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The Nasty Grandmother

  • Date: 6 Mar, 2007 at 8:57PM,
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    Mrs. L. lives in a Moravian industrial city considered for decades the steel heart of the country, a dirty and inhospitable place. In the post-communist era it has 23% unemployment rate by some estimates, and a strong communist base, still an active party in the Czech Republic. During the short taxi ride from the train station to the hotel I see very few renovated buildings. Gray, peeling facades along the main street serve as a perfect example for tourists interested to see what was behind the Iron Curtain. The appearance has not changed much here.

The Grand Hotel where the taxi takes me is not like the Grand Hotel we know from the famous American musical. As I walk to the end of the dark narrow corridor, I realize I am at the reception area. I present my passport that the receptionist keeps. This is a custom from the communist era I find disquieting, yet even my close Czech friends believe the hotel people need to know who are the guests. My protestation, ‘a credit card is all they ought to care about’, meets with “that look” — ‘you don’t live here so don’t tell us what to do’ — so I then stop, rather than force my views about their customs on them.

Although Mrs. L. invited me to her home, I asked her to meet me at the hotel at the time of my arrival since time constraints were an issue. As I am checking in at the reception in the early afternoon, a tall slender woman with short blond hair walks in. She is Mrs. L. To save time, and pre-judging the hotel room by the uninviting, drab looking décor of the lobby-reception area, I invite Mrs. L. to the hotel’s restaurant. It is empty apart from two waiters sitting by the bar. American songs play in the background. I ask the waiters to find us a quiet place, as I will be recording our conversation. They kindly sit us in a corner behind a screen with oriental decorations, the only item in this hotel with color. After they bring Mrs. L’s club soda and my expresso coffee, we are not interrupted again for the rest of the afternoon. She declines to order anything else.

After she learned about this inquiry I received three letters from Mrs. L. before I met her. Although her voice quivers when she begins, she does not need any encouragement to tell her story. From her letter I had already learned about her privileged childhood. Her father served as a cultural official in an area near the Czech — German border that was to be re-populated by Czechoslovak citizens. This was “ethnic cleansing” of three and a half millions ethnic Germans ordered by the non-communist Czech government soon after the end of World War II.

Her father’s position carried with it an unlimited use of an official car, a symbol of importance in a country where, until recently, even people with financial means had to wait for many years to own a car. Mrs. L. proudly acknowledges that a cinema in the hometown of her childhood is her father’s legacy until this day. She offers us a glimpse into family relationships influenced by cross-cultural ties structured by their proximity to the Czech-German border. Some of her mother’s relatives were German. She explains, “My mother spoke fluent German. When they started pushing out all the Germans from Czechoslovakia, some of those who lived in our neighborhood came to see my mother and she tried to help them as much as she could. She would give them a sign to be careful around me so I wouldn’t blabber out that she was helping them. She didn’t want my father to know because he was definitely against helping the Germans.”

Her “privileged” childhood changed just before Christmas of 1949. On 15th December she was waiting impatiently for her parents to bring home the Christmas tree, and for her mother to begin baking all the various Christmas cookies. That day only her mother came home, with her eyes red from crying. Her father was arrested before he reached home, yet that five years old girl was not told why daddy did not come home with mommy. Although there was a lively talk between her mother, grandmother and two aunts, it was in German, the language she did not understand.

After her father’s arrest, her home was searched repeatedly by the secret police. Search for anticommunist pamphlets served as a masquerade for enervating families of the political prisoners. Six months after her father’s disappearance, she accompanied her mother to his trial. He was sentenced to twenty-two years. She remembers only that there were many people in the courtroom.

Without touching her drink, Mrs. L’s manner of speech reflects a sense of urgency as if she will not have a chance to say everything she needs to communicate. The role of her grandmother in her life dominates her narrative. She also perceives the role of her other relatives as significant. Although not presented as humorous, I cannot help smiling when I imagine the scenario that Mrs. L. observed as a little girl, when her father had verbal fights with his two brothers-in-law; one was a communist and the other uncle was a German. The communist uncle eventually became Mrs. L’s father-substitute.

She speaks about the time when soon after her father began serving his 22-year sentence, her 35-year-old mother became very ill but her complaints were dismissed. “Her doctor called her a malingerer and ordered her to go to work. When she finely ended up in the hospital, I wasn’t allowed to see her because children couldn’t go beyond the lobby. After her operation she begged the people in the hospital to let her see me. She came out just that one time.” Mrs. L. and I both begin to cry. She says quietly, “That was the last time I saw her. Then we got a message that she died.”

The aunt who married the communist could not fulfill the duty as her legal guardian since her husband fell out of favor with the Communist Party. He was forced to accept manual work as a laborer. Then came the Korean War. He refused to contribute money for the cause to help Korean children who, as he was told by the comrades, “suffered at the hands of the American imperialists.” When he asked the comrades, “Who helped my three kids when you kicked me out of my regular job?” he lost his job.

With her aunt unable to be her guardian, the maternal grandmother took over that role. As we learn from Mrs. L’s narrative, her maternal grandmother does not appear to be the gentle grandma, called “babichka” in Czech, who is perceived within the Czech culture as someone who comforts and spoils her grandchild. Mrs. L. traces her grandmother’ bitterness all the way to the day she was born, since grandma hoped her first grandchild would be a boy. From her grandmother’s numerous remarks, Mrs. L. has learned, “the loss of her daughter was the fault of her son-in-law who wouldn’t be in prison if he took care of his family instead of other activities. She lost her wonderful daughter because of him. Their child was spoiled. The girl shouldn’t be allowed to have friends, and she was ungrateful for all her grandmother did for her. After all, she could have ended up in an orphanage and then she would see what life was all about.”

