This insistent Grandmother. My Granny. My father’s mother. Dead for twenty years now and yet still insistent in my mind. In her decline, when she demanded constantly that I commemorate her, as I do now, my life was and is far away from her home in exile in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Our home city was in the far north of England from which I re-exiled to Norway, even further north. The pattern of exile in our family is a succession of removals northwards: perhaps it is safer here. From Hungary to Newcastle just before the more-than- likelihood of removal to a concentration camp. Which my mother’s family suffered. The person who demanded that they finally move, in 1939, was Granny.
Grandpa had a factory in Budapest, he was a clever chemical engineer. The factory is still going strong, or was as far as I know, or think I know, since all such knowing is myth and imagination. The impenetrable language (Hungarian) and devastating family history for the few survivors and their descendants makes more investigation a difficult project. The proceeds, of the “sale” of the factory long after they moved, were transformed into a new grand piano, in Newcastle. So little, or so much, was the amount they got for leaving behind a villa in Roszadom, a large factory in town, family and all their histories. They loved music, and music they could bring along. Thus time moves, backwards and forwards, in the telling of this story. Music moves the story forwards and the family with it.
In the research and development department, Grandpa had employed a brilliant young Jewish chemist, who had been harassed, felt the danger, and was found one morning having poisoned herself in the lab. Granny took control. She phoned Grandpa at work, “Laci, we are leaving, now”. He had been putting it off. So the whole household was piled onto the last Orient Express train to leave Budapest for a while. The furniture, the old piano, crockery, glasses, bookcases, bedding, photographs: all the material evidence of their existence went on in advance while they waited in limbo, in an elegant hotel on the Margaret Island, for their tickets and papers to come through, suspended mid-Danube as the great river flowed past in a steady stream of indifference.
My father was thirteen. I have the ticket he used for breakfast on that train. Autumn 1939. They had a UK Board of Trade backing to set up a factory in the north-east of England, a tough area where unemployment has always been high. Grandpa’s business partner cheated him, was bought out, the factory got underway and flourished. By the time it was ruined by my cousin in the 1990s, one man in the third generation striking it out as often happens, the factory had 300 employees, had won the Queen’s award for industry, and had provided a good living for three generations of the family as well as for many local people.
Granny was soon terrorizing the local tradesmen. She had them trained. She received deliveries of most groceries and checked the quality before letting the delivery men off the hook. She was a fierce customer, treated by them with respect and affection. We have photographs of Granny in the Grainger market in Newcastle, getting her eggs and meat, making everyone laugh with her. Grandpa made a photographic record of the city, making his own prints in the darkroom at home. Granny’s presence is glimpsed here and there. His mounting of photographs was unsystematic. Images of myself at eight licking out a mixing bowl in the kitchen, and Granny purchasing her groceries with much interaction, are interspersed amongst the serious business of the busy Newcastle docks as they were then. Much of the city’s industrial and architectural status quo was being demolished in the 1960s and 1970s. Just as our family disappeared from Hungary, Grandpa documented more recent disappearing urban activity in the new country. One hundred of Grand- pa’s photograph albums are housed in the Newcastle City Library stacks. Granny is immortalised since his record is now available online. She would like that. The library bought the collection of parkscapes and townscapes and digitalised it. The recent comments published under the online photographs are touching: barrow boys from the 1960s, now old men, naming people and streetscapes long gone.
Granny learned English fast, after her own fashion. She read The Times every day, read novels avidly and cooked like a dream, an ongoing dream. Her cooking was legendary and the joy of my childhood. She lives with me still through the smells of the kitchen and the memory of her vitality. Her only real interest was her family. And music; her slow playing of a Chopin nocturne when she was over eighty, lives with me still. I was visiting and she just sat down and played. The first and last time I ever heard her play. But she loved it when we played, and her son, my father, was a good pianist all his life.
