Interview 18th April.
Interviewer: Annahita Brooks (Daughter)
Interviewee: Edyta Brooks (Mother)
Can you tell me a bit about the objects you collected and what they each represent in your childhood?
Well, the biggest thing, the wine bottles just immediately remind me of the village and summers here. Everyone would collect fruit from their gardens or allotments, sometimes from the village and then made wine in autumn. I don’t specifically remember my grandmother making wine, but I remember it was always this big family event.
Yes, I remember Wujek saying his father was sent to jail for 3 months for making vodka.
Yes, but did you hear the whole story? He wasn’t the one actually making it was the Russians who occupied the house at the time, and they arrested him instead. But the wine was different, it was a tradition.
What about the chair and stool?
Well, you know the little room stairs to the left off the old kitchen.
The one with the sofa?
Yes, the one to the left of the old stove. Well, that was the old winter kitchen. There was a big stove in there too like the one in the current kitchen. It was on the left-hand side against the wall by the door. Next to it there was a table bench thing, grandmother had small chicklings and ducks there under the heat lamps. But that’s also where she prepared the food ha-ha. Then there was a table in the middle of the room, close to where the current one is, which is where the chair comes from. Above it was a shelf with a radio where she would always put the mass on. On the right-hand side of the room there was a commode and after that a bed where she slept. As far as I can remember she always slept in there, even when grandfather was still alive. Where the current old kitchen is it was a big room with a bed and sofa bed which they used for guests, but she always slept in the winter kitchen. Only in summer would she use the big kitchen or if they had a lot of people over. By her bed she had that stool that now Wujek uses. You know it as his chair, but I remember it as her chair. She was always sitting on it listening to mass or peeling potatoes.
What about the boots in front of the chair?
Whenever she went to the garden, she wore the wellies. I remember her always wearing them. In the past they had animals; cows and pigs etc. but when I was small, they got rid of them and just kept chickens and rabbits. There was a huge garden filled with fruits and potatoes fields and she would always spend long hours in the garden. She always used the stool to put on and take off the wellies.
What about the collection of objects on the tray?
In the winter kitchen, like I said there was this white commode with glass doors you could see through and some shelves. It had 2 drawers as well and she always kept money in the first draw in her purse. So, whenever we saw her going to the first draw, we knew she was going to give us some pocket money. The fork is the same one she kept on the dining table, and she always had her prayer book there as well. By the windows there were always lots of pictures of holy people and hands and candles everywhere. Whatever I have placed on the tray purely reminds me of that small kitchen.
Walnuts signify the village for me. There used to be a huge walnut tree and we couldn’t get any of them we weren’t allowed to. Your grandmother and grandfather always told us off and said “no they’re uncles you can’t have them” so we had to steal them. Fresh walnuts are the best thing to eat. But the problem is you have to peel the green skin and that makes your hands yellow so you couldn’t hide it. We always peeled them very carefully and slowly as to not stain our hands. And then you’d crack it open, and the walnut would be so fresh. There were hazelnut trees too. Something else that represents the village for me is the lantern. Not that specific one but the oil lamps. I don’t know what happened to the oil lamps, I think they’re gone so I’ve used that one, but you always had to take an oil lamp at night to go to the bathroom, they were lying everywhere.
What about the milk churn?
The milk bucket just reminds me of grandmother sitting in the stables, milking a cow and when she saw me, she turned the tit and sprayed me with milk. The bucket was next to her with milk, she always had at least two, usually one with sour milk to make kefir and the other one had normal milk.
She used to make this thing I used to call it milk soup, there’s a polish word for it but I’m not remembering it right now. She would boil milk in the white pot, and while that was boiling, she would combine flour, egg and a bit of salt and milk to make a dough. The she would tip the pot to the side and with the fork tip out bits of dough into the boiling milk making something like the thing you hate in Switzerland, spätzli. That’s why I love spätzli because it just reminds me of her. Some people would add sugar, but I hated the sweet ones. It was a dough and milk concept ha-ha milk soup.
Did she use the slicer too?
The slicer was from the shop, it was always standing in the shop, for me it is just part of the village. She never used it, or maybe she did I don’t know. It is more the stuff that was around at the time and represents a different era.
What do the jars represent?
Everyone conserved the fruits like that because there were no supermarkets and fruits were seasonal it wasn’t available all year round – in winter there was nothing. So, they all did it; everyone in the summer made these jars. I remember in winter she would make pudding with fruit or cake, the same as your granny did.
The marble under it is from the shop. I just remember running around there as a child and seeing these massive marble slabs from the old butcher’s shop. I always loved marble from that. These are smaller pieces because the big slabs have been removed now.
Speaking of the shop, the meat hooks screwed into the frames are from there too. They’re the original butcher hooks used to hang the meat during the German occupation when downstairs was a butcher.
Moving onto the organization, I know the windows and the cell structure were predetermined, but could you tell me a little bit about the windows?
The windows are a stark reminder for how things were, they give the vibe of the village. These windows are from the Russian occupation era, they managed to salvage them and used them in the winter as double glazing and then removed them in the summer. These ones are the original windows but they have now been updated.
Can you tell me about how you decided to organize the space within and where to place the objects?
