Almost all of my ancestors died when they were over eighty or ninety, but even against this background of longevity Great Aunt Melania, whom I called simply Aunt Melania, was an exception as she died when she was a hundred and four. She lived for so long because she had a strong physical constitution, like her mother, father and sister, but I believe that there was more to her clinging to life than having a healthy heart and liver. She carried on living because she was looking for closure. All her life she engaged in many endeavours and when it turned out that they couldn’t be concluded in good order, she moved on to new ones, to make up for those which were in disarray. One can ask why then she kept moving on. My answer is that this was my family’s nature – they were all very active people, who wanted to live life to the full until I arrived on the scene.
The first event which fitted this pattern of something which starts well, but does not finish properly was Melania’s first marriage. She met her future husband, Zbigniew Markiewicz, in 1926, at the horse races in Warsaw. When he saw her he immediately fell in love with her, which apparently was not difficult because she was an exceptional beauty, with very dark eyes and eyebrows, full lips and wavy dark hair, a bit like Rita Hayworth, but with more rounded, Slavic face. She was only 17 years old then, and her future husband was 20. While in terms of age they were quite compatible, what divided them was class . She was the daughter of a respectable construction foreman from Grodzisk Mazowiecki, an industrial town near Warsaw; he was a Polish aristocrat from Russia, born in St. Petersburg. I don’t know how such Polish aristocracy was different from that which was truly Polish, but according to my grandmother, it was more snobbish. This was because in Russia they obsessed about not contaminating their blood with anybody beneath, be it Russians or Poles of the lower classes. The same rule applied when they moved to Poland after the First World War, in 1920. Although they were pure-blooded, they were impoverished and the young Zbigniew had to support himself by getting a job as a railway clerk. At the same time, he was looking for a way to escape poverty and boredom and film and theatre seemed to him a good way out. He started to go to castings and was given small parts in plays. When he met Melania, he was still completely unknown. Maybe it was the reason he fell under her spell. If he was already friends with female movie stars by then, he would have been less impressionable.
Soon after Zbigniew and Melania tied the knot, his career took off. In 1929 he played a scene in ‘Strong Man’, in due course hailed as the best Polish film of the silent period. In the next two years he was the star of several plays. He was such a commanding presence on stage that he rejected playing supporting roles in the movies; nothing interested him aside from being the leading man. Hence, in the early 1930s he got those parts, playing either Polish officers or charismatic bandits. He played in five or six such films, but most of them didn’t survive. One of those which did, ‘The Straggler’, my mother and I watched for the first in the cinema of the Film Archive in the 1980s. I found it boring then, having to endure twenty minutes of mountaineering, dancing and singing, before Markiewicz appeared. For my mother, however, the anticipation added to her excitement and she was very moved, when she eventually saw it, at the market where people were trading with sheepskins and moccasins. Now the film is available on YouTube and it gained for me considerably on the small screen on my computer.
The year 1933 when ‘The Straggler’had its premiere, in the global scale of things is remembered mostly as the year when Hitler seized power in Germany, which led to the Second World War and the rest of it. For Markiewicz, however, it was a great year, as he played the leading role in three films. He was also voted the most elegant Polish actor at a big ball organised by the Actors’ Union or some similar organisation. There was talk about him going to Hollywood. But I’m moving ahead too much, neglecting Aunt Melania, who is the true protagonist of this story.
Markiewicz’s family did not accept Melania and none of his relatives attended their wedding which took place a year and a bit after their first meeting. They didn’t even change their mind when Melania gave birth to a boy in 1928, who was named Mirosław. On the contrary, they despised him even more. Markiewicz couldn’t forgive his family that they didn’t accept his life choices, but he also couldn’t forgive his wife for driving a wedge between him and his aristocratic relatives and making him look provincial. Once his career took off, he was ashamed to take Melania to the parties and theatre premieres. He was also difficult at home, even abusive, as well as unfaithful, sleeping with every actress with whom he played, as well as the wives of the theatre managers and other women yielding power in Warsaw’s little world of entertainment. It is not obvious, however, how much of this philandering was prompted by his desire to punish Melania for ruining his life, how much was a reflection of his lust and how much his acting ambitions.
