By Lily Signoret
When I think of my childhood, I think of my grandmother, Anna. She was everything to me: a carer while my mother worked, a friend to spend time with after school, and later a confidant when I was going through the passions of adolescence.
She had an answer for every question – ‘and there is a question to every answer’ she’d say – and her wisdom never failed to amaze me: “Worries go down better with soup than without” or “Things can’t be bad all the time, nor good all the time,” were amongst my favourites of her aphorisms.
She was tall and lithe, and her face an example of classical beauty. She could have triumphed on the big screen in the ‘40s, had she been in the right place. Her photographs attested to her beauty throughout the decades.
I wandered through the house inventing stories for each picture, where my grandmother was the glamorous foreign heroine. However, it was her gentleness and sincerre demeanour that won me over as a child. Her smile let me know that everything would be all right.
Her home, in contrast, was somewhat stark. You’d only find basic furniture and little extravagance. There was a sense of urgency in the way things were arranged, as if she wasn’t really living there, perhaps from having moved around a lot in her youth.
But in every room, pictures brought life to the walls, and my grandmother’s voice recounting the real stories behind the photographs gave her home character and comfort than my pretend dream house.
We would sit in the living room, in two comfortable chairs set by the hearth. My grandmother took pride in building a good fire; she said it was a sure way of bringing people together. We would sit there for hours, reading, playing – she enjoyed my childish games – or, of course, telling stories.
It seemed she’d had countless adventures in her lifetime before she became my grandmother. Her tales inspired my young self, even if I wasn’t to truly understand some of them until much later.
She had stories for every mood, which she would always conclude by saying the best thing to do is to learn from your experiences and never forget. Remembering and passing on what you knew, what you saw, was the key to making peace with the fate you’d been handed.
As she spoke she would play with the ring on her little finger. I was dazzled by the shine of the precious stone reflecting the flames, and fascinated by how it could engage my grandmother in sharing her memories with me.
I thought the ring held secret powers that could let me explore the past, and hoped that I would, one day, possess such a mighty jewel.
We sometimes played hide-and-seek, which was not easy, considering how few hiding places her interior provided. I suspect she let me win a few times.
“You’re so good at it, babcia!” I said one time.
“Well, you see, dear, I’ve played a similar game before, a long time ago, with my family. We had to hide often, and hide the things we loved most, or our opponent would find them and take them from us.”
“That doesn’t sound like much fun, your game,” I said, perplexed.
“It wasn’t really a game, but we did lose a lot. The only thing I managed to conceal every time is this ring that my own babcia gave me on my sixteenth birthday. That’s why it is so important to me.”
“It’s so beautiful,” I said as I touched the sparkling stone, “no wonder they wanted to take it from you.”
I grew sombre.
“Is your family dead, babica?”
“Yes, they are, dear, they’ve been dead for a long time, before your mum was even born.”
“So you didn’t have anything or anyone when you came to this country, only your ring?”
“That’s right. And the clothes I was wearing.”
I thought it was terrible, but my grandmother didn’t seem sad, just pensive.
“Do you miss your life before?”
She stroked my hair and said: “Not exactly. I’ve had a wonderful life since then. I met your grandfather, then we had your mum, and now I have you too. I miss my family, and I carry their memory in my heart. I will never forget my past, but I don’t miss it.”
I took my grandmother’s hand and examined her arm. My fingers lingered on the print.
“Is it why you have this written here? To help you remember?” How could I fathom the weight of my question?
Her face grew serious. “That is exactly why I still have this number on my arm.”
I’ll always remember my grandmother, and her ring, now on my finger, comforts me that her story will never be forgotten. ÷