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I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts - Fred Heatherton, 1944


Our family tree was shrouded, blurred and dim

especially my mother’s side; her parents lived in Whitechapel

where we visited four times during World War II        

country bumpkins driving up in the fog from Northampton

on each occasion Herr Hitler sending us a rain of buzz bombs

wailing overhead as we waited, curtains drawn in blackout,

so that no chink of light or trepidation could guide their wrath to us.


big ones, small ones, some as big as your head     


I remember the lyrics and the music playing on the Philco

the scent of stuffed cabbage cooking, taste of garlicky pitcha,

broken English mixed with Yiddish idioms, yet strangely

no distinct memory remains of mother’s parents tucked away

somewhere in the background, or her brothers Jack and Lewis

who had a stall in the market, sisters Sophie and Sarah, making

only cursory, referred-to appearances between the cabbage

and the coconuts.


give them a twist, a flick of the wrist that’s what the showman said


So that now, three score and ten years later, my sister

writing from Australia, has unearthed a cousin twice

removed, who sends her a sepia photo, peeling at the edges

of our mother’s parents Simon and Katie Okenoff posing, serious,

straight as a pair of nineteen hundred candlesticks.


This memento arrives on my computer screen a century after

it was taken and as I enlarge the image, I see my mother’s eyes,

her rather Mona Lisa smile, peering out from her mother’s

now suddenly familiar face, watching my reaction to this disclosure.


And I am six years old again, London is being blitzed,

the stuffed cabbage is burning, the showman is singing

there they are all standing in a row

and my mother is holding me tightly saying don’t be afraid

darling – everything will be alright

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© Johnmichael Simon



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