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April 27th, 2006

Dunavska

Happy Birthday, Grandma.

My grandmother had a childhood straight out of a fairy tale.

Her father was a landowner in the village where she was born; her mother was an etiolated dowered heiress who came into the marriage with (in the custom of the time) her dowry hanging around her neck in thick chains of gold coins. But this was a family which worked in the fields which it owned, and this young bride did not take well to tilling soil. She withered on the vine, suffering at the unaccustomed toil; then she got pregnant, had my grandmother... and died.

My great-grandfather remarried quickly, and the new wife was of a more robust mold. She quickly gave her husband two more children, one of them a coveted son. My grandmother was turned into Cinderella, sweeping the kitchen before anyone else rose in the morning, sleeping outside the main house in a roughly cosied-up corner of an outbuilding, even when she got ill and coughed so loudly that it kept the other people awake all the way in the main house. There was no obvious abuse, no beatings, nothing like that. Just neglect. And unlove.

She was an intelligent girl but there was no chance of any sort of further education; at the first opportunity, she escaped. She was seventeen when she met my Grandfather, eighteen when she married him. But she was hardly escaping into a life of luxury or open affection - Grandpa was a fine upright man but he had his own problems and he was of the old school and expected his wife to fetch and carry and cook and clean and be at beck and call. He was also given to practical jokes and sometimes outright unkindnesses - grandma took it all without ever losing her spirit,had a child at nineteen, another one before the first (my mother) was two years old, then lost that second daughter while she was still in the cradle to an unknown illness that took the child in a matter of months. She then got pregnant again, with my aunt; that birth, like my own mother's, was at home, and this one was a hard one - that one little piece of placenta that got stuck in the womb caused a haemorrhage that went through the mattress and dripped on the floor under the bed. She was lucky she survived it. There were no more children.

My grandfather went to war in 1941, leaving her alone with the two young children. He got captured, spending what must have seemed endless months in a German Prisoner-of-War camp; in the meantime, Grandma dealt with the invasions by the Germans, and then the counterinvasions by the Russians, and stayed put when she could and refugeed when she had to, and somewhere in that period of time the family home was emptied of everything they had ever owned - they came out of the war with my grandfather's schoolteacher's salary and nothing more. He wouldn't let her go and reclaim stolen stuff, even when she recognised it in circulation - "the state will compensate us," he maintained, only they never did. The family survived, but never really rose above that blow.

Grandpa hocked her only jewellery, a pair of earrings, to buy a typewriter, and with it became the poet who woke my own love of language. But grandma, in teh meantime, had to put up with being told that she was bothering him when he wrote, had to tiptoe through her own house, kept everything running so that he could put out a hand and get whatever he wanted, leaving him to deal with his classrooms and his poetry and the rest of the world's problems were her own. She made winter preserves, she made quince jelly (which I'll never have again, because it's messy and time-intensive and involves a sort of kitchen black magic of a generation ago, a mental state into which I'll never quite manage to get myself), she cut coupons for soups and jams and piled them on the old white kitchen dresser, she had the kind of old-fashioned white china with embossed edges which was kept in a cupboard with lace runners on the shelves. She cooked, she cleaned, and she cared for everyone, and everyone was safe under the shelter of her wings - even the husband who never really appreciated it until, when the time came, he had to try and exist without it.

When I was born - the first grandchild - she permanently lost her name and became "Baka", Grandma. She was only 48 years old. Circumstances conspired so that the first year or three of my life I spent with her more than with my own parents, who were living in a different city and who couldn't find childcare there that was safe AND affordable - so they left me with grandma while they worked their way back to the city where I was born, where my grandparents lived, where my mother had returned to have me. I grew up with this woman's huge, unquestioning, unconditional love, and she and I bonded in a way that remains remarkable to me to this day. She was everything to me - in those early days, and ever since. She might have had her own dreams and visions for me or about me, but all that was really important to her was what my own dreams were. She loved me, that was the beginning and the end of it; and I loved her right back, she filled my heart to overflowing, in her arms there was true peace and there I could do, be, dream anything and it would all come true.

