The End of Innocence
Learning to knit, eating cheesecake and the arrival of my adopted sister, Betty: this is what I remember from the time I spent with grandma Rosa. But actually, there was so much more – I now regard this time as a defining episode in my childhood, one which marked the end of innocence, the beginning of a darker period of turning inwards, of feeling that the world was an unsafe place in which unpleasant surprises sprang from nowhere.
During my childhood, I walked past the photograph of grandma Rosa, my mother’s mother in its gilt frame hundreds of times barely noticing it. But since my mother’s passing, I’ve become interested in the chain of mothers and daughters, stretching from my granddaughter back to her great grandmother – 150 years of the female family line. I’ve been studying the photograph looking for clues to Rosa before she was anyone’s mother or grandmother – trying to square the young woman in the photo with the old lady I knew, her face pinched with disappointment, hopes chewed up by life, her untold story folded in a concertina of wrinkles.
Hardly bigger than an envelope, the sepia portrait shows Rosa as a poised young woman wearing a formal lace blouse, a cross dangling around her slender neck, dark hair swept away from a high cheek-boned face. The hint of a smile hovers on her lips, wide eyes gaze beyond the camera, visualising perhaps a glowing future. How could she have known then that she would lose so much and so many as a result of two world wars or that as a widow, she would be permanently exiled from her country, that suffering would be forever tattooed under her skin? I like to think there were some carefree days before her hopes and dreams were pinned against a wall and shot to pieces.
I study the photo wondering what if any part grandma Rosa played in the depression that defined my mother’s life but in fact, I discovered less about my grandmother or her impact on her daughter’s life and more about a missing chapter in the story of my childhood.
The sepia portrait is the only photograph I have of grandma Rosa, or at least the only one that can be stuck in a family album. But in my mind I’ve uncovered a collage of monochrome and fadedcolour shots taken during the time I spent with her. Like a foreign film without the subtitles, the dialogue in my mental archive is almost entirely in Polish; to the best of my knowledge, my grandmother and I didn’t exchange a single word. She spoke no English and after her stroke, one side of her face stiff with paralysis, she couldn’t string sentences together even in her own language – her slack mouth twisted as she choked on mashed up words, tears of frustration dripping down her face.The soundtrack accompanying my slideshow consists of a ticking clock, crackling wireless music, the bubbling in the kitchen cooking pots and unfamiliar night time noises. Later when grandma Rosa lived with us before her death, there was my mother’s shushing – grandma must not be disturbed – as if her very existence depended on silence.
I was six when my parents and I visited my grandmother for the first time since I was a baby. I was disappointed to find that Chalk Farm, the place I’d been told grandma Rosa lived, was a cityscape of crowded streets, not the wide powdery fields of coloured chalk from my imagination. When we arrived at grandma’s, I craned my neck up and thought my grandmother must be a queen in a story book castle, not realising her flat occupied just a tiny space high above the ground in the corner of the tall building.
Once at grandma Rosa’s flat, I rushed into the bathroom but when I came out, the flat was quiet and my parents were not where I‘d left them a few moments before. Playing an increasingly desperate game of solitary hide and seek, searching all three rooms thoroughly, I found no trace of my mother or father – they’d vanished as if they’d never been there. A capsizing boat on a stormy sea, I sank to the floor in the overheated, onion scented hallway and howled, the unshed tears of the past six years gushing from my blotched face like sheets of rain into a deep pool of misery. I couldn’t understand why I’d been left behind with a woman I barely knew and who was incapable of telling me where my parents were. I understood then that trust was a fragile thing which could be shaken in a heartbeat.
I don’t remember how long I spent at grandma Rosa’s – it felt like forever but was probably just a few days. At the time, I blamed not my parents but my grandmother as if she’d kidnapped me and was holding me ransom. I never forgave her even when she’d withered to a sick old woman. Now I understand how unjust this accusation was.
Using the bathroom at grandma Rosa’s was perhaps the first of the wrong decisions I felt I’d made during my life, the first of many ‘if onlys’. If only I hadn’t gone to the toilet then, my parents would still be there, I repeated time and again to myself and my uncomprehending audience. Grandma Rosa handed me several lace-trimmed handkerchiefs and a glass of milk but she didn’t take me into her arms or touch me at all. I peered blurrily out of the corner of my welling eyes and saw her sitting stiffly as if in a doctor’s waiting room pondering perhaps that as well as the life she hadn’t chosen in a country she didn’t belong in, she was now having to babysit her granddaughter.
After I had cried myself dry, grandma Rosa produced a pair of knitting needles and a ball of red wool and wordlessly taught me to knit. Over the following days, the lopsided squares with holes where I’d dropped stitches elicited a fleeting smile from my grandmother and for this I was grateful – a smile from a stern person can gladden you more than a smile from someone with a sunnier disposition.
