letters

The Big Whine

Family early years

Me and Mom – photo taken probably a year after our family’s U.S. arrival – early 1950’s.

There is never a good time to come to terms about a relationship. The entire focus of Letters from the Box in the Attic is showing how brave, selfless, and wonderful my mother was throughout her life. This was all true, but how does a daughter live with that perfect person who was her mother?

Not always well. Adolescence and adulthood has a way of making that so. Any perfect person is still a human being, not without flaws or weaknesses. In writing the book, I thought about introducing a chapter about the ups and downs Mom and I had, or at least referring to them but decided it would come across as me whining. Therefore there are no references. I felt the need to hold her up on a pedestal, because she was the rock of our family and she needed to be treated with the utmost respect and love.

As with many mothers and daughters not all things were perfect at home with Mom and me, and even after I was married and moved away, that periodic friction continued. I even felt the need to read the book, My Mother Myself, by Nancy Friday.  After reading the book I felt more satisfied knowing that there is no sin to being similar to your mother. Some of a mom’s best traits may end up being your own. I shared with my own mom a love of nature’s beauty and color; a strong feeling of justice; and the strong bond of family. The conflicts which surfaced were petty in nature, and in my case it was simply communication, or the lack of it, which was my doing.

When I went away to college, my mother wanted me to call her once a week. But back in the day, a long time ago, college dorms had one pay telephone per floor, not in individual rooms, allowing for no privacy, and of course there were no cell phones. How did we exist! I really resented this exercise, because I did not like to be obliged to call and talk about things she did not understand. She did not go away to school and even if she had, it would have been in another country and during another time. How could she relate? A person should call when they wanted to, was what I thought. But how often would I have called? She knew she needed to stay in touch with her daughter.

Out of respect and love I did as I was told, I called every week. Even with keeping up this practice over the years, the looser was my mom, because there were fewer and fewer things we talked about. Once I moved away from her area and had children of my own the conversations did turn to those kids,  their actitivies and school progress which we talked about. I also blamed my deteriorating Polish language skills as the years went on as a reason for the created wedge between us. It’s hard to explain something in a language you only use once a week, so it was easier not to try. To my own discredit, I think I just did not like to be told what to do.

I always thought of myself as a serious career oriented person who needed to work to be fulfilled. At this time in my life I don’t feel as emphatic about that. My little family had the opportunity to move several time while my children were young, and that caused my career paths to change a few times. Each time I found employment and a purpose at these destinations, Mom brought up the fact that it’s good that I was contributing to the household, but my feeling was that I really wanted to work because it was important to me. Maybe all I was doing was contributing a bit financially,  but at the time, I felt so misunderstood.

The strong bond of family is also what I shared with my mother. Doing what it takes to keep family together is important to me. There were times I would think of my mom as a door mat becasue she wanted to please everyone. I felt that she did not stand up for herself when criticized. Despite initially blaming my dad for causing Mom not to defend herself especially when he would verbally abuse her while drinking, I believe I was the best at projecting that image on to her. She was a genuine giver. It was important to her that she give of herself to her family. The door mat syndrome is a by-product of being a giver, of wanting to please. When you care about your family it’s easy to become a door mat. The idea of a parent’s unconditional love is quite compelling. The unconditional love of a parent is a gift to her children and then there is the hope that the love goes both ways. I was blessed to have had my mother’s unconditional love and it was returned, despite any ups and downs of life.

To learn more about my mom read Letters from the Box in the Attic, a Story of Courage, Survival and Love – Available on Amazon.

 

Excerpt from Chapter 3 – Dealing with her Past

I would like to introduce you to Letters from the Box in the Attic, a Story of Survival, Courage and Love, my labor of love. This book chronicles my mom’s war experiences as a young adult and how it changed her life. My first book is to be published next month and here is an excerpt from Chapter 3.

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While mom was alive and living in a nursing home in Illinois, my brother Andy and I decided it was time to sell mom’s house in Pennsylvania and deal with her possessions. There was a life time of stuff which she accumulated.  So much of what was in her house proved to be either in disrepair, or have no real value to worry about. Andy insisted that he did not want anything out of the house. Mom was proud of Andy’s art work which dotted her walls. They represented much of his portfolio from his college days at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He did not want any of it back. So knowing this, my daughter Stephanie and I drove to Sewickley, Pennsylvania, mom’s picturesque town along the Ohio River where I grew up. We pulled a small trailer, ready to deal with and take away what we needed to keep from the house.

Mom was a saver; not to be confused with a hoarder however. If there was the possibility that something could be reused, she kept it. If there was anything sentimental, she kept it. There was stuff everywhere! Mom’s living room was full of newspaper clippings, books and magazines, pretty much as she had left it the year before. She saved all things that represented family or a connection to her past.

My daughter and I found ourselves looking through everything, piece by piece, and found many old bound calendars and day timers filled with mom’s journaling; her written commentary about her life and life in general, covering every page. She never wasted any piece of paper while writing about this or that. Stephanie and I each spent hours pouring over stacks of materials, laughing and crying over what Grandma had saved and written.

