Moments with my Grandmother
We’re sitting at the pullout white painted dinning room table in the entrance hall cum dining room of my grandmother’s cosy little flat in Castle Mansions, Eloff street. The table, as usual, is laden with delicious home-baked goodies. The central drop-in place for friends who come to town, knowing that they will always be received with warmth and kindness and guaranteed a spread of tasty buns, cheesecake, apple strudel and a whole lot more. For me this a place that feels more like home than home. Here is where I receive warmth and food and unconditional love and acceptance. A place that contains me and makes me feel safe.
Beige hand-crocheted doilies hang over the backs of the faded floral arm chairs ball and claw feet stand on the threadbare maroon Buchara Persian carpet .
A large indoor fern grows green in a brass pot under the window. The once white lace-trimmed net curtains gently flap open, exposing the grey apartment building on the opposite side of the street.
I look into Granny’s kind and life-weathered eyes and say, ‘What was life like in Lithuania? ‘Do you remember the stories you used to tell me when I was little, Gran? About Lithuania? I’ve forgotten so much. With a glint in her eye she leans back in her chair, takes a few moments and begins.
‘Ilankale. (That’s what she calls me). It was such a different world back then. Oh my goodness, where to begin?
‘Well we lived in a little village called Linkove. There were not more than a few hundred people living there. We all knew each other – not all by name but we recognized the faces. The streets were narrow, no tar roads. After the rain the donkey carts would leave deep tracks in the ground and we had to walk carefully to not trip in the deep grooves.’
‘Donkey carts?’ I say ‘Are you serious?’
She smiles and nods her head. ‘Yes, donkey carts, although some rode bicycles.
‘The houses were built of stone with red-tiled or thatched roofs. Doors and windows were narrow, to keep out the cold. In Russia the winters were harsh and cold.
‘There was only one main street with a few shops but mostly we made things ourselves. I made soap. I had a big tin pot that I would boil the soap in. The wood burning stove stood in the middle of our little kitchen heated both the kitchen and the living room.
‘Yainkel lived next door, your grandpa’s best friend. He made candles and his wife was the local dressmaker. A few houses down was the cobbler. Across the street was the local butcher and in his fenced back yard were all the chickens running around.
‘Once a week I would load my shopping bag with my soap, tie it to the spare seat on my bike and deliver it (delete) to the neighbours. And at the same time I’d pick up my candles and bread and milk and butter from Shlomo the man who had the cow. He also made the butter and the cheese for the village.
‘So it was back then. The blacksmith, the cobbler, the Rabbi who was also the teacher for the village children. Then there was Chaim the baker who woke up at three in the morning to prepare the dough and have the bread baked and ready to sell by seven. Many of us would congregate outside the front door of his cottage, huddled in our thick fur coats and hats, waiting for our turn to buy our bread. That’s where we would catch up on the village gossip, our local news bulletin.
‘ It was a time when we all made things and sold them to each other and grew our own vegetables in the back yard. Life was slow and safe and people depended on each other for support. Social times were around the kitchen table, eating and drinking and sharing stories and complaining about the weather and knitting together and crocheting together and even though it was hard, because we had no electricity or shopping malls or entertainment and we had to do every thing for ourselves, life was good.
‘My days were full, cooking ,baking, sewing, making things, cleaning, buying, selling fixing ,visiting. Your Grandpa was a chemist and as a hobby he would cast things in bronze. You see the doorstoppers in the corner? He made those.’
‘But they’re so heavy,’ I say. ‘How did you bring them all the way here?’
‘No, no,’ she replies, ‘those he made when we got to South Africa. But he did the same kind of thing back in Linkove. I am just showing you, so you know what kind of things he made.’
I am enchanted. I have not touched my apple strudel. I try to take myself back into that world, a world so far removed from the automated, mechanized world outside these walls. The sounds of hooters, sirens, screeching brakes and hurly-burly activity waft up through the open window.
There was so much more I want to know, but I can see she needs a break. I lean over to pour her another glass of weak black tea.(Russian tea she calls it.) She picks up a sugar cube, places it on her tongue and sips the tea through the sugar. Placing the glass on the table, she sighs and shakes her head.
‘What?’ I ask.
Her head shakes from side to side and tears fill her eyes. ‘Oh my darling,’ she says. ‘That was a good and simple life. How I miss your Grandpa .We loved each other so much. We worked hard together, had two daughters together and then everything changed.’
I lean further over the table and place a paper serviette gently into her hand.
‘I didn’t mean to upset you, Gran,’ I say.
‘No, no, no its not you, my child. My tears are ones of gratitude and joy. I am alive, and I managed to bring my daughters to a safe country. I was strong enough to start a new life all over again.’
The light is fading. I get up to turn on the light but she holds onto my hand and shakes her head. ‘We don’t need the light, let’s just sit here like this a little longer and I will tell you how it was when we fled with two young children. My gold jewellery tucked in a plastic bag in my panties. My hand-embroidered table clothes wrapped around my body under a few layers of clothing. We stood for days on the dock with hundreds of people waiting to get onto a wooden cargo ship. I vomited for 20 days as we sailed across the ocean. Most of the time I had my head in the toilet bowl and when I wasn’t vomiting I was praying for solid land.’
I realize that neither of us has eaten a thing – the platters of home-baked goodies had have been not touched. I want more: the details of why and how and when, but I can see that this is not the time and place to dig deeper. She looks drained and tired and has withdrawn into an inner world of memories. It is time to let it be for now.