“If I Didn’t Have a Sense of Humour, I Wouldn’t Be Alive”

September 16, 2010 at 1:42 am 5 comments

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve embarked on a project with my maternal grandmother to document her stories of survival as a young girl in pre-WWII Poland, through Western Europe, and eventually to Canada.

The title of this post is the first little gem I gleaned from my first official story-telling visit with Nanny Antoinette yesterday morning.  She cracked a self-deprecating joke when we sat down to the obligatory visit meal; I can’t go to her house without eating a meal, no matter the time of day, it’s always time for a “late” breakfast or an “early” lunch.

I have really no idea how this process is going to unfold.  I am not a writer and all I remember from OAC English was introduction, three development paragraphs, and conclusion.  I did write a Master’s Thesis, but that was in Human Kinetics, so I don’t think it counts.

I’ve decided I’m going to let my grandmother guide the process.  I’ll go with the flow at each visit, see what she’s in the mood to talk about, and interject questions when clarification or insight is required.  I think I’ll then take my notes from each session, reflect on them, and then go back the next time with more questions.

My dad is lending me one of his doctor dictaphone things so I can record our sessions.

So… yesterday:

After a 3o minute breakfast and coffee, we retired to the living room and began to talk.  Nanny wants to race through the story, getting to the things that are most vivid in her memory, often the most horrific details.  I want to get into the nitty gritty of her family life pre-war and pre Russian occupation, but she wanted to get to the part where her family and friends were starting to disappear.  So I let her go there.

I had to slow her down and try to make chronological sense of some of the details several times.  Luckily, I have several other sources of information about specific events that I will go to for accuracy, but I’m really interested in her perspective and her feelings.

The best thing about these visits is that I get to reconnect with my grandmother one-on-one, with no little munchkins stealing the show.  She is very outspoken, perhaps that’s where I get it from.  We both tend to be brutally honest at times.  I think she is quite pleased that she gets my undivided attention and can tell me what she thinks about everyone in my extended family.  She even did impressions of each of us.

I was also given a lecture on trying harder to avoid butting heads with my mother.

Overall, it was a great visit.

Here are some of my Nanny’s direct quotes:

-On one of her forced labour bosses, “he had a face like a Pekinese dog and a nose like a big juicy strawberry”.

-On the Red Cross Sisters for whom she was doing laundry by hand on a laundry board and then pressing their little hats to creaseless, starched perfection, yet, if there was even the hint of a crease, they would throw it back in the water and make her start the whole cycle over, “I called them the Red Cross Bitches”.

-To the her 13 co-workers as they were loaded into a truck from their workplace, expecting to be taken to the area outside the town where the mass shootings took place because they wouldn’t rat out the woman who stole a pound of butter, “My friends, I have one thing to ask, I want to be first”.  They were instead taken to prison.

-On why she survived, “I had a wild desire to tell the world what was going on; I was afraid no one would be left”.

So much more to come; I look forward to sharing.  In the meantime, please please my writer friends, some tips, resources, links on how to go about this would be most appreciated.


Entry filed under: Nanny A's Story.

A Day in DC Under the Influence

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Finola  |  September 16, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    This is an amazing opportunity for both of you hearing her story first hand like this. I can’t imagine.

  • 2. Erica  |  September 16, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    I’ve meant to comment on this for a while, first of all to say thank you because it’s a good reminder of a similar project of my own that I keep delaying and one day may delay too long. And secondly to say good luck and I’ll be reading with interest as it develops.

    My only suggestions would be to use a voice recorder (you might well do this already) – sometimes your mother’s words will be the perfect words and you won’t be able to get them down without recording them. It will also give you a way to readily mull over what she has said.

    Secondly, take photos of any relevant objects or scans of any relevant documents – that way you can mull them over at your leisure, organize them, take notes etc.

  • 3. Liisa  |  September 17, 2010 at 1:49 am

    Finola, I do feel so lucky. Everyone in the family knows the general story, but my goal is to record the details and produce a record that my own children can have.

    Erica, thank you for then tips. My dad is going to lend my a voice recorder, and I am going to start gathering the docu,nets shortly. Good luck wih your own project.

  • 4. A Note about the “Nanny A’s Story” « Fit for a kid  |  February 15, 2011 at 8:38 am

    […] is just a quick post to let you know that I haven’t forgotten about my Nanny A! The project to record her story is still alive and well.  Since she’s been away, it’s […]

  • 5. Nanny A’s Story: Putting It Together « Fit for a kid  |  October 6, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    […]  -the butter story […]


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