The picture here was taken in the 80s. Here I am with my Mother and my Daughter (who is now a mother too)
The love my Mother had for her Mother was unconditional, and was intensified by the fear of losing her, the never-ending fear.
My Grandma was raised by her father and her step mother; Grandma’s Mom died giving birth to her, and she and her sister became half-orphans. Life in the house run by the stepmother who had no love for the two sisters … my Grandma was made to sleep in the bathtub, as the additional bed in the children’s room would disturb the symmetry… reminders of a famous children’s story!
There was no love, and no surprise that she was married off at 16 to a man twice her age, whom she met the day before her wedding. Nobody told my Grandma what to expect, and with her huge green eyes, full of tears, she became a married woman. Little did she know just how badly hurt she would be that night; how she will cry herself to sleep while her new husband will storm out of the house to have drinks with his friends in town. He got drunk all right, and when he returned he raped her again and again, till she was but a heap of tears, bloody mess, and hiding in the closet hoping he’ll go out again.
It didn’t get better from there and the man she married would not make any effort to get her to love him. She gave birth to two sons in the first three years of her marriage and she just couldn’t take it anymore. With the help of her doctor, bless his heart, who was deeply in love with her, she escaped and filed for divorce. In those days the verdict was clear – she lost the right to even see her boys.
She moved to Warsaw – and the times were interesting – World War I was on! Grandma and her girlfriend did what most young woman were doing at the time – they became “war mothers” to randomly chosen unmarried military men, with no families to care about them. They send food, cigarettes, and almost daily letters with the words of encouragement to their warriors.
The war came to an end and warriors returned home. Grandpa was barely 18; he had signed up to join the army at 16, lying about his age. He was tall, handsome, well built, with the head full of wavy hair and he had a winning smile. Grandma, now 20, could not help but be swept of her feet by the returning warrior, and married him on a spot!
Well, now that they lived together she discovered he loved booze, women, and betting on cards and horses. He also loved hunting and as his parents owned the large farm near the forest; he frequently would take the two hunting dogs, go to the farm, get a horse and hunt. On his return he would bring home two exhausted and dirty dogs along with rabbits, ducks, and whatever animals he killed with his shotgun.
I think hunting was the least of Grandma’s worries. The cards, horses, and women on the other hand …
My Mom was born a couple of years after Grandma married Grandpa and her brother was born a few years later; they were well loved by both my Grandparents. Mom did not recall much from of her early childhood but she sure did remember vividly the night Grandma took a shotgun and tried to put an end to her pain. Grandpa once again was late from the card game, and he was out there with a woman, Grandma’s best friend, it turned out.
When Grandma found out about the affair, which was going on for a few months already, she did not see a way out. Divorcing again would cause her to lose another pair of children and would put a stigma on her forever. Staying in the marriage was just too much! So, she turned the gun onto herself aimed, and fired. Her aim wasn’t perfect, and her life was saved but she tore her insides pretty badly and that’s where the cancer grew.
Grandpa never changed his ways, so the fear that Grandma may try to kill herself again was always there, making my Mom’s childhood a rather sad one.
The summer before the start of World War II was a time that my Mom spent with her half-brother. The boys found out Grandma wasn’t dead, as their Father told them, and they managed to find her. They were now 20 and 18, and they found their Mother to be charming and beautiful at 37 – and yes, their little 15 years old half-sister who by now was a pretty young woman, with black hair and dark eyes, and the smile that warmed the room.
But that’s another story, of which half is Mom’s and the other half is mine. Mom finally told her half of the story a few days before she died; she felt relieved, and got her “closure” by telling it, and the story left me with a pang of pain…if she only told me this story earlier, when I needed to hear it!
When World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, Warsaw was bombarded with fires everywhere, filling the sky with dense smoke. Nobody believed it could happen and nobody realized what lay ahead. Mom was barely 16 years old. She was a year away from her high school graduation; she was a teenager and she loved watching movies. With bombs going off all around her most of the townspeople in basements huddling and praying, Mom would sneak to the movie theater. Amazing! The movies were being played despite the war!
Mom got her high school diploma studying, as were others, in secrecy; in apartments even as they feared being found out. Schooling was prohibited. The nightmare of the occupation, stories of the concentration camps, random stopping of people on the streets by the German soldiers with many of these who were stopped ending up on a train destined for the camps. The Jewish ghetto, the sleeve bands with the yellow David’s star. The strict curfew. The constant fear.
Mom went to work promptly upon graduation — she got a job as a cashier in one of Warsaw’s Cafés. There she met my father and married him despite the pain it seemingly inflicted on her half-brother.
It was a wartime wedding, no limos, no cars; guests and bride and groom all used a streetcar to get to the church. This was in September, a sunny day, and Mom was seventeen!
There was a story about my Father renting an apartment to which they were to move into right after the wedding. Well, on a day, for reasons I can’t recall, the landlord decided he is not renting the place and put all the furniture on a street.
My brother was born a couple of years later and right before the Warsaw Insurrection.
There was a story about the bomb, from across the river, hitting my Father’s Mother’s villa: It was the very last hours of the insurrection with other houses on the street already in ruins – a few neighbors found a shelter in the villa. Grandma kept precious stuff, including the Louis 15th chairs, up at the attic that was cemented off to save it from the occupying forces and dishonest co-patriots. Well, the bomb exploded as it hit the attic; the Louis 15th armchair ruined!
A neighbor, a woman of substance, was following others who were exiting the villa through a badly broken window even as the rest of the house was on fire. Well, she was larger than the frame of the window; she got out, but ended up totally stripped and bloodied by the pieces of glass remaining in the frame. The kids giggled, but a friend of hers, an older gentleman covered her with his trench coat and led her to safety.
