Within any repeated tales of family history there are information gaps, and when you hear the tales as a child, you don’t notice the gaps at all. But as you grow older they swell and present themselves, and finally the gaps become the story, even though you know they will never be filled. In my family, it is still not known why my grandmother grew up in an orphanage in rural Hungary while her brother lived with their mother ten miles away.
The children were put into separate institutions when their father disappeared on the Russian Front, but within a few weeks, the boy escaped and followed the railway line back to his home in Budapest’s VIIth District, a gesture which so impressed his mother she decided to keep him, though she left the girl where she was.
There was one year’s difference between the children; they were very close. He’d borrow a bike – he’d have been around six, and she five – and cycle to see her. She would ask him when she was going to be taken home, but he was never able to deliver the news she wanted.
The orphanage, in the village of Csobánka, was run by her aunt, a Catholic mother superior. It is fair to assume that it might be good to have a family member on the staff of your orphanage, but, in the most nunnish way, a family connection at Csobánka meant harsher treatment. My grandmother was enlisted to prepare food for the sisters, who dined pretty well. As they peeled potatoes, the girls were gagged with a cotton cloth in case they slipped a piece of potato peel in. The children got ten decagrams of bread per day – but they did get treats in the winter, when they were allowed to gather snow for “ice cream”, and cover it in sugar.
In cold weather the girls wore blazers, tying the sleeves together at the chest instead of putting their arms through them, turning the jacket into a kind of tube to keep themselves warm. Several odd domestic chores befell my grandmother. Aged eight, she was required to dig a large hole, which took a day or two, and then help roll the orphanage sow, who’d died of foot and mouth, into its freshly dug grave.
In about 1920, Lord Baden-Powell was several years into his Scouting movement, with girl and boy jamborees popping up around the world. For some reason lost to time, he came to the orphanage at Csobánka with his young wife Olave, to meet the mother superior, do some charitable work, and who knows, maybe even inspire a little girl Scout movement among the children.
My grandmother, then aged seven, was blonde and confident, with big blue eyes and a ribbon in her hair. She was singled out for special attention by the visitors, and was sat on the knee of Baden-Powell himself. The couple had three children of their own, but made enquiries about her – was she available for adoption, they asked? No, she was not, the mother superior explained, because unlike the other girls, she wasn’t actually an orphan – her mother lived up the road.
Was this story all a child’s dream of wanting to be wanted? Or was it, indirectly, a triumph for a mother who, for reasons we can’t know, did not want her daughter, but could still somehow veto the promise of a life elsewhere?
The orphanage was my grandmother’s home until the age of 18, when she left for teacher training college in western Hungary, ignoring her aunt’s attempts to turn her into a nun. While sweeping the chapel as a child, she’d hid a piece of paper in the altar, asking God to take her away to “a far off island”. He, or fate, delivered that when the Russians came in 1947 and she fled occupied Europe, finding herself in Lancashire and working in the cotton mills.
When she died in 2008, we took her ashes back to Hungary: the urn showed up in the Easyjet security scanner looking like a box of Cadbury’s Roses. We drove to Csobánka and found the orphanage buildings derelict, fenced off from the road. We scattered half her ashes throughout the rooms because, however much she shouldn’t have been there in the first place, it was probably the most important home she had. She always called it her “nursery”.
Next week: Tracey Thorn