While Melania was prepared to forgive Markiewicz his sexual indiscretions, she couldn’t condone his lack of interest in their offspring and his unwillingness to support her financially. In due course the first grudge became irrelevant, as Mirosław, whom his mother called Mireczek, died of pneumonia just after his second birthday. Melania was inconsolable, although everybody told her that she had a good life ahead of her: she could give birth to an entire army troop, if she wanted to. The most supportive of all was Stasia, Melania’s sister and my future grandmother. One couldn’t imagine better sisters than Melania and Stasia, always seeking practical solutions to each other’s misfortunes, celebrating their successes and lending a shoulder to cry on.
A year or so after Mireczek’s death Melania rented an apartment in Warsaw and with financial help from her father opened a hat shop. There she met a couple of her lovers and her future husband, who was a Russian officer living in Warsaw named Novosiltzov. In Poland, this surname had very bad connotations, because in the Polish ‘Forefathers’ Eve’ by the Polish national poet prophet Adam Mickiewicz, such a name was given to the chief enemy of Poles and the faithful servant of the Tzar, Senator Novosiltzov. For this reason, Melania’s father, who was an ardent Polish patriot, was against her dating this guy. But to no avail, as he was, again, very attractive, and it appeared to her, that he had the virtues that Markiewicz was lacking. As it was not easy to get a divorce then, given that Zbigniew and Melania were both Catholics, Melania became a member of the Orthodox Church and hence married Novosiltzov without properly divorcing Markiewicz or even informing her family. She told me that only her sister knew.
Novosiltzov turned out in some ways to be the opposite of Markiewicz, but not always in a good way. For example, he liked to spend his free time at home, but this meant that Melania had to cook for him several times a day and entertain him, as well as run the hat shop. It wasn’t easy, given that at the time there were no fridges and no television. Moreover, his affinity to domesticity was in part prompted by his jealous and controlling nature, which increasingly got on Melania’s nerves because she was on the ‘free bird’ side. She liked dressing up, going out and meeting people. Again, as with Markiewicz, she was prepared to put up with his shortcomings, if he was compensating elsewhere, most importantly on the fertility front. Unfortunately, during the three or four years they were together, Melania failed to become pregnant, despite eating tannis root and using voodoo dolls. Thus, she started to consider divorcing Novosiltzov, although she wasn’t sure how to go about it, to minimise any possible problems. Life, however, brought a solution, It happened when Markiewicz challenged another man to a duel. I’m not sure about the reason, but according to my mother, he was fighting for a woman, an actress Ina Benita, with whom he played in ‘The Straggler’. Benita was married at the time but like Markiewicz, she had lovers and he was one of them. He didn’t mind her being married, but he didn’t like to share her with one of these lovers and so a duel took place. Both duellists survived, but Markiewicz was seriously wounded. He spent several weeks in bed, and when he eventually recovered, he was so weak that got pneumonia, like his only son, and died.
Although Markiewicz had many lovers, he had only one wife and it was Aunt Melania. Hence, at his funeral she followed his coffin as if she was his proper widow. This made Novosiltzov so angry that he shot at her when she returned home. Luckily the bullet only grazed the skin on her cheek– she remained unscathed except for getting some hair burnt. This episode, however, put a wedge between her and her Russian husband and soon they divorced. Only then her parents learnt that she had been married to him.
After this episode Aunt Melania remained unmarried for over a decade, in part because of the outbreak of the Second World War and in part because she cherished her freedom and came to the conclusion that she needed to be more careful when choosing her partners. She was right as two of her war lovers did not survive the war: one, who was Jewish, died in a concentration camp and one during the Warsaw Uprising where she herself fought with great bravery, under the pseudonym ‘nurse Ewa’, tending to the wounds of fellow freedom fighters. She particularly regretted the insurrectionist lover, because although they knew each other for only a couple of months, she felt like they were a great match. Most of all she regretted that he didn’t get her pregnant as it would have been a great souvenir of their liaison and somebody to whom she could devote her life.
