Guest post by Edythe Haber
“What do you think – will you be able to go and eat soupe à l’oignon to wildly celebrate your birthday?” Valeria Grabovskaya wrote her mother, the Russian émigré writer Nadezhda Teffi, in April, 1952. Valeria (more informally, Valya), a resident of London, did indeed come to Paris to be with Teffi on her 80th – and last – birthday.
Both women were exiles, but as a result of different upheavals that beset Europe during the first half of the 20th century: Teffi fleeing Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, Valya leaving Poland together with the Polish Government in Exile at the beginning of World War II. Teffi’s second daughter, Yelena Buchinskaya (or Gulya) – a well-known Polish stage and screen actress – was, meanwhile, living and working in Warsaw. The plight of exiles torn from their homelands, children separated from parents, remains all too relevant to this day, and Teffi’s relationship with her daughters — although in some ways quite unique – still speaks to us. This year, when Teffi’s birthday (May 9) almost coincides with Mother’s Day (May 12 in the US), seems a good time to explore further – than the space limitations of my book Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter allowed – this example of familial devotion transcending national borders.
Such devotion is all the more surprising since Teffi’s first separation from her children was of her own making. Trapped in a miserable marriage to the Polish lawyer and landowner, Vladislav Buchinsky, in about 1898 she fled from his isolated estate to her native St. Petersburg, leaving behind her three children (the third, Jan, perished during World War I). (Russian law at the time gave fathers exclusive guardianship of minor children.) She went on to pursue a brilliant literary career – her humor and satire, as well as her serious poetry and stories, bringing her such celebrity in early 20th century Russia that chocolates and perfume were named after her. (Among her admirers were the last tsar, Nicholas II, and Lenin.)
There is little information about Teffi’s contacts with her children during the pre-revolutionary period. Gulya published a clearly autobiographical story in a Polish newspaper in the 1930s that depicts a long absent mother (affectionately described as “dear, soft, fragrant”) visiting her three small children at their father’s gloomy estate. There were likely other encounters, but the only other documented contact was a reunion between Teffi and Gulya – by then a budding actress with ties to the avant-garde — in Moscow in 1918, shortly after the revolution. They were soon to separate again, however. Teffi – in danger of arrest because of her anti-Bolshevik satire – left for Ukraine and, following a circuitous route through Turkey, arrived in Paris in early 1920. There over the following decades she was to become one of the most beloved writers of the Russian emigration. As for Gulya, after wanderings of her own, she settled in Warsaw with her father and sister, where she pursued her theatrical career, while Valya had a post in the Polish Foreign Service.
During her early days in Paris, with civil war still raging in the east, Teffi expressed great anxiety about the fate of her daughters, but it wasn’t until 1927 that she saw them face to face – first when Valya visited France in May, then in October, when Teffi went to Warsaw. There she was treated as a celebrity, in part because of Valya’s translations of her stories into Polish. Teffi visited Poland once more, in 1935 – the last time she saw Gulya. Valya, whose work occasionally took her abroad, saw Teffi from time to time, and a very warm relationship developed between mother and daughter.
The outbreak of World War II threw up an insuperable barrier between Teffi and her daughters. Teffi saw Valya briefly, when in late 1939 the Polish Government in Exile passed through France on their way to London, but in the course of the war all word of Teffi was lost outside occupied France – the rumor that she had died in 1943 proved, thankfully, untrue. The post-war years were difficult for both mother and daughters. Teffi suffered from a crippling heart condition, which limited her ability to write and brought her to near destitution; Gulya was cut off in Warsaw, while Valya performed unfulfilling work for a Polish educational organization in London and visited her mother only once a year during her two-week vacation. The correspondence among the three women (mostly Teffi’s letters to Valya have survived) suggests, however, that their mutual support and affection offered great consolation. Perhaps inevitably, Teffi developed the closest relations with nearby Valya, their letters testifying to their devotion and revealing aspects of Teffi’s character that she concealed from others.
In one of her last letters to Valya (May, 1952) Teffi wrote that their “conversation” existed on two levels, “one external, about styles and hats, the other internal, which cannot be expressed in words.” The letters are filled with “external” conversations, mother advising daughter on fashion, grooming, and other “feminine” concerns. She writes in one letter, for example, that, in spite of her many worries, “day and night I think only about one thing – your nails,” and goes on to tell Valya that she must use “the palest polish, best of all Cutex ‘Sheer natural.’” Elsewhere she counsels her daughter on clothing, hairdos, cosmetics, makeup, among other things. While ostensibly frivolous, such concerns are important in Teffi’s world, where maintaining form is a vital defense, especially among the aging. “Please, my dearest one, don’t get old!” she wrote. “Don’t forget to apply cream to your face overnight and color your lashes, which you don’t like doing. It’s very important for modern life. Lipstick isn’t even worth mentioning.”
It is in their “internal” conversation, however, that Teffi most opened up. She remarked several times how much alike she and her daughter were. In 1946 she noted one trait they had in common – their unfailing desire to help people in need. She added, however (wisdom gained from long experience), that “you mustn’t expect gratitude. Helping another is the same kind of natural gesture (for some natures) as scratching your nose when it itches – but you wouldn’t expect your nose to thank you.” In 1947, Teffi wrote explicitly that she and Valya were “very alike spiritually,” noting their inner reserve: “We can’t ask about what another person doesn’t say. . . . We can’t impose our tenderness on someone. We’re reserved, closed . . . .” In 1950 Teffi mentioned other shared (seemingly incompatible) traits: “Kind, but at the same time nasty [zlye]” – both in fact aspects of Teffi’s humor, which ranges from cutting satire to affectionate portrayals of the downtrodden.
Teffi often conveyed her love of Valya — “like nobody else in the world,” she wrote in 1947. In another letter of that year she also expressed her deep gratitude, for her daughter had “no obligation, because I was a bad mother. In essence — good, but circumstances drove me from home where, had I stayed, I would have perished. Everything you do for me I take not as my due, but as a rare gift to me from heaven through you.” Teffi’s letter to Valya after her 1952 visit ends on a valedictory note, expressing once more her love and gratitude: “I thank you for being born, for having lived and continuing to live without bitterness . . . . I kiss you, your worried little face, your dear eyes, my beloved Valichka.” Teffi died several months later, on October 9, 1952.
Teffi died several months later, on October 9, 1952.
Edythe Haber is Professor Emerita at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a Center Associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, USA. Her book Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter is now available from Bloomsbury.