My gran, Babcia as all of the grandchildren et al call her, has finally decided to sell her house and move into her apartment (I know, it’s a point of gratefulness to the universe that she has something into which she can move). My gran is 100 years old, give or take three years (our new euphemism for her turning 97 this spring).
What finally pushed to make this move? Her garburator, which was original to the 1950’s house, finally kicked the bucket and caused my gran enough angst in the replacement of that part that it was the final straw in a series of replacements in the old beast, at the end of which my gran said, “basta!” and that was that.
My mum has taken the bulk of the work of clearing out some 45 years of accumulated stuff (not quite hoarder level but certainly more magazines, plastic containers, old jars, used rags, and memorabilia than is required for one person), with the caveat that my gran be part of the process of elimination, out of obvious respect to my gran. For the record, my grandmother is completely savvy, and perhaps has the occasional moment of forgetfulness, perhaps a bit more at this moment because of the whole process as it is stressing her out immensely. Throwing things out or giving them away is against her nature as she is a product of her era, which means that she survived in Second World War, Nazi-occupied Poland, when food was scarce, let alone other luxuries like clothing and linens.
We’ve just about finished going through her third bedroom closet full of clothes. It’s rather funny actually. When my grandfather died some time ago, my grandmother slowly expanded into his side of the closet in the master bedroom. Then she started to fill up the closets in my mother and uncle’s old bedrooms, and eventually took over my cousin’s old stand up dresser that sits in her basement. We’ve already given away about six bags worth of clothing, as my mum is making my gran get rid of everything that either fits poorly (she’s gone from an 18 to about a size 10) or she hasn’t used in more than two years. I even came across a maternity blouse in one corner of one of the closets that she was at pains to let go.
This whole move is a lot of work. For all of us. My gran is overwhelmed by the immensity of the task and her perceived lack of control over it (hers is the kind of personality that created detailed menus of each major luncheon and dinner party, including vital stats regarding each event such as head count, amount of food left over, what worked, what didn’t etc….these lists go back almost as far as her tenure in the house). My mum, who has severe knee issues and has had to give in and use a handicapped card as walking is so painful, is tired because she is the only one helping my gran, for all intents and purposes, as I can only help intermittently on weekends, and my father can’t help because he doesn’t know what can stay and what can go as my gran needs to be there to input on those kinds of decisions and she’s up with my mum. My uncle and aunt have declined to help more than a couple of hours a week as they want to retain control of their lives. So it’s really on my mum and gran’s shoulders.
All is not negative. I receive almost daily notifications of the neat things excavated out of long forgotten drawers (furniture drawers…we haven’t gotten to the other kind yet). Today when I went to help my gran pack up books for a bit, she said, “You know, in going through all these papers, I’ve come to realize how many concerts, operas, ballets, and plays I’ve been to over my life. I’ve gone to more of these events than most people ever will have a chance to see in their lifetimes. I’ve been so lucky.”
“Edited by the World’s Alliance of YMCA with Labor Service Units Team Nr. 3 Weinheim. Published by the Kreuz-Verlag Stuttgart in conformity with the authorization US-W-1040 of the Military Government Publication Branch. – First edition, 4000 copies. – April 1947….Paper for this publication is a gift of the World’s Alliance of YMCA, Geneva and was imported from Sweden.”
I suspect the book was printed as a guide for English-speaking personnel situated in Warsaw, helping the then government of Poland rebuild after the war. The Author’s Note, to the right, is a poignant reminder that over 90% of Warsaw was rubble after Hitler had his way with that city. I’m not sure how this book ended up with my grandparents. They had been married in a UNRA refugee camp in Germany, for Polish refugees: my gran had been a translator for the US Army as she spoke English so they had her translate at the refugee camp court (yes, the refugee camp had its own court); my grandfather had been a driver for the US Army.
My mother found a small prayer book, perhaps 3″ x 1.5″, titled “Wjanusek,” that had been printed in 1908 (and written in English at the bottom of the title page “Made in Czechoslovakia”…I had always thought that Czechoslovakia had been a child of communism, and hadn’t realized that the amalgamation of the Czech and Slovakian republics had occurred much earlier. I will note that in researching the date for the first instance of Czechoslovakia, I found that the country hadn’t actually been formed until 1918, and was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire before 1918, so it is interesting in and of itself that this little Polish Catholic prayer book is printed in Czechoslovakia in 1908, but that is a riddle for another time). The prayer book is still in its original box, priced at 13 zl.
The icing on this little cake? The four leaf clover inside the cover. I wonder how long it has been there. I suspect this must have been my grandfather’s prayer book, as my gran was baptized a Lutheran.
* * *
On my way out this evening, my gran showed me a book, which had been sitting on the kitchen table. It was a black, leather bound prayer book, in Polish. There was an inscription on the inside, handwritten in Polish, which I couldn’t make out. There was a year noted at the end of the inscription, 1947.
“We received this prayer book when your grandfather and I had our church wedding in the refugee camp. I’ve carried it with me ever since.”
* * *
I am in a privileged position. I have the luxury of being able to accompany my grandmother in the clearing out of her house, while she is still alive. Most people only get to do this once their grandparent or parent has passed, and many of those little items, that seem so insignificant and are hidden family treasures, often go unnoticed. I get to hear my grandmother recall the memories of some of her favourite concerts, or point out her favourite recipes from her best cookbooks. I get to see old photos and know who is in them as she can still tell me herself. I get to understand that an innocuous little prayer book is a rich tapestry of circumstances and family history. How lucky I am.