Walking to Church – 1959

In the summer, when the weather was good, we walked to church. Daddy would be in his suit and tie, wearing a trilby hat, which he would remove as we crossed the threshold of the church.

Family 1959

I’m on the left, my Polish godmother is on the right, with my sister Alex on her knee…

My four sisters and I would be in our best dresses.  The twins, at twelve two years older than me, usually had identical ones, with perhaps a different colored cardigan each, blue for Jane, and green for Kay.

I would be in the dress my Polish godmother had sewn for me – a greyish green with a small black-and-white print on it. The belt was attached at the sides, so that I wouldn’t lose it, and tied in a bow at the back. It had a detachable white collar, because my godmother knew I’d be sure to get it dirty, so she made it easier for my mother to wash. I guess the color of the dress, normally too sophisticated for a ten-year-old, might have been chosen to hide the evidence of my generally messy way of navigating my world.

Alex and Susan wore dresses that differed only in size. My mother had sewn them from a kit she sent away for from a women’s magazine. They arrived with the fabric already cut out, one with yellow flowers (for Susan, aged four) and one with blue ones, (for six-year-old Alex). The kit included contrasting rick-rack to be sewn around the skirt and neckline for added interest.

We all wore white socks and our current shoes, having, of course, only one pair each. Daddy would have polished them the day before, having been shooed out of the kitchen by my mother. On the step by the kitchen door, he’d line up our shoes by size, before opening the old biscuit tin where he kept the brushes, polish and buffing rags. He would spit thoughtfully on the toe of each shoe as he brushed the polish in.

“Spit and polish,” he would say. “That’s what they do in the army to make them shine.”

Fourteen years after the war, the leather belt hanging in the wardrobe with his uniform still had that spit and polish gleam.

Our hair brushed, we’d be ready. My mother, a half apron around her waist, would wave us goodbye, promising roast chicken for lunch on our return. She wasn’t a Catholic, but I think the reason she stayed home was because she relished a couple of hours of peace and quiet.

Our route took us past the other large houses on our quiet street.  Too quiet, in my 10-year-old opinion. There weren’t enough other children to play with, which meant I had to make do with my sisters, who wouldn’t always cooperate.

On weekdays, the passing traffic might include the butcher or baker delivering their goods from large flat baskets to our front door. Occasionally, in addition to the large family loaf we took as a matter of course, my mother would succumb to the temptations of the iced buns, sticky in pink or white, buying three which she would cut in half for us to share.

The man who sharpened knives or the blind man who could re-weave the cane on our chairs might come knocking. On a really exciting day, the rag and bone man, his open wagon pulled by a slow clip-clopping horse, might come along the road, shouting out his trade. Housewives would emerge from behind their very proper front doors, with old clothing or useless household items, for which he’d hand over a goldfish. When the first goldfish died after only two days, my mother refused to take another, and held out for a pinwheel on a stick or a balloon.

Occasionally, the onion man from Brittany would arrive on his bike, with twenty or more long strings of onions draped over the handlebars. My mother always bought some, because she enjoyed chatting with him in fluent French. He wore a black beret, no matter the weather. I think he knew the British expected real Frenchmen always to wear a beret.

So much for the Monday to Friday excitements. On Sundays, men who didn’t go to church would be washing their cars in the driveway as we passed. They used a chamois to make the glass sparkle, and wax to give the body a shine better than that of their neighbors.

We’d reach the end of the road and turn right down the avenue, lined with giant horse chestnut trees which kept the road cool when the weather was hot. This was the way to Gunnersbury Park, the best part of the walk. Through the enormous wrought iron gates, and we’d pass the white mansion that once belonged to the Rothschilds and now housed the local museum. Inside it, we knew, were the grand carriages with crests on the doors. Facing them stood the biggest doll’s house we’d ever seen, crammed with tiny Victorian furniture and inhabited by a family of small dolls and their maid. Then there was the fossilized wooden tree trunk that had served as a pipeline for the ancient Romans who’d lived in the neighborhood a century before. But a visit to the museum would have to wait for another time.

Today we’d cross the lawn where the Rothschilds had played croquet with their friends. And here was the ruin they called a folly. My mother had told me that follies were the fashion long ago and people had paid architects to design them. Even at ten, I knew that was silly. And what was the point of ruins if we weren’t allowed to climb them?

Out through one of the side gates, which were spaced at regular intervals along the great yellow brick walls which ran around the vast park. The gate had originally been for the gardeners to come and go, as they invisibly maintained the flower and vegetable gardens and the gardenias in the orangery attached to the house.

Now we were walking along the main road, with only a quarter of a mile to go. It might as well have been ten miles, and we would begin to flag, even though Daddy tried to chivvy us along. He’d pick Susan up, as he always did, since her little legs were tired, and we’d all welcome the sight of St. Dunstan’s Preparatory School for Boys, silent on a Sunday, and next to it a small, ugly building, the church. I never did find out who Saint Dunstan was.

