The Bridge to my Grandmother’ paints a middle-class, secular Jewish household in the London of the mid-1940s, where I often went with my mother for Sunday lunch. I was plied amply with wine and treated kindly but, as the child, kept in my place, to be seen and not heard. I describe the texture of the house, the limited interaction with my family, and my unsated and ultimately thwarted desire to hear my grandmother, a professional pianist, play for me.
In the 1990s the IRA tried to blow up the
Though the house was modest, it was as if the bridge were a grand driveway to my grandmother’s estate, and, in the 1940s, we used to take the 9 double-decker bus across it from Hammersmith Broadway. Later, on visits to Auntie Muriel in the 1980s, long after my grandmother’s death but before the IRA bomb attempt, we walked the half mile from Hammersmith Broadway, my mother and I, across the splendid little suspension bridge. By then, only one single-decker bus at a time was allowed to cross, and the romance had gone out of the bus journey.
“It can’t take it anymore,” Muriel had said about the bridge when the weight restrictions were imposed, sorrowfully as if talking of a revered and ancient draught horse. “No, it can’t take it,” and her voice quavered and tapered, the way their voices in old age always quavered and tapered, Muriel’s and my mother’s.
When I was much younger, about 8, in the mid-1940s, Muriel had a beautiful voice. In its heyday it was BBC, the words strong, the syllables flawlessly enunciated, the accent perfect yet not posh. It greeted us after we rang the bell. The door opened slowly and she grinned conspiratorially, and then it opened wide to admit her younger sister and me – there were only the two of us since my parents were already separated.
“Hello Roger, hello Blinky,” she said – using one of my mother’s nicknames since childhood—and Muriel’s grin became an abashed chuckle, as if she wished to excuse the strident notes of Liszt as his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 thundered to its conclusion on the drawing room spinet. The music had ended as we arrived and my grandmother emerged into the hall to greet us, piano-practiced and pinafored, and after exchanges of kisses she waddled into the kitchen to complete lunch preparation.
The three of us would linger in the hall, the sisters exchanging pleasantries, until their younger brother Ronald arrived from outside with the scuttle full of coal for the fire in the drawing room and said, “Hello Phoebe, hello Roger, .... yeesss, well, how are you getting on at school then?” (Ronald and my mother always said, “Yeesss.”)
Satisfied with my answer, Ronald ushered me into the dining room, while the sisters moved slowly into the kitchen to continue with filial babble. He sat me down at the long table that reached almost to the French window at the end of the dining room overlooking the narrow back garden, resplendent with snapdragons and dahlias and staked tomato plants. On the ochre table cover, along with the place settings, sat a silver tray with bottles of Crabbie’s Ginger Wine and Sandeman’s
“Would you like some wine, Roger?”
He poured me a glass (I always chose the ginger wine,) then left to join his sisters and mother in the kitchen. I settled at the table, stroked the textured ochre cover, fingered the long ochre tassels that hung down and tickled my knees, comfortable on the plush velvet dining chair, its soft fuzz cushioning my short-trousered thighs. Behind me, on the tiled hearth next to the gas fire, stood a figurine, a mournful maid, her fine china features framed by her bonnet and her draped blue cloak. To my right stood the sideboard, under the gallery of which were oriental vases and a china boy, who stood deep in thought, right elbow resting on his quiver and right hand supporting his chin.
I knew sooner or later the adults would come to the dining room and gather round the table for lunch and I looked forward to the nice things to eat and drink. I was used to being alone, so the environment was not unusual. The adults treated me kindly but as the child I was. I knew my place—my mother was probably glad of the break from me—so I busied myself. Within the orbit of my grandmother I withdrew into my own little world, a silent world, a world of snapdragons and pansies, insects, tapestries, textures and tassels, designs, objets d’art, water colors of the
My grandmother, her thin hair showing the crown of her head and a handkerchief peeping from the pocket of her pinafore, came in briefly to recover silver serving spoons from the sideboard drawer, and she placed them on the ochre cover near me, explaining their use before she turned to the kitchen. On the far wall, next to the French windows, a convex gilt-framed mirror captured this dining room scene, grandmother addressing grandson, the panoramic image Vermeer-like in its composition and virtue. But soon the heat from the gas fire behind me became too fierce, and I left my chair to follow her to the rest of the adults.
I sought out my mother in the kitchen; she was drinking a glass of sherry at the unfinished white oak table. Ronald was there too, standing with his pint of stout and a frothy moustache, and his back to the kitchen range, and from time to time he turned to shovel coke into its red hot boiler, and he asked me again, “Well, you’re getting on all right at school then?”
I satisfied him again with my answer and approached my mother at the oak table while studying the flypaper spiral suspended above it, strung from the white plastic lampshade, twirling slowly in the thermal from the hot range, its latest victim trying in vain to extricate itself from the tacky mass while others remained motionless, glued to the paper, like museum specimens. I watched the fly in its death throes, sinking into the sticky adhesive as it tried to lever free first one leg then another. Each attempt drove it deeper into the quagmire, and exhausted it, until it moved no more.
“Filthy things,” said my mother, and smiled a wan smile.
My grandmother and Muriel bustled in and out of the kitchen to the pantry, where the black gas stove stood, full with its Sunday bird and roast potatoes. The adults talked of this and that, and I knew I was not to interrupt my mother, for that would bring a stern rebuke from Muriel. As a youngster, I was frightened of Muriel. Once, when the three of us were out walking, and my mother went on ahead, I ran after her leaving Muriel behind. “Oh, leave your mother alone,” Muriel shouted at me, and I fell back, alongside my aunt, crestfallen.
