Rozyczka Chamulewicz gathers the dark, heavy mass of her granddaughter's hair into her hands. Newly washed and dried, it is soft and shines richly where the sun glances off it. The herbal smell of the shampoo is elusively familiar, until she realises with a jolt of memory that it reminds her of the pine forest she used to play in as a girl, back in Poland. So many, many things remind her of Poland these days, she thinks.
She divides Angela's hair into locks, thirty-nine of them in all, ready to weave the bridal crown. Every bride in Rozyczka's family has worn this style to take her place at her husband's side for two hundred years, or more. Tears prick at the corner of her eyes, as she realises that this will be the last time, ever. Neither of her girls have learned the intricate complexities of its construction, thinking it old fashioned and irrelevant, a part of their mother's foreign background, not their own New Zealand life.
She looks out of the window, to where her son-in-law is setting out chairs on the lawn of the sun-soaked garden ready for the influx of people who will arrive with the afternoon, to see this child who sits in front of her marry. Those pinewoods she can smell on Angela's hair will be inches deep in snow at this time of year, she muses, and the wood smell will be sharp and snapping in the chill winter air. She feels an urgent longing to see them again, one last time, and receives a sense of the gaping distance between this place she came to so long ago, and the place she started from, where her roots still are.
Of course, she will never go back. They fled the country: she, her brother, her sister, her father and his Jewish-born second wife, just days before Hitler had marched in; retreating to London where a cousin was in business. They had meant to return, after the war, but the changed shape of Europe, Communism and the iron curtain had put paid to that idea.
Instead, they had stayed in England, and she had married Teodor, a distant relation and a pilot in the R.A.F.. Then, facing the grim realities of post-war Britain, without the riches they left behind Poland, they had joined the hordes of other 'ten-pound poms' seeking a better life and a fortune on the southern half of the planet.
She supposes life here has been better. Teodor settled comfortably, they had a pleasant house in Wellington, he, a good job. He died, ten years ago, a relatively wealthy man, and left her with no financial worries. The girls have grown up, as kiwi as any other child born in these islands, happy and free.
Rozyczka herself, though, she has never felt properly at home. The people here have never been able to get their tongues round Polish consonants, and they call her Rosa. She has been robbed of her name, along with her heritage.
At Rozyczka's right hand lays the twelve-stranded net of seed pearls that constitutes the last tangible remains of the family's Polish fortunes, the way the weaving of the crown is the last remains of their noble traditions. When she is finished, the pearls will lie like stars in the night sky of Angela's hair, the diamond clasp that fastens the strands together sparkling at the centre of her wide brow.
"Will it take long, Babka?" Angela shifts impatiently on the low stool at the old woman's feet.
"A while, Anginka. It is no simple task. It will be worth it though, at the end."
"It will, if my hair looks anything like Mum's," the girl agreed.
Mum, Rozyczka's younger daughter Grazyna (or Gracie, as she is inevitably called here), is setting out flowers at the end of each row of chairs. As Rozyczka pulls together the first three strands of hair, and deftly braids them, she thinks back to that wedding, the last time she did this.
Grazyna was getting married because she was pregnant – a bitter pill for traditionalist Rozyczka to swallow. What's more, the groom was a Maori, and Rozyczka was, if not a racist, certainly not keen on the mixing of races; perhaps because she felt she would still be happily in Poland if her father hadn't married a Jew after her mother died. It wasn't a wedding she looked forward to, but things got worse when Grazyna said flatly that she didn't want a bridal crown.
There had been harsh rows, which had involved Teodor explaining patiently to Grazyna how much it meant to her mother to uphold the tradition, and there had been storms and flouncing, on both sides. Rozyczka had won, but only through the intercession of Magda, their older daughter, and it had been a pyrrhic victory.
"Face it, Gracie," Magda had said, "your wedding is the only chance Mum's going to get to do her precious crown. We all know that I won't ever be getting married."
"Tell you what, Mags, if Mum'll say that – and why – if she'll admit it to herself and us, I'll let her do the bloody crown," Grazyna had challenged.
Rozyczka had known she was being manipulated. For years, she had steadfastly maintained a facade of ignorance about her elder daughter's lifestyle. The whole family had skated around the issue to allow her to pretend that everything was normal. Even as she thought back to it now, she remembered the pain of that outright challenge to her mores, the pain of the knowledge that her pretence of normality was crumbling.
"If you so strongly don't want the crown, we will forget it." She had said, stiffly, but she knew it was too late, as she said it.
"For God's sake, Mum!" Graznya had burst out, "I'll bow that far to your traditions, if you will just give one tiny nod to the bloody truth! Maybe, once, this family was Polish nobility, but we aren't now, and we can't keep pretending we are. I'm not some Polish princess, I'm a girl marrying my bloke because I'm up the duff! Magda is gay, a lesbian, a lesbo."
She stood, angry, breathing heavily, facing her mother's silence. Then she sighed, and concluded, "You know, it'd be much easier for us to love you as you are if you'd do us the same bloody courtesy."
Rozyczka had, of course, burst into tears, but nobody, not even Teodor, had comforted her. Instead they had looked at her stonily until she had screamed at the three of them.
"Alright! I am lying to myself! I pretend that my older daughter is not a pervert, that my younger one is not a whore! I thought that was the right thing to do, but clearly I was wrong. Do you want me to take out an advertisement in the papers?"
Looking back, she wonders how they ever excused her for such an unforgivable speech, but they did. The wedding came, and Grazyna wore her hair in the bridal crown. Magda stood behind her and held the bouquet, never showing in public that the woman she had brought along to the wedding was anything other than a friend. She did insist that they were allowed to share a room though, and the noises that came from it were rather more than friendly. Making a point, Rozyczka supposes.
She should be glad that at eighty her fingers will still do this, she thinks, as she weaves braid after braid, twining the pearls carefully through. Many of her friends are crippled with rheumatism or arthritis -- in their families the tradition would already have died, so, if it is dying in Rozyczka's, perhaps it is time to let it go, with a good grace.
In the garden, Reihana catches Grazyna in a hug. Despite the poor start, he has been a good husband, strong, reliable and solid. Their children, Jared, Lance, and Angela have grown up into wonderful people. Rozyczka was wrong to disapprove of him – he has made her daughter very happy.
Magda is happy too. She is still with that same woman who made so much noise with her after Grazyna's wedding. Lisa, her name is, and Rozyczka vows to address her by it when they arrive this afternoon, rather than avoiding it, rather than referring to her as "Magda's friend".
She puts the final touches to the bridal crown. The style is even more beautiful on Angel than it was on Grazyna, or Rozyczka herself, the old woman reflects. The darkness of the hair, inherited from Reihana, emphasizes the whiteness of the tiny pearls that nestle in its abundance, and the coffee brown skin is smooth beneath the brilliance of the clasp. Angela rushes to the mirror, then dashes back, wrapping her arms around her grandmother and kissing her cheek.
"It's lovely, Babka. Beautiful!"
Grazyna and Reihana have come in from the garden, and Reihana says, "It is lovely, but not as beautiful as you are." Rozyczka has to agree.
Angela is hustled away, to be dressed and powdered, and the old woman, too, makes her way to her room to put on her own glad rags.
Tonight, when the wedding is over, Rozyczka thinks, she will separate the strands of the net. She will give three strands each to Magda, Grazyna, and Angela, one to Jared's wife, one to Lance's. The last, perhaps, she will give to Lisa. She may as well spread its bounty, if it won't adorn another bride.
The clasp, though, she will sell. Maybe it will raise enough to let her visit Poland again, just once, before she dies. She smiles and lifts her hands to her face, to smell the pinewoods on them.