Melania’s sister Stasia was also fighting in the Warsaw Uprising and there she met her husband and my future grandfather, whose name was Włodzimierz. Like Markiewicz, he came from Polish aristocracy and before the war studied classical philology and Roman languages. In the thirties, such a liaison would be regarded as demeaning for the aristocrat, but the war and especially the Uprising, changed this – class differences stopped to matter, as people were expected to die at any moment. However, he survived and after the war ended up as a civil servant in the department of pensions. He married Stasia in a hurry as my mother was on the way – she was born in 1945. After the way, they were living quietly with Melania and Stasia’s parents in the family house in Grodzisk. Thanks to my great grandfather’s talent as a builder, this was one of the most charming houses in the town, looking like a miniature mansion, with pillars and cast iron ornamented balconies. It was also surrounded by vine, trees and a great variety of flowers, tended to by its inhabitants. This is a house I still regard as my home, even though I never lived there. After the war Stasia was busy looking after my mother, and then she found employment in a forestry office in Warsaw, first as a clerical assistant and then a junior accountant. During her time in this place, where significantly more men than women were employed, she was looking for opportunities for her sister, as a means of improving Melania’s financial situation and taking her mind off all the losses she suffered in the last two decades. Eventually she found it – the position of secretary for one of the firm’s directors. This guy, whose name was Jerzy, would become Melania’s third husband. She moved with him to his spacious apartment in Warsaw’s district of Mokotów. He fell short by Melania’s and even Stasia’s rather modest standards of attractiveness, but in the late forties and fifties times were hard for women as the war decimated Polish menfolk. Women of the marrying age had to content themselves with whoever was available, including cowards, cripples and cads.
Jerzy was fifteen years older than Melania, divorced and childless, but being a despot, he didn’t want to have children of his own, as he wanted to remain the centre of everybody’s attention. And yet, despite his conveying his wishes to Melania in no unambiguous terms and even checking on her menstrual cycle before making love to her, she managed to get pregnant. In this way, in 1951, at the age of 42, she gave birth to a girl whose name was Ewa, as if to mark the new beginning in her life and also as a souvenir of the times when she used this pseudonym during the Warsaw Uprising and was in love with a dashing insurrectionist. She called her by its diminutive, Ewunia, to emphasise how much she loved and cherished her. The girl was apparently so sweet that even her selfish father fell in love with her when he saw her. Most likely, she would reach adulthood, if not for the fact that at the time Poland was at the forefront of the fight against polio, perhaps due to the fact that the man who discovered the vaccination against this disease, Hilary Koprowski, was a Pole, and the Polish children born that year got the vaccine. But in some hospitals babies got the wrong vaccine or the wrong dose of the vaccine and Ewunia was among them. She thus died at the age of 39 days. Before she died, she was baptised by the hospital nurse who was crying when she did so. And, of course, Aunt Melania was crying even more when she collected the small, stiff body from the hospital. Ewunia was buried next to Mireczek. In due course, when I visited these graves, some people assumed that these were the graves of my children and I started to think about them this way. From time to time I even take out a piece of very thin and yellow paper, which is a certificate of Ewunia’s baptism in the hour of her death, and cry.
Still attractive, Aunt Melania managed to have a clandestine affair with a man almost twenty years younger than her. But it didn’t lead to pregnancy and the couple eventually split. I believe that after this experience she gave up on children and decided to stay with her third husband, despite his numerous flaws. When this husband retired, they gave up their apartment in Warsaw and returned to the house in Grodzisk, where they took over its eastern wing.From there Aunt Melania commuted to Warsaw, where she continued to work, albeit without achieving any success, just to earn a pension. By contrast, her mousy younger sister managed to climb the employment ladder and became the chief accountant in the forestry office and subsequently in a larger firm, specialising in electrical equipment. Professionally, Stasia was busier than Melania and didn’t have much time for her daughter, so Melania filled the void, looking after and pampering my mother, maybe because she was aware how this child was important for continuing the family line. Indeed, she loved her so much that my mother was always running away from her, as Melania’s devotion forced her to be good, while it was against my mother’s nature, which was marked by selfishness and satisfaction from the misfortune of fellow human beings (what is seen as constituting Polish character). My mother remained the only child of her parents, maybe because the times were hard and Włodzimierz’s health was ailing. He died in 1951 from heart failure, the same year when Melania’s daughter was born and died. It had to be a hard year for my ancestors but, on the other hand, people at the time were more used to death than now.