The sloping front of the writing desk in the kitchen by the door to the hall hid all sorts of interesting things belonging to Ronald that were outside my permitted domain, but the Jewish Chronicle, which sat folded on top, on a brass trivet, I was allowed to take back to the dining room to read. So I returned with it to the quietude of the dining room, with its hot gas fire, its china maid, its quivered boy and textured ochre cloth and tassels and fuzzy chairs. But come the time when my glass of Crabbie’s Ginger Wine was empty, and necessity took precedence over caution, I would again go to the kitchen to ask for more.
“Yes,” said Muriel, “but leave your mother alone,” and I went back to the dining room and poured myself another draft.
When I was very young Uncle Harold, my grandmother’s eldest child, was sometimes present for lunch. Harold was something of a prodigy with the cello. My grandmother, who had been a professional pianist of some renown, had taken Harold to
I enjoyed it when Uncle Harold was visiting his mother when we were present. He entered the dining room with social intent to greet me, a slight figure, hands in pockets, stooped and bald, and crow’s feet around his eyes from his smile, just like Uncle Ronald.
“The best little ducky of the lot,” he said, before turning and retiring to the drawing room. And a few seconds later he was back, saying again as he came into view from behind the door,
“The best little ducky of the lot, and he’s doing all right at school then?”
He wanted to talk, just didn’t know how. They all wanted to know my progress. I was the male grandson. No doubt they all expected me to do well academically and enter one of the professions.
At last the roast turkey, or goose or chicken arrived, succulent and tasty, plump and juicy on a big oval platter. Oh, what a splendid dinner! Ronald carved and my grandmother and Muriel served me and the others. I liked the breast meat, and the roast potatoes, their crispy crusts scrumptious when smothered with rich gravy from the boat, with Brussels sprouts and peas or carrots. Then they served afters, plum pudding with custard, and I’d have more ginger wine. I ate until I was ready to burst. There might be candied fruits and chocolates. During the war delectable tidbits would arrive from distant relatives in
Conversation would be circumscribed, and never directed at me. My mother would “Oohhh” and “Aahhh” and say how tasty everything was. The ladies would talk about clothes and fashion and color and this shop and that shop. They talked about the relatives in
And my mother said, with passion and animation, “Noohhh, indeed it doesn’t,” and I always wondered, without ever being able to put it into words, what there was to be so passionate and animated about, and why she was different with other people than she was with me.
Muriel talked to my mother about Mr. Savage, her boss at the photographic studio where she managed the appointments for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, and sometimes they talked about my father, but I could not understand the drift of what was said. Ronald gave the latest gossip from the print shop, where he set the type for the morning newspaper. Nor had I conversation with my grandmother. She just cooed and said what a good boy I was. I stayed silent, in the background, doing my epicurean duty. I was to be seen and not heard, and the ginger wine served its purpose admirably.
After dinner, when I got tired of the dining room, I wandered back to the hall, and looked at the pictures of the composers adorning the walls. There was Mozart with his hair in a ribbon and Liszt with big warts on his face and Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Chopin, all the composers of the Romantic period. I wandered up and down, studying their engraved faces with great interest. How I wish my grandmother, Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music, had played the piano for me. But she never did. She, who in the 1890s with her violinist sister Fanny had played sonatas for Queen Victoria at Hatfield House, never asked me, her only grandson, would I like to hear her play? The nearest I had gotten was the closing passage of the Liszt upon arrival, except for my surreptitious perusal of the score still in place on the piano in the drawing room, to where we would repair after lunch for a cup of instant coffee, Black Magic chocolates and a glass of port wine. The blackness of the notes on the stave; how on earth was she able to play them? It was a mystery to me. Those unfathomable hieroglyphics elicited in me a terrible awe.
I would have liked my grandmother to have sat down at the piano and played Liszt or Chopin or Rachmaninoff, something that she had been doing for 65 years and could have done in her sleep. If she examined the question at all maybe she thought I wouldn’t have been interested. Given the pressure she placed on her first born to learn the cello, perhaps my grandmother also felt pressure at a young age to play the piano; then the last thing she would have wanted was to inflict it on me? And what role did music play for her, I wonder? In my grandmother’s family music was not an avocation; it put the bread on the table. No, it was the academic path for me, she probably would have concluded; you cannot do both.
One Sunday I thought it was happening. I was in the drawing room on the window seat and she came in as if I were not present, sat down at the piano, adjusted the stool and started to play. Her hands moved quickly over the keyboard. I was swept along with the sounds, loud and rich. After a minute she stopped, got up from the stool, went into the kitchen, the Sunday bird vying for her attention, and never returned. She cannot have known how much I cared to hear her play. And I never knew if I had the right to ask, or whether she would have acceded.
In 1947, when I was 9, she got ill with pernicious anemia. I didn’t know what it was but I knew “pernicious” was a bad word. My mother took me to see her in hospital, but when we got there I had to wait downstairs by the porter’s office. I was too young, the staff said, to be allowed on the ward. I wished that I could have visited her in her sick bed, said goodbye to her for the last time. Instead I sat in the entrance hall of the
“Poor Ma, her children said, “Yeesss, poor Ma.”