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Friday, May 17, 2013

A Mother and Her Daughters

Malashka and daughters, 1947

 World War II seems like ancient history but it is still keen in the mind of our eldest elders. Many of us in the US aren't so familiar with events on the Eastern Front, but my neighbor's mother lived them. I had to look them up. I learned that in September 1939 Poland was invaded by the Germans from the west and the Russians from the east as the result of a non-aggression accord between the two super powers. Poland was effectively divided and conquered. In 1941 Germany invaded Russia, expecting a quick victory, but the Russian army was strong and the Russian winter stronger. Russia pushed Germany back from Moscow, but they continued to fight for 3 years. In 1944 Russia was able to push Germany back through central and Eastern Europe including Poland. In 1945, Russia was part of the Battle for Berlin. With the success of D-Day on the English Channel and victories in the Low Countries and France by the allies, Germany was defeated in 1945. These are the relevant points on which Malashka's story rests. The order of events her daughters remember may not fit history exactly. What came first? What came second? How accurate is the history we read in a book. 

My neighbor Alina read a few selections in HerStory . I had suggested I write about her as my everyday heroine. She insisted we talk about her mother Malashka, born in a small village in Russia and sent wandering in Europe as a displaced person during the war years of the 1930's and 40's. I am glad I agreed. Malashka was her husband's endearment for her. It means "little one". Her name was Melannia, Melonie in English.

Married at 17 in 1925 to Nikolia the son of a wealthy family of land owners in Russia, Malashka saw her husband arrested with two of his brothers in 1929. She was 21. The men were sent to a concentration camp by the Communists because they were suspect as rich landowners. Why three of them were imprisoned and two brothers remained home is unknown. Nikolai worked in prison for 2 years, cutting trees and kept in isolation. Meanwhile the young Malashka ran the farm though she had only 1 year of schooling. She was a woman on her own with three daughters, Alexandria, Valintina and Katina, and her mother-in-law. My friend Alina was not yet born.

Eventually Nikolai was released to go home. Just how that came 3 years short of his release date is not entirely clear. The family still worked their lands and held on to their personal wealth but as the war started to pit Germany against Russia, roving bands of Russian guerrilla warriors called partisans terrorized the countryside. Their mission was to fight the Germans. It was dangerous to help them. It was even more dangerous to refuse. One night they came to Malshaka's house and demanded food. She tried to send them away claiming to have none, but they barged into the kitchen. One of the men threated her with a bayonet held alongside her face, and shot his rifle into the ceiling. Malshak went out with a shovel to dig up food from the storage pit and kept running, thinking they would all be killed. In the morning the band of men was gone and all of them survived.

Then the Germans came and took over the house. It was 1941. Malashka hid from the soldiers in her mother-in-law's barn, dodging the bayonets they struck into the hay, hoping they would not hit her. She was pregnant. Somehow they missed. Her family left their home in the middle of the night, after Nikolai buried things of value they could not carry. They had one wagon, one horse and their 3 surviving children. Traveling with another family and one of Malashka's brothers in law, they went to Kiev. In 6 weeks they moved on staying ahead of the army, avoiding the wandering bands of marauders. The brother-in-law turned back, and no one knows what happened to him. The other family offered to take one of the girls; traveling would be easier with fewer children. Malashka and Nikolai refused. Their family must stay together. The new baby died shortly after birth. They wandered for 2 years with forged papers, scared and hungry most of the time. Alina's oldest sister remembers. She sold candy for bread, but where did they get the candy?

Eventually the family was captured by the Germans and sent by train to a concentration camp but only for 9 days. They were Russians, not Jews. A Polish farmer came to look them over and take them as laborers. In those days there were over a million eastern European workers in Poland. Malashka and her family were fortunate. They were kept together and housed in a barn, not behind wire in a camp. They stayed for the better part of the year until the Russian Army invaded Poland. That may have been in the 1944 push back across Eastern Europe. The Communists were brutal, and the family's papers were forgeries so they ran from their own countrymen moving westward toward Germany. The farmer gave them 2 cattle and a wagon and sent them off to escape the best they could.