The other story was from a few days earlier. A maid working for the family was getting married. After the ceremony she and her husband came to the villa for dinner, and the maid decided she needed an apple from a tree in the garden. Up the branches she went, but just then, at the very moment, gun fire exchanges between two groups took place right on the street! The bullet hit her on her buttock – the reaction of her husband wasn’t friendly in the least. He yelled to his new bride, “couldn’t you stick out any other part on a day like today?!”
So, despite the bullets, bombs, camps, death and ruins the family was crying … laughing!
When Insurrection started Mom lived just across the river from her Mother as she was now living with Dad (and several other family members) in Dad’s uncle’s apartment. The uncle was gone, as he had been taken to the concentration camp where he was beheaded. They did not know that at the time, they just knew he was taken away.
When the Insurrection was over most of the city was gone; just ruins everywhere you turned. One of the bridges survived, and my Grandma walked across, in her 5” hills (she never owned any other shoes, she was always more-than-appropriately dressed, full make-up applied and in high hills - she was barely 5 feet tall) looking to reconnect with Mom. But my Mom had already gone and was on her way out of Warsaw. That day, my Grandma’s raven hair turned white!
Everyone in Mom’s party left for Krakow on a cargo train. No food, no water, it was a two days nightmare before they arrived. Many did not survive the trip. Mom saved another woman’s baby. At that time, Mom was breastfeeding my brother and the woman next to her had a baby that was only a few days old and she was too malnourished to be able to breastfeed. Mom fed the baby till the woman’s relatives arrived with much-needed cow’s milk and bread.
Mom, my father’s Mother and Aunt, his sister, and some other relatives travelled together and they ended up in a farm near Krakow – it was a difficult few weeks, till somehow they found out father’s distant family, near Warsaw, had survived and wanted to give them shelter. Mom took up knitting and was selling hand-made socks at the market and that was enough to pay for the food packages she was sending to my Dad. It turned out he was captured and was in a German military camp.
That’s another story; Germans were closing all the camps. Military camps as well as the concentration camps that seemed to be everywhere! One evening a boatful of inmates was sent across the river under the command of a guard; a German soldier. Dad was on this boat only to realize that it was all part of closing-up the camp and that the guard had orders to shoot them all and then return for the next load. The German soldier made a decision to disobey his orders: he set everyone free on the other side of the river and came back only to be shot on the spot for insubordination. The freed soldiers took off and somehow made it to Italy where they joined what remained of the Polish army.
Another few months passed before my Mom reconnected with her Mother and she and my brother went on to live in Warsaw. Grandpa was serving in the military and found himself somewhere in Romania after the war. Yeah, there were women involved, and when he came back from the war he was not alone and moved to another city. Grandma was hurting, but still; she found out he was in a hospital with pneumonia and had no cash to buy food so Grandma sold her last ring and sent the money to Grandpa’s companion.
When I was conceived Mom really did not have the means to bring up another child – she had a poorly paying job, and my Dad did not find work quite yet having only just returned from Italy after the war.
Years, indeed more than 2 years, passed before my Father returned. He was trying to get my Mom to join him in Italy – with no mail, email, or Internet his requests were word of mouth by those who chose to return earlier. They also mentioned to Mom how well her husband is doing, always well dressed, his pants freshly ironed and his boots shining. He also sent Mom, through one of his returning friends, a box containing a rare live orchid! Considering Mom was selling his father’s gold watch to buy a pair of shoes without holes in them, it only infuriated her and she could not help but wonder whom exactly is ironing his pants?
Eventually, Dad returned and as all those soldiers coming back to the now Russian “liberated” country he faced investigations, was unable to find a job, and was pretty much miserable. So, Mom decided to make me go away: she would jump out of the back of the track that was taking her to workplace; she had a temporary job at a bakery. I held on tight. Mom and Grandma talked long into the night and the next day Mom went to the doctor’s office to have an abortion.
Luckily for me, the doctor was a woman who had stories to tell and questions to ask; needless to say the abortion didn’t happen. When Mom came home Grandma was waiting for her with a ray of hope. They cried for a long time, and shortly after that Mom’s best friend gave me a name – before I was even born.
Grandma loved the whole idea; she so looked forward to having a Granddaughter – that’s the pattern in my family: Mom and Grandma were absolutely sure it would be a girl, just because they wanted a girl. Just as they never picked a name in case it would be a boy, I never had a name for a boy, and when it came to the birth of my own Daughter, a name had been chosen about a week after my tests showed that yes, she’s there!
About a month before I was born my Mom and Dad went for a walk to discuss possibility of splitting up – they were not happy, Mom never really got over Dad’s prolonged stay in Italy: she suspected there was a woman involved, and Dad was sad, could not find a job, was distracted and aloof – so maybe there was a woman back there in Italy and he could not get over her? I never found out for sure, and neither did my Mother.
Anyway, off they went to talk, as the apartment they lived in was a one room and a kitchen, and with a son and Grandma the privacy was missing. When they got home, whatever they decided had no meaning: Grandma was rushed to the hospital and died that night. The way my Mom loved her, and always was living in fear of losing her made the grieving desperate, prolonged, and I don’t think it ever ended. My arrival did not bring a smile to Mom’s face, and only when she thought I would die, as I got very sick in the hospital, did she find in her heart a feeling of love for me.
Dad took this long period of grievance as his repentance, and whatever happened between them was now in the past, and Dad was the ever-loving husband, patient, understanding, and holding Mom through her tearful nights. As for me growing up in Russian controlled Poland well that will just have to wait for another time …