All of my stories begin, “my grandmother told me”. Her ‘talk-stories’ filled up my life like the whiskey she secreted in teacups. My mother rarely features in these stories, but she had a different way of telling, a quieter, less direct way. My parents met when our families were down in Staffordshire, around Stoke-on-Trent (they stopped there for several years). My mother had a job at that time (Baba Edita was a big proponent of women working until they were married. She had done so herself and said every woman should help out her men folk until she was betrothed). So daje worked as a hand-painter of Wedgwood Ceramics. First she worked as a “bander”, spinning the plates and adding the circular band around the outside by hand. Later she worked as a free hand painter, painting whole designs.
I never saw any of her Wedgwood painting, though Baba had quite a few Wedgwood pieces she kept secreted in a cabinet we could never touch. When I was a small child, though, my mother painted plates and mugs with “folk art” patterns of birds, flowers, horses, and sometimes trees, as well as Romany scrolling and leaves (typical on wagons). As she was working, she would quietly tell us stories of the animals, of the krulik (šošjuj/Shushi), bari bor bawla, kaxnji, grašni (gurevny), or even the bari firba (baro rukh). A lot of the animals were silly or told lies and got into trouble. Daje was very child-like herself, finding delight in the small things and terror in new situations. She was afraid of police and doctors in equal measure, believing them to be one and the same. She buried herself in her ascribed cultural role and never wavered. She dealt with my father’s explosive Holocaust legacy of drunken anger with silence, bowing her head and letting it wash over her and away.
One of my favourite stories was about a horse (graj), a fox (lisica), and an owl (mulani čirikli) and the adventure they had becoming friends. The horse was generous in giving the fox a ride on his back to the village, helping him to escape hunters, but when they saw the owl with a broken wing, the fox insisted they stop to help.
So, they all rode through the woods together – the owl trusting his kind and gracious new friend the fox and the horse happy to be able to help them both… but of course, the fox just wanted to eat the owl!!
Luckily the horse, naive as he was, saw through the fox’s tricks and saved the owl. The fox was so ashamed he promised never to eat another owl again…
She’d even try and make little voices for all the animals. She didn’t speak much other than that – a quiet woman in a storm of noise and colour. But, in many ways, I remember her lessons just as well as Maami’s. The silence she displayed in the face of the fiercest storm; the gentle stories and paintings; the bond she shared with her older sister…
In some ways though, she was lost to me. Trapped in those stories, caught behind her deep brown eyes, muddy as a riverbank. We were never close, always separated by the silences she couldn’t speak into words.
I don’t have any photographs of her plates or cups. I don’t really have any photographs at all (a handful given to me by a family friend, which I’ve already shared here, and about 15 total of my own).
I’ve started drawing again some.. trying to share things I remember and things that are new to me. Maybe one day I’ll tell her stories, too.