It may have started with the Great Smog of 1952. I was three, and the air of London had become so polluted from coal-burning fires, that people were dying. There had been smogs before; London’s fogs were famous and they’d … Continue reading
There’s a photo of Jay in a garden – not ours, but the one he had with his first family. A hint of autumn is in the air, a rusting around the edges of the photo, though it could just … Continue reading
A version of this was published in the anthology Tangerine Tango. Hope you enjoy it. GC
It was time to tackle the garage. I’d been meaning to do it for some time, ever since we’d finished painting the new house, in fact. I found the light switch and blinked as the glare of neon replaced the furtive gloom of the late afternoon. I looked around and wondered where to start.
I sighed as my eyes finally came to rest on a small mahogany Continue reading
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.
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 Continue reading
4 minute read My mother was always looking for ways to save money. Although she had little spare time, with a job and five girls to feed, she decided to bake her own bread. And it would be healthy bread, … Continue reading
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.
I 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, shaped like a tiny watering can, 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. When I traveled Continue reading
I didn’t want to write the Christmas letter this year. But I don’t want to skip a year, either, just because it’s been a tough one. So here goes. As most of you know, Jay died from pancreatic cancer at … Continue reading
My friend Sally Allen at BoooksInK challenged her readers recently to produce a list of their ten favorite poems. I thought this would be simple, but when it came right down to it, I found it hard to choose. Still, I did, and this post explains my choices, since I notice that I chose them for various reasons that include: if I ever learned one by heart, if it says something about a certain time in my life, if it makes me laugh, if it makes me cry…so many reasons. Anyway here they are:
1. Some one by Walter de la Mare
This may be the first poem I learned as a little girl. It’s a great poem for kids, because the metre, repetition and rhyme make it easy to remember. And it tells a story with a mystery at its heart. It’s got everything.
This poem I love because it reminds me of my mother, who knew parts of it by heart and would recite it in lieu of a bedtime story. It’s very visual and the parts she remembered were about how the Lady, imprisoned in the Tower of Shallott, becomes desperate. Good stuff.
3. Morning has broken by Eleanor Farjeon
Who couldn’t like this one? I know it’s a hymn, but it’s also a poem, and it makes me happy to recite it to myself. Or sing it, Or listen to Cat Stevens sing it. All good.
4. I remember, I remember by Thomas Hood
We had a wonderful cleaning lady who used to teach me poems as I followed her around while she tidied the house. I must have been a pest, but she never complained. This is a very sentimental poem, but it meant something to me when my grandparents’ house by the sea (see left), where I was born and spent my summer holidays, was sold. Mrs Ryder taught me another one but I can only remember the title and the first 4 lines. Harry and the Cake: Run off to school, Harry/Why do you wait?/ Nine o’clock striking/And you will be late.
5. When icicles hang by the wall by William Shakespeare (from Love’s Labours Lost)
This I learned in high school, and it’s so very evocative of the perishing cold winters we’ve been having recently that I’ve remembered it again. It cheers me (somewhat) to know that winters were hard four hundred years ago, too.
6. The Conway Stewart by Seamus Heaney
This is a poem about a pen, the brand name – Conway Stewart. I had a fountain pen in high school, because we had to write everything by hand. I think my favorite was a Waterman, because they were also my mother’s favorite, but I went through more than one including Parker and the eponymous Conway Stewart. Hopeless show-off, I used turquoise ink, which if it ever leaked, was a disaster because it wouldn’t wash out, unlike the Royal blue washable used by sensible people.
7. Granchester by Rupert Brooke
Another sentimental poem. Written just before World War 1, in which the poet died (unsentimentally, of dysentery). Rupert Brooke was beautiful to look at, and I read him at an age when romance was all. The poem ends with the famous lines: Stands the Church clock at ten to three?/And is there honey still for tea? In the late sixties, British comedian Peter Sellars wrote and performed a fake travelogue: Balham – Gateway to the South. (Balham was a very boring suburb of London.) The final lines are: Stands the Church clock at ten to three?/And is there honey still for tea? To which a waitress replies: Sorry honey’s off, dear. (Meaning there wasn’t any.) Perhaps you had to be there…
8. Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
On a much more serious note, this poem, written by Wilfred Owen was a devastating indictment of World War 1. Owen was killed just before the end of this war, and we studied the war poets in High school. The impact on me was extraordinary. When I won a prize for English they asked me which book I’d like and I chose Men Who March Away. At about the same time, the BBC was showing a 26 part series called The Great War. Using archival film footage and interviews with the survivors, they retold the story. As a child in the fifties, my sisters and I would see the veterans sitting in wheelchairs outside the Star and Garter Home in Richmond. My mother would explain that they had been gassed in World War 1 and would have to live there all their lives. I have never been able to look at war with any shred of romanticism since then.
