my mother would’ve wanted you to. . .”

Attempt number three.
“I’ve got some books here that I think belong to you. I’d like to return them. Or maybe you’d like anything else? Some crime books?”
“I don’t read crime anymore.”

Attempt number four. A glimmer of hope.
“We have to get rid of the books.”
“Have you got something about Jews, but with no Holocaust in it?”
“Do you want the New Testament?”

 Secondhand bookshop. Search, Google, search!
“Nationwide. Good prices.” No answer.
“No call-out fee. Quick estimates. Cash.” No answer.
“We travel and buy.” Someone picks up. Says that they don’t travel and don’t buy.

Finally, success.
“I have to get rid of some books,” I begin. I overcome the temptation to explain why. I’m not going to explain anything. I just want them to disperse. Scatter like letters from the bank which father methodically tore into pieces. Bricks from a demolished building. Organs for transplant.
“I have books to get rid of. There’s quite a lot of them.”
“When?” asks the antiquarian.
“Within a week.”
“Might as well forget it. I’m busy for at least the next two weeks.”
“Two is all right. Lots of fiction. Novels from the nineties. Nice editions. . .” I say slyly. “Published by Rebis. . .”
“I know those.”
“. . . but there’s also the four-volume encyclopaedia from the Polish Scientific Press,” I add. I don’t mention that it’s from the era of martial law and each volume is bound in different cloth.
“They’re rubbish, I’m telling you that right now.”
“There are also various handbooks.” Just in case, I don’t mention The Anti-Cancer Diet. It turned out to be worthless.  
I feel stupid in front of the two volumes of the Stanisławski dictionary.
“Polish classics?” asks the antiquarian cannily. “Sienkiewicz? Reymont? Żeromski?”
“Nothing at all,” I lie. “Well, maybe some Prus.”
“Rubbish! Orzeszkowa—rubbish. Dąbrowska—rubbish. I don’t even buy that anymore.”
Somewhere on the top shelf there are remnants of Prus: Emancipated Women, a piece of Pharaoh, bits of Weekly Chronicles.
Collected works always look like the army. But now the green canvas is worn, faded, and dirty. A fragmented unit with low morale. “Hey now, willow, hey now, weeping one, your sad murmur follows where he’s gone. . .” Once a guard regiment of Pushkin in navy covers was stationed there. Now only volume XIV is left, pardoned for obscure reasons.
“No Prus!” I lie.
“If you box it up, I can take it and have a look,” says the antiquarian.

What am I supposed to say? The guy buys book collections. Collections are donated to libraries or museums after their owners die. All I have left are books. We would never have used a different word. It’s like parlour and living room. We kept our books in the living room.
Trendy novels that stopped being on trend. Reading that wasn’t required. Selected volumes from collected works. Peace without war. The beginning of Howards End. Incomplete diaries. Forgotten debuts. Unopened volumes of essays.
And a fascinating book about Lindbergh’s plane—thirty years ago I wheedled it out of mum at the bookshop on Dąbrowskiego, because I was delighted with the technical drawings of the Spirit of St. Louis (they even noted the diameter of the propeller). Perhaps I believed for a moment that I would become a modeller. I managed to convince mother, although she was sceptical about my plans. She said: “I’ll buy you any book, at least you’re not an idiot.”

Our bookshelves are a record of our failures as readers.
How few are the books that we really liked. Even fewer are the ones we like on rereading. Most of them are souvenirs of the people we wanted to be. We pretended to be. We thought we were.

Who will comfort      

I remember the autumn when we were buying Who Will Comfort Toffle. It was one of Tove Jansson’s minor works, a slim booklet with many illustrations. Apart from the title, I can’t remember anything about it.
But at that time, my mother and I would set out every afternoon to the bookshop in the new house on Madalińskiego. Today, it is no longer new and some bank, pharmacy, or mobile phone operator has probably moved in.
One of the shop assistants seemed more sympathetic than the others. Mother sensed these things unerringly. She could always find the staff’s weak link.
And so day in, day out, we walked, wading in the poplar leaves, to ask the ritual question:
“Have you got Who Will Comfort Toffle?
We weren’t expecting the affirmative at all. Had Toffle appeared in the morning, he would have been sold instantly. He would have disappeared from the shelf before we’d left work (in Mum’s case) or school.
Why, then, did we spend weeks coming up to the counter and repeating our line? Well, we were conducting a long-term programme of mollifying the bookseller. We had to convince her we cared. That we wanted Toffle more than anyone else in the area. We deserved him more than the featherbrained nephew of her friend from the butcher’s, even if Toffle was to be bartered for a certain number of frankfurters or corned beef. And definitely more than the damn pensioners who loiter around in the mornings and snatch up attractive recent releases.
We had it in for one of them in particular. He wore a suit, had a comb-over, and lavished the bookseller with ambiguous compliments. He went as far as to propose to her and provide her with ersatz chocolate. It wasn’t clear why he wanted Who Will Comfort Toffle. Perhaps he promised it to the sales assistant at the sweet shop? That would have created a closed circuit of goods.
Even suppliers from the Dom Książki distributor were a threat. In the mornings they delivered new books and, naturally, stole what they could. My parents’ friend defended one of them in court.
“If they give me less than five, my whole book collection goes to my lawyer,” claimed the accused supplier.
“Fat chance. Everyone says that,” muttered the lawyer’s wife, while I imagined the supplier’s library, full of rare editions and valuable copies, with Toffle in pride of place.

