My wonderful Mum died a couple of weeks ago and the funeral was held on Thursday. She was 98 and so it was not entirely unanticipated given her age and increasing frailty, though it came about rather suddenly and was a shock nonetheless. I’m still in denial, of course. When you haven’t lived with someone for a long time, it’s easy to think of them as still being there somewhere, simply not here, where you are right now, and I’m OK with that. She is still alive to me.
I didn’t go and see her at the funeral home. I have done such things before and the thought of it made me squirm. I didn’t want to remember her that way. I want to remember her as she was alive – strong, determined, resourceful, creative, generous, quick-witted, beautiful, optimistic, smiling and there, always there! It’s impossible to think of her as being gone in any way. Even when we thought we were going to lose her before, she always rallied and came back, holding on with a tenacity that I found truly remarkable. I honestly believed that she might well outlive us all in the end, that she was somehow immortal. In many ways, I think she may be. Everyone who met her adored her and she will be remembered for a very long time.
There was a church service which was something she’d have appreciated, but really did nothing for me. The secular remembrance at the crematorium was a celebration of her life with music and memories shared by members of the family. I was asked to contribute but, having done so for a friend’s funeral and finding it incredibly difficult emotionally, I didn’t feel I’d be able to. I do regret that as it turned out to be quite a relaxed family affair, but the reminiscences were personal to those sharing them and therefore not mine. I hadn’t prepared anything and didn’t feel up to winging it. Thus, to rectify the omission, I’d like to share my memories now…
Mum was incredibly talented at so many things. She sewed up a storm. She made furniture covers, such that I still have no idea what the armchairs and sofa underneath actually looked like; she made most of her clothes and mine when I was a child. I remember her always grumbling about my sloping shoulders, as whenever she tried to pin something up on me it just slid off. She taught me to use her Singer sewing machine, which I still have, and to make clothes without using a pattern. She could freehand machine embroider the most amazing monograms and decorations, a skill of which I am still in awe. She taught me to hand embroider, tapestry (the needle not woven kind) and crochet as well. I still have some of her thread doilies and one of her cushion covers is next to me as I write. She knitted too, but that skill I learned initially from my sister. She was quite artistic, though I only remember seeing one or two drawings. I understand that she used to draw a to more when she was younger. She was always busy with some project as I was growing up.
When she wasn’t otherwise occupied, there were cards. Remik (Rummy) if there was someone to play with or endless games of Pasjans (Patience/Solitaire) if not. Cards were a big thing and, determined not to be the only one in the family who couldn’t riffle shuffle two decks, when I was about 10 or so, I demanded to be shown how and persisted until I had mastered the art. When I was at home, I played with her often or we’d do Pasjany together, whist drinking tea and eating cake. Tea and cake was another thing I will always associate with her. She loved her tea and there were always biscuits and cakes in the cupboard. Right up until the end, you could always get her attention with the offer of a cup of tea.
She had green fingers, although utterly missed the point of the Bonsai tree I gave her, delighting in how well it flourished and how large it grew! The house was always full of plants, mostly enormous, such that we eventually gave up buying 12ft Christmas trees and just decorated the date palm instead, and she adored flowers. She could make a vase of cut flowers look amazing in mere moments, a talent which I have most definitely not inherited. I could spend hours arranging flowers in a vase and they would still look worse than if I’d left them in the wrapping. I’m quite adept at killing off house plants too.
She usually didn’t have much time for TV, except for Crossroads, a truly bad soap opera but something of an early evening ritual, and she loved Little House on the Prairie, both the TV show and the books, which she had in Polish. Yes, she loved to read too and it is yet another thing I inherited from her. Aside from books, she read Woman magazine and I would eagerly await her finishing with it so I too could read it.
Family life was always centred around food, drink and hospitality. In my early years there were always army buddies of my Dad’s coming round, always for Christmas and Easter, and sometimes Saturday nights to eat, play cards, drink wódka and dance to music on the reel to reel Grundig, and later the record player. I remember going downstairs as a small child more than once when the noise woke me up. Family gatherings were, and still are, epic when it comes to food, and friends are still always welcome – her spirit of hospitality will live on. Mum did like to dance, when she could be enticed out of the kitchen, and although she didn’t go out much, she did enjoy going to balls. A love of dancing is another thing for which I can thank her.
She had a recipe book that she kept in a shopping bag hung on the back of the kitchen door. It was mostly hand written in an exercise book with a few cuttings from magazines. She would refer to it sometimes for special occasion dishes and cakes, and I remember sitting and watching her make all sort of things on the kitchen table. Being allowed to twist the faworki, for which she would always make sure she’d hidden away a little Spirytus, into shape at Easter, and there was always the epic pierogi making session at Christmas and, just as I was tasked with stuffing and sealing them while my Mum rolled and cut the pastry, I still do the same with my daughter. I remember watching in fascination once as she boned a whole chicken, layered it with ham, sausage meat and hard boiled eggs, rolled it up and sewed it up with string before baking it. I think that was the only time she ever did it as it was incredibly time consuming and so nice it was gone in a flash. I’ve been promising myself ever since that one day I will try it. I remember her getting up at the crack of dawn to ensure that the 25lb+ turkey (that we were given for Christmas each year at my first and second jobs, and later bought, it being something of an established tradition by then) went into the oven early enough to be ready for lunch at 2pm, while the rest of us were still sleeping off our hangovers from Christmas Eve. I remember her kneeling on the kitchen floor and tenderising chops on the small wooden stool with a rolling pin. She spent a lot of her time in the kitchen and although she never actually taught me how to cook, I learned by observation and participation.
She was incredibly generous, quite literally to a fault sometimes, like when she gave away my highly-prized and brand new toy to another child. I was only 5 or 6 at the time and was so distressed that I howled until she promised to retrieve it. I hadn’t minded sharing in play, but seeing how delighted the other girl was with it, she simply failed to realise how attached I was to that little dog with a red ball on a string that you wound up to make it jump.
I remember her telling me about her life, some of which was really quite extraordinary; and how excited she was the first time I said I was going to visit Paris and told me about the street near the Sorbonne where she had lived for a time. I went there specially and took a photo of the street sign for her. She told me about her mother, who grew flax and made her own, highly sought-after linen, and how, when my mother was little, she got a beating for letting the cat get into the pantry and knock over the cream that was going to be made into cheese. And, how, when she was a young girl and refused to go to a dance but instead went to bed, her brother and his friends carried her out in her bed and threatened to take her like that if she wouldn’t get dressed and go with them.
I could probably go on and on – it’s hard to distill half a century of memories and almost a century of a life into one page. What I do know, and it has been brought into sharp relief as I write this, is how much we are the product of our ancestors. I am so very fortunate in the abilities I have inherited from her and she from her ancestors; in the things she taught me, or in pursuing them herself sparked my interest, and that some or all of these talents continue in my children and, I hope, one day in theirs. And finally, that she will never be gone as long as she lives on in us, in our hearts and in our memories.