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 mum and I lived with her, in the basement flat of her house, until I was 7. A flight of stairs took me up to the ground floor where her consulting and waiting rooms were (shhh!), and the scary, formal, sitting room, and then up again to the more friendly family rooms – kitchen and living room, bedrooms - and up again to the attic where my lovely teenage aunt had her room. Gran’s bedroom had two 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, for my mum, a wreck of a house in Camden, a strip of land in Wales for my aunt, and for herself, a small, gardenless flat in St John’s Wood. Visits 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, take her laundry in, have breakfast, to while away the afternoon sitting with her in The Cosmo, on the Finchley Road, where all the North London 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 live - 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 to 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 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 phot album of children at the nursery, lovingly 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. Letters between herself and Anna Freud, and herself and Dorothy Burlingham, when she worked as a psychoanalyst at Anna Frued’s wartime nursery – and later the Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic. Her list of patients during 1941. 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 mother in 1954. Divorce papers. 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 of postcards from all sorts. Reels upon reels of old film. 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 am doing. I am going to start with Vienna. I don’t know much about gran’s life before 1930, but I have that pocket of envelopes with addresses where she lived. I have 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 I am desperate to know more also about the Goethehof and the nursery, so loving designed and built and so brutally destroyed by Austro-fascists in 1934. So that’s where I will begin. This blog is to keep me on track, and focused, and hopefully garner input and thoughts from whoever else is interested (Red Vienna, Montessori, the customs and conventions of present giving, Anna Freud, adopting in the 1950s, North London Jewish refugee society – anyone?!)
Off now, to Vienna (mentally speaking, that is!)