I made two areas; one that had specific connections to my grandmother and a general area that relates to everyone and the vibe of the village. I wanted to make aesthetic connections between the two as well.
For example, the stuff on the tray and the stool and shoes I put in the corner to in a way represent the small room she kept herself in. And the stuff also represents what I remember as a kid and how people lived with the limited resources they had at the time - so not wasting and being clever about how to do things. Such as making the wine and preserving fruit for longer, so you have something for winter.
How was it having a predetermined space?
I used the space that was created, that we built together. I am not an artist so I don’t know if I could have done something from scratch or what that would even look like. I can’t even say how I would have done it differently. The structure was there and that helped me get started. After you left, I looked around and had an idea to create something to represent my grandmother. All these memories flooded back like how it was very cozy and very warm in her kitchen, she always had old books and newspapers lying around and religious stuff and I just wanted to recreate that. It was all very sudden and spontaneous.
So, it didn’t impact your decisions too much?
No impact on how I worked. But it was definitely easier as I had the space to work through the memories and experiences rather than think about space. If I had the whole attic I wouldn’t know what to do or where to begin, it would be too overwhelming.
The artist Louise Bourgeois uses cells and similar structures to work through her childhood and memories, specifically in relation to pain. Did the cell help you to confront your childhood or work through your biography?
It was very spontaneous, but I was working through happy memories. Such as making milk in the morning with her, listening to mass and church music in the background, her peeling potatoes, as soon as you left all these memories flooded back in and I wanted to pay a tribute to those memories and my grandmother. And in a way face my polish roots because it is something I have been avoiding. It was very good to confront them, I mean I spent 2 months every summer here in the village as my parents had to work and camps didn’t exist, so they sent us to village to roam loose – I spent a lot of time with auntie listening to all her stories.
I have very good memories from village. Well apart from my dad killing the rabbit and chickens ha-ha.
How was it working through memory and these childhood experiences with objects like this?
It was nice to put things together to represent my childhood memories I can’t and don’t really have time to do that normally and once I started thinking about it the memories flooded and it was relatively easy to recreate the feel of the environment and situations. I gained more and more ideas and it was therapeutic to remember her. She has been dead for a while and I didn’t get the chance to go to her funeral, so it was a journey back, but in a good way.
Oh! I almost forgot to mention! She would use the little cup on the tray to put water in by her bedside table for the night and then she would use it during the day to drink milk during the day or the fruit compote stuff you tried earlier.
Is there anything you would like to add or comment on?
For many the life they and we had was a poor one, but we enjoyed it and we had a lot of freedom and had to learn to be independent at such a young age and try out different things. No one ever showed us how to do anything we just had to try. We would go to the river by ourselves at 7 years old and spend the whole day playing, building a fire and roasting sausages. I feel like it’s a very different experience to everyone else’s childhood. It gave me the realization that having a meaningful life is better than money and it is an obvious point, but you forget just how important that is. In the village It was about having sustainable long-lasting things. It didn’t matter what clothes you had or what brands you were wearing, and it even felt wrong owning something flashy and expensive. So, it was so nice to see them so content with their life. Aunties pure happiness and satisfaction with her life. They’re all so happy and content and it’s amazing to see for example I would see Andreij just sitting outside on the bench before bed or work just chilling and observing nature, just at peace and happy. I’d like to achieve that.
One last question. I have some childhood memories from the village as well, but a lot of the objects and memories seem to indirectly affect me. It’s your story not mine. How was it for you seeing me your daughter, a different generation, basically digging around in your biography and pulling these stories and experiences to the surface?
It’s nice that you are interested in the roots and histories of the family and where we come from and it’s something different you wouldn’t see elsewhere. I am happy because being here again gives different outlooks and perspectives, for me it is to see how everything once was and for you is to see how people lived and have a different experience. It’s important to see different types of living and the fact we could do this together and build something together was great. I was telling Bella and showed her the picture of Franek helping you carve the wood when he was visiting and she was laughing that she couldn’t believe how everyone was helping, it became a whole family event. It was nice that they are so non-judgmental as well. They didn’t understand or have a clue about what you are doing or how art works, but they were still all so eager to help and support you even without understanding. Normally people would need to understand before they consider helping but they basically said, “knock yourself out, have fun and we will help you.” These people haven’t left that small village in years and for them to have such an open and liberal attitude and have the mentality of ‘you do you, do what makes you happy’ was so refreshing. It was a great experience overall and if someone had told me before this that I would last 3 weeks I would have been like no way. I haven’t been there for that long since I was 18.
Yes, there’s a book by Didier Eribon ‘Returning to Reims’ where he speaks about the difficulties of returning to your hometown.
Yes, like if you think back to the market guy and the photographer in the city, they were so nasty and judgmental, and I hated that about living here. I ran away from here and was really lucky to end up in England where unknowingly they’re so tolerant. You have the lovely people like in the village, but you also have the very judgmental ones. The first time I came back was after 3-5 years of living in London. I came by coach, wearing a long coat and holding a suitcase, everybody stared at me. I mean everyone. I was knackered and done because it was such a long drive and I thought do I look that bad do I have dirt on my face. Even the police stopped only me and where giving me a hard time about my UK passport and I thought to myself this is why I left, I hate this country, I’m never coming back. But this was the first time in a very long time that it was fun again and I can put the past behind me.