Mourning a kitchen wall
On grieving from afar
My grandmother is moving out of her home this week. In my world, this is big news. The stately apartment in Warsaw’s Mokotów neighborhood has for decades been the nucleus of our family life. My mother and her four siblings grew up in the vine-covered building, making the generously-sized space seem not so big at all. All of us, their kids, wreaked havoc on every inch of it. I’m pretty sure my cousin Natka broke every single beak of my grandmother’s vintage wooden duck decoy collection. Every Christmas, Easter, and half the family birthdays were celebrated around the dining room table. My grandmother spent fifty years of her life in that apartment, building a home with her husband, my grandfather.
The last memory I have of my grandfather is not a specific one: I know what happened not because I remember it happening, but because it was something that always happened the same way. It was a goodbye in the dark hallway of that apartment, a deep, tight grandpa hug as my husband and I were leaving for the airport to come back to the US after a month-long stay in Poland. Every time I’ve visited Warsaw since I left 12 years ago for college, that’s where we’d part ways until next time. With each year, my grandpa would get a bit smaller, but the hug would always be just as tight as ever. In 2020, neither of us knew we were saying our final farewells. He died at the hospital after being infected by Covid during a minor surgery. No one got to say goodbye to him. We were deprived of so many goodbyes this year.
I also will not get to say goodbye to that apartment. I grew up there, it is the only home that’s been a steady anchor throughout my itinerant life. There’s a cute home video of three-year-old me completely butchering the street that it’s on (“Kavića,” instead of “Karłowicza,” for all my Polish speakers) which is also the shorthand we’d use to say we’re going to grandma’s house. I’m not there to help pack, to assist my grandmother and the rest of the family in sorting through all those memories and all the stuff you acquire over half a century.
Because the apartment has always been in the family — my grandfather’s parents bought the house in 1932 — it’s gone through many incarnations. As they flew the coup, my mom and her siblings’ teenage bedrooms were repurposed into a formal dining room, guest room, office. As Poland transitioned from communism to a capitalist democracy, and my grandmother brought back the spoils of many an estate sale from their four-year stint in Washington DC, the decor got an upgrade.
In my lifetime, it’s been an elegant space suffused with family history. Think old Persian rugs, 19th-century paintings in worn-out gold frames, leather-bound encyclopedias, some of them written by family members, fine china in a large, dark-wood cupboard. But it was no museum. Hints of a rich domestic life peeked from everywhere: pictures of all the grandkids crowded the living room shelves alongside those dignified tomes; the bedrooms were stacked with newspapers, documents, and letters; there was a crate of Legos trotted out for young visitors.
But the warmth of the apartment emanated right from the entrance, where my grandmother had her kitchen.
With a large window overlooking the garden, the kitchen was brighter than the rest of the apartment. And there was nothing fancy about it. Well-worn appliances, a usually boiling electric kettle, a practical wooden table, which would seat 4-6 people for a casual meal, usually covered in some degree of household clutter.
It was also the loudest room in the house. While my grandfather — whom I’ve written about elsewhere — would quietly shuffle in from the interior of the apartment to say hi, my grandmother would be bouncing between the sink and counter and blast you with a high-pitched, loving “HEEEEYYYY.” It’s where she cooked, pots and pans always clanging. It’s where she’d inevitably ask what could she give you to eat, whether some comforting soup or her latest culinary experiment. It’s where she taught me how to make her famous savory Christmas pastries from a 19-century family recipe. But it was also where she’d hand me all the newspaper clippings she’d found interesting or told me about a new favorite book. It was her office, where she took her dozens of daily phone calls from friends and family all around the world, where she kept her birthday calendar, which I’ve written an entirely separate tribute about. It was the room where she remembered about everyone.
The backdrop to all of this was The Kitchen Wall. Her creation. A living, breathing chronicle of our family life, and a testament to her love, care, and the amount of labor it all takes. There was a row of framed photos: the requisite kid and grandkid shots, but also my grandmother herself artfully crouching on the beach in fake eyelashes during her modeling days in the 1960s, and a family picture taken at that same table sometime in the 1980s, awkward teenagers galore, and a recreation of the same image taken 10 or 15 years later, tucked behind the corner of the frame.
There were drawings and poems by various grandkids, postcards from all over stuck into the wainscoting. There’s a collage my grandmother made of her time in the US, a memento of a consumerist life behind a glass clip frame: four different supermarket membership cards (Costco AND Safeway), an AAA sticker, some Gap Kids pamphlet, old health insurance cards. There’s also a small shrine to my short-lived New York Times career — a framed copy of my first bylined article (gifted by a family friend), a photo of me in front of the Times building in New York.
In recent years, the increasingly illiberal political situation in Poland prompted my grandmother to dedicate the central part of The Kitchen Wall to political statements: a printout of a rainbow flag in solidarity with the LGBTQ community, portraits of 1980s- era democratic opposition leaders who have been maligned by those currently in power, protest paraphernalia from the last several years.
One family friend from abroad asked my mother to take photos of The Kitchen Wall before my grandmother moved out. As she put it “for me, it is — not to be too dramatic — the beating heart of my part of Warsaw.”
I can relate. If I were to give the definition of “hearth,” that wall, that table would be it. I feel privileged that I’ve had such a place, and that I have so much clarity on what this word means to me. My grandmother is going to recreate The Kitchen Wall in her next apartment, and wherever she is, that’s where my personal hearth will be.
Still, I’m losing something very important.
When you lose someone you love, at first, you can only really think of that person, and the gaping hole in your life. I think about my grandpa most days. But then, it turns out, their death brings all these other things you find yourself grieving for. A big, dark apartment. A wooden duck collection. A kitchen wall. A family gathering that will never be the same...
It’s hard to imagine a life without these things to begin with, and since I’m thousands of miles away, everything is that much more abstract. The pandemic has disembodied grief. No hospital visits, no funerals, no hugs. No last look around, last conversation around the kitchen table.
I go between hurting that I’m not there, and being grateful that the last memory I’ll have of my grandfather will be a hug in his childhood home. And that the last memory I’ll have of that home, my hearth, is of my grandfather giving me a hug.
Note: For anyone who’s new here: normally this is where I have a section with various recommendations. Not this time.