Friday 29 March 2024

A Portrait in Time by S. Nadja Zajdman, chai served in a tall glass with a twist of lemon

 As a little girl, I was fascinated by a portrait on our living room wall. The elegant woman in the portrait seemed out of place in our shabby apartment.  I loved to look at this portrait which, I later learnt, was an enlargement of a photograph my mother’s sister hid in her underwear during the course of the Second World War.  It contained the profile of a regal-looking lady whose long thick hair was swept back, revealing a swan-shaped neck and bare alabaster shoulders.  The lady had high, wide cheekbones, and a strong, confident jaw.  Pearls hung from her ears, as if in suspended animation, and her almond-shaped eyes stared vacantly into a future she wouldn’t live to see.  While I studied the portrait my mother studied me.        

              “Who is she, Mummy?”

          My mother answered sadly.  “She’s your grandmother.”

          I was shocked.  “She can’t be my grandmother!  Grandmothers are old!”

          The pain in Mummy’s sigh was palpable.  “My mother never got a chance to get old.”  Together we gazed at the portrait, in contemplation.  “Her name was Natalia.  She was my mother.  That makes her your grandmother.”

          “But she doesn’t look like you.”

          Under the spell of her mother’s image my mother’s smile was sudden, and sweet.  “No.  She looks like you.”

          I searched the portrait for a resemblance to my innocent face, and couldn’t find any.  “I don’t look like her!  She’s beautiful, and I’m ugly!”

          “What?!”  Now it was my mother’s turn to be shocked.  “Where did you get such an idea?”

          “Well, when you look at my face you get sad, so I figured it has to be because I’m ugly.”

          Slodka, sweetheart, you can see that when I look at your face, I feel sad?”

          I nodded.  Mummy snapped into alert.  Slodka!  She insisted  “My mother was beautiful, and so are you.  You are beautiful in the same way she was, and when I look at your face I see her beauty in it.  That’s why I feel sad.”

          I forced myself to face my mother’s pain.  “You get sad because you miss her, right?”

          “That’s right.”

          “Then you don’t think I’m ugly?”

          “No no.  Of course not.”

          “But how can I look like your mother when she was a lady, and I’m just a little girl?”

          Slodka,” my mother was adamant.  “My mother is who you are going to look like.”


          In Warsaw on the morning of September 1, 1939, my mother was setting the kitchen table for a celebratory breakfast.  It was Natalia’s forty-sixth birthday.  She had been widowed six months before.  On a wonderfully sunny morning, without a cloud in sight, my mother heard what sounded like a loud storm.  The skies darkened suddenly.  Within an hour the windows of Natalia’s luxury apartment on Krolewska Street were shattered, and she was huddling against a bedroom wall with her two daughters curled under her arms.  The bombardment of Warsaw had begun.  So had the Second World War.  

          September 1, 1939 would prove to be Natalia’s last birthday.  Within a month, Natalia and her children were homeless. Before the end of the year, they would be refugees.  Natalia fell victim to the war’s first epidemic of typhus and, with my mother beside her, died in a Russian-run hospital, at the dawn of 1940, on the evening of New Year’s Day.


          The year I was thirteen, my mother took me to a photography studio to have my picture taken.  Mum put me through this ritual every few years.  Shortly after she made her first trip to Israel, where she discovered relatives on her mother’s side, they presented her with a photograph she hadn’t known existed.  It was a picture of a younger Natalia, as Mum had never known her.  She is facing the camera, with her head tilted to one side.  Her hip-length hair hangs loose.  She wears no jewellery.  Her hands are folded demurely over her crossed knees.  Her mouth is closed, with a mere hint of a smile.  There is a wistful expression in her eyes, which do not look directly into the camera, but look shyly away.

          When Mum came home, she brought this faded and scratched photograph to the same photographer who had recently taken my picture.  He gasped.  The picture of Natalia looked like a painting of the picture the photographer had taken of me.

          The photographer restored and enlarged this picture, though he was unable to remove one large scratch.  It was framed and hung prominently in my parents’ living room, along with the cameo-like portrait of the older Natalia.

          After my mother was widowed and she moved to a smaller apartment, the younger Natalia still claimed a wall in the living room, while the older Natalia-in-profile was positioned over the headboard of my mother’s bed, seeming to gaze down on her sleeping child.  She kept vigil on my mother’s bedroom wall to the end of my mother’s life, and beyond.  My mother did get a chance to get old.  When terminal cancer came for her she met it at home, in her bed, with me beside her.  On the evening of the first snowfall in 2013 the spirits of three women came together; the grandmother who was dead, the mother who was dying, and their memory keeper, who was being left behind.


Today the two portraits of Natalia perch on my walls, along with portraits of my mother and the photograph taken of me when I was thirteen.  When guests come to my apartment the first item they notice is the large portrait of the younger Natalia, which is prominently displayed. 

Invariably they ask, “When was that picture of you taken?” 

 “Shortly after the First World War,” I deadpan, with a mere hint of a smile.   

About the author

 S. Nadja Zajdman is a Canadian author. In 2022 she published the story collection The Memory Keeper (Bridge House Publishing) as well as the memoir I Want You To Be Free. In 2023 Zajdman published a second memoir, Daddy's Remains (MacKenzie Publishing). 
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