The women in my family had it tough. As did and do most other women elsewhere. My female relatives led meagre lives during which they helped few and pleased none, least of all themselves. Generous people seek in their lives to be helpful, crooked people seek to be happy and ambitious people seek to leave something behind. I suspect my female family members fell outside these categories because they didn’t seem to seek anything. To compensate, and to fulfil my generously crooked ambitious self, I seek to help some, make most of all myself happy and leave much behind.
My maternal grandmother’s name was Rose, and this was the single most romantic thing about her life. Her life started and stopped when she was drafted in a labour camp in Nazi Germany during the war. She didn’t learn any German, besides the commands for lights off and take shelter used during air raids. After the war she had a brief glamorous stint of living and working in the country’s capital. When her sister died of pneumonia in her early twenties, leaving a widower and two small children behind, Rose was summoned home. She married the widower to supply a mother for the half-orphans, though neither of the new partners was overjoyed. The husband went on to hang himself, and the widow remarried.
My mother, Mary, was eighteen when the Soviet tanks came to Czechoslovakia in 1968. Hazardously, she went out in the fields to watch the occupants, not anticipating that they were to stay. Stay they did. Mother married the first man she met because there was no reason not to. So said my father’s family. Old photographs suggest that my father was not always bald, fat and bent; yet neither was he the tall handsome blue-eyed blonde as he liked to depict his young self. The couple first moved in with my father’s parents, who got however soon fed up with father’s budding alcoholism. The next stop was my mother’s parents. This was the terminal. My brother was born into a disrupted family, I was born into a broken one eleven years later. I was a lucky accident.
My paternal grandmother, Dana, remains for me in the haze of the Alzheimer’s. Nobody bothered to tell me that her first only occasionally erratic behaviour was caused by a disease. It was my paternal grand-grandmother, Benedicta, who left a singularly deep trace in my memory. She was a miner’s widow and as tough as the black coal that was providing her living. She saw the death of her husband in a mining accident, the death of her grandson at thirty-two in military action and the decline and death of her only daughter. She lived on with wistful sadness. She broke her leg in her late seventies and lay on the floor in her flat for a day before help came. She walked again. She died at eighty-four, a little shrunk figure with yellowish face framed by a chequered headscarf lying in the coffin.
Out of these women, only my mother stills lives. She has a record of being an abused wife, a loving but failing mother and now a lonely divorcee with little to hope for. Interestingly, she appears to blame herself more for the death of her mother rather than the harm she unwittingly caused to her children. She left her job when grandmother Rose stopped being self-sufficient in order to attend to her. She could hardly stop her from dying though. I saw no gratefulness in my grandmother for her daughter’s care and no peace in my mother even after she has done her best. I view the lives of the women in my family as cautionary tales, if anything. If I could pray, I would pray that I do good to others only by doing good to myself first.