But back to circa 1956. My grandma has graduated to a hospital, my mother is no longer a child volunteer and my father has been honourably demobilized, given a minuscule grant, and told to get on with it. I am three years old and quiveringly anticipating this grandmatriarchal visitation.
Physically she was very large. Enormous, in fact, always eating chocolate, which she would occasionally share with me, and sweets, with which she was more liberal, a fact somewhat disconcerting to my gluttony and morals, for I knew that my father strongly disapproved of humbugs (the boiled kind). And here was someone even older, and presumably wiser, even by her own most careful reckoning, who tested parental obedience most temptingly.
Emerging above this vast mass of flesh was a thin wrinkled face, characterized by a stiff menopausal moustache (unpleasant to be kissed by) and above that, the most stunning violet eyes, set off by the whitest hair. These two features were her glory. She wouldn’t wear spectacles because they hid her lights and finally, when I was about fifteen, she gave up burning tobacco because the fumes were turning her silver tresses into umbrous coils.
She always wore the dullest of colours – a cardigan in terracotta was the most daring garment she possessed – and she always let me know whenever I wore anything gaudy that only ladies of ill repute paraded in clothes brighter than bottle green or pale blue. Yet in her own way she was very vain. She always wore lipstick and powder, though she would become very self-conscious if anyone ever mentioned maquillage, and she frequently festooned herself with jewellery. Quite a coquette, in fact. When she was about 75, she began to mellow a bit towards people, and on returning from her daily shopping expeditions, she would blushingly recount how the greengrocer had greeted her with a cheery ‘Hallo beautiful!’ She would always then pretend to be very cross and rant for half an hour about how stupid he was. The pleasure and the pride, nevertheless, would ooze out of those small violet orbs.
But when I was three I didn’t really notice all this. Only the moustache and the ferocity. The dislike of kissing was mutual – she was always afraid of catching colds and other childish diseases from me.
She could be amusing, however. When she came she would often read to me – something my parents never seemed to have time for – and she always agreed to read the stories I wanted to hear. Hans Andersen enthralled me at that time, especially a story about a certain Ida and the flowers that came to life at night. My granny would read it to me over and over again, and then we’d embellish it on our walks in the park with the peacocks, and she’d teach me the names of all the flowers and birds in Polish, and we’d play incredibly monotonous word games, which I loved. So, in a way, those weekends were to be looked forward to.
Then, all of a sudden, she was there all the time. One day she didn’t go back to the hospital, and I discovered she was living with the lady upstairs. It didn’t mean very much at first, for I was sent to weekly boarding school, but the weekends were different. Yet, when I started English day school, it was she who brought me there and back – and, as soon as I could read and write English, she began to indulge her pedagogic whims, and insisted on teaching me the literary arts of Polish.
She would illustrate her lessons with a large variety of visual aids. Picture books sent over from Poland and the weirdest drawings of her own: she had a predilection for many-headed angels. Whether these were symbolic of her own Lernaean-hydra-like multifaceted personality or simply because she liked drawing faces and wings and had difficulty with bodies because of an upbringing more prudish than wise, I cannot tell. But I learnt to read and write!
My cultural education was high on the list of her priorities, and we would sit and listen to the Third Programme during her infrequent leisure moments, while she would lovingly talk to me about Chopin and Strauss and Tchaikovsky, and recount tales of wartime Vienna, where she had been a refugee during the first world war. The enchantment of that city still had the power to overcome her as she talked – and me too.
But those sentimental moments were brief. When scholarly instruction was well under way, she undertook to ensure that I suffered no moral decline in this wild and wicked Polish world. I can remember only one particular lesson – but it has stayed with me all my life.
About twenty years ago, when times were hard, and not many toys were available, a child of my background had to amuse herself how she could. On the mantelpiece in our ‘drawing-room’, my granny, with her eye for the curious and curios, had placed her collection of rather ghastly Goss china ornaments. Valuable, no doubt, but not beautiful. Amusing though: they all had holes in the bottom. Very tempting for little fingers. And so, with a delight greater than Eve’s when she bit into the apple – and also for lack of anything better to do in my own mini-Eden – one day I plunged my finger into the underside of each of these hideous objects, picked it up and hurled it against the tiles of the chimney stand. And oh! what a pleasant tinkling sound they made. And oh! what pretty patterns of shattered porcelain on the floor. And oh! what a look of wrath on that venerable face.
‘Did you do that?’ she asked. A pointless question, but the collector may be excused when her pride and joy is dashed at a stroke. I, however, was only five or thereabouts, and not yet given to philosophising about people’s reactions. I knew one thing only – instinctively. Someone’s skin had to be saved. Mine. So I answered her, ‘straight from the bridge’ as the Polish cliché would have it: ‘No.’
And then the silence. The look of despair. The horror about the state of my soul. Then the firm grip of her talons about my wrists, as she began to lecture me about the virtues of honesty. Unpleasant to the extreme. But efficacious. To this day it is with the greatest difficulty that I tell a lie – and my father also has the same problem. I must ask him one day whether she used the same methods on him. She wasn’t quite:
‘You ancient prude, whose withered features show
She might be young some forty years ago.
Her elbows pinioned close upon her hips,
Her head erect, her fan upon her lips,
Her eyebrows arched, her eyes both gone astray …’
Sometimes harsh, but always true to herself – and very dignified.