'Our Nanna Tessa' ~ Empress story by Calista Kazuko
Esther Dudakoff was born in 1917 in the Jewish quarters of the East End of London to Romanian mother Chantal and father, a Rabi and tailor from St. Petersburg. The Dudakoff’s lived a simple life with only two beds for 9 children to share. Esther missed out on a formal education as she suffered with a terrible ear infection for many years as a young teenager, which meant she had to spend a lot of time at home. Bothered by the family’s uncomfortable living situation, Esther would obsessively clean the house (an activity she enjoyed throughout life, much to the saving grace of our family!). An incredible story from Esther’s childhood was the young gentleman that came to stay under the stairs - as is Jewish tradition he was invited to join the family for Friday Night Dinner and ended up staying for more than 6 months, paying for his room and board by tidying the house with Esther, who has lovely memories of their time together. This thoughtful gent turned out to be a young George Orwell researching for his book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ - extraordinary!
A young Jewish woman living in London throughout the war and its cruelty, Esther chose to go by ‘Tessa’ which remained for the rest of her life. She met and married Poppa John, a Marxist socialist who was incredibly kind, wise and patient from a Scottish Presbyterian family, which unfortunately caused a rift between the newlyweds and their religious families. Following in her father’s footsteps, Tessa worked as a seamtress at the Oxford Playhouse for many years, allowing for the most wonderful dress-up box for us grandchildren! She had my Dad Paul (or ‘Plonky’ as she lovingly called him) and was the most fantastic mum and grandma.
Nanna Tessa played a huge part in our upbringing as my parents were so busy touring and changing the world. She always lived with us, next door or nearby and we would see her pretty much every day. If for some reason she couldn’t get a ride she would walk for hours to get to us! My memories of her are fabulous - she was always singing and dancing, laughing and ALWAYS talking. In fact, she would talk so much that I used to think that’s what grannies were there for! A natural tomboy and former swimming champion, Nanna Tessa was adventurous, strong-willed and determined. She was also incredibly warm and full of love. She had a charming playfulness and openness, always wearing her heart on her sleeve and saying whatever she was thinking. Nanna Tessa was a proper East Ender and her way with words was wonderful, mixing Yiddish with cockney rhyming slang. As a left-handed dyslexic missing out on a formal education, her cute clumsy chat became known as ‘Tessa-isms’, the favourite one I remember: “Stop biting your nails or you’ll bite them down to your testicles” - priceless!
Nanna Tessa died peacefully on the 19th June 2011 with us all able to say goodbye. It was in her last few days she started asking profound philosophical questions. On her final day she sat up with bright eyes and a huge smile, then laughed and exclaimed to my Dad,
“You know what Plonky, I’ve finally got it now, this thing called life: ‘Just go out there and have FUN!’
Tessa we love you and we miss you. Thank you for giving us so much joy and such a perfect childhood full of so many magical memories. Despite all the discrimination and pain you went through in life you didn’t hold an ounce of prejudice or judgement and instead were accepting of all - thank you for teaching us the gift of an open mind. You live forever in our hearts.