Not so my mother’s mother, of whom I began to be aware about the time when I was still at infant school. She too was plump. Impressively so. And shades of dark beauty still hung in her black eyes and her dyed hair.
One day she appeared at the school gate with a large box of chocolates and told me to give them to my teacher with a kiss and a thank-you. Being a good little thing, I did, not asking why. Then I found out, as this granny took me home. To her home, a regal-sounding place called Sussex Mansions in snobby South Kensington, but in reality two rooms in a doctor’s flat where she lived with her younger daughter. And now apparently I and my mother were to live there too. I can’t say I minded particularly – apart from having to change schools – for this granny was more a lady after my own heart.
Fond of food, fun and not the tidiest of people, she never moralized and was always available for stories (not the intellectual kind), songs, sweets and new clothes. She had learnt to sew in Siberia, and so had kept herself and her daughters from starvation, though her husband did not escape that fate: having been released from prison, he then set out across the Steppe to find his wife and daughters. And died the day he reached them. She never got over the shock, needless to say, but she made use of her skills in England – in a grand way. She later drove my mother and my aunt mad when she came to live in the enormous flat they rented not far away. A highly social creature, she would entertain hundreds of friends and cronies in the room allocated to her and her enormous Singer machine. That would have been all right, but the overspill of her sewing and her friends would submerge the rest of the flat – whereas her two daughters are pedantically neat. They did not get on.
But they both married eventually; my granny did not like the husbands and suddenly all our living conditions changed again. My aunt moved to Richmond with her husband; my stepfather moved in, plus a friend of his, and my grandmother removed to West Kensington – with her lover! Exuding warmth and liveliness, despite her tragic widowhood, now in her early 50s, it was not astonishing that the vestiges of male Polish charm and gallantry should parade outside her door. She selected one of these pretenders to her throne – they very discreetly rented two bedsits in one rather squalid house – and lived happily ever after. Seven years of such post-marital bliss was as much as the gentleman would stand, however, and one day he was no more. The funeral over, my poor gran was unable to put herself together again, and so today she still wears the signet ring he gave her and gazes at it vacantly, totally institutionalized, a poignant reminder of the power of love, for which drugs can be no substitute.