Each time Mrs. L. mentions one of her grandmother’s hurtful remarks, she immediately follows with a rationalization for her grandmother’s behavior. This rationalization often comes across as if structured by someone familiar with psychoanalysis, rather than a person who has been the target of the attacks since the time she essentially became almost an orphan.

It becomes obvious from Mrs. L’s narrative that for her grandmother it was the imprisoned father, rather than the communist regime’s willing participants that was the source of her anger. Yet, she never prevented his child from visiting her father when the prison pass arrived once a year allowing a ten-minute visit. Mrs. L. remembers the visits as depressing, “because we had to go through a tunnel and everything looked dark and somber, and father was behind some wires. It felt terrible there. Somebody was standing next to me all the time.” Since the guards were always present and intentionally listening to the families’ conversations, in her perception, “we could not talk.” She does not say how she felt when she reported to her father an occasional B on the report card. Without any sign of his approval and what sounded rather as a warnings, her father would say to her, “by next visit I hope you’ll improve.”

The notion of education has been an issue on three different levels in Mrs. L’s case. One, her grandmother viewed education important only for boys because they had to feed the family. Mrs. L was told by her grandmother, “Don’t read because you’ll ruin your eyes! You better take the geese to pasture or pull some weed in the garden!” Two, within the Czech educational system, one’s vocation is essentially decided at the age of fourteen after graduating from mandatory eight-year school. When Mrs. L. was offered a job as a lathe operator, her family was appalled. For them the issue was not lacking an education; rather they viewed her as destined to be ruined by the foul language used in a factory environment. And last, but not least, her parents were considered “educated” with middle-school diplomas. Therefore her father wished her to have at least a mid-level education.

After applying to be trained as a saleswoman, she was asked to bring various forms that never seemed to satisfy the official whose appearance Mrs. L. describes as “looking like a frog.” The woman official’s questioning about the family background became increasingly stressful for the fourteen-year-old child. Mrs. L. laughs at the image of her grandmother making a scene at the official’s office (she did not have the privilege to witness). Her grandmother’s actions were apparently very effective, Mrs. L. was accepted. Her position among the apprentices, in her words, was “like a rare specimen because I knew geometry.” She did not enjoy her profession as a sales person, because she perceives herself as someone who has difficulties communicating with people. As she would have preferred not to have to communicate with people, she wished to study economics or accounting. She never applied after her grandmother and aunt convinced her that even if accepted to the school, she would never get a job in that field anyway because of her status as a political prisoner’s daughter.

Her father was released after eleven years of slave labor in the uranium mines on, what Mrs. L. recalls, a beautiful day. She was sixteen when he returned. She asks me, “I don’t know what it was like for you when you saw your father again, but for me he was a stranger. This was a man who looked somehow small and weird.” Although she admits to herself the adult relatives should have been more understanding of the situation when her father returned to her world, she says, “I will blame myself till the day I die how tragically it all ended between me and my father.” At the same time she voices a reproach for her father for not telling her what he had been through in prison, as she did not even know he was imprisoned for political reasons. She describes how her grandmother was absolutely determined that her father would not live with them after his return.

We need to remember the released prisoners usually had no “personal rights” after their sentences were completed, or if their release was related to an amnesty. Therefore they had no right to acquire a home; anyway, most homes were either state owned or controlled.

After some hesitation, she continues, “Let me tell you how it was. All that time he was away, I thought of my father as a prince from a fairytale. I couldn’t stand living at my grandmother’s, and I daydreamed how my daddy would come and rescue me. You see I didn’t know how he suffered and what these people have been through.”

Immediately after his release from prison he went to live with his sister. In the beginning he visited his daughter Mrs. L. occasionally. The verbal exchanges between her maternal grandmother and her father were so dreadful that after a few of those visits she ran to her aunt when he arrived. Her father’s letter to her 18th birthday did not improve their relationship, since her grandmother became furious when she learned about any contact between her granddaughter and her father who lived relatively far away from their village. Except for a few letters, father and his only child lost contact with each other.

Mrs. L. is married, has two sons, a daughter-in-law and a granddaughter. She mentions suicidal thoughts during the time when she and her husband took care of her grandmother who never stopped her accusatory rhetoric until the day she passed away.

With the general euphoria of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, for Mrs. L. it was time to remember the past. With the fall of communism came freedom of press, speech and gathering. Some former political prisoners published their memoirs about the horrors of the interrogations and the years of imprisonment during the 1950s. The “Konfederace Politickych Veznu” (Confederation of Political Prisoners) was established. This organization became an extended family for many of the prisoners’ spouses and adult children. Mrs. L. became aware of what her father might have suffered, she was aware of her grandmother’s difficult life, and she mourned the loss of daddy-the prince from the fairy tale who she was waiting for all those years when she was unhappy at her grandma’s.

The past introduced itself in a subtle way when Mrs. L. had an ordinary flu. At that time, the “home control,” custom from the communist regime, checking whether the sick employee is “really” trying to get well had a devastating effect on Mrs. L. She perceived the “home control” as a “home search” remembered from her childhood after her father’s arrest. After a few days of a mild flu her observant local physician saw she looked worse at this time. She was referred to a psychiatrist.

Just before we part, she says, “My father always said, ‘no emigration’,” as she wants to touch on an unfinished theme. She pauses for a moment and continues, “The way I see it here, and I tell my children ‘we will never have justice here’.” She adds, “Maybe I give an impression that I can communicate but it’s only when I feel I can open up. I am really a reserved person but occasionally I need to talk.”

©Jana Svehlova 1999