Stephanie and I continued to look through the photos both loose and in albums, books and other recently saved memorabilia – deciding what we wanted to bring back with us. We then tackled the kitchen, dining room and her personal bedroom items and clothes. The kitchen, as small as it was, contained scads of paraphernalia as well, including small appliances, pots and pans that she had not used in years. Mom had no longer used the old Amana gas oven range, which was original with the house in 1963 the year my parents bought it. She used only one burner and never used the oven for fear of blowing up the house. The rest of her cooking was done in the little microwave or toaster oven, which Andy bought her years prior.

Stephanie laid claim to all of Uncle Andy’s art work, while I decided to keep some of her china pieces and a particular curio cabinet, as well as her old treadle Singer sewing machine. That sewing machine was the life blood of mom’s sewing business and it gave her many years of use, even after she was given a brand new machine one year for Christmas. The new machine would break down periodically, but her mending and sewing for others needed to continue forcing her to use the old reliable one.

Before Stephanie and I left that weekend, I went up to the attic which had been neatly organized over the years. I was drawn up there, somewhat as an afterthought, because Stephanie and I really needed to get on the road to drive home. Once up there I knew there was something I needed to find. We stumbled on additional clothes which we added to all the bags ready to give away. I began to open some of the cardboard storage boxes and there they were, the two boxes of precious memorabilia that mom kept. I knew she kept letters and documents from the war because she would often refer to some of the keepsakes, handwritten letters, documents, medals, photographs and books.

Those two boxes were full of precious items that needed to be in my custody, since I could not possibly abandon or discard them. To this day I can’t fathom how I almost left without mom’s treasures. They represented who she was. Had I abandoned the boxes, it would have been like throwing away pieces of her life, her youth, her heart and soul — saved for more than 70 years. In good time I would explore the contents.

It’s all About the Letters

So far my blogs have focused on growing up Polish and remembering my mother and how she influenced my life and my family’s. But now it’s time to talk about all the letters she left in the attic.

I have vivid memories of my mother both from the early years and as she grew older as well as her modest life, sometimes too modest in my estimation. She tried to add a positive spin to whatever was going in her life while being frugal. I remember when she said her heating bills were too high in her old, drafty house and how the new thermostat reading needed to be 65 degrees on some of the coldest days. She simply wore an extra sweater to keep warm. When I came to visit the thermostat went up a few degrees. I don’t think I am holding her up to be this perfect person, but she was able to tackle adversity with grace. She was someone who could make lemonade out of sour lemons, when she had to, and she had to make lemonade quite a bit.

My greatest accomplishment, next to giving birth and rearing my children has been memorializing my mother’s World War II experience. This period in her life was when her survival skills, making lemonade out of sour lemons, were the most useful. The art of tackling adversity head on served her well the rest of her life also. The project, Letters from the Box in the Attic, a Story of Survival, Courage and Love” is a tribute to this woman I called mother. My book is a work of love, which will be published sometime in early 2018.

The book’s genesis began in the fall of 2012, shortly after I resigning from my job. Because I am a one track minded type of person, there was no time for two major undertakings in my life. I needed to focus on researching the book and gathering as much information as possible. Later another job found me, which took 18 more months away from the project. Eventually I got to where I am now.

I always thought I knew so much about European World War II, only to find out that I knew only some of the basics which are taught in school. There was so much more that I needed to know to begin the writing process. The learning curve also involved needing to know more about my parents’ lives during the war; however, they were both deceased when I started the project.

This was when the letters became the dominant focus of the project, the heart and soul of the project once the letters were translated. Revelations were learned, the inner most feelings between two people, and family members were exposed. After digesting all the translations I was left with trying to make sense of it all. Eventually I was able to connect some of the dots between historical events and what my parents experienced.

Historical context is so important to put events into prospective – why things happen, not just that the events themselves occurred. Knowing what my parents experienced needed to be put into an understanding of why. As a history nerd, this was the most fun!

Then there are the personal revelations that come from doing some introspection about family. We are all interesting human beings, who suffer from human failings along with some burdens we carry both good and bad. All families have issues.

This has been my first attempt at writing a manuscript. I thoroughly enjoyed the research portion of the journey. Collecting the data, intertwining the letters with all the historical facts was fascinating. A non-fiction author once gave me a bit of advice; he said that at some point you have to start writing. You cannot just keep doing research, was his advice. As difficult as it was to follow his advice, I took it to heart. I was nevertheless convinced that I could find more information if I just tried. As I began to write, I did pursue archived information from the Polish government, which did reveal interesting facts. I was so excited to add them into the narrative. But for me the reality is that there are facts I will never know.

The idea of becoming an author is crazy to me. I am sure my high school English teachers are rolling over in their graves if they are deceased. As with other new ventures, I will have to buy into the fact that I did write the book. This next phase of my life will be exciting.