Her name was Ilona. Helen. Born 1892. She was one of six children of a jewellry dealer, was he? Armin. And his kind wife, Anna, who my father liked such a lot, and for whom I was possibly named. Their family name was Ferber. Two girls and four boys. All full of life, big personalities. Granny would read novels on her way to work on the tram. She kept the accounts at a local firm. She was picked up by Grandpa on the Budapest tram, the line being “what are you reading?” Their marriage lasted until death and was strong, mutual respect and loyalty being integral.
When I was born in the early fifties she had had only sons and grandsons. She had once miscarried, a girl, she told me. I was important, she celebrated me as nobody else did, she talked to me, liked me, supported me, taught me cooking, gave me space, a safe haven, with high ceilings and a lot of air. She let me read and relax, we made things together. Her loft, miles above the kitchen, where I would spend hours on Saturday afternoons with piles of National Geographic, was dusty and airy and warm from the sun, or dry from the rain. She had a loud laugh and a quick sense of humour. She was short and squat and her eyes were everywhere. She wore textured polyester suits in beige, always smart, with a cream embroidered blouse. Her shoes were made at Lobbs. She was not kind to the needy, nor tolerant of personal shortcomings, although she had a lot of patience for children. With them she was inventive, both with stories and with making small things together. She would teach me to use the sewing machine and laugh when I couldn’t work the pedal. She knew what made me happy. She ceremonially left a small plate of goodies by my bedside to wake up to, when I stayed over. The bedding was embroidered and the pillowcase left her monogram imprinted on my cheek in the mornings.
On Easter Sunday Granny would hide quantities of chocolate eggs under the daffodils, and near the fruit bushes, under the cucumber frames, we would each find a largest, enormous egg, in its extravagant box. The high point of the Christian year was, for us, a chocolate fest. Where are those special dark chocolate-covered caramel wafer biscuits she would get us? Where are those thin round crisp buttery golden snaps in the old gold-lacquered tin, always full? I cannot find the same biscuits now though I have the tin, it houses sweets for my own grandson. In summer we would pick jugs of raspberries in the garden, blackcurrants, gooseberries. We would make jam together. Quantities of fruits collected daily from rows of bushes at the bottom of the garden.The gooseberries were prickly to pick but made the very best jam. No water, fifty-fifty measures of fruit and sugar, dark red, stirred simmering for hours until almost solid.
Later, she taught me to make the most important family dishes. And even later, wanted to live through me, through all of us, as her own circuit diminished. She mourned the time of our departure as we arrived to visit. This was difficult: compassion stirred into irritation and exasperation and love. She was alone after 1975 when my grandfather died. She was visited and helped by her sons but I left for Norway. For many good reasons. I had to leave and start afresh, in a clean bright country with no apparent complexity. At 22, I did not realise it would all come along in the suitcases.
In Hungary, before they left, she had large family parties on Sunday afternoons; the family was her social life. They would entertain in the garden, home-made cakes in the sun, Barsac to drink, or soda water, children and adults all relaxing together, often spiced up by the occa- sional family feud. The garden furniture was enamelled red and white, it accompanied them to Newcastle where the weather rarely allowed its use. When it did, we had lunch outside, the tablecloth kept from blowing away by large metal clips, the soup tureen securing the centre of the round table under a sunshade, the lunch fabulous, tasty, plenitude, a joy of aromatic soup, a celebration of family, like it or not.
Granny was “a stylish tennis player”, says my father, “she had a dev- astating backhand”. Walking in the country was a regular activity. From Hungary they took holidays in Austria. She loved the Alps, the lakes, the country life and landscapes. Kitted out in a dirndl, alpenstock in hand, and with solid walking boots, she looks the part in photographs. Her energy was boundless. In England, later, they had holidays in country house hotels, an incongruous elderly couple, two small Europeans, trying to make themselves at home in tweeds and Scottish wool and old cold stone houses as they walked and had formal meals and invited us for Sunday excursions. They never left England. Although they sometimes ventured south to Torquay, they never went back. They were, as they once said, “already abroad”.