Despite her difficult character and on account of her studying architecture, which in the 1960s attracted mostly men, my mother got herself a boyfriend, Ryszard, who became her husband and my father. Sadly, I practically do not remember him, as he died of a heart attack when I was only three, as if following our family tradition. My mother never re-married and so I became the only child in the family full of old people, which, by the time I had reached adulthood, consisted of my great grandparents. my grandmother, Aunt Melania and her husband, as well as some old relatives on my father’s side, some of whom, luckily, I shared with cousins on my father’s side.
When I became a teenager, I had to attend to their needs, as my mother was busy earning money and was uniquely unsuitable to dealing with people. This meant driving them to doctor’s appointments, as aside from Aunt Melania, neither of them could drive and she was a nervous driver. I was also arranging the renovation of our Grodzisk’s home and remembering about their namesdays, birthdays, as well as anniversaries related to Aunt Melania’s children. This also meant extinguishing some of their crazy ideas, such as setting up a B&B in the ground floor of the house in Grodzisk.
At some point my life started to revolve around the conclusion of the lives of my relatives, making sure that they had written and signed their wills, taking them to hospitals, employing nurses and, finally, arranging the last sacraments and funerals. I was also responsible for maintaining our house in Grodzisk which, although built from the best available material, was crumbling under the weight of its years, as well as neglect, including my mother’s insistence to use it as a shelter for all homeless cats from the neighbourhood. (My mother always loved cats more than people; this was her only redeeming feature and perhaps a license to be cold and spiteful). To minimise the effort, I had began to make changes, replacing wooden sheds with brick outhouses, leafy hedges with conifer ones and laying pebbles down in the garden to prevent it from becoming overgrown with weeds. On occasion, Aunt Melania grumbled, recollecting the times when the garden was full of colourful flowers and vegetables, but I ignored her complaints, knowing that nothing is more prone to becoming a swamp than a picturesque paradise. Despite these changes, people who visited the house were impressed by how well maintained it remained. This included my mother who, being selfish, ceded the care of the house to me, presenting it as a price worth paying to inherit such as wonderful place.
During all these years when I was looking after my small old-folk home, Aunt Melania was pressing me to get married or have a child out of wedlock to ensure that our line would be continued. I was replying, insensitively, that I couldn’t have a child when looking after a house full of old people. There was some truth to it as they were taking up all my time. However, the main reason was different: seeing them so vulnerable and powerless, and so happy to see me, the only person who cared about them, even if out of duty rather than love, made me scared of old age. I didn’t want to be in their position, waiting for some indifferent brat appearing on their driveway as if she or he was a Messiah. Therefore, as long as I remember, I was haunted by the thought of committing suicide, to avoid their sad fate. It was just too early to do it before my first date, first foreign trip, going to the university, getting a degree, a job, seeing Chile, Peru and New Zealand and so I have reached fifty and still the time for suicide hasn’t been right. Moreover, I couldn’t commit suicide when I had all these old people under my supervision. In the meantime, I also got married, which gave Aunt Melania a new hope for a scion, but when this hope did not materialise for ten or so years, in part because my husband, like my Great Uncle Jerzy, liked to be the centre of attention, she gave up and let her weak heart stop. She outlived my mother, who died of cancer (an illness fitting her spiteful, all-consuming nature) a year earlier. Of all these old relatives Aunt Melania’s death touched me most or indeed, only her death’ moved me, even literally, as my hands trembled as I visited the funeral house and put a wreath on her grave. I also felt that the world owed her something, some closure, which she was denied in her life. But, of course, the world did not care about Aunt Melania, as it didn’t care about more serious incidents of injustice, so I decided to write this story: a modest substitute for other forms of eternity which she was denied.
Ewa Mazierska is a historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. She published over thirty of them in The Longshot Island, The Adelaide Magazine, The Fiction Pool, Literally Stories, Ragazine, BlazeVox, Red Fez, Away, The Bangalore Review, Shark Reef, and Mystery Tribune among others. In 2019 she published her first collection of short stories, Neighbours and Tourists (New York, Adelaide Books). Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.