letters

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.