I remember the joy of discovering Haribo jellies, Nutella and margarine among colorful clothes packed in heavy cardboard boxes we used to get from relatives who lived in West Germany, when Poland was lacking many basic things. It was a celebration, the whole family was present for these grand openings of gift boxes.
The clothes, mostly second-hand, were good enough for mother. She never felt the need to buy new ones, preferring to save money for more important expenses. She always looked modest and didn’t like black. Some say that what one wears is (a) part of creating one’s identity. My mother, all her life, wore clothes that she had never chosen.
On February 28, 2012, four years after her death, I started reliving the past. My work since then has been about building on my memories and longing. Self-Portrait With My Mother is an attempt to summarize that period, to move beyond the past -a final reconciliation with reality.
My grandmother’s house –where my mother, my sister and me (all) grew up– is empty and cold now, almost in ruins. This is where I’ve kept my mother’s clothes since she died. And now after my grandmother passed away, it’s where I’ve been making these self-portraits, recreating dresses and outfits from memory, like my mother used to match them. I recently tried on a different set of clothes that came in one of those big boxes many years ago. I found her blond hair on the green coat.
Home clothes. I remember her sitting at the piano, focused, her hand tapping the rhythm, patiently listening to the rattle of her students, and I can still hear her gentle voice: let’s repeat this fragment. How was she able to listen to that; I do not know till this day. My sister and I would leave the house after a few minutes.
Wedding clothes. I am 7 years old, the early nineties, cousin’s wedding, 150 guests; Most of them I don’t know. I am stuffing my mouth with a cake while watching my parents dancing to a bad version of Krawczyk’s song. My mother loved to dance and she was good at it. They looked great together, understanding without words. She did not like this type of feasts. Chatting with relatives, whom you see only at weddings and funerals. What to talk to them about? It’s much better to dance and send smiles.
Work clothes. Small, badly furnished office in No 2 Primary School, that both I and my sister attended. On the door “The Principal of After School Activities”. Mum at her desk, writing a report regarding achievements of "Alkatras"(a club for youngsters with problems) and “Orlik” (club for children and teenagers) for a meeting (meeting) with the town mayor. I'm waiting patiently in the corner; I want to walk home with her.
For the journey clothes. The departure day. Crowd on the platform. I am clasping my mum's and sister's hands. Suddenly I am rising. It's my mum passing me to my dad through the compartment's window. I am followed by two suitcases. My mum and sister somehow join us. It's crowded and stuffy and it will be like that for the next 14 hours. However, a 2 week seaside holiday is worth it. Mum has prepared sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes and tea in a 'Wyborowa' vodka bottle. We have 'Happy Minutes' ( a children's puzzle magazine in communist Poland). She loves the sea. She travels lost in her thoughts. I think she can already smell the sea and hear the waves and screeching seagulls. Her blue dress may be made from cheap material, but it doesn't crease and dries in 2 minutes - perfect for such journeys.
Christmas clothes. It’s Christmas Eve. Mom is busy in the kitchen, taking golden carp out of the oven carefully, to not stain herself with the hot butter. She is even wearing makeup, green, to match the outfit. She’s happy. She loves Christmas. After dinner, she is sitting at the piano and we all are singing Christmas carols.
Weekend clothes. Sunny day. The whole family sits in my grandmother’s garden, sausages on the grill, twittering birds, laughter, conversation. In this dress, my mother always smiled, relaxed. She wore it only on sunny days, free from work.
Kindergarten clothes. At the coal mine's kindergarten she would prepare the little ones for many performances. She would teach them songs about beloved mothers, the blackened faces of miners or brave marching Polish soldiers. She knew a song for every occasion. She wore blouses with big geometric patterns for the children. They loved her, the happy plump lady who, with rosy cheeks, accompanied their singing on the piano in front of their proud parents.
Sunday best clothes. It's Saint George's day. The whole family goes to the church fair. First we check out stands full of plastic toys, then the shooting range where dad manages to win mum a bunch of garish, fake flowers. Pink candy floss can't be missed. My sister and I have to stamp our feet to get it, as it's not healthy and bad for our teeth. But mum always gives in and on top of this grandma gives us two 'golden' rings with pink 'gems'. Total bliss. After the merry-go-round, we plead for one more go, just one more. And then we're going back, bangers going off in the background, mum, dad and grandma are happy, chatty; my sister is playing a toy whistle; and me with a mandatory baloon tied to my wrist.
Winter clothes. She would leave for work in darkness; we would all be still asleep. She would take a red bus to her work at the music school. We didn’t have a car. Waiting for the bus, bitter cold, the uncertainty whether it would come or not, shifting from foot to foot. On the way back she would do the shoppings. She would move slowly with the heavy bags, being careful not to slip. Freezing cold, with a red nose and cheeks, she would enter the house. Every night her soaked black boots would stand in a puddle of melted snow under a radiator in the kitchen.
Holiday clothes. It's summer. Apart from the intensively bright sun and the smell of freshly brewed coffee, mum's voice wakes us up. I have a quick peek through the curtains, the wash must have been hung outside early in the morning, it looks completely dry. I cannot see anyone, but I know she's there. I crane my neck and I am just able to make out blonde locks and cigarette smoke. The morning 'gossip' with the neighbours is in full swing. Bare-footed and in pyjamas my sister and I jump (out) on the balcony and join the discussion. We love summer. For two months we have our mum to ourselves, because of the summer holiday.