Her maiden surname was Eisenberg, ‘iron
mountain’, one that had been chosen for them
from the Imperial list. I was often
uneasy, unsure in her presence.
She hardly ever smiled. I realise now
because I looked so like her son, my father.
She died, from kidney failure, when I was nine.
On the mantelpiece in our dining room
is a pair of figurines – faux Meissen –
brought in her parents’ wooden suitcase, wrapped
in linen, journeying from Leopoldstat,
Vienna, to Whitechapel, London.
She had a hat shop in Hendon. Sometimes,
when my mother helped out, I was allowed
to look into the deep drawers where the hats,
like exotic plants, lay on tissue paper –
but when the shop was full of customers
I stayed in the workroom. There were lengths of felt,
rolls of ribbon, a barred sash window
and a double burner that smelled of gas.
The two shop girls would make a fuss of me.
Each figurine has a young man and woman
dressed and posed as if just emerging
from Marie Antoinette’s rustic retreat
at Versailles, and mirrored in the matching
figurine. Before my time the head
of one of the swains has been glued back on
and the maids have lost a hand apiece
but their expressions of bucolic delight
have remain undiminished whatever
the vicissitudes of history.
While Grandpa did his ARP duty
back east at the Fire Station in Cable Street,
Nanny went to the spiritualist church
in Hendon. The Medium passed messages:
her soldier son was in pain no more;
she would see and hold him once again
forever in the light beyond. The matter
was off limits in the one bedroom flat.
She made cream cheese in a muslin bag
she hung from the cold tap in the kitchen
to make it set. The whey would drip through the night,
minute by minute, hour after hour.
When she made apple strudel the flat
was aromatic with cinnamon.