There are times when my grandmother potters along quite normally. Other times when we’re not sure she’ll be alive the next day. Every night about seven-thirty she hovers near the television.
‘Ready to watch politics until midnight,’ Lulu says.
My mum jumps in. ‘Unable to remember any of it the following day.’
This is true and not true. The amount of time my grandma watches? Spot on. Analysis is hot here as Poland is undergoing political reforms. 77% of existing members of Poland’s Parliament are still from the communist era. But like a river-soiling backlash, the EU figurehead formerly in charge of Poland’s communist-era friendly party is calling the reforms undemocratic. Only in Poland.
If the TV was a block of ice and my grandmother’s tongue was stuck to it, she could not be any closer. And when she’s listening, no one in listening distance is allowed to talk either. ‘Shh! Stop talking!’ she hisses. ‘This is important.’
People talk endlessly about what’s needed on the TV. And not every one my grandma approves of. ‘Lech Wałęsa, that idiot. Go back home, Bolek! Everyone knows you’re ex-KGB.’
With my grandmother providing sole commentary, we sat and watched. I asked my mum for details.
She sighed. ‘At the moment, if you want a court case even to go near a court building you have to pay the courts 10,000 złoty. The new government wants to sack all the supreme court judges. Get rid of all the old communists who are sitting on their gold mine pensions.’
I stared at the TV. People were standing outside Parliament waving candles in the air. ‘So why are they protesting?’
‘Idiots,’ my grandmother said.
Later I powered up the iPhone. The EU was threatening to trigger Article 7 for the first time. Article 7 will strip Poland of its voting rights if the government succeeds in bringing in these reforms to replace the entire supreme court.
Antonia hung back in her room. I asked her what she thought of the political situation. She peeped in the direction of the living room. My grandmother was hunched over pointing in the flashing direction. ‘I’m not learned enough to say,’ she whispered, ‘But I’m not sure that its healthy for someone to watch TV for so long.’
In the mornings, when we came downstairs, we’d see a transformation in my grandmother. We were sleep-driven, looking for tea and coffee and warming our feet in the mountain sunshine. The stove heating living room and the kitchen at night was still warm. My grandmother was bright-eyed, dressed and ready for the day.
‘Things have to get better,’ she said to Antosia.
‘I’m not learned on these matters,’ came the stock reply. But more this time. ‘I have no reason to complain. My mother worked until she died. Nobody gave her anything.’
It’s true. I remember Antosia’s mother sitting in the chair by the kitchen window, making lace tablecloths. She had little wooden bobbins and moved them around pinning and pinning the lace on her large board. Every once in a while she’d pick up a fly-swatter and kill ten flies in one swat. Whenever I went to sit in her mother’s chair, I still had to check she wasn’t sitting there.
Antosia suddenly looked fierce. ‘Here I am in the house my father built. I have none of the same problems my parents had.’
I thought of the wiring upstairs. Wires ran against the log walls. My mother had only just run downstairs looking pale. ‘Have you seen the plug socket in your room?’ she whispered.
‘Uhhh, yeah,’ I said. It hung off the wall, held by three wires. I’d plugged our European plug adaptors into it on the first day. Was happily surprised it worked. Since then I’d been charging our devices with non-stop enthusiasm. I winced at my mother’s face.
‘It’s a live wire. If anything catches fire, you do realise this house will go up like a torch. The girls are busy plugging their devices in and out of it.’
I shot up the wooden winding stairs. ‘You might want to leave the plug alone, girls.’ The girls were huddled together on the bed with the straw pillow. They nodded silently under the blanket, watching a movie.
‘There will always be rich and poor,’ my grandmother was saying back downstairs, her voice starting to reach spitfire levels of its past glory.
Antosia shook her head. ‘See all these new houses around us? Beautiful palaces? Holiday homes. No one even lives there.’ She threw her hand in the direction of the garden. ‘No one’s even bothered to make hay anymore.’ I felt a jolt of shock run through me. When I was little, this place was known for its tall bundles of hay. Hay men on sticks. Antosia shrugged. ‘I can’t even be bothered to make hay anymore.’ Well, you are 72, I felt like saying. I wouldn’t beat yourself up. I thought better of it though. This bird had talons for sure.
Later she sat in the hallway-come-overflow-dining-room. I tiptoed in. I loved this place. She stared out through the open front door.
‘You know, Poland has changed more in my lifetime than any other country I’ve known.’ Except for the mountains, I thought suddenly! ‘Except when you walk the trails in the National Park, everyone still says hello. That hasn’t changed.’
Antosia looked at me. My breath caught in my throat. ‘It’s true,’ she said, ‘the mountains haven’t changed at all.’