The Widow and Her Daughter
Of all the houses on our street, the last but one was the most mysterious to me. Or, to be precise, it was simply unknown. There was no mystery, because there was no curiosity on my part to learn what was going on there.
I knew that the people who lived there were an old widow and her daughter. The widow was not unfriendly, but she wasn’t one for small talk or gossip. As for her daughter, she was even less talkative. For Christmas and Easter, the widow and her daughter stayed in their home and nobody visited them. One could see them in the church, sitting some distance from the altar, as if not to attract attention, although nobody paid much attention to them anyway. The only person in my family who had any relation with the widow was my granny, who exchanged seeds and plants with her. She claimed that the widow had the best cucumbers and tomatoes on our street and she was the first to try new vegetables such as peppers and oddly shaped pumpkins, whose proper name ‘squash’ I learnt many years later.
At some stage the daughter left our village to study biology or chemistry in Toruń, but she returned home after finishing her education, and became a teacher in a neighbouring village. Some years later she was promoted to headmistress in the same school. She was the first female teacher in our village to drive her own car, although nobody saw her having driving lessons, passing a test or taking advice where to get the best bargain for the car. People assumed that the money for the car came from renting their land. The car added to the daughter’s unknowability, as one cannot see car drivers properly, in contrast to cyclists who cannot easily ignore those shouting at them.
By the time I asked my mother what happened to these distant neighbours, the daughter was in her forties and she was still unmarried and lived with her mother. This was an uncommon position for women in our village, except that it befell female teachers more often than members of any other occupational group, simply because teachers in Poland are mostly women, so they have few opportunities for office romance and live under pressure to behave modestly. To that I shall add that the widow’s daughter wasn’t a beauty. She had a square peasant face, bluntly-cut mousy blonde hair which looked greasy even when freshly washed and a stocky body, clad in shapeless brown or grey skirts or trousers of the same colour. But she wasn’t ugly either; just plain. Our village was full of people who looked like her and it wasn’t difficult to imagine her going to the altar with her male equivalent.
One thing which made the house where the widow and her daughter lived unknowable was that it was built kind of back to front. The front facing the street had only two narrow windows, like squinted spying eyes, turned 180 degrees. By contrast, the back of the house had two large windows and wide double doors, overseeing a large backyard. When my granny used to visit the widow and the widow was in charge of the house, it was an ordinary backyard with hens pecking at the grass. The garden with these magnificent vegetables was then at the front of the house. It was not surrounded by a fence, but by tall hollyhocks, always gently moving in the wind and proudly displaying their flowers, like some exotic naked women showing their breasts in a ceremonial dance.
When the daughter returned to live back with her mother, she took over the estate and things started to change. She got rid of the hollyhocks and erected a tall fence. Where there used to be a vegetable garden, there was now a flower garden and the vegetable garden was reduced and moved to a distant corner, on the right side of the house. It stopped looking like a proper vegetable garden and more like an inroad into the field of their neighbour, who grew potatoes and fodder beets.
The real change happened at the courtyard. The hens disappeared and the large space was transformed into an exotic flower display, with the plants showcased in fancy pots and arranged on special ladders or other contraptions. They flowered even in winter, thanks to the daughter moving them to a fancy greenhouse. Such a conspicuous display was completely untypical of our village, where people grew flowers, but didn’t arrange them. What was even more unusual was that this exotic collection was private – the flowers couldn’t be seen from the street. To see them, people had to enter the courtyard. This required knocking and pretending that they had an errand for the widow or her daughter. Most of the time, however, nobody let them in.
People gossiped that the widow was there, but the daughter locked her up and didn’t allow her to have any guests. I, for that matter, hadn’t seen the widow in ages – though once, when I passed by their house cycling, I spotted her extracting the weeds from the vegetable garden. She saw me too and waved to me, so I stopped my bike and walked through the field to meet her. I was surprised that she recognised me, given that we never had a proper conversation, at least not since the death of my granny.
‘You are Mrs. K’s granddaughter, aren’t you?’ she asked me rhetorically, yet, straight to the point.
‘But you don’t live here anymore?’ she asked.
‘Indeed, I moved away many years ago, but keep coming back every summer.’
‘When your granny was alive, we had the best gardens on our street and even in the whole village. Her parsnips were huge, tasty and stayed fresh the whole year. Her spice plantation was also unbeatable and she gave everybody dill and horseradish for making sour cucumbers. But I had the best tomatoes and beans, because at the time I was able to travel to Włocławek or even Bydgoszcz to buy new seeds and plants. Now, I couldn’t go to Włocławek– too much hassle and my daughter wouldn’t allow me. She says I’m senile and need to stay at home, because otherwise I will be lost.’
