My paternal Babcia (grandma) was the second oldest in a family of twelve kids. She was born in Ukraine to Polish parents who, although were not exactly landed gentry, had enough assets and dough to be sent off by the Bolsheviks to Siberia in 1940 and have their property ceased by the Reds. No one in my father’s family knows too much about the years spent in the prison camps because my Babcia and her siblings never liked talking about it. All that anyone knows was that they escaped through Russia and that the endeavour took a few years.
My Babcia was responsible for looking after her younger siblings, so much so that her youngest brother referred to her as ‘mum’. She also had the task to look for random jobs in small Russian towns during their escape back to Poland. She worked for a doctor who paid her in a pair of shoes and food. The shoes were confiscated by her own mother, who apparently was a nasty piece of work, had ‘airs’ (she spoke French and was tutored by a governess back in the pre WWII days) and wasn’t much of a mum to her twelve children. They reached Poland just as the War ended and were allocated a plot of land and a house in the west of Poland in a town called Debno. Debno was German before 1945 and became Poland after the Potsdam Agreement as part of the ‘recovered territories’ plan. The twelve kids were quickly put to work on the farm so that my great-grandfather Cezary could twist his curly mustache, drink loads of vodka and dance the cossack dance on tabletops. He kept all the family’s money in his hat that he wore daily, was a stingy bastard but liked to party.
My Babcia, to escape her family married at sixteen. My grandpa Stanislaw lived in a village a couple of kilometers from Debno and had served the Polish army during the War. He was a good but sickly kind of a guy. My dad was born in January in the coldest part of the winter. My Babcia had to walk to the hospital some 3ks when she thought she was ready to pop only to be turned back at the door by the nurses who told her the labour wouldn’t kick in for some hours yet. Bent over she walked back home in the knee deep snow, only to return some hours later trudging through the cold and the wet. Stanislaw died of heart failure some years later leaving my grandma a widow at the age of thirty-three and three kids behind. She worked two shifts in a jam factory to support her children, where she had a harrowing accident. Her legs were burnt when jars of hot fruit syrup exploded leaving her shins and veins scarred for life, causing her walking difficulties right into her old age. She never had the courage to re-marry. She thought it would not be right for the kids. Later as an old woman she told me that it was one of the biggest mistakes she ever made.
Her second biggest regret was living with her youngest daughter and her son-in-law, whom she hated. Babcia helped raise my two cousins and then sold off her apartment so that my aunt and uncle could buy a big house on the outskirts of town. In this three storey house my Babcia got a room and a bathroom on the second floor. When she turned completely gray she had a lot of trouble reaching her bedroom via the steep stairs because of her bad legs. So she would spend her entire days sitting in the kitchen looking out the window, hoping a visitor would pop in for a cup of tea. She never did learn how to read or write but she could draw quite nicely and cook tops Ukrainian dishes.
She died on my thirtieth birthday. She was not a happy person, smiled rarely and was in a lot of physical pain (her veins in her legs would often spontaneously burst leaving a bloody mess on the floor). She never saw the seaside or the mountains. She was resolved with knowing she had not made the best choices in life. She had awesome curly hair and a face that appeared to be completely free of wrinkles. I will remember her sitting on that kitchen stool, all courage zapped out of her body, waiting patiently to die.