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My Polish grandmother has shared so many invaluable lessons with me. What could I teach her in return?

What is the secret to seducing a man? According to my 89-year-old Polish Catholic grandmother, offer him pickled cucumbers and ham. She told me this in hushed tones in my London kitchen three years ago, when I had just broken up with my boyfriend. Handing me a white ceramic plate divided into two sections, she explained that one part was for the ham and the other for the cucumbers. The fact that I’m a vegetarian, she added, shouldn’t stop me serving ham to a man. I’m certain she believes that the magic plate secured for me the relationship I now have.

My life is woven through with advice like this from Babcia (the Polish word for grandmother). Ever since I can remember, she has been squeezing my hand and whispering wisdom into my ear, winking as she reveals answers to the kinds of questions we all ask. Food I should eat in order to live a long time? Herring, beetroot and pierogi dumplings fried with butter, cream and lard on top. How to be happy? Always look for the best in everyone, have a pot of soup ready for unexpected guests and make sure you pray regularly. Recently, though, to my surprise and delight, I have found a little of my own “wisdom” seeping back in the other direction.

Each year since I was born, Babcia has left her tiny, fourth-floor flat in provincial south-east Poland to stay with us in London for six weeks. Her daughter – my mother – moved to London more than 30 years ago after meeting my British-Jewish father on a visit to England to improve her language skills. Although Babcia and I have always lived in different countries, she has long been a stable presence in my life.

When I was a toddler, she left my grandfather (who didn’t even know how to boil an egg) in Poland and came to stay for two months to look after me, so that my mother could study for her law finals. She pushed my buggy up Muswell Hill, one of the steepest parts of the city, to playgroup, taught me Polish folk songs and wrapped me up so warmly that I was fit for a Siberian winter. Now that I’m 30, she still tries to make me wear seven jumpers on a spring day but, more importantly, we also spend our time talking.

Almost daily she will mention her plans for my impending Catholic wedding, which she insists will take place in her favourite church in the middle of the Polish countryside; never mind that I’m not actually engaged and have never mentioned that I want a wedding. I’ve been with my boyfriend for two years, but since I was a teenager, I’ve felt unsure that marriage was something I would ever want. In Babcia’s eyes, however, the fact that he came with me to see her in Poland last summer means I may as well have a diamond ring on my finger and be spending my spare time browsing Vera Wang for veils.

Delgado
Delgado and her grandmother in winter 2004. Photograph: courtesy Kasia Delgado

Babcia has reassured me that she has her favourite priest lined up for the big day, and says it’s best to marry when you have known your partner only a short time so you find out all the bad things about them afterwards, when it’s too late.

Her focus on my mythical wedding is rooted in her own experience of womanhood. She understands that women can have successful careers, and will certainly champion their right to that – but she can’t shake off the feeling that men need to be fed and pampered by their wives. Babcia spent her life cooking and sewing for her children and late husband, and was always ready with a vat of soup and dish of roasted meat for when my professor grandfather turned up after work with a few colleagues in tow. For Babcia, that was the order of things.

When she stays with us, though, the order of things is rather different. My high-flying mother gets back home after a long working day to be told by Babcia how wonderful my (retired) father is for emptying the dishwasher. When he irons a shirt, it’s as if the second coming has happened.

If we take Babcia out for morning coffee, she protests and declares it a sin because, after all, we have coffee at home. But she secretly loves these trips; it’s a luxury she was never able to enjoy in Poland. She will joyfully sip cappuccino and tell the waiter in Polish that it’s the best cafe she has ever been to. Whether he speaks the language is irrelevant, because she believes that everyone understands what she says.

Babcia also urges me to tell everyone that my (male) flatmate is my neighbour, because “people will talk”. If anyone else told me, as she does regularly, that I should have been married years ago, and that I ought to have a baby asap, I would feel murderous. But Babcia gets away with it. She radiates such immense tenderness, even when she warns me my lack of baking skills will drive my boyfriend into the arms of another woman.

This year she surprised me. For the first time she began to ask me about a wide range of subjects, from how I iron (I don’t) to homosexuality, because until she met my friends, she had never known a gay person. She wondered whether my lesbian friend “misses going to the cinema with a nice boy” and wanted to know why some people are gay and others aren’t. Babcia’s confusion came from lack of exposure to people of different sexual orientation and, over the course of her visit, I could see things become clearer to her.

When a Polish national newspaper started handing out “LGBT-free zone” stickers (since banned by the courts), Babcia told me that gay people, on the whole, seem nicer than straight ones. Even if it was a tricky generalisation, that was good enough for me. She was so taken with my flatmate (who is gay) because of his kindness and impressive baking skills that when I ring her now she asks after him before wanting my news.

One evening on that last visit, I showed Babcia an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. When I suggested it was time to go to bed at 11.30pm, she wanted to keep watching. “Those amazing legs!” she said, wide-eyed. Since she doesn’t speak English, I translated the words of one drag queen’s grandmother, who explained that, while she was deeply religious, she was extremely proud and accepting of her grandson. That clinched it for Babcia. At that moment, I felt immense pride in her, because it must have been a long journey from a life dominated by communism and Catholicism – both huge sources of homophobia in Soviet-dominated Poland – to cheering a drag queen called the Vixen twerking in sequined hot pants to Cher.

Babcia’s six-week visits expose her to a new kind of life and remind me not to make assumptions about an 89-year-old person’s view of the world. Meanwhile, at home in Poland, she is still talking delightedly about RuPaul and his legs, in between ringing the priest to make plans for the Catholic wedding I didn’t know I was having.

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