We were torn apart when I was ten and we moved to Africa, but the bond remained - and whenever we went home it was her I raced to first, her I embraced the longest, her whose hands I wept to touch again. I was fiercely protective of her, and when I was there grandpa's rule ended and mine began and nothing even remotely hurtful or practical-jokery was allowed with her at the butt of it. She was mine. I was hers. It was a pact.

Every year on my birthday (when we were together) she would bring me a bouquet of red gladioli - it became a tradition. And there are other things I associate with her - hyacinths, with which her garden was overflowing, and which now grow in my own garden in her memory. She loved Swiss chocolate, which I always brought home for her from my travels. She and I went to a mountain one spring and came back - this is still a family legend - on the bus with so many wild daffodils that they filled every vase in the house and overflowed into bathroom and kitchen sinks - and these, too, I have planted in my garden in her name. She had no real education but she loved to read, and it wasn't just grandpa and his own poetic impulses that kept the house full of bookss. It was she who gave me my very first teddy bear, one of those classic ones with a solid body and moveable arms and legs, filled with sawdust, golden-furred - I was a year old and the thing was bigger than me when I got it. I still have it, slightly threadbare and with button eyes that broke and had to be glued back on, with a remaining patch of golden plush at the back of the ears as the only reminder of its early glory. It is something her hand touched. I treasure that battered old bear... partly because it, too, knew her.

She died in the summer, and I was far away, on the other end of the world... and yet all that day I could not breathe, and could not rest, and could not manage to chase the gathering darkness from my mind without knowing just what it was that I was being prescient about. That was the day that she, on the far side of the planet, was quietly dying - after a long time of deterioration, of a bout with Parkinson's DIsease, of the aftermath of a dowager's stoop that left her bent almost double, of fragile osteoporotic bones, of things that swam from her psyche after so many years and made her see things that weren't there - it was not unexpected, that she was dying, and yet I never thought she would, I thought she would always be with me. But I shared her last hours as the breath grew short and shallow, and my own grew laboured... and when the phone finally rang, I knew, I knew long before anyone said a word - I knew because I could breathe again, and it was over. And I screamed and cried because for a moment I could not remember her face, and I was terrified that I never could again... but I did, and I will never forget it, the face, the gentle voice, the pet names which were mine alone, the touch of those work-worn hands.

She was very young when she got married, she never worked outside the home at all, but her life touched many people's - and at her funeral the flowers hid the coffin, and the crowd filled the little corner of the cemetery where her ashes were laid. I could not be there. To this day I reproach myself for that - not that she would have known, at that point, but I would have. And it would have mattered.

I still talk to her, nearly every day, and she has been dead for nearly seventeen years. I have never regretted my own decision not to have children - except in this one way, except that this woman's remarakble blood ends with me, that I will never make her immortal to another generation by telling my own children about what she was. But that will never be - she ends with me.

She is ashes now, except for two things.

Once I asked her if I could have a lock of her hair. She said, "Whatever for?" I said, "Because I want it." She said, "Then take it."

That lock of hair, and her wedding ring which never leaves my own hand, is all that physically remains.

But once, back when I was doign freelance writing for a magazine in New Zealand, I was sent to interview a local celebrity psychic for a featurette. I wandered into this woman's house, a complete stranger, and even gave her not my given name in general circulation but my middle name which was known by very few people. She didn't know who I was or where I came from. And this complete stranger said to me, "There is a presence at your left shoulder, a guardian angel, someone from your mother's side of the family. She is very dark, like a Spaniard, and beautiful. ANd she has always loved you more than you have ever known."

She could not have known that my grandmother was Spanish-dark, with olive skin and black hair, and beautiful.

I have a couple of photos...Collapse )

happy birthday, Grandma. You were too, too young when you left this earth... but you will always be my Guardian Angel.
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