Alina was born in that wagon, the date is not known. Calendars and birthdates have little meaning when you are running for your life. They had no food or clothing for the baby. Malashka was in such poor condition her milk never came in. They were on the road and stopped only long enough for Malashka to birth her child. Then they moved on, afraid to stay anywhere very long. Despite the cold winter, Malashak insisted her daughter Alina be properly baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church. The cold and hunger may have been the near death of Alina. The baby's arm was infected, who knew why or how, and eventually burst its poison leaving a scar. They were on the road and dared not look for doctors. How frightened Malashka must have been! Not only had her last infant died, her two sons had died of whooping cough. Sometimes they had to run for the hills to avoid the armies. Sometimes they hid in forests. Life in a war zone is uncertain, but Alina survived. Her 3 sisters survived. Her parents survived.

Eventually they were again rounded up, this time in Rosenberg, Germany where they again worked on a farm until the war ended. Then Nikolai signed up for mine work in Belgium. The family traveled by train and was housed in barracks until they could find a flat. That was after the war when people were on the move everywhere in Europe. Alina was 3.

These were likely the Eisden Coal Mines in Flanders where the Russian POW's had been forced to work during the war. There were half a million such workers, many of whom died because of the working conditions. After the war over, records show the mine workers were replaced by German POW's, and the Russians became the supervisors.

In Belgium Malashka's life improved. Her daughters went to school and she was able to stay at home and care for them. I asked Alina how they came to the States from Belgium in 1955. She explained her oldest sister had married a man whose family had been found in Buffalo NY. They were all displaced persons, DP's in the vernacular of the time. Because Nikolai and all of them were healthy, they were allowed to join the oldest daughter in the US. Alina remembers they had to wait more than a year, but the government—one of the governments—sent them on a plane that landed in NYC May 18, 1955. Alina was about 11. She spoke Russian, French, Italian and a little English. The American schools wouldn't let her study languages because her English wasn't good. Instead of recognizing her intelligence, she was steered into secretarial classes. It was the 1950's. That's what women did. Her parents had higher hopes for their daughters, but peer pressure being what it is, all three girls married after high school and settled down as housewives. 
Malashka and daughters, 1990s

But life comes around full circle sometimes. Alina married and had 2 sons. She kept books for her husband's painting business. Later she ran the business in her own name. When her sons were grown, the older went to Alaska to work. He likes the cold outdoors and wilderness. The younger one married a woman from Russia. In Russia she was a nurse anesthetist. In the US her credentials are not recognized, so right now she is a housewife and mother. Some things change a lot. Some things don't. 

I have seen Alina struggle with all kinds of problems, from raising teenagers to illnesses and financial reversals. She always does what she has to do. 'You just keep going on," she says. "What choice do you have?" She is a strong woman who handles things.

I asked her if the women in the family repeated any lessons learned from the war years. She gave me a straight look. "You are stronger than you think. And you can survive anything." I know she must have heard that a hundred times growing up. I think it was her mother's voice that came through to me. There is something else besides strong people who survive war, illness, politics, immigration policies, and that is love. People do what they do, not really for money. They do it for the people they love. Whatever happened, whatever didn't happen, it was about family and people that loved each other, and did whatever they had to do to survive because they were together.

***

Dorothy Abrams lives and writes in upstate New York. She met Ela when she visited Salisbury Cathedral with her partner Eric Reynolds in 2010. Dorothy's recent nonfiction title Identity and the Quartered Circle: Studies in Applied Wicca will be released in 2013. Her essay Moveren the Sea Queen appears in Sorita d'Este's anthology Faerie Queens to be released in 2013. Her current project is The Witches of Fawsetwood, a historical fantasy novel about medieval England.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Across Generations

The world is a very different place from the world our Grandmothers walked. Hem lines have gone up and down. Hairstyles have ranged from never cut your hair to let’s see how short we can get it. Women have gone from stay at home mom to soldier and a full range of occupations and endeavors in between. Those of use today who are mothers and grandmothers have moved forward as a result of the efforts of our mothers and grandmothers. And, we in turn will undoubtedly leave something behind for generations to come.

