When Picador.com asked me to write a brief post about a woman who had inspired me, for International Women's Day, I probably should have done what the other authors did: thought of a strong creative heroine, a poet or an artist. But, for me, a quite different woman sprang immediately to mind.
I am thoroughly my grandmother's granddaughter. At least, I try to be, because she was a hero: both the bravest person and the best cook I've ever known. I have written about her in Almost English and in my essay about only knowing forty words of Hungarian, but I haven't finished yet.
Ten facts about her:
1. When she was born, the third of eight girls, her uncle was sent to register her name, which he forgot. She spent the rest of her life with the wrong one.
2. She was known as the clever sister, and became a communist, to her family's disgust.
3. She went to Charles University in Prague to study Economics; later, as a penniless and essentially single mother in London, she persuaded the LSE to give her a place, despite the fact that her entrance exam was written in the worst English they'd ever seen.
4. At the outbreak of war she saved herself, her (future) husband and several other Hungarian-Czechs marooned in Prague by obtaining false passports, partly by phoning the officer in charge and pretending to be one of her university professors.
5. She found work as a housemaid in London where at first, due to her poor English, she misunderstood her instructions and did a full week's tasks every day.
6. Eventually she was given work in a costume jewellery factory; in time she designed a necklace, then a second, was given a shelf for her own work, then another. Decades later she owned the factory where, well into her eighties, she continued to work a six day week.
7. She was an extremely fast walker and walked everywhere, when not taking the bus. She also swam at every opportunity, preferably outside, and taught me to swim.
8. She believed in culture. No gallery went unvisited, no play unseen. Once someone I knew bumped into her at a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition.
9. Her cooking – always Hungarian food – was spectacular. Thanks to her, I believe in the power of paprika and garlic, chicken soup with barley, apple compote with vanilla and lemon peel and, generally, food, in large quantities. When I was a student she would send me jiffy-bags containing carrot batons.
10. She experienced terrible suffering, pain and grief and illness, but remained the giggliest person I have ever known, until the last time I saw her.
I didn't visit her enough. I wish I had. I keep her photograph on my desk to remind me to be strong.