Jewishness and anything other than a thorough knowledge of Hungarian history (complicated enough), was never to be mentioned. Jewish lifestyle or traditions, was never an issue, never spoken of, never acknowledged, the Jew made, paradoxically, a taboo. This made an impregnable wall of silence, filled in with trivia or other rubble of lives lived and remembered in part, with an insistence of this now being home, this cold, uncouth, raw and barely civilized city with its rough inhabitants and terrible rain. So much was missing and I know she yearned for home. Home was incompatible and incongruous with the new life. Home was lost forever, in all its aspects, physical but not least social. Home was now a fantasy, it could never be reconstructed after the Holocaust. It became immaterial apart from the insistent memories which demanded physical expression. Her loss was manifested in everyday life, amongst other losses, through the medium of food. She mourned not being able to get “a real chicken”. Fresh vegetables, locally grown. Ripe juicy apricots and peaches, sun-warmed and taken straight from the tree. Hungarian wine. Back home, she had employed poulterers, bakers, seamstresses, carpenters, housekeepers, gardeners, private tutors for her sons so they could learn extra languages. She ordered ice packed in woodchips from the winter lakes for the icebox, guarded the provisions, supervised the household in all its detail.
Granny was a fund of stories, one of the best being from the time around 1930 when they shared a two-apartment house with the com- poser Béla Bartok, at Apostol utca 21. He and his wife would sometimes sunbathe nude in the garden, much to Granny’s disapproval. Bartok would troop upstairs regularly to return the small model cars my father drove over the edge of the veranda. And as for the music, it was preferable that he stuck to Mozart on the piano, she thought. She enjoyed his Mozart.
In the security of her large, three storey Edwardian brick house in Newcastle, with its high walls, Granny carried a sizeable bunch of keys, keys to all the doors from rooms to cupboards, and never let it out of her hands. Order was her organizing principle, and the family, her touchstone. She did look back, and the lack of a familiar conviviality was an ongoing sadness. The company of like-minded friends and relatives, their talk, their shared enjoyment of all things ‘continental’. The expansiveness enabled by large family and communal histories and values. The food. The laughter. The easy access to music and opera. The elegance, the clothes (she had hats, furs and tailored suits), the coffee houses. The broad pavements and promenades. The good manners. The laughter and sunshine. The skating in winter: she would tell of the music she skated to as a child and the man who sold hot chestnuts to warm frozen fingers. A world with its customs and comforts, lost irretrievably to her in her middle life.
So I became a repository of stories and recipes, and as I grew, she was thrilled by having a girl at last. She invested in me. She was emotionally demanding, demanding love, attention, of course she was lonely as we grew up and left. The rather stiff neighbours were respectable and dull, and they had occasional drinks together, with a home-made continental cake. Granny’s place was in the home and there was no thought of anything else. Together the grandparents steered the family, a tight team, each with a mandate written in stone.
When her eyes dimmed she would light a candle, peering into cupboards looking for something or other and once set alight some hand-embroidered shelf coverings. After trying a succession of inept lady companions (who were given a tough time, it is true), her sons put her into an expensive home at 95. She lived another ten years; lonely, confused, angry, then sedated, in that alien place. They sold the house. Its contents were distributed amongst the family. I have the old piano, one hundred years old this year, and some of her silver cutlery. At the end of August we celebrate Granny’s birthday, her zest and verve and courage and humour, with chicken soup or gulyas and her special apple pie. Her spirit certainly lives on. Yes, we do speak about her to our friends. We certainly do.
Ann Torday Gulden worked in radiography education before she studied feminist theory, black studies, and English and American literature at Northern Illinois University, the University of Oslo, and at Oxford University. All this culminated in a PhD on Milton’s Eve in Paradise Lost. She has publications in Milton Quarterly (1998, 2000), and a chapter in Renaissance Ecology Duquesne:2008). Ann established the centre for English for Academic Purposes at Oslo Metropolitan University. After working with participants from Africa and Norway she wrote an essay in Gendered Voices (Sense: 2013), entitled ‘Writing Across Cultures: English as Common Denominator After All That History’. Recently retired,she enjoys being a grandmother.