Yet, through all the change, good and bad, one thing has remained constant—the fact that women are the mothers to the world. Without a mother where would any of us be? Every mother is different, but for the most part they are our anchor. They keep us grounded, attempt to keep us safe, and are often rewarded in less than generous ways. As children, we can be ungrateful, not intentionally, more often simply by the nature of where we are in life in any moment.

We take our mothers and our grandmothers for granted often until we become a parent or reach an age when we can see more clearly what the job required. This is when our eyes are opened to how much work is involved with being a mother. Motherhood is sacrifice, sadness, worry, pain and sometimes sheer terror. However, it can also be colored with joy, relief, elation, and wild bouts of laughter.

This Mother’s Day do something different. If you always buy mom a card, make one instead—like you used to when you were a kid. Instead of taking her out for dinner, cook her dinner. Instead of buying her something, take her shopping. Gifts fade and lose their luster, but moments of your time will linger long in the memory.



***

Morgan Summerfield grew up an avid reader and by her teens was a hobby writer. As an adult she has been a teacher, a technical writer, an instructional designer, a consultant, and a freelance writer. Her recently published first novel, Blood and Magnolias, was a dream fulfilled. In a recent contest, the characters in Blood and Magnolias were given a 5 out of 5 rating. When she is passionate about something, it shows. Beyond her writing, Morgan is a painter and works with a domestic violence shelter and education council.
Monday, May 13, 2013

What I Learned From My Mother by Tara Chevrestt



I learned a combination of things from my mother. I learned to not give up, to brush things off and smile, and trudge on. Don't let things beat you. I also learned that it's okay to be alone. Though it's nice to have a life partner, you can have a full and wonderful existence without one. True strength comes from within us, not from a person by our side.

I'll explain this strange thought of mine...

My mother had breast cancer a few years ago. She was going through a divorce, she lived thousands of miles from me, and except for a handful of family members, she faced the disease alone. When I say alone, I mean, without a partner to speak to you in the darkness of night--that moment just before sleep when it feels like the weight of all your troubles are suffocating you--that's when most of us turn to our partners and whisper, "I'm scared."


That's when the tears fall, when nearly no one but the person we choose to see us at our most vulnerable is there to see.

She faced death, chin up, and defied it...alone. She had surgery, not once, but twice. She had radiation for six months. I mean, I look at her now during some of my darkest and most frustrated moments and say, "Well, gee, my mum faced cancer and said "screw you!", surely I can tackle this tiny obstacle.

Chin up! Defy! Trudge on!

I have to remind myself of this many times in my life and she is my inspiration.

My mother never incited a revolution. She didn't join marches for causes or make a ton of money. She never did anything that will go down in history books, but her strength and courage inspires those around her. Sometimes that's all it takes. A small ripple in a big ocean and her ripple becomes a wave. And a wave...is powerful.


***


Tara Chevrestt is a deaf woman, former aviation mechanic, writer, and an editor. She is most passionate about planes, motorcycles, dogs, and above all, reading. That led to her love of writing. Between her writing and her editing, which allows her to be home with her little canine kids, she believes she has the greatest job in the world. She is very happily married. 

Her theme is Strong is Sexy. She shares a website with her naughty pen name: http://tarachevrestt.weebly.com/index.html and they have a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tara-Chevrestt-Sonia-Hightower/218383211513877.
Friday, May 10, 2013

Lessons from Mother by Dorothy Abrams

Dorothy Pearl Russell was the kind of child a mother wishes on her daughter as retribution. My Victorian grandmother often said she didn't know whether to spank her when she got up in the morning or wait until she deserved it. Deserved is a poor choice of words. There was guilt and karma, jealousy and fear all wrapped up in their relationship. To thrive in that milieu, Dorothy rationalized everything in terms of what would keep her from the worst punishments, or at least make it worth it. If she was late home from school, she figured she might as well be really late. The switching wouldn't be any worse for it. If the rule was one friend a piece to play in the back yard for each of the three Russell kids, Dorothy would take stock. She realized her much older brother was off with his friends. Her sister was inside reading because it was too hot or too cold to be outside.

"Can me and my 10 friends play in the yard now?" she would ask. My grandparents found it hard to say no.

