x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The secret to a lifetime of resilience is a charitable spirit

No matter how hard I try, around her I can't help but be that six-year-old girl who lived a fairy-tale childhood inside her grandmother's sweet shop.

Once upon a time, inside a neighbourhood's only sweet shop, an elderly lady and her six-year-old grandchild sat down, carefully placing the latest batch of home made candy inside paper wrappers that had flowers and elves printed on them.

From the outside, the shop didn't look like much. Wooden and painted a bright shade of green, it resembled an expanded carriage that could be pulled by horses.

Inside, however, it was the nearest thing to heaven for the child. From fruit shaped hard candy and sticky toffee, to nutty treats and droplets of chocolates in all flavours and shapes, the sweets lined the shelves alongside dolls and toys.

Visitors would drop by the shop to extend their greetings and warm wishes. This was partly because they liked the grandmother, but mostly because they were always offered a treat.

Regulars included a priest with weak teeth. He always got a soft sweet. The cabbage lady (who sold cabbage) who always got a strawberry-flavoured treat, while the neighbourhood's children were happy with whatever treat they happened to receive.

The kind old lady is my grandmother, and I strangely don't recall anyone paying for the sweets. The cabbage lady usually gave us a "cabbage head" that was later cooked in stew, and once, the priest dropped off a kitten at the shop to ward off any hungry mice. Meanwhile the children, to my annoyance, would get away with doing nothing in return for their treats.

My grandmother was born into a noble family but, sadly, at the wrong place at the wrong time; Poland just as the Second World War began. She has led a life that would not be out of place in a tragic Russian - or Polish - novel. She would disagree with me of course, preferring to call it a "full life".

From having German officers live in the family estate and losing an older brother to a concentration camp, to having all her possessions stolen and half of the estate burned down by the Russian army, She lived through an epic but suffered for it.

Amazingly, that was only the beginning of her tale, but there would, eventually, be a happy ending. She has seen and done it all, from working in a factory to reclaiming her land and wealth. One of my grandmother's latest projects is running a soup kitchen for senior citizens.

What is it about our grandparents that always triggers a sense of nostalgia and admiration in us? Regardless of their background and history, every grandparent seems to have a wonderful story to tell.

Earlier this week, I got a call in the middle of the night informing me that my grandma, or "babcia," was in hospital. She has already been a victim of two hit and run incidents this year alone, and had recovered miraculously from those accidents. Now, she's been struck down by cancer.

As I scrambled to make arrangements with my mother, her only child now in Saudi Arabia, I felt horrible that my grandmother - her own siblings either killed during war or revolution or in a coal mine - was alone.

"Alone?" the supervising nurse asked rhetorically, when I phoned her. "There is always someone visiting her that used to eat her sweets or have her soup. Is she some kind of a chef?"

I couldn't help but smile and say: "No actually, my grandmother is a bad cook. She only knows how to make cabbage soup and sweets."

The phone call was transferred to my grandmother's room and, at first, her voice sounded tired and fragile.

But upon hearing my voice, her tone instantly perked and she said: "Your accent is horrible! You speak like a six-year-old. Go fix it and then call me." Slam.

Yes. She is back, and spunkier than ever. No matter how hard I try, around her I can't help but be that six-year-old girl who lived a fairy-tale childhood inside her grandmother's sweet shop.