The Hedy Project: beginning
My gran died in 1991, when she was
89. I was 20. She was my absolute love. For all of my 20
years, she had been there. With a few interruptions, my young teenage mum
and I lived with her until I was seven, in the basement flat of her house.
A flight of stairs took me up to the ground floor where her consulting and
waiting rooms were (shhh!), and the scary, formal, reception room, and then up
again to the more friendly family rooms – the kitchen and living room, gran’s bedroom
- and up again to the attic where my lovely, even younger aunt had her
room. Gran’s bedroom had twin beds, and this is where I would go for sleepovers
with her, the family rooms to be looked after by her or her housekeeper, the
garden to play with friends. She sold this home in 1977 and with the
proceeds, bought a strip of land in Wales for my aunt, and for my mum, a dilapidated
Victorian semi-detached in Kentish Town – a house that I loved fiercely, with
its wide windows that let in a light that started dappled tree green in the
morning, shifting to a smooth, sleepy yellow over the day. Hedy herself moved into a small, gardenless
flat in St John’s Wood. And in 1978 came my sister, 8 years younger than
me, someone we all loved so: a child so funny and irreverent and quirky. Visits
with gran became more formal and less frequent until I was in my early teens,
when I started popping up to see her independently, to do her shopping and laundry, have breakfast, to while away the afternoon sitting
with her in The Cosmo, on the Finchley Road, where all the Central European Jewish
refugees hung out.
She was my love and when she died, my
world fell in. Fast forward to 2017/18, and in quick succession, and both
very rapidly, my mother and my aunt died in their early 60s, of respectively
throat and brain cancer, leaving me grieving and bewildered, surveying the
empty space where previous generations – the people who had loved me all
my life - had once been. Despite the intervening 30 odd years, the death
of my mum and aunt brought back echoes of the loss and sadness I felt when my
gran died. They were my link with my gran, and they had now gone. All
three women were fantastic - opinionated, powerful, inspiring - but my
gran’s love was absolutely unconditional in a way that my mum and aunt’s never
entirely was. They both loved me to bits – I never had any doubts about
that – but their high expectations for me to be equally opinionated, powerful
and inspiring, brings a certain burden.
In this free fall space, when there is a certain discord between normal life, and the internal world of grief, I thought about all the information – all the documents – I had about gran: Hedwig, or Hedy. My aunt had inherited and then moved into my gran’s flat after she had died and had the job of clearing it out. Over the years, she had passed various things over to me. Newspaper articles and architectural journals on the Montessori nursery she ran in Red Vienna in the 1930s, designed by Bauhaus architects, Singer and Dicker, and situated in the Goethehof, one of the largest residential buildings built by the Social Democrats. A wonderful photo album of children at the nursery, carefully dated and labelled. Her 1927 Montessori qualification. Her signed allegiance to King George the Sixth and her documentation as a Jewish refugee here in the UK. Her membership of the British Psychoanalytical Association. Many, many letters between herself and Anna Freud, and herself and Dorothy Burlingham, when she worked as the head nursery teacher at Anna and Dorothy’s wartime nursery – and later as a child psychoanalyst and trainer at the Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic. Her notebook listing her private patients during 1940s/50s. A notebook detailing all the presents that she had given – and received - between 1954 and 1964. A letter in memory to Anna Freud, describing the support that Anna gave her when, as a single woman, she adopted my mum in 1954. Divorce papers. Stacks of letters. Change of name deeds for her two girls, my mum and aunt, to anglicise their surname from Abraham to Braham. Letters and childish drawings from me. A box full of postcards received over the years. Reels upon reels of old film. And even more letters. In my mother’s paperwork, I found a tatty envelope filled with envelopes – no letters – sent to various address to Hedy in interwar Vienna, and, rather strangely, a beautiful handwritten receipt for clothes (to be washed? Or brought? I don’t know!) from 1920.
Faced with all this treasure, and keen to do something a little more constructive with my grief, I went in all guns firing, googling madly, jumping from Red Vienna, to Montessori practices, to the wartime nursery. I downloaded and started reading articles by Hansi Kennedy on Children in Conflict, and by Eve Blue on The Architecture of Red Vienna. I looked people up and promptly forgot about them. I looked up the Bauhaus archives in Berlin, the museum of Red Vienna in – guess! – Vienna, and the Anna Freud archives in London. I cut and paste URLs and titles into a word document, fur further reference, and then just left them there. In short, I did nothing. And in the midst of this whirlwind, I paused to take stock and told myself, firmly, that I needed to focus. And that is what I did. I don’t know much about gran’s life before 1930, but I had that pocket of envelopes with addresses where she lived. I had her grandfather’s funeral arrangements at Vienna’s Central Ceremony (Jewish section) in 1900, which lists her family members (not her – she would come 2 years later!). There are photos. And so I began.