I recently came across two letters Babcia wrote to Mama, one on August 31, 1945 and the other on February 4, 1958. The letters have some surprising parallels—Babcia’s instructions about proper modes of behavior and attire, and her lack of enthusiasm about my mother’s marriage plans. I’ve been trying to sort out what two letters indicate about the relationship between my mother and grandmother.
When the first letter was written, they were still living in Poland and Papa (Babcia’s second husband) was still alive. The letters are in Polish. Babcia expresses a great deal of affection for Mama; she addresses her “Ukochana Marychno”—Dearest Marysia (she uses a diminutive of Marysia, which is already a diminutive of Maria). She also calls her “coruś,” a diminutive form of “daughter,” and “słotkie dziecko”—“sweet child.”
I’m leaving out the details from the first part of the letter in which Babcia describes returning to Papa (probably after running away, as she was wont to do), Papa’s misbehavior and contrition, and Babcia’s joy at getting news from her sons who are living safely abroad. The second page is most relevant to this post. Babcia writes:
“Papa says that if you decided to marry, which wouldn’t necessarily thrill us, not because of Bimbus (a nickname I don’t recognize, but it probably refers to Mama’s first love Władek) who is a very decent fellow, and that means a lot, but because of your present state of health, so definitely let us know your plans and don’t worry that it will cost us. We want to pay for it. Besides, we never expected you to inform us, so we don’t want to be silly, but we think, without imposing on your views, that you are making too much trouble for each other, marrying, and that’s only worth doing when people love each other horribly. /you know, even then it’s often not worth it.
“I must be some kind of degenerate, because instead of encouraging my daughter to marry, I discourage her. Don’t be mad at me, my dear. I think that more than anything I’m your best friend.”
I can only wonder at the remarkable, long sentences. Though she says she doesn’t want to impose on Mama’s views, clearly she expresses her disapproval of Mama’s desire to marry. But why? Was it really concern for Mama’s health? Earlier in the letter, she refers to Mama’s operation. But even the issue of “health” is ambiguous—could it refer to a physical health issue or a mental health issue? Surgery to repair her war injuries or something else? Or might it rather be a reflection of Babcia’s own ambivalence about marriage generally, shaped by her own trials with Papa and perhaps also Mama’s choice of a partner?
I’m not sure how to read the tone of the letter, either. Is Babcia angry? I think maybe. She seems to be cloaking her efforts to exert an influence on Mama in expressions of affection.
In the letter, Babcia also instructs Mama about what kind of coat she should get. It should be straight and roomy in front and back. She even adds a lengthy handwritten note with further details about its style and price.
The second letter was written over twelve years later, when they lived in New York and Babcia was staying at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Forida. No doubt in response to the news that Mama eloped with my father, Babcia writes, “You leave me speechless, and you know well how agitated I am about your situation […] Please write me about your plans and where you intend to live. Will you live with Wiley or separately?”
Although Babcia addresses Mama as “ukochana Marychno” in this letter, as she did in the previous one, the tone seems harsher and more distant. And she definitely sounds angry. She insists Mama tell her immediately what she wants for a wedding present, and instructs Mama to send out wedding announcements right away (she provides a numbered list of people to contact). “Write to me right away what you plan to do next. Don’t you understand how much I want to be a part of this, at least post factum?” She asks if my Dad has forbidden Mama to communicate with her. “In that case I won’t be mad at you. God be with you.”
So much is left unsaid in this letter. It provides me with more context for understanding my grandmother and father’s dislike of each other, though it doesn’t clarify the root cause. Why does Babcia end the letter abruptly, “I have to run. Warm kisses?” Is this another expression of anger, or perhaps symptomatic of a distance that has grown between my mother and grandmother over a long period of time?
The letters also reflect Babcia’s concern with etiquette–the wedding announcements, the proper cut of a coat. She appreciates a bargain, but also values giving and receiving generous gifts. Paying for things for someone seems like a way of expressing affection.
These are more clues to my mother’s and grandmother’s lives. But they remain fragmentary. Only speculation holds them together.