My stays on the Cote d’Azur – and as soon as I lived within train distance that was at least one weekend each summer along the Mediterranean coast – were beautiful, intangible dreams made up of crisp evening sunsets, short trips in a tiny car through the winding, cliff-hugging roads
to the local store by an inevitable French roundabout to stock up on groceries – including the inevitable bottle of French red wine – followed by evenings under the grape vine tendrils
on a terrace where the night breeze quickly became crisp and conversations never flagged.
At night I would retire to a bedroom on the third floor, my mind and imagination still abuzz, winding my way up the treacherous stone stairs of the multi-story house full of authentic African carvings and memories and mementos of a life well-traveled and deeply lived.
Ciocia Helena – or Aunt Helen – had always been the great aunt I had related to the most. Over the years I lost my recollection of when or where we first met, that insignificant detail paling under the weight of the laughter and bottles of wine we shared through the years of my residence in France.
How could you not want to come back to this inviting house
and share a glass of wine and tales of travels with its welcoming owner?
Ciocia (Aunt) Helena wasn’t the kind of quiet great-aunt who murmurs vague assurances and quiet platitudes or voices her disapproval to stories of youth. She had a fire within her, a zest for life that was as striking as her red hair, and a sense of humor that was unconventional, particularly for an 80-year old. While some of her counterparts celebrated gatherings by mourning the loss of their youth, reminiscing on the horrific years of the Second World War and all the injustices of the post-war years, never mind the current horrible political situation, she would take me aside in the hallway and inquire in a whisper about what had happened to that Tunisian crush from my Uni year abroad and why on earth…
She had traveled intensely, and lived extensively, expanding her mind and heart, as well as her home art collection. Having escaped to France from communist Poland, she had tasted that whiff of unapologetic freedom of life, that joie de vivre and enjoyment of the moment that never let her fall back into the stifling convention of morose complaining. She had suffered much in her life from the communist regime, but didn’t feel the need to constantly list her hurts and wounds. From the mistaken killing of her two uncles during an attack on her father, who escaped with his life but to little effect – after the war he was sentenced to 8 years in a Moscow prison and then in a brutal prison within Polish borders- to the prosperous family factory being taken over and the family source of income stripped away, her life had been shaped by the painful history that ruined so many Polish people. As a ‘class enemy of the people’ in 1950s Poland she would have had very little chance at getting into a state-run university, which precipitated her early emigration to France. But she was – in her recollections and in her words – never bitter; rather, the uncertainty and trauma of her early life seemed to have ignited an extremely independent spirit and a true desire for freedom, for liberty, that nothing could extinguish, even her faltering physical health.
Whenever I called her, I heard a hearty “Kochana!”, followed by “Jak sie masz?”. The conversations were brief, shortened by her creeping hearing loss, but always punctuated with enthusiastic cries for any good news I had and genuine deep concern for any worries that I shared.
My most recent visits with her were more difficult – there was a certain flagging of her spirit, brought about by a gradual decline in health as well as – I believe – the close proximity of the Polish parliament to her home. Her move from sunny southern France to a more elderly-accessible Warsaw apartment had rendered her more politically conscious but less confident. Or rather, the loss of confidence and astuteness had precipitated the move…
She had and always showed me that unflagging optimism about my life and youth that I hope I have done credit to with my unfolding life. She sent a generous gift and lovely multilingual card to me and my fiance before my wedding. We waited until we had received wedding photos to send her some, along with a thank you note.
Unfortunately she never got to open the envelope to see our smiling faces and me bedecked in bridal finery. But my mother was able to share some photos of me and my new husband with her during what turned out to be one of the last visits.
I never got to say goodbye in person. But I believe and trust that she knows how much she shaped my life and guided me by word and example, helping me grow, discover the world, enjoy it.
Rest in Peace, Ciocia Helena. I hope you enjoy looking down on us from where you are now, raising a glass of choice French wine to our happiness.
You will always be remembered, and you will always be missed.