Daddy would give each of us a penny or ha’penny to put into the collection plate and then it was time to go in. It was cool and dark inside, though on a sunny day you could see the haze of incense smoke, drifting through as the mass progressed. I liked the spicy smell, and used it as a marker to tell me the service was almost over. I kept one eye on my sisters (Susan would disappear from time to time below the wooden bench) and one eye on the black missal I held in front of me, where the order of service was written in both English and Latin. The priest prayed in the mysterious language the Romans used, and by the time I was eight, I was able to hear a catholic service, understand it, and utter the correct Latin responses without a second thought. When the mass was translated into English, sometime in the mid-60’s, it lost its mystery for me, no longer the murmurings of an exotic secret society, but the meaningless repetition of phrases I no longer believed.

But while Daddy was alive, and the sun was shining and the park was green, walking to church was a chance to be with him, with the feeling that life was good and would stay that way.

Seeking refuge

My father was stranded in England after World War II. So he wasn’t an immigrant, exactly – he hadn’t made a plan to leave Poland for better things. I suppose, technically, he was a refugee.

What he had done, before the world went to war, was to leave his homeland in 1938 to work in Toulouse, in south-western France, for a year. He was an agricultural economist, and at 25, had no ties to prevent him from going. He worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, and they assigned him to the Polish consulate in Toulouse, to give him some gravitas. His French is excellent, although the regional accent of that corner of the country can be hard to understand.

Daddy ToulouseI have a couple of photos of him from that time. Here he comes, strolling along a French street, sporting a beret, hoping to blend in. But the camera in its leather case that swings from his wrist tells the world he’s a tourist. He’s wearing a suit and tie – there’s a gleam on his shoes and a smile on his innocent young face. Perhaps he’s on his way to buy that bottle of Violettes de Toulouse perfume to give to his mother when he returns home. He is there to study local farming methods so he can return to Poland and help his country increase production. Poland has only recently regained its independence from Germany, Austria and Russia, so now the Poles have to make their country work.

You might think he’d wear more casual clothes when working, but no.

My father was a bit of a dandy, I suspect. Here he is again, standing in a field outside Toulouse, his right hand shading his eyes while he tries not to squint at the camera. He has his left hand on the hip pocket of his tweed jacket. As my eyes move down the photo, I see his jodhpurs, ending at the top of his pristine leather riding boots. If there was one thing my father always insisted on, it was well-polished footwear.

When not working, he hiked the Pyrenees, and passed the time in cafes and bars with other young people. He visited Lourdes, a shrine not far from Toulouse, not because he needed a miracle then, but because his older brother was a priest, and the gift of a small bottle of Lourdes water could cure all kinds of ills. He managed to hang onto that bottle no matter where he went.

When Hitler marched into Poland, my father joined many of his compatriots who were living and working in France, to form a Polish Army. They fought the Germans side by side with the French, only to find themselves backed up against the English Channel at Dunkerque, praying for a miracle.

They got one. Almost everyone was rescued and delivered to England by a flotilla of small fishing boats, dinghies, and yachts, which volunteered when the troopships couldn’t manage alone.

My father arrived on the south coast, with only the uniform he stood up in, to be put on a train along with his comrades, bound for Blackpool in the north of England. As the train stood hissing and puffing before it began to move, bevvies of women walked up and down the platform handing up thick china cups of milky tea and buns for the new arrivals. My father thanked them in English, and was rewarded with smiles and shouts of “Good luck!”

The Poles ended up in Scotland, and began to prepare for active duty. They knew what they were fighting for – the right to return home to a Poland liberated from the Germans and Russians who were using their country as a battlefield. His brothers showed up in Britain, too. His older brother, an army chaplain, was delighted with is bottle of Lourdes water. Dominic, who was younger, served as a rear gunner in the Royal Air Force.

At the end of the war, anyone who’d served was offered a free (one-way) ticket to Poland, now an officially Communist country. They could stay in Britain, and become miners, foresters or agricultural workers. If they turned that down, they might be offered passage to some part of the British Empire, where they could start again. Their last option was to take the £25 and the suit of clothes they were given on demobilization, and start their own business.

My father had met my English mother by then, and fallen in love. He was faced with a heartrending decision. To travel back to his family – parents, siblings and cousins, whom he hadn’t seen for six years, in the knowledge that the Government would be unlikely to let him leave in the future. Or to stay in Britain until the Communists left. His older brother went back to Poland to tend to his congregation. His younger brother had been shot down over Belgium during the Battle of Britain, and was buried there.

He decided to stay. It wasn’t easy. His homeland now had a new name – the People’s Republic of Poland, and his old consular passport was of no use. After he married my mother, he applied for a British passport, hoping this might let him visit Poland, but the British didn’t want him either.

My father became a stateless person. He had Displaced Persons’ papers, so he was allowed to travel in Western Europe, but he died sixteen years later, without a country, and without seeing his mother again. She never got her bottle of French perfume, which stood in my parents’ closet until it became too old and lost its fragrance.

I hope my sisters and I made it up to him. He never let on for a second that he was homesick. Only as he sat on my bed telling me stories of his childhood in a small log cabin where they had to dig a tunnel to the well when it snowed – only then did I get the feeling that he was back there again.

My life mirrored my father’s, in a way. I didn’t have to survive a war, but I, too, met a foreigner, fell in love, and moved to a foreign country (the USA) to be with him. My mother always said she understood perfectly, and I’m sure she did.