After four years of Scottish summers, the Polish climate at this time of year is a welcome luxury with bright, hot sunny days, punctuated by the occasional dramatic thunderstorms. It occurred to me recently that the weather here is perhaps a good analogy for my grandmother’s temperament. My grandmother has gained herself a bit of a reputation amongst our family as being ‘a bit difficult’, but since living with her, I have been pleasantly surprised by how joyful and fun she can be to spend time with.
Last week marked our first ‘thunderstorm’ of the season. Just after my grandfather had left to go back to Berlin (where he lives with his new partner), I made the mistake of suggesting the wrong thing at the wrong time (involving having visitors to stay) and was treated to a fit of blind, screeching rage. There was no point trying to reason or even reply as that just gave more fuel to the wild fire. I walked away and played the cello for a bit in my room to get some release and luckily her wrath seemed to subside. The crazed disproportion of the reaction made it easier to deal with too. It didn’t feel like a personal attack, it was something in her that had flipped and it was easier just to view the outburst of rage as separate from the whole. We didn’t really speak for the rest of the day but she brought some lettuce into my kitchen after lunch which I took to be a peace offering. This was only one day though, in what has been a largely harmonious cohabitation, with many sunny days of shared experience and laughter.
Every night she watches “news” and likes to update me on the big stories. Sometimes the stories get a little lost in translation, like the time she merged stories of the German floods with refugee boat tragedies to make one very dramatic story with lots of water based casualties. In addition she has several amusingly trashy German TV shows which she watches with great reverence as if they were high culture, offering me lengthy explanations, like a live edition of channel 4‘s ‘Gogglebox’.
We have enjoyed several entertaining evenings watching the Euro cup, snuggled up in blankets and parallel rocking chairs in her room. The other night she joked we were like “two old spinsters” and we bumped our large blue water bottles together in mock celebration of this. Her favorite part of the match is at the beginning, where the players sing the national anthem, as she says that’s the ‘human part’. She often decides which team she is going to support based on whether she likes their song. She is not a big fan of the British national anthem, she thinks its lyrics are outdated. Iceland is her favourite team. She loves their anthem and says she feels very connected to the north from her time in Norway. If one of us wins the lottery we have agreed we’ll go visit Iceland together!
In the Russia v England game she was happy when England scored a goal but even happier when Russia scored the equalizer, explaining that now there would be less chance of fighting between the fans since they both had a goal to celebrate. The Wales v Ireland game was apparently “zo boring and wis no technique, they must have been tired, perhaps their minds were on this Brixit you know”. For a while she thought the word for referee was ‘refugee’, which made her commentaries a little confusing. At half time during the Germany V Slovakia game she whipped out some home made ‘dandelion schnapps’ and we clinked our tiny glasses in celebration of the moment we shared together. After a couple of sips, Grandmother waved her hands around her head as if to indicate she was a bit drunk already and we giggled like naughty teenagers.
She has started teaching me the lyre (a small harp like instrument that rests on your knees) which I’m enjoying a lot. She has a set of three and I have been entrusted with ‘alto lyre’ for now. We’ve only had one lesson so far but we managed a pretty convincing rendition of Bob Dylan’s ‘blowing in the wind’ by the end. At one stage during our music making session, grandmother stood up and before she could do anything about it, realized that her woolly ‘kidney warming’ pants had fallen down round her ankles, her beautiful orange sundress providing no resistance to their descent. It was so comical I let out a small, slightly unsure, laugh. A few moments later, grandmother did the same and soon, as the slap stick amusement of the situation sank in, our laughter quickly grew into mutual hysterics and grandmother whipped off the woolly pants (they were not really pants, she explained, just a woolen band to go round your waist) and threw them ceremoniously over a chair. After the lesson she came back to reclaim her woolen undergarment and we laughed about it all for a second time. She picked them up with a kind of dance, suggesting they’d perhaps be better as a scarf as she flung them round her neck and pranced out of the room laughing.
For some time she had been ‘sha-jest-ing’ I go see some music concerts (mainly so I make friends/meet this fantasy ‘Polish prince’) so when I saw a poster in the cultural centre for a concert nearby, I suggested we go. At first she was hesitant about coming with me, worried she’d cramp my style (or something), but in the end I persuaded her and she agreed to “stand at the side, wis a handbag”, whatever that means. It was a seated concert with a small audience of over fifties so she needn’t have worried. We sat together and she was delighted when, despite having no ribbons in my hair, I was brought up at the end to give out the flowers to the performers. I was slightly mortified by the attention but grandmother loved it and later joked “I don’t think those men have ever been handed a flower so quickly!”
As we waited for the bus home, grandmother mentioned she needed a toilet stop. I looked around a few shops but most of them were closed or didn’t have toilets. For lack of a nearby woodland, grandmother informed me she was going to attempt a bushy flowerbed in front of one of the shops instead. It wasn’t particularly secluded but as I kept watch, she valiantly jumped amongst the shrubs, hiding her modesty with her long skirt. When the deed was done, she came back and told me with a grin “I wouldn’t go back that way, it’s a little bit wet!” and we giggled conspiratorially together as we returned to the bus stop.
As we both begin to relax into one another’s company, the intense ‘meetings’ are becoming fewer and in their place, more natural and spontaneous interactions are starting to emerge. We often meet in passing on the terrace and end up sitting for unplanned hours as she teaches me little German children’s songs, informs me of different flowers names or tells long rambling stories about her life. Grandmother’s story telling method is quite unique. A bit like a scenic train journey that starts at one place and finishes somewhere completely different, with many different locations and beautiful scenery along the way. They are not suited to the fast paced conversation of family events. They are not concise anecdotes, packaged by theme, ready to be inserted in neatly at the right moment. They are always more about the journey than the destination and where they end up is often more defined by when she gets tired of speaking rather than a specific tale’s natural cadence. It has been very special for us both to have time to share these stories though. Stories and wisdom can now be relayed when they come to mind, rather than saved up for phone calls or annual family visits where they end up just causing more stress than pleasure. The pace of her storytelling is hard to fit in around busy lives, full of the voices and opinions of other people. Her stories cannot be abbreviated and therefore command a lot of solo speaking time. They are perfect for slow days where I can sit eating lunch on the veranda, pitting large bowls of cherries or digging up weeds on the path and enjoy just listening as she tells me all the tales she wants to share. Having time means we are able to enjoy the slow train ride together, taking in the changing scenery without too much stress for reaching any destination in time.
Through these stories I am gradually starting to form a more three dimensional view of my grandmother. Her childhood in war torn Germany, being moved and evacuated as her home towns were ‘bombed to the ground’. The travels and pioneering social enterprises she set up during her life, even in her later years, taking trips to the Ukraine or setting up cultural associations, dance courses and puppet theatre workshops for local school children. I easily pigeon hole my grandmother into a patronizing model of ‘Haus Frau’, perhaps because her life as a wife and a mother is simply how she relates to me, but the more time I spend with her, watching her reading books on ‘women in society‘ in the garden, encouraging us to go to concerts together or enthusiastically committing herself to the acquisition of new skills (she is a surprisingly able student of the computer!) it has occurred to me that she is responsible for a lot more than biological features in her children and grandchildren. Balanced against the calm and diplomatic wisdom of my grandfather, she is a large part of the spirit that I see amongst so many beloved family members. The enthusiasm, fun, energy and sense of adventure combined with a kindness and strong consideration for others. The ability to consider larger possibilities, to dream and then have the courage to step into the unknown and act upon one’s philosophies. I owe her more than I ever realized.