In my sophomore year of college I got a haircut that was modeled after an actress in a TV ad for instant soup. It sounds ludicrous but I had lured by the attractive look of the blonde of the screen. The end result was ludicrous indeed, as the hairdresser was generous with her scissors, and a friend known for her particularly caustic tongue suggested that I looked like my grandma.
I was furious.
Thirteen years later, I would welcome the compliment.
My grandmother (Babcia) was not famous. She never achieved high positions or traveled the world to give lectures at international conference as her husband did. And yet, she was unforgettable, a quietly luminous presence in so many lives. She was humble, honest, gently generous, very loving.
I came to live with Babcia (Grandma) and Dziadek (Grandpa) when I was 13, and in some ways Babcia became my second mother for those next ten years. I wasn’t a particularly difficult teenager, my bifocal glasses and colorful braces successfully combining with teenage awkwardness to ward off any male interest, but I did have regular passionate disagreements with my grandfather, whose choleric temper I partly shared. After each altercation when we’d go sulk in our rooms, Babcia would come in. She’d bring me an afternoon snack and tell me my grandfather loved me and was concerned for me and he didn’t really mean what he said. I’m quite sure while she left me to ponder her words, she’d repeat her peace mission with my grandfather.
Babcia was one of three children, her sister had died in middle age, but she remained close to her gentle brother. She had always known she wanted to be a teacher and teach she did for almost 50 years. Although the subject she taught – physics – was not particularly popular, she was. Her students clung to her and, years after she had spent 4 years with them as their homeroom teacher, they would still gather together for semi-annual reunions, at her apartment as her health allowed, and later at a nearby restaurant. She was the quiet glue that held them together for four decades and when she passed away, the largest wreath at her funeral was from them.
Babcia was probably the kindest person I have ever known. It’s not that she refused to think badly of people, it’s that those thoughts never occurred to her (the only exception being Polish politicans who she believed were various incarnations of the devil). For everyone else she encountered, she ascribed to them the best intentions, with what could have been naivete, but was likely an all-encompassing goodness closely intertwined with her deep, undemonstrative faith. Her kindness could sometimes be infuriating, like when during the avian flu outbreak she insisted on feeding pigeons crumbs on my balcony, or when she built a little cat booth outside for the cats and then vigilantly watched from the window to ascertain whether they were eating enough or not. I never particularly cared for cats, in addition to being allergic to them, so I thought these overtures to the world of animals were unnecessary. But that was how she was. She commissioned a farmer who would sell produce out of his car to bring her a load of potatoes every fall and gave him a generous tip; every fall, he’d come back with a new tooth shining in his mouth, her money having paid for his dental care.
Babcia had had a nasty tumble when attending her students’ prom and the ensuing surgeries resulted in her needing to walk with a cane for the next 25 years. In those years, however, I never heard her complain.
Babcia and I got along well. She was used to having one child around the house and I was quite a calm one. Of course in true teenage fashion I tested her limits then and again (predominantly over things like coming home late or not wearing a hat when it was freezing outside), but we understood each other well, and we liked each other.
As I grew up and moved out, my sense of independence having been asserted, I would relish coming back, knowing that Babcia would be at the top of the three flights of stairs to greet me, peering out in anticipation as soon as she heard the front door unlock. On leaving, my heart would always catch in my throat when I looked up at the second floor apartment window, her dimunitive figure lopsided and heavily leaning onto her cane, her free hand waving me on toward new adventures.
My room at the end of the house was cold and drafty but as I got older, I’d stop by her room every night and sit down in the armchair at the foot of her bed. She’d carefully listen to my friendship or even relationship woes (the latter somewhat redacted) while stroking the cat’s fur, and then she’d give advice. Usually she would exhort me to be more lenient toward whoever I was mad at, or to let a failing friendship go. When at last we’d talked our fill, I’d leave and go to bed, my spot in the armchair taken over my grandfather. I’d fall asleep, lulled by their voices, dreaming of a love like theirs.
Babcia had married rather late for her time – at the age of 28 she was already being regarded as an old maid and had resolutely decided she would adopt if she never had children of her own. But she met and married my grandfather, a few years younger than she was, and they spent over 60 years together, ensonced in the cocoon of their love.
In spite of her own happy marraige, she encouraged me not to pin all my hopes and dreams on finding a suitable mate but rather to build a full life for myself. She had loved teaching and hoped that one day I might find a calling like she had.
By the time I did find my suitable mate, she had been fading fast. After a few incidents of falling at night, tripped up by a treacherous rug corner, it seemed that Altzheimers rather than elderly forgetfulness was to blame. A week before my then-boyfriend traveled from the US to meet them, she had taken a particularly bad tumble, and I struggled to comfort her in the harsh bleakness of a Warsaw ER. People wailed in pain around us as she looked confusedly at my face, insistent upon figuring out the dates of visitors she was expecting, even as the words meant nothing to her anymore, the names not being attached to living faces, the dates just numbers.
A few days later, she sat in a wheelchair, her face bandaged, as she met my future husband. They had no language to share other than innate kindness and gentleness of spirit, and I related to her the gist of the English-language conversation over the kremowki (cream puff cakes) so beloved by the Polish pope.
A year later, the wheelchair had been exchanged for a bed, but she still raised her hand in a cheerful wave when toasting us, the newlyweds, and grabbed my hand and whispered to me “You made it!”
It’s been a year and a half, and I still really miss her.