I replied, to be polite: ‘Your daughter must have inherited your green hands, given the flower display in the backyard.’
‘Well, she doesn’t plant or prune them. She just buys them and sticks them on these contraptions. For me, they are dead.’
‘But they are beautiful,’ I said. ‘I’ve never seen anything like that anywhere else in Poland.’
‘Well, she travels far away to get them, sometimes as far as Białystok or Wrocław. The girl only has two things on her mind: flowers and the church.’
‘I didn’t know she was so religious.’
‘Yes, she was and it’s gotten worse since she retired. She goes on these various religious pilgrimages and gatherings. Often she goes to the flower market and religious events at the same time, going away for three or four days at a time.’
But there was no pride in the widow’s voice, only sadness. ‘You know, she’s a spinster, this daughter of mine.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘She likes it this way. Even when she was a teenager, she said that she wouldn’t get married because she couldn’t allow a nasty or ugly man enter our house.’
‘She must have been a strong character then, your daughter,’ I said.
‘Yes, she is,’ the widow admitted.
I couldn’t stay much longer, so I left and didn’t hear about the widow and her daughter for a long time – till the daughter died. Her death was remarkable and shed new light on her passion for collecting beautiful flowers. It turned out that she had a heart attack when attending a peep show in the East of Poland, looking at young male strippers from Ukraine, performing for private clients. She was sixty-five. Such performances were the real goals of her ‘religious pilgrimages’. I couldn’t help but smile when a neighbour told me, realising that in our village we have our own versions of the main literary types, including a female version of Professor Aschenbach from Thomas Mann’s novella, dying in the moment of a voyeuristic ecstasy.
‘Does the widow know what killed her daughter?’
‘No,’ the neighbour said. ‘We decided that it was better to keep her in the dark. She thinks she died at some religious meeting. Which is true, in a sense.’ giggled the neighbour.
‘What will happen to the widow?’ I asked.
‘She will go to the old people’s home, I guess,’ said the neighbour. ‘She has nobody to look after her, but she has money, plenty of money, especially if she sells the house and the land. It is worth hundreds of thousands of Euros these days.’
‘It makes sense to sell it,’ I said, although it caused me sorrow to think about all the houses and farms in our village which were passing to strangers.
Then I stopped thinking about the widow, again, assuming that she died. But then, several years after learning about the fate of her daughter, I spotted her again in her garden when cycling. This time she didn’t wave at me, but I decided to approach her on my own accord. She was using a walking stick now and a special weeding tool which didn’t require for her to kneel down. She was also wearing a hearing aid, which was a relief, for it meant that I didn’t need to shout to her.
Again, she recognised me and told me, showing me her weeding tool: ‘This was made especially for me. It has different endings for different actions. I paid two thousand zloty for it, but it’s worth every penny. Still, I cannot do everything in the garden or at home myself. A gardener comes once a week to help me and a nurse every day.’
‘It’s great that you can still live in your own home,’ I said.
‘Yes, it is. One doctor wanted to send me to a nursing home, but I objected. A special committee from Bydgoszcz came to assess me and agreed that I was okay to be on my own and, besides, there were no places in any nursing home this side of Włoclawek.’
‘This is great,’ I repeated, ‘but a shame there are no places for old folk.’
‘Do you know how old I am?’ she asked me.
‘I don’t know,’ I replied.
‘One hundred and one. Most people think that I should have died a long time ago, given that my life has been so bare – I lost my husband early, my sister died in her sixties, I had no grandchildren and now my only daughter is dead. Truth be told, I’m not afraid to die, but I still enjoy living. My garden keeps me going.’
I realised that it was also what my granny used to say. I didn’t begrudge the widow her longevity, but I was sad thinking that our garden hadn’t kept my granny as long as the widow.
It was late August and the widow’s garden was full of vegetables. She gave me a plastic bag in which I put some cucumbers, tomatoes and beans.
‘Take as much as you want as in two days the rest will be collected by Mr. M’ (who was another neighbour) and when I was leaving, she told me:
‘You look like your granny. She also had these light-blue eyes and a crooked her head like that when she was talking’, she said. ‘I do miss her badly,’ she said.
‘So do I,’ I replied and mounted my bike.
Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories and nonfiction in her spare time. They were published or are forthcoming in ‘The Longshot Island’, ‘The Adelaide Magazine’, ‘The Fiction Pool’, ‘Literally Stories’, ‘Ragazine’, ‘Shark Reef’, ‘BlazeVox’, ‘Red Fez’, ‘Away’, ‘The Bangalore Review’ and ‘Terror House Magazine’, among others. Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several short stories competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.