European Mother

She was born in Paris in 1950 but not long after, a new right wing government forced the HQ of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) where my grandparents both worked, to move abroad. My family moved to Geneva for a few months, now working temporarily as WFTU representatives to the International Labour Office (an agency of the UN) while their offices were moved to the Soviet sector of Vienna. Between ’51 and ’55 my Mother was raised in Austria until there was a change of government – it became independent after the 4 way rule (between UK, France, USSR and USA) came to an end. A condition was that it had to be neutral, so the Communist WFTU moved to Prague in ’56. My family did also but decided ultimately to move to a German speaking country, instead of having to learn Czech. They found jobs in a member organisation of the WFTU, an affiliate in East Berlin. Their 6 week period in Prague was basically for the purposes of being under observation by the East German government, as if in a holding pen. Once in East Berlin my Grandparents were employed by the Trades Union International (TUI) for Public Employees (a TUI was a Communist idea, a global collective of trade unions for a particular sector.)

When my Mother was finally brought to live in London in 1963, it was because of the break up of my Grandparents’ marriage. My English Grandmother had retained her British passport throughout, so moving back was possible. My Mother cites walking up the steps to board the aeroplane for London as the biggest turning point in her life. She had to give up the life she’d grown comfortable with, and be thrown into a new system – politically and culturally. Her Father would not be allowed to visit (until later in life) and she felt forever like a foreigner in her actual Motherland. The divisive political borders in place during the Cold War made travel and connection much harder; so far from the free flowing passage to which many of us have become accustomed. I got to thinking about this after last June’s referendum on Britain’s EU membership, as the UK plunged back to the 1980s (and earlier) in terms of overt racism. Trump’s presidency just added to this sense of regressing, of a fortress around richer more developed places, and poverty being enclosed in a prison.

Many of my European friends living in London can’t help but feel unsettled, even if they have lived here more than 20 years, and even if they have married a Brit. Theresa May refuses to guarantee their right to remain here. However much I find it hard to believe they may be deported, I do not currently face any threat of deportation myself. My life continues largely as before. Yet my life has been shaped not only by the threat of, but the actual deportation of my Mother’s family throughout her childhood. My life would have been very different (or probably not existed) had my Mother never journeyed to the political East early on. She even cites the move back to the West during her puberty, as the catalyst for triggering her multiple schlerosis (MS). A few months after moving to London, she first experienced the disease. For a month she was unable to walk properly and for a year could not take part in sport. The doctors knew what it was and told her Mother, but as my Mum was under 16 they were not obliged to tell her. The crucial thing was, the doctors warned that while at this stage the disease was only temporary, it would most likely return later in her life, around her late 30s, when it would reappear with a vengeance. This is exactly what happened, but my Grandmother died without telling her daughter that she knew. It was a Great Aunt who subsequently revealed the truth.

While it may seem unlikely that moving to a more affluent and liberal city such as London would bring on a disease, the point is that my Mother had grown very comfortable and self confident in East Berlin. Not what we always hear about the Communist states, but that was her experience. To be wrenched from that world at her Mother’s instigation at a time in a girl’s life when many hormonal shifts are jolting, thrown into a new system more driven by greed and competition, unable to maintain easy contact with left behind loved ones, was a psychic disturbance.

When I was about 19 and my Mother’s MS was well underway I got in touch with the MS Society and started reading their literature. One article stated that there was a relatively high incidence of MS occurring among people who moved from a warmer climate to a significantly cooler place during puberty. I couldn’t help but imagine a link. What if it wasn’t just about physical temperature, but also concerned energetic shifts, say in socio-economic climate, combined with emotional state. It might not apply to a girl escaping from the East to find a better life in the West as was not uncommon, but in my Mother’s case, her parents had unusually chosen to live behind the Iron Curtain because of their political beliefs. More than that her American Father would not have been able to marry his British Communist wife and remain in the US at the time. His choice to move to Europe was political, and also of the heart.

