28 Nov 2010

Making Sandwiches


For a couple of weeks in the autumn of 1976 I lived on grated cheese and sliced tomato sandwiches. It was the only food I could bear to eat during the initial stages of an illness that would eventually be diagnosed as Glandular Fever. Each day, sometimes twice a day, my mother brought them upstairs to me with a cup of hot chocolate.

My memory of that time is muted, slow. The sandwiches are almost weightless as I lift them from the plate, as I chew and swallow, in contrast with the weight of my body that can only surrender to hour after hour, day after day, of dreamless sleep. Sometimes I opened my eyes and saw them on the bedside table: triangles of soft, white sliced bread holding an airy pillow of cheese and thinly sliced tomato.

How many times did she come in while I slept, not wanting to wake me, and deciding in the end to make them and leave them within reach? She must have been worried during those first weeks when the doctor could not say what was wrong with me. How does a mother feel when the only thing she can do is watch and wait and make sandwiches?

Thirty-four years later, I am in the same house making sandwiches for her: Allinson’s sliced wholemeal filled with flakes of poached salmon mixed with mayonnaise and topped with thin slices of peeled cucumber. No pepper - pepper irritates her throat - and a shake of salt. I cut off the crusts, hesitate between triangles and fingers, and go for the fingers. I wrap them in cling film and slip them into the cool bag with a small Cox’s apple, an oatmeal bar and a paper napkin.

Food occupies us. We apply ourselves to its transformation. We stand over it, wait for it, sometimes even cry over it. It is sustenance, gift, apology. Even though we do not know for sure it will be eaten we still offer it. It contains our love, our hope.

1959 - age 1
It is my birthday tomorrow and this is the house where I was born. It was a sweltering June morning, my mother has told me, but the midwife still insisted on an electric heater in the bedroom and all the windows closed for the small, sickly baby she was convinced I would be, and who would prove her entirely wrong.

That my parents still live in the house where I was born has only become significant to me in recent years: when I come home to Wales I return to the place where I took my first breath. This idea, and how it has come to mean so much, is undoubtedly linked to my parents ageing, and getting older myself. Perhaps the closer we get to the end of our lives the more urgent it becomes to know who we are and where we came from.  This is where my story began.

When I arrive at the hospital, she is asleep, propped against her pillows. Her face is pale, her lemon nightdress loose on her 7 stone frame. I don’t want to disturb her; she needs to catch up on the rest she misses at night because the ward is so noisy. Should I wait or leave the cool bag within reach, where she will see it when she wakes?

sunset over the sea
I remember when my mother
ran faster than me *


Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about being ill.
  • Write about watching someone while they sleep.
  • Write about a transformation.
  • Write about the place where you were born.
  • Write about someone running.

* haiku first published in Blithe Spirit Vol 20, no 3