When her 10 friends were not around, she climbed up the old apple tree and hid with a book. She cried and screamed on the rare occasions her sister was spanked. She made a room in the attic so she could have a dreaming space of her own in the summertime. It was too cold up there in the winter. She decorated the neighbor's pansies with fresh tar from the street because the colors contrasted so nicely with the black sticky stuff. She washed her friend's brother's tobacco pipes because they were sticky and smelly. They were a Catholic family, and that brother was a priest. He wasn't supposed to say bad words like that. He spanked her too.

Despite her mischief, the whole neighborhood admired Dorothy's spirit. She had been born with a clubbed foot in 1919 when medical science said she would be forever crippled. Her father would have none of that. He found a doctor who was brave enough to break the infant foot in two places, turn it, put it back together in a brace and hope for the best. Her leg was skinny, the ankle misshaped but she played tennis, rode horseback and walked without a limp most of her life. Dorothy was a survivor.

She also was my mother. I suspect she was a near genius undercut by old fashioned schools that failed to recognize her potential. She was in high school until she was 20 because she couldn't pass geometry. Feigning unconcern about her failures, she focused on her friends and having a rollicking good time. When a teacher finally figured out that she repeatedly failed the state test because she missed something in the beginning of the year, not the last semester, he walked her all the way through the book. On the 5th try, she got it. She taught it to me a generation later using music to sing the theorems I couldn't remember.

After the geometry incident and being stuck in Latin too many years and denied French or German, Dorothy refused college. Both her siblings had attended Syracuse University. She could have but she went to work instead. She took off the summer she graduated to work the state fair circuit on the midway. Her father gave her bus money so she wouldn't hitchhike. She and her friend Isabel took the buss out of town and then stuck out their thumbs. The ticket money kept them fed until they could meet up with the carnies. Mom was a rube among the cons. Fortunately she had Isabel to protect her. She found a department store job was waiting when she came back home, but first she saw the world's fair in NYC. It was 1939. Apparently she had a gift for retail sales. Working her way up she became an assistant buyer in a fancy local store.

Eventually, my mother married my father because he loved her so much, and would not go away. Marriage wasn't her goal, but after turning him down 3 or 4 times, she finally agreed. He had been her cousin's beau. Because she was so independent minded, men were usually her close friends not her lovers. Most of her dates were leftovers from her sister. She hadn't been interested in picking up after her cousin too. I think she was surprised Dad was so persistent. Who she might have married if she had married for love is a mystery she never shared, but although she liked and cared for him, I knew he loved her more.

One thing did happen in her marriage that was totally for love. Me. My mother had only one child, a daughter born 5 years after her wedding, after she had given up hope, after everyone else had given up hope. She was determined about several things.

My daughter will not be spanked or beaten.

My daughter will go to college if I have to spank her all the way there.

My daughter will think for herself and make her own decisions.

I don't know if she saw the inherent contradictions in those axioms. I didn't until I wrote them down. I did know what they were and that they were true. She started talking to me about college so early in my life I never questioned whose idea it was. I thought it was mine. I certainly didn't need threats or spankings to be cooperative in that regard, or any other. If my grandmother had wished a difficult child on my mother, it didn't work. I was 10 years old before it occurred to me I did not have to do what I was told. My friends laughed at my astonishment. By the time I was in my teens she declared I was a boring child and bought me Beatle albums to liven me up. I promptly fell in love with George Harrison. She seemed relieved.

As I went through adolescence of course, her resolve was tested. I made many decisions she thought were foolish. I heard her tell my father they had raised me to think for myself and they had better trust me. That was when I thought I'd be a missionary and live in Brazil. I never got there. They didn't want single women and I didn't want a husband--not just to go to work in Brazil.

My mother managed to be a great mom and my best friend. When my parents could not live at home on their own anymore, they moved in with me and my new family. Dad didn't like it because Eric and I weren't married. Mom told him she was going so he might as well come along. He was ill so he had little choice. Eventually he learned to like it. Reunited after 20 years of my moving around the eastern seaboard, my mother and I picked up where we left off, playing cards and scrabble, making dinner and generally befuddling the men in our lives. I didn't like watching either of my parents lose their edge, but I especially didn't like seeing it happen to my mother.

