Drawers full of chargers for old phones, broken pens, shop business cards. Old newspapers. A broken thermometer. A garlic press, a grater, and a – what’s it called? – we laughed at that word, it featured in so many recipes for a time: a quirl whisk. A quirl whisk.Things I Didn’t Throw Out, Marcin Wicha
Things I Didn’t Throw Out tells the story of a woman through her possessions. After Marcin Wicha’s mother Joanna dies, he deals with the task of sorting through her flat, each mundane object encapsulating a part of his mother and his childhood. A ‘show and tell’ might be a more fitting label than a memoir. It is broken down into roughly 50 short vignettes, each one a fragment, and as a whole they make up the portrait of a Jewish woman of formidable character (“she would not be silent when it suited others for her to be silent”) living through post-WWII communist Poland.
You might expect a book about sorting through your dead mother’s home to be a depressing read but fortunately it is not. It is witty and kinetic and also loving without being overly sentimental. What’s so lovely about it is that it’s not the story of someone remarkable, she wasn’t a freedom fighter or responsible for some great advance in molecular biology, it’s entirely relatable. The anecdotes recall insignificant, everyday moments and it’s exactly these little things, these tiny details that allow our parents to live on after they’ve gone.
This isn’t a book that’s going to help you with your own hoarding/cleaning/sorting situation. If anything, it probably does the opposite by giving those mundane objects a sentimental value. In one ‘fragment’ Wicha dissects his parents’ choices of pen. His father used fountain pens; “his words had weight. They concerned substantial issues.” His mother used BiC ballpoint pens; “so many things to keep an eye on. Prescriptions. Phone calls. Recipes. She had too many things to take in hand to amuse herself with unruly ink on top of that.”
My mother drew flowers. Nervous ornaments around the surgery’s phone number. One busy number – one flower. Most probably a gerbera.Things I Didn’t Throw Out, Marcin Wicha
Through cookbooks we are given insight into the clashes between consumerism and communism. One such book is The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, “a basic lesson of communism”, “a crazy book from a country where Grandma starved”, “a memory of hunger and Rubenesque still lifes”. (More on that at the end of this article.)
We’re given glimpses of what it was to be Jewish after the war (“I don’t say I’m Jewish, it might make people uncomfortable”). It’s not a history lesson, it’s those snippets we get from our parents that we later wish we’d asked more about.
One of the briefest fragments in Things I Didn’t Throw Out is titled Sugar and I will leave you with it in its entirety as in two short paragraphs it somehow manages to pick up on all of the book’s themes and emotions.
Sugar.Things I Didn’t Throw Out, Marcin Wicha
There’s a cardboard box in the depths of a drawer. The letters are barely visible, but you can make out the inscription: ‘To Joasia, for a sweet life’, and the date. It’s American sugar, UNRRA aid. In 1946 people gave each other gifts like this.
She never opened the packet. All these years later, the sides gape. Crystals of sugar scrape along the bottom of the drawer. I lick my finger. The sugar tastes ordinary.
Things I Didn’t Throw Out
Translated from Polish by Marta Dziurosz
Published by Daunt Books, 2021
Paperback, 199 pages
The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was published in 1939, an official Soviet cookbook containing 1,400 recipes. The People’s Commissar of the Food Industry of the USSR had travelled to the US, discovering new and modern ways of producing and consuming food – Hamburgers! Mayonnaise! They were put into mass production with a cookbook to teach the starving population about their new cheap, high-calorie cuisine.