During a recent visit to my parents, I found my Dad sat at the kitchen table. He declared bleakly, “It’s like an unfolding nightmare here. Let’s move to Germany.” Mum however was less keen. After living in London for over 50 years she has finally settled. Besides which, being massively disabled makes any sort of moving or travelling far harder. Their home has been fully adapted with hoists, ramps, a lift, special shower unit for wheelchair, a hospital bed… and after a good 15 years of employing carers and personal assistants, they are now in a more confident place in that respect. It takes time to know what you need and how to ask for it, often of people who don’t speak English so well. They have had assistants of many nationalities – African, middle eastern, far eastern, northern European… and the current team are a mix of Polish, Czech Republic and Slovakian. In the event that these women had to leave the UK, perhaps Mum would feel differently about staying.

Mum aged 11 or 12, in East Berlin, 1962

Mum aged 16 or 17, in London, 1967

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Getting Back to my own Life

Years of taking my clothes off for artists has brought me to a point of wanting to change roles, to find my own model to work out poses with, and then take my time finding his essence and bringing that out.

Just over a month ago I found an artist I wanted to work with individually as his muse, and grow with him in a new artistic relationship. This is proving mutually beneficial and he has honoured our dialogue by getting undressed for me too.

In the Summer of ’89, my Grandfather, John Wolfard, had saved up enough money for a visit to his homeland. He had left the United States in 1948 when on attempting to marry an English woman and bring her to live with him, the FBI intervened. Both John and my Grandmother-to-be were members of the Communist party, and in his case, the only people who knew (in the US) were his ex-wife, and the friend who had signed him up. These were cagey times, and after Mary’s entry was denied on this count, and there had been some interrogation, John knew the only thing was to quit his home and head for Europe. He couldn’t get more than a travel visa, but he was hopeful. As it happened, Mary and her Communist connections were able to find him basic work, and later, when no renewal was afforded, migration became the modus operandi.

Gramp, as we called him, said that this one and only visit home after all those years, was the best thing that he had ever done. He stayed with his brother Hilton and spent time catching up with his 1st wife (there had been 5 in all) Olga. They had married young, but meeting in their 70s, it was sad to feel how bonds were still there, and yet, by then it seemed too late to go back for good. East Berlin was his home and would be the place where he died, if only physically still part of the East.

He left the US for love – of a woman. Political beliefs came into it massively, but without the promise of her it could have been more tempting to remain as many did, and lie low during the witch-hunt season.

He also left an academic career which could not be grafted on to the East German system or indeed any in the 2nd world which was his oyster. Sure he could translate materials bound to leave the East, but this jolting move was not one he had planned on.

To me it seems a shame to never fully settle after so many years; due to lack of choice, so that when that option finally came when Gramp was a pensioner, he was no longer able to wholly appreciate it. In order to just visit the old country he had saved money by each year crossing the Berlin Wall (which pensioners were allowed to make a day trip doing annually) and receiving the sum which the West Germans had put aside for the souls who braved the crossing; a welcome gift. This had been stashed for a few years until enough was made for the plane fare. Ironically this all culminated in the same year that East Germany ceased to exist.

From this tale my Mother’s life began, and in her migration to London I also find parallels in my own life. Time seems to  quicken. With the speed of communication now, repeated family patterns may emerge sooner.

I felt I was exiled from life a while, removed from my natural group and stuck in a limbo, unable to settle. To be able to reconnect now with a vital development of my self from bygone days makes me feel more whole. The man I model for and who also poses for me, is part of an old friendship group. It feels like coming home. Such a joyful feeling to achieve that. Even the room he lives in carries old energies that remind me so strongly of our youth – he has lived in it (and so have some others) since the time that I too had a room like that. A room with narcotics bouncing off the walls, freaks at every turn and sex coming up from the floor! A den of such proclivity. It excites me. How sorry I was when I had to leave my room like that, my underground flat, 12 years ago. But at least this remaining one has daylight. And although everything seems more fragmented than I imagined, people are still there – sparks in the air waiting to fly.

Aaron England