Her demise could have been different. My parents were in an auto accident that could have been avoided. Both of them received poor emergency care. We successfully intervened in my dad's case, but mom's got away from us. She had been home, readmitted to the ER and then everything went wrong. She had said if it was too hard, she didn't want to do it. It was too hard. No matter what we fixed something else went haywire. I hate that it was her time. She was only 74. We had more games to play!

At the end, she said I would have to finish her stories. We had taken writing courses together at a nearby community college. The one goal my mother left undone was to be a published fiction writer. She left me many beginnings, middles or ends of stories. None of them are complete, but none of them are my stories. I can't finish them. I must write my own. She knows that, of course.

My mother was magical. She read the clouds, saw visions in them and told tales about what she saw. I am sure that was what she was doing all of her life. The Monday after she died, I saw her write my name in block letters in the mackerel sky. Underneath my name, she wrote Wheeee.

One last lesson, I think. Got it, Mom.

Dorothy Abrams lives and writes in upstate New York. She met Ela when she visited Salisbury Cathedral with her partner Eric Reynolds in 2010. Dorothy's recent nonfiction title Identity and the Quartered Circle: Studies in Applied Wicca will be released in 2013. Her essay Moveren the Sea Queen appears in Sorita d'Este's anthology Faerie Queens to be released in 2013. Her current project is The Witches of Fawsetwood, a historical fantasy novel about medieval England.
Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Motherhood Experience by Toni Rakestraw

I worked as a doula for awhile. What’s a doula? The most frequent description I see today is someone who attends a birth and ‘holds a woman’s space.’ What this means is they act as a buffer between the birthing woman and the medical personnel. When I was a doula, what I did was attend the mother and her partner. But I’m not writing about that. My everyday heroine is the mother.


Giving birth is hard work. Heck, everyday parenting is hard work… it doesn’t matter how you got there. But back to birth. Like death, birth is a transition. But unlike death, you’re not doing this one alone. Your mother is an integral partner in the journey. During birth, the mother and the baby are working together whether they realize it or not.

Today, giving birth can differ greatly from woman to woman. One may have surgery, another may have an epidural so she doesn’t feel the pain, yet another may feel every contraction. Even so, every birth is a journey that requires courage. From that first tightening in the belly to that final grip that compels a woman to push with all her might to expel a being the size of a bowling ball out of a hole the size of a … well, I can’t think of any common household item exactly that size, but it’s considerably smaller than a bowling ball. Labor is an exercise in learning to let go.
A woman in labor must learn to let go of her modesty. Labor leaves no room for it. You may feel overheated to the point you need to shed your clothing. You must let go of your manners. Words often leave you during labor, and when you can form words, every one counts. If you need something, you may not have the effort to spare for ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’ You may need to curse, especially during transition when someone touches you and you cannot bear it. You must let go of what society expects of you. When that baby is coming out, it isn’t uncommon for baby to clean out your bowels for you at the same time in front of whoever is there with you. You must let go of any timidity and howl, moan, or scream if you must to move that baby down and out. And last of all, you must let go of that baby that has lived inside for nine months and let him or her out into the world.

Of course, some of these are adapted a bit for a surgical birth, but mothers are still learning to let go in other ways.

Watching a woman turn into a mother is a gift for those with the eyes to see. It’s an inner transition, one that is born of pain and sweat and love. Some women reach this moment when the baby is first put into their exhausted arms and they look into that tiny, scrunched face covered in goo. Others come into it gradually over the first several weeks of sleep deprivation and baby cries. While I haven’t had the privilege to see it in adoptive mothers, I hear it happens there, too, as their hearts answer the squalls of motherhood. It is this transformation that turns the maiden to the mother, a nurturing force to be reckoned with.

So, I honor all those mothers out there that have gone through labor, been cut open in the operating room, have taken in children that others have borne, and made room in their hearts for caring for these new scraps of humanity. It is a Herculean task, yet women do it every day and have done it since people began.


***

Toni Rakestraw is an editor by day and a writer by night. She has written another short story, The Longest Night, for Pagan Writers Press. She also co-authored Titanic Deception, a full-length novel, with her husband John.
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