March 12th.

Posted by Jeni in Ad Infinitum | 12 March 2018

On this day, 127 years ago, my grandmother was born. When I knew her she lived in a tenement block in Aldgate, near Gardeners corner.

She was called Sophie Taylor, her original name Schneider having been anglicised, foreigners were not wanted especially the Jews.

Hmmmm, similar me thinks to BrexiBritin.

Sophie had dyed blonde hair giving her the Sophie Tucker look, played the piano and laughed a lot. She threw back her head and squeezed her eyes together then let out a chesty guffaw. My mother did the same. I'm told I do too, and my muso daughter - who is the spit of my mother - can be heard cackling in Hackney. .

Bubba Sophie wore an apron, had four children, Harry, Siddy, Esther and Rene, which she brought up alone, on account of her husband Albert being stationed in a secret location in the First World War. Albert was an intelligent tailor, who dropped bricks on the heads of Fascists and paid off for an oak bureau full of classic books at 2/- a month. The bureau sits next to our stove, the books creak when they are opened, the pages smell of musty, ancient paper.

My great Aunty Becky lived in the upstairs rooms above my grandmother. I was told I took after Aunty Becky, who had been a manicurist, remained childless and shopped for sugar almonds in Marks and Spencer. She would climb off the 358 bus, outside our house in Hertfordshire, drop her string bag onto the kitchen table, hang up her Beaver Lamb coat, describe the epic journey, then leave. I've still got the coat, hanging in the attic, I know it's un-PC but I can't get rid of it. It's very heavy and if I bury my nose into the collar I can almost smell the antique scent she used to wear.

Before the East End was gentrified we lived in a bustling community of pickle barrels, Sarsaparilla and poverty. I grew up in two rooms with rats, mice and ubiquitous mouldy damp. When we ran out of food, which was often, we would troop down Alie Street, up Lemon Street and climb the stone steps into my Bubba's flat. The smell of chop meat balls and shared cholant, a Jewish stew that hung in a schissel, in a large pot, over the range in the kitchen, lingers in my olfactory organs. She would slam down a loaf of bread, slice it in doorsteps and spread on much butter. Still my comfort food of choice.

In an enamel saucepan, her meat balls - chop minced beef, onion, salt, pepper one egg and matzo meal,simmered slowly over carrots, potatoes onions and water.

She always tapped the egg on her wedding ring to break the shell. That's what we thought wedding rings were for.

We all used the outside lavatory, and jumped on her double bed covered in a puffy pink eiderdown, which was magnificent enough to hide in. I'm painting a picture that existed for me, maybe not for my brother and cousins they may remember a completely different bed spread.

The front room had a big table covered with a green velour table cloth, around which we all sat. Bearing in mind I was five, the bigness of the table may now be considered not so big at all. I still have the table cloth, folded up, in the airing cupboard. It comes out for Christmas and any occasion that requires an exchange of memories.

A piano, with candle holders, stood against the adjoining bedroom wall.

My grandfather, who I never met, was contacted by a small, Medium, largely, during WW1. He sat round the table, set out Tarot cards, Sophies hands were placed on top of the green velour cloth, alongside Aunty becky and various members of the extended family. That's their hands, not them obviously.

They patiently waited for information from the dead relatives.

The cards spelt out I-S-M-A-L-I-A.

None the wiser, my Bubba fed the Medium, watered him with hot, milky, sweet tea, and sent him packing.

When my Grandpa arrived home he confirmed that he had indeed been in Ismailia. The small medium had left out the middle 'i' largely because nobody could spell, especially not cities in Egypt and the spirit was probably dyslexic.

On August 3-5th in 1916 "The City of Beauty and Enchantment", situated on Lake Temsah, was overrun with the Tommies and Hun. My Grandpa barely a man, fought in the Battle of Romani, not the last time he was up against the Germans.

My Bubba didn't have Wikipedia, so the details were never discussed. My Grandpa suffered mild shell shock, thus the silence.

Everybody grew up, and were rehoused. Slum clearance. Most of my lot went North towards Wembley, whilst we were rehoused in Boredom Wood, next to the 'East Enders' set. Although that particular Soap Opera was not around in 1956, it was the continuing drama of the Barnett family that took top billing and the invasion of Hungary by the Ruskies.

Sophie came to live with us when she got ill. Coughing and spluttering she was cared for by my mother. When Sophie died, my mother, folding a tea towel and pressing it into the wooden drawer of the kitchenette cupboard, declared, through her tears, that she was an orphan. Aged around nine I remember thinking that Orphans were only, ever children.

I have a sepia photograph of Sophie, Aunty Esther to her right and my mother to her left hanging in a wooden frame, above the fire place. I'm in my own frame to the left. I'm wearing a hat, a sarong and dark glasses. The photo was taken in Sissinghurst when we went for a picnic with 25 Gay men and a handful of impressively stocked hampers. B, aged 4, hangs to the right, naked, save for a hat and the same expression as me. The female line lives on.

It's fitting that Sophie was born on the same date that Ken Dodd died. Sophie had a wild, wicked sense of humour. She would have laughed at my favourite Ken Dodd joke.

If the cat had been walking the other way, the man who invented 'Cats Eyes', would have invented the pencil sharpener.

RIP Ken and Sophie.

Jeni Barnett tells of her scrumptious time at Good Food Live in her first audiobook! Download NOW from iTunes


1. At March 12, 2018 5:20 PM 'L' wrote:

A Fascinating read! My roots are from the East End too so it's lovely to learn about your East End background too. I love that you called her Bubba as we did too, so yiddish!
All my luv,

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