Funny place childhood. A minefield of memories, a goldmine of recollections, long gone, it lingers on, vibrant, and alive. Our mind plays tricks on us and distorts the past, yet we treasure its fragments, gloss over the cracks. What remains of our beginnings is patchy, and yet, we hold on to it, re-imagine it, keep returning to what we once were. The world that ended, yet never leaves us, as we search for the reasons of what we have become, and strive to save it all from the blackness of not remembering.
When I was about six years old, my parents took it upon themselves to redecorate our tiny flat and further decided that this necessitated packing me off to my grandma’s on my dad’s side, to spend a couple of weeks in her equally tiny, but paint fumes free flat on the other side of town.
Off I went, Mr Bear, the yellow teddy in stripy dungarees firmly head-locked under my arm. I was always jealous of his rainbow-coloured dungarees, and used to fantasise about getting an exact same pair as a surprise birthday present from my mum, because she must have known I loved them. Never happened.
Grandma’s flat consisted of a bedroom-living room, the world’s smallest kitchen, and even smaller windowless bathroom which smelt of clogged up pipes. I guess you could call it studio flat, except nobody did back then. The main room, which was five paces long four paces across, contained, miraculously, a sofa bed a desk a table a dresser a few chairs and two wardrobes. It was impossible to move around without holding your tummy in. Or crawling under the numerous items of furniture on all four, which was my preference. The furniture was dark mahogany, with crocheted napkins scattered on top. The look and feel was heavy vintage with a hint of past family grandeur crippled in equal parts by historical event of the twentieth century and personal tragedy. To my small curly blonde self it was just the perfect size exotic paradise.
Grandma was very old. She was so old I thought she might die during my visit, and then what would I do? Grandma had a big heavy black telephone, and I thought I might use it to call somebody to tell them that she’d died and to come and pick me up, but then I remembered that I would not know who to call in the event of her death. My parents had not had a phone line installed yet at the time. I could call my other grandma, I knew she had a phone, I’d spent hours on it listening to the talking clock, except I didn’t know her number.
Having ruled out calling anybody, I moved on to what I would do next in the event of Grandma’s sudden death, and decided that I would have liked to touch her hair, to check whether it felt the same that it looked, newborn chicken’s downy feathers, and then I would touch her deathly white face to find out whether it was naturally deathly white or did she use an impossibly pale powder to make it so, but then I thought, if she was dead then perhaps her face would have turned deathly white naturally, and then I would never know. I made a note to try and find an excuse to run my finger down her cheek when she was still alive to see what happened.
Many years later I looked things up and worked out that Grandma was 66 during my visit to her flat, not a hundred and twenty as I thought at the time. She went on to live for another ten years, but when she did die, she did so alone in her flat, and that gave me guilty goosebumps for a long time, as I could not help thinking I brought this lonely demise onto her with my childish imaginings.
Grandma delivered a series of most extraordinary monologues during the two weeks I spent with her. They were not conversations, because she could not possibly have expected me to respond in any meaningful way to the sentiments she expressed. There was one particular thing she said that stayed with me for a very long time, truth be told it pops into my head every now and again even now.
‘I am sure your mother is a nice lady in her own way, but she just isn’t, never was a suitable person for our family. Your dad could have, should have done so much better.’
My grandma thought this was a perfectly suitable thing to say to a six year old me. She also thought it suitable to follow it up with a long look of despair mixed with tenderness. She must have felt acute regret of what could have been if only my dad had married somebody who ticked all suitability boxes instead, like her best friend’s daughter for example.
What Grandma said confused me beyond words. My mum not suitable for our family? My mum was my family, how could she have been unsuitable. What about me? Was I suitable? What makes somebody unsuitable for something and how did grandma know this?
Grandma entertained me with endless stories about her family history, my family history, during those two weeks. Proud tales of aristocratic connections, counts and duchesses, honorary titles, scholarly achievements, high ranking military heroes and medals for bravery seemed to have adorned several branches of our family tree down the centuries. I found all this hard to follow and could never recall a single coherent story, but the overall impression was of impossibly grandiose lineage, long lost splendour, grand pianos and vast acres of land. Pitched against this background, my mum might have indeed appeared utterly unsuitable.
Mum was born in a small village on the Vistula river, in a modest wooden house, given to my great grandmother Helena by her parents on the day she married Jan, a local village teacher in 1911. I have clear memories of that house, as it remained Jan and Helena’s family home until Helena’s death in 1982, coincidentally the same year my Posh Grandma died too.
Mum spent the first seven years of her life in the village, six of them taken up by the world war.
I can easily relate to the geography of Mum’s childhood because I too spent a bit chunk of my early years at the same place, same house, same views over the Vistula river bends from the top of the hill, same cabbage patch, same raspberry fields, same barn, same stables.
This story is not really going anywhere, I don’t have a neat ending for it. I could possibly make something up and go all nostalgic and even homesick about it, but all I really wanted to share was Grandma’s comment about my mother not being suitable for our family, which was one of those fleeting moments which happen to people and then they are stuck with them until they make a big deal out of them, and totally overthink them and try to make them sound like something significant and relevant, a defining moment, which contributed to shaping their lives. So there, I’ve done it.