My job was to make sure the shop assistant was moved, while my mother struck up a sort of conspiracy with her. All to one end.
One day they will finally bring Toffle. Then the bookseller will remember our perseverance. She’ll think: All right, all right, they’ve waited so long, and stash one copy under the counter. She’ll risk the queue’s revenge, professional consequences, exile to Siberia. She’ll do it for us! For that nice boy and his dark-haired mummy.
Mum orchestrated this plot in good faith. She wanted to convince me that the world will not deny us something that we really want. To each according to their needs, as long as we can justify and demonstrate such a need convincingly.

I always ran ahead. I burst into the bookshop out of breath. I shouted “Good morning!” at the door—I never forgot the courtesies—and then, more discreetly, in a lowered voice: “Have you got Who Will Comfort Toffle?”
“No,” replied the bookseller.

The breakthrough happened in November. I stood at the counter, but before I opened my mouth, the sales assistant said:
“No, nobody will comfort Toffle today.”
Mother and I decided it’s a good sign. The bookseller showed she remembered us. She made a joke. We were definitely on the right track. The thing now was not to doubt, not to lose patience.
Temperatures fell below zero. We made our afternoon treks in the dark. On the way, I stomped on frozen leaves and thin ice over puddles. Finally, the day came.
“Haveyougotwhowillcomforttoffle?” I asked my routine question.
“We had it yesterday,” answered the bookseller. Not a muscle moved in her face.
This was a blow. Not even because of Tove Jansson. Not because of betrayal. I felt that I was a moment away from understanding something important about the world, justice, and promises. The ground started to give way under my feet, I felt this emptiness perhaps for the first time—and I reacted in the only possible way. I ran to Mum.
“They haven’t got it!” I shouted. “They had it yesterday.”
“Mhm,” she nodded, imperturbable. “Let’s go.”
“To get Toffle,” she answered.
“They had it yesterday,” I repeated dully.
“It was Sunday yesterday,” she reminded me and entered the bookshop.
A moment followed—so it goes sometimes—when every obstacle moves away like automatic doors. Click. The bookseller discreetly passes us a bag. Mother pays. We leave happy.

[. . .]

Laughing at appropriate moments
[. . .]

She returns home [from hospital], but she’s furious.
Once, a long time ago, a GP didn’t make the right diagnosis. He should have realized, but she lied through her teeth. She explained that it was nothing serious. That it was age-related. That some medication, supplements, therapy at a specialist clinic which used some unique Israeli method were going to be enough. We believed her.
She twisted him around her little finger too, that good soul, the qualified doctor.
Later, after her concerned friends dragged her for some tests, when everything became clear, she developed a sudden and deep affection for her doctor. She didn’t want to switch to anyone else, not for anything.
“He’ll write me any prescription!” she crowed.
“He always picks up the phone!” she crowed.
“On the double,” she crowed.
“At once,” she crowed.
Because He’s Got Pangs of Conscience.
Because Now He’s Feeling Guilty.

My mother’s speech resembled a ransom letter. An utterance made of cuttings. Catchphrases. Pseudo-quotations. She had words for every occasion. Used them like a set of tools. A screwdriver for every screw. A key to every lock.
Out of these words she built constructions. Compound sentences with masses of subordinate traps and pitfalls. Battle plan sentences. Diagrams of war operations. She could ambush her adversary. Outmanoeuvre them. Attack from the flank.
Now we’re standing around her.
“I hope,” she says, “that one of my relatives. That one of my relatives deigns to.”
(We’re standing by her, the three of us, but she’s not addressing anyone directly. She is shaming us in front of an invisible audience. She hopes that one of her relatives deigns to. Usually she’d add “kindly:” “I hope that one of my relatives kindly deigns to”).
“I hope that one of my relatives brings to that woman’s attention. . .”
(That woman’s! Attention!)
“Brings to that woman's attention that. . .”
(She’s forgotten. She’s missing a word. She doesn’t remember how to say “drink,” “tea,” “coffee,” “warmer.” She doesn’t remember her carer’s name, but she can still terrorise us with the tone of her voice).
“I hope. . .” she repeats.
“That one of my relatives.”
(One of them. Whoever.)
“Of my relatives. . .”
(A reminder of duty.)
“Deigns to. . .”
(Deigns to—is so kind to—is willing to—does me the courtesy.)
“That woman. . .”
(That dumb, slow-witted woman. The carer that we have brought here. The carer that’s good for nothing. That we’d probably chosen to spite her.)
“To. . .”
(To what?)
“. . .”
(She doesn’t remember. She doesn’t remember.)
“Never mind,” says my mother. “It doesn’t matter.”
And she falls silent. On that day she stops talking to us. She doesn’t risk it. Silent, she regains control over words.

translated from the Polish by Marta Dziurosz