My two older sisters and I adored our maternal grandmother. She lived with us in our cold water tenement in Wentworth Dwellings in Petticoat Lane until she died in 1937, when I was five and my sisters 11 and 17. We were broken-hearted. It took years before it stopped hurting.
There were six of us – my parents, my bubba, my two sisters and me. The flat had three rooms – a bedroom, living room and kitchen, together with a small balcony which had a coal bunker and outside toilet. My parents shared the bedroom, my sisters, my grandmother and I slept in the ‘living room’, while the tiny kitchen was where we sat around a small oilcloth-covered table, talked, read, cooked and washed at the china butler sink. There was only a cold tap, so water for washing or, when we were little for the zinc bath, was heated in a kettle on the black iron stove cum fireplace. My sisters shared a pull-out sofa while I slept with my grandmother in the large mahogany double bed that had been my parents’ until they changed to the more modern twin beds. The living room was freezing in the winter – fern-like Jack Frost etched on the windowpanes – so it was lovely curling up against my grandmother’s warm back.
The outside loo had a long heavy iron chain with a wooden pull. The noise terrified me if I had to have a pee in the night. I don’t remember how old I was when it became my task to tear my dad’s newspaper into neat squares after he’d read it cover-to-cover. He’d then force through a nail, and thread some string through to hang the bundle by. There was no question of wasting money on bought toilet paper, but even when my sisters left home, and we were a bit better off, my dad preferred his newspaper to the bought stuff my mother and I used.
My bubba was a tall commanding woman, with dark hair piled on top of her head. It would have been a sheitel – the wig orthodox married women wear over their shaved head. I never saw her without it. Her left eye was badly scarred. It had been pierrced by a shard of glass when the Cossacks came riding through her village, pillaging and looting.
My mother and grandmother came from Mogilev in Belarus. My maternal grandfather died when my mother was only 2 years old, so my grandmother scraped a living turning her tiny cottage into a lodging house. The lodgers slept on a circular shelf around the pot-bellied stove in the centre of the room and ate at the table my grandfather had made my bubba as a wedding present. My father’s parents had died long before I was born.
I’m not sure whether my grandmother could speak Russian – she always spoke Yiddish to us and we replied in English. My mother could read and write Russian, so she kept the accounts required by the authorities. They emigrated to England in about 1903 and lived on the pittance my grandmother earned selling beigels on the corner of Wentworth Street and Goulston Street. My mother was apprenticed aged eleven to a dressmaker, earning 3d a week. Once she had learned enough to be useful, her employer stopped using her as a cheap servant and paid her a small wage. However, my grandmother refused to give up her pitch until my parents got married in 1918 and moved to Old Kent Road.
My bubba always did more than her fair share of the housework. She had a stroke while cleaning the stone steps leading down to the next landing. She was dead on arrival at the London Hospital. The neighbours blamed my mother.
‘Fancy letting her clean the stairs at her age, and her half-blind,’ they said.
But there was no stopping my grandmother doing anything she’d decided on.