Perhaps because of the silent pain she herself carried, I understood that grandma Rosa didn’t approve of tears so maybe it was then that I learned to camouflage a stew of hurt beneath a stoical front – lovers and friends in the future would complain that I kept them at bay, cowering behind emotional barbed wire fencing. But only rarely can straight lines be drawn between experience and consequences – humans are more complex than algebraic equations so whether the few days spent with grandma Rosa explain what followed it’s impossible to say. I’m certain though that the unspoken pain, the dark secrets people bury reveal so much more about them than the face they present to the world. I know I owe it to grandma Rosa to explore her story, the unspeakable tragedies she stored, the defining moments in her life.
Most of the images I have of grandma Rosa during my captivity feature her in her daffodil yellow kitchen – a hissing geyser by the sink, a wooden clothes drier swaying above the counter, flesh coloured stockings, girdles and corsets dangling from its racks. My eyes stung from the constantly frying onions as I inhaled the complex of strong smells of meat and boiled vegetables. If I transport myself back, I can still hear the sizzling frying pan, the stirring with big metal spoons of bubbling stews and thick soups, I see steam spiralling from the saucepans which from my childhood angle, reach grandma’s shoulders.
Studying the picture of grandma Rosa absorbed in cooking, I wonder now if she was pouring her disappointment into the pans, boiling away the past until it had lost its terrible bitterness, memories evaporating in mists of steam. There in her kitchen, she could be at peace, thinking only as far as the next meal, pretending everything was more or less as it should be.
I was allowed to assist with baking – maybe grandma Rosa saw this as a more frivolous activity than the serious business of cooking meals. I stood on a stool, one of grandma’s floral aprons tied around my skimpy waist, a large brown mixing bowl on the blue formica table, wooden spoon in hand, arms aching from combining flour, eggs, sugar and who knows what. I understand now that the knitting and the baking were grandma Rosa’s way of expressing kindness towards me. At the time I ached for warm embraces but I know that too much pain can shut a person down, stiffen their emotions into a kind of rigor mortis, gestures of love and tenderness frozen within.
Large wedges of the cheesecake I’d helped to bake and topped with swirling dollops of whipped cream were served one afternoon, the front room unlocked especially for the occasion, the walnut coloured wireless switched on to crackling piano music. If the kitchen was sunshine and warmth, the front room was the exact opposite – a cold, solemn chamber, full to bursting with dark, dusty oversized furniture, the walls adorned with icons and faded pictures that reminded me of church. Two whiskery old Polish women draped in black arrived for the cake eating ceremony – they took turns to pinch my cheeks and exclaim much more loudly than you’d expect from their shrunken frames. Grandma ushered them into the front room, locking the flat door behind them as if a balaclaved intruder was about to barge in or the hunched old ladies might find things not to their liking and shuffle home again. My feet dangling in mid air, we sat on stiff-backed chairs and ate with a reverence usually reserved for holy communion with little silver forks from delicate white plates and wiped the crumbs sticking to our lips on starched linen napkins. Like her companions, grandma Rosa wore a black dress – it’s the only time I can picture her in proper clothes – in all my other images, she is dressed in checked overalls with pink floral borders. Later, after the stroke, propped up on a mound of pillows, she wore pastel nightgowns underneath pale satin bedjackets in a bedroom smelling of medicine and Yardley’s talcum powder.
But that was in the future, years after the time I had been left at grandma Rosa’s. The nights I spent there were long and lonely – I was kept awake by the chuntering and hooting of trains, the blaring of sirens, grandma Rosa’s nasal breathing in the narrow bed we shared, creaking floorboards and padded footsteps from above, stripes of neon streetlight and then a porridge coloured dawn easing into the bedroom through the gap in the heavy curtains.
Just when I despaired of ever leaving these three rooms, my parents reappeared. In case they vanished again before I could get to them, I charged across the hallway but stopped dead in my tracks and stared – a small child was standing between them, holding my father’s hand.
‘Dora, this is your new little sister, Betty. I hope you’ll be kind to her’, my mother said
Who was this child? Where had she been plucked from? Why was she here? That I had been left alone with grandma Rosa while my parents went to pick out a new daughter was not the best start to my relationship with my new sister. In time however, we became allies, both victims of the rock and roll of our mother’s emotions and increasingly frequent admissions to psychiatric hospital.
Bringing to light this slice of childhood by dusting off the pictures in my mind has been like an Xray exposing the source of some of the emotions which have scarred both myself and those close to me. Whether or not this will provide the alchemy necessary to change the script of my life, it’s too soon to tell.
Yvonne Lloyd Bio:
It was blogging whilst working at a Ugandan prison in 2013 that first whetted my appetite for writing. The blog writing continued the following year whilst training teachers in Rwanda to write locally-based children’s stories. And there in Kigali thanks to a wonderful Writing our World workshop, I dipped a toe for the first into the world of fiction writing, soon discovering there was an infinite number of stories to tell. I could hardly wait to finish one story before starting the next.
I came to writing late in life after a hotchpotch career which included amongst many other jobs, service washing people’s laundry at a London laundrette, garden-clearing, placing children for adoption and teaching in a men’s prison in London.
Now I cook in a community surplus food kitchen, coax vegetables out of the ground in my allotment, swim outdoors and walk the streets, rivers and canals of London in search of stories!
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