For K, A, M
… I was blessed with four. Which means I was twice as lucky as the average child and four times as fortunate as the average orphan. An advantage of four times seventy years against my erstwhile seven. Formidable calculations, guaranteed to put off the average innumerate reader. Be not dissuaded, nevertheless. The sums end here. I was young and single, they were old and many. Contrast enough to understand the frailty of my microcosmic being against their corporate mass.
Not that I ever saw them all together. They didn’t even know each other very well. And what they knew of one another, they criticized sharply. Such are the ways of the world and old women. Heavens protect me from this fate.
But now they are dead. Two in fact, and two in deed. Let me not speak ill of them, therefore, yet allow me to resuscitate briefly these formative influences on my career.
They had one or two things in common. They were Polish, for a start. Not an extraordinary fact, perhaps, in the days of rampant postwar political immigration – but still an important one – for in order to communicate I had to speak Polish. What English they had acquired, they kept determinedly concealed from me. None of this ‘doing in Rome as the Romans do’ lark for them. They had been forcibly removed from their homeland, so if they couldn’t return to it, they would at least recreate it around them. Keeping and promoting the language was probably the best – and certainly the easiest – way.
But here the similarities end. As their courses converged on me, the infant bundle of Polish (they insisted) joy, at various times, so their destinies could not have diverged more widely.
My first consciousness of grandmotherhood reached me when I was very young. Maybe I was two, maybe three, but certainly not more. My parents were still married then, and they were both fatherless, but their mothers were still very much alive – and often very much in evidence.
My father’s mother was the first to encroach upon my private three-year-old world. My parents and I used, at that time, in the beginning of the latter half of this century, to live in a dreary flat in a drearier part of West Kensington. My father was a student by day and did shift work by night and my mother was a waitress whenever my father was at home. They looked after me alternately – the only times I can remember seeing them together was early on Sunday mornings. And then, once every two months or so, there would be a flurry and a general atmosphere of worry, in preparation for my grandmother’s descent. She was working at the time as a nurse in Wales, in a hospital for Polish war invalids, and she would save her days off so that she could make the trip to London, to visit her son. The fact that he had a wife and daughter was of very secondary importance to her.
She was – even then – totally obsessed with her first and only-born. But the product of her loins had married a girl whom she had known previously: just after the war, the remaining Siberian deportees had been organized into British Volunteer Army Forces – the men went to fight as soon as they were able, and the women joined the Red Cross, British Legion and similar worthy bodies, while the children attended Young Volunteer schools. My mother was in such an institution while still in Tehran. My grandmother, the future mother-in-law, was a nurse attached to the school. And so their acquaintance began, in these rather inauspicious circumstances. My mother was intensely miserable and rebellious, away from her own mother and sister, whilst my granny, apparently, was somewhat ratty apart from her son and two stepsons, and lost without her husband, who had been probably killed in the Forest of Katyn in 1940 or ’41. Little did either of them know, however, that one day, before the decade was out, they would be related.