TALULLAH BROWN tribute
Author and playwright TALLULAH BROWN was Mira’s assistant for the last few months of her life and wrote fondly about the time they spent together. The article was originally published in THE OLDIE magazine.
We met at Southend-on-Sea on the 2nd September 2011. For the following four months the writer, film maker and artist, Mira Hamermesh was my employer, my confidante and my spiritual, emotional and intellectual light.
Mira was 87 years old when I took the job as chaperone to accompany her on what was to be her last public performance, a talk with Fay Weldon about her life and works. Mira Hamermesh was Jewish and Polish: countries, religions and decades separated us. Aged 14 I was worrying about my GCSEs and whether I was ever going to get a boyfriend; at the same age, Mira was walking from Poland to Palestine on the run from the Nazis and the Soviets. Despite this, when I was with her, it was as if she saw inside me and that somewhere deep within, in a place that went beyond circumstance and history, we had known each other our whole lives.
From the start she was adamant that I was Jewish. ‘I’m not, Mira.’ I would say, ‘I’d like to be, but I’m not’. To which she would reply, ‘Oh but I think you are.’ And then I would hear myself say, ‘Maybe. Yes. I think I am too.’
We wore similar clothes a lot of the time, both lovers of velvet, of 80s flowered prints and large rings. She’d change outfits according to what I was wearing and used to joke that my fur coat had, ‘escaped from the zoo.’ On the night we met, in a hotel overlooking Southend pier, she pulled a Bible out from the bedside table.
‘Every hotel has the Bible, so you read the stories.’
It was then that she told me about Procula’s dream. This was her favourite extract from the Bible; she was fascinated by it because it confirmed her reverence for dreams. Her fascination had led her to turning two lines from the Bible into a screenplay - an imagined conversation between the Virgin Mary and Procula (Pilate’s wife). She wanted to look at this moment in Christian history from the point of view of the two women closest to the protagonists– Jesus’ mother and Pilate’s wife.
She had the vision of the screenplay and understood film inside out. I was able to create natural dialogue. We made a happy team, although her stroke in October meant that Procula’s dream was sidelined for the next few months. Instead we spent stolen hours between her extensive physiotherapy responding to concerned emails and focusing on getting her most recent book, ‘War and Sex’ published. Like Procula’s dream, ‘War and Sex’ challenged the common perception that history lies only in the stories of men. Mira wanted to look at the women behind these stories and exactly why women have stood in the shadows. She referred to the book as her ‘cheeky idea’.
Mira set store by her dreams, often greeting me with lengthy descriptions of where she had been and what she had been doing. From her beige armchair in the rehabilitation clinic it did seem a gift that her voracious mind could fall asleep and be living a double life away from the nurses, the physiotherapists, the constant inane questions and the need for three nurses to take you to the loo. In Mira’s dreams she escaped that room and was transported somewhere far more stimulating.
Being with Mira was dreamlike in itself, always surprising and fascinating, decorated with detail and fever, full of awe for the extraordinary. There was constant delight to be found from her work. She’d read over an edit and look up, a huge smile on her face, ‘I find it is perfect.’
Her mind was so full and busy that she’d have restless nights. She told me before Christmas, ‘The stories don’t let me sleep.’
With the constant stream of people coming into her room and passing on the corridor, Mira’s mind was awash with questions and plots. ‘My existence here is very intense’ she said - and it was. She surrounded herself with the stories of others and let herself be consumed by them. Latterly, from her hospital bed she said in a loud voice, ‘I have a drama for you’ and pointed to the bed opposite her, where an elderly mother was surrounded by her family, ‘The sisters, the daughters, come to say goodbye to their mama. Or perhaps they’re not the daughters, looks like the aunts!’
The family opposite came to love Mira’s not so subtle commentary regarding their family dynamics. I would refuse to turn around in embarrassment as Mira would point and say, ‘Look at them with the mama! You bet this eye doesn’t miss a thing!’ Once two nuns came to her bedside in hospital. Mira made a song and dance about giving them money - ‘Quickly, quickly’- as if they were about to lynch her. When they said they didn’t want money, just to talk, Mira didn’t hide her look of total lack of interest. She was always entirely unabashed.
With Mira it was often a case of her mind fighting her body. Even when I first met her in Southend she would walk so fast that her body would fall slightly to the left and someone would quickly catch her and push her back up. When she first had the stroke a line that would crop up in many of the emails she dictated to me was, ‘mentally I am in control’ and she really was. It was as if her mind was charging ahead of her body, too impatient to wait for it to recover.
To be blessed with a mind so inquisitive and so imaginative is one thing; but it is quite another to be in the presence of such a mind. I am young and impressionable, unsure of my beliefs; she was old and fixed in her ways – she would refuse to use a certain printer in her office, making me transfer a printer on the opposite side of the room that she claimed was more reliable.
Mira’s friends grew off her like branches coming off a tree. In an article she dictated to me about the sensation of having a stroke, she referred to herself as ‘The Unknown Astronaut’ In reality however she was utterly rooted by her history and by her family. Her friends were hungry branches; we grew in clusters, often independent from each other but all sharing one root, in Mira. She bulldozed through life, forcing people to question their opinions, to follow their instincts, to go through life with a wry sense of humour. She was incredibly blunt, sometimes very rude and yet she was also the most irrepressible charmer. Her smile was incredibly mischievous and catching.
The last month had its share of tumult. In St Mary’s Paddington Accident and Emergency, Mira decided she had been kidnapped, and shouted, ‘This is not Russia. Not yet.’ She would say to me, not so quietly, ‘Strange looking doctor’ at the female doctor at her bedside who unfortunately was growing a slight beard.
Mira found the food unbearable and I would often bring her crusty bread, a food she craved. She had dark times in hospital, moments of despair; as she was transferred to yet another ward, she would call it being ‘shovelled into the ghetto.’ I would never know what to say to make things more bearable but then often she would cheer herself up.
‘I eat and I have indigestion, I don’t eat I lose weight. You could say I am in a mess.’
When I remember her saying these things I can hear the laughter in her voice: she could always see the absurdity and was the first to pull the joke from the darkness.
When Mira stopped being able to speak - a second stroke affected her a week before her death - she came to me in my dreams. The first dream was in a school, Mira and I were delivering a talk to a group of assembled school children. They looked up in awe at her bird-like, indefatigably strong presence. The second dream found us on a train. Mira had grown worn and frail. Someone in the train mistakenly sat on her as if they couldn’t see her. I lifted her up in my arms but when the train pulled in, the platform was too high for us to reach. It took all my strength to push her up and I clambered after her. The station was old fashioned with white picket fences and a small ticket office. There were people everywhere, I called her name. I looked around and I had lost her.
And so in my dream, I leave her at that station, a place fitting for a woman who claimed to have never stopped being a refugee. Although in spirit I know Mira will be in my arms for a long while to come.
In the last few months I became best friends with a character whose age was irrelevant. I have sat with her in silence, in laughter, in chattering gossip, in solemn moments, in good news and in bad. I have taken dictation and have learnt to mimic the tone and phrasing of her voice. I have grown accustomed to names of people I have never met and to writing to them as dearest. I can still hear her speaking to me, even now.
‘I am longing for movement, to be outdoors in the street and to be able to drop into cafes.’
And on Sunday her wish was granted.
Rest in peace, Kochanie.