In the last months of my pregnancy (which I now look back on as a golden age of lounging), both my mother and father decided they would rather worry about me from close quarters. They came to Poland when I was around 30 weeks pregnant, and by the time they left, Maja and Janek were 10 weeks old. Looking back, I realise that their presence was what made the first few months bearable for me.
I had not expected them to come. Being of advanced maternal age, I have long been used to managing without my mummy and daddy. In addition, I was so overwhelmed by my own drama that I didn’t necessarily feel capable of playing host. So our first long period together for many years began on the understanding that I would do nothing for them and they would do everything for me.
And indeed this is how it looked. Before I left the hospital they were feeding and cuddling our babies like a pair of old midwives, coming at 7 for the morning shift with baked goods to supplement the miserly hospital diet. They managed their own lives and all the logistics associated with trying to get basic needs met in a foreign country with an incomprehensible language, learning the bus system, picking up basic Polish (no mean feat in 5 months) and braving the supermarket daily. My father made a trip to Belarus to renew his visa which almost gave him a stroke. My mother hurt her leg and couldn’t walk for months, and ended up being intensively rehabilitated twice a week by a young and happily English- speaking physiotherapist, who she befriended (as only she could) as she was getting her buttocks kneaded .
Despite their own tribulations, after we got home, every day they came, no matter how hobbling and apoplectic , across Warsaw, cooked my dinner, cleaned my house, did my shopping and took care of my babies. But their greatest gift (aside from a regular afternoon nap) was their company. It made me feel human and gave me the pleasures of social interaction without having to leave the house or get out of my pyjamas. My father was an endless source of silly and less silly poems (including John Crow Ransome’s “Piazza Piece” which he liked to recite to Maja (I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying/ to make you hear. Your ears are soft and small/ And listen to an old man not at all), and this John Ciardi gem which made me laugh like a drain. I told Maja and Janek that I was Nanny Meg and Grandpa Joe’s little baby once, and the thought of it made my head spin.
I know that it cost them, not only financially, but psychologically. They were in a strange place without much help from anyone, back at the hard work of baby farming, and having to live together for the first time in years. For me, though, it was a great blessing, and quite apart from all the assistance, I loved having a chance to spend time with them. We gossiped about everyone we had ever known, and talked about the olden days when they were the same age as I am now- about their friendships, their life choices, their own baby-raising days, their own parents. I am amazed and grateful that this was possible at exactly the time when I was living on the other side of the world.
I also realised that many of the things I want to give my own children are things which come from them. My mother’s inimitable gift for friendship, my father’s endless curiosity, their love of books and fascination with the natural world and mature-age camping skills. Watching them with our babies made me smile, and I felt somehow less exiled.
When they left, I felt powerless to thank them, as is often the case when somebody does everything for you and you do nothing for them, and pined for a good long while before I recovered.