The Iron Lady: a poem

Walking away from the Western Cemetery,
An exposed hill-top near the M25
Where the north London Jews choose to bury
their dead, I saw a bus stop poster of
a film called The Iron Lady with a picture
of my grandma on it. It was disconcerting
seeing her staring back at me, unsmilingly
looking me square in the eye, just an hour
after I’d watched the rabbi and his burly
assistant lower her body into the ground.
As I got closer to the poster I could see
it was Meryl Streep made-up as Margaret Thatcher,
but still the likeness to my Grandma
held true, sharing as she did the bouffant
hairdo, skin untouched by sun and the
‘lady is not for turning’ attitude
of the famous scourge of union men.

I’m taken back to when I was eight,
and my sister’s ten. We’re staying over
at grandma and grandad’s for the weekend.
We’re sat down at the dining table, staring
at fine-art place mats, with silver cutlery
set out with such precision it would satisfy
the most pernickety Swiss. Grandad sits
down, looking like an aged cat but not
quite as awake. Grandma brings in the soup,
the chicken soup, the Jewish chicken soup
which is the best thing on earth but also
a subtle way of saying : whoever
your father is, you’ll always be a Jew.

The conversational sparring starts:
Grandma asks us what we think about
Neil Kinnock’s chances of being elected.
My sister trots out the playground line that
“he’s gotta be better than that dreaded milk-snatcher.”
Grandma tells her that she should pronounce
her middle t’s better. Grandad agrees.
I say the soup is wonderful. Grandad agrees.
Grandma then asks us if we like the opera.
My sister says she prefers Madonna.
I say I’d love to hear some just as soon as
we’ve finished this marvellous dinner.
My sister kicks me hard on the shin.

At the end of the weekend, mum and dad
Pick us up in our brown Ford Cortina.
I stay quiet while my sister unleashes
a tirade against Grandma: she denounces
the demands placed upon her to be better spoken,
better dressed, more grown-up, less like herself,
and mum calmly says, “Whatever she did to you
It’s not half of what she put me through.”
And you can tell by her tone that it’s true.

Fifteen years later, I’m at the Royal
Opera House with grandma. She’s frail
And needs my arm to get to the seat
She got cheap with her disabled pass.
The opera begins: I understand little but
can see there are a lot of Russians on stage
singing at each other, and killing each other
and grandma, at a glance, seems pleased.
During one particularly savage scene
I give her hand a squeeze, and she squeezes too.
When the actors who’ve not yet been slain
take a break she unwraps fishcake sandwiches
which we share. The rye bread and fried salmon
Taste like the old country she clings to,
but I’ve never known. They taste, maybe,
like a token of love from a woman who
could sometimes be mistaken for the Iron Lady.

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