9. The Lanyard Billy Collins
Back to the cheerful. When I first heard Billy Collins reciting his poem, I was entranced by the deadpan way he managed to capture a relationship between a boy and his mother. It’s funny and serious. Just listen to it.
10. Mrs Icarus by Carol Ann Duffy
As for this, it’s only five lines, but it makes me laugh out loud. A pillock, for my American readers, is a fool. Surely I’m too young to be cynical? Helena Bonham Carter reads it with aplomb.
Are any of these your favorites?
All is forgiven. Read on to find out why…
My crime writer friends Ben & Beth Oak were kind enough to send me the Police Blotter of the crime of which I was suspected. Here it is, courtesy of the Minuteman newspaper:
I have no idea why I’m not in jail right now. It was a close shave, it really was.
I was walking down the street at about 6.15 on Friday evening, when I noticed a police car driving slowly towards me. It pulled up to the kerb, and I experienced a small frisson of excitement as a 20-something policeman leapt smartly from the car and bounded up onto the sidewalk. I was brought up to believe that the police were on my side, and, as a frequently demonstrating student in the 60’s and 70’s never felt able to yell “pigs” at them like the rest of my friends. I lost some street cred thereby, but…
Which is my way of saying that I was perfectly prepared to help this policeman if I could. He looked me sternly in the eye (he wasn’t very tall).
“Ma’am, were you at the Citgo station earlier today?”
He must have noticed my blank expression (I was trying to remember which of the many local gas stations was the Citgo) because he pointed in a westerly direction, and said “The one on the corner of the Post Road and Pine Creek.”
Mais oui, I admitted. I had been there at around 12.30 earlier that day, walking through the forecourt as a shortcut to my hairdresser’s where I had a 12.30 appointment. My women readers will understand that no matter how late I may be for other less important events like plane trips and oil changes, I wouldn’t dare be late for my hairdresser.
I explained this to the policeman, who began to look a bit distracted after a few minutes of my clarifications. He cut me off suddenly.
“Do you smoke?”
“Not for 40 years,” I said, wondering whether he was going to offer me a cigarette.
The policeman didn’t offer me a cigarette, nor did he look particularly convinced.
“Would you like to sniff my coat?” I asked. “If I smoked you’d be able to tell.” I was trying to be helpful. He shook his head.
“I need to see your ID, please. The point is, that a woman matching your description was seen stealing a packet of cigarettes from that very same gas station at about 12.40 today.”
I opened my mouth to explain again about the 12.30 appointment and the hair but he suddenly changed his interrogation tactics.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
I pointed down the street.
“Paul Place,” I said.
“Oh, ho,” he said, or he would have if he’d had proper training. “That’s pretty close to that gas station.”
I tried to be patient.
“Which was why I was walking to my hairdressers, which is right next door,” I said, and I tossed my head in what I hoped was a convincing way to show him my new haircut (which was great, if I do say so myself).
Looking rather alarmed, he took a step back, but he persevered.
“Thing is, ma’am, this person was wearing a tan coat like yours…”
I put my hand up to stop him right there. “My coat is pink,” I said firmly. It is well known that a lot of men are color-blind, and in any case the street lights were orange so I couldn’t entirely blame him for getting it wrong.
“Furthermore,” I went on. “Earlier today I was wearing my fur coat. It was colder then, and…”
I paused. He was beginning to look a bit tense.
He pulled out a notebook. “I’ll just take your name.”
I gave it to him. And the address. And the phone number.
He seemed rather discouraged as he wrote it down.
He looked up. “Could I take a picture of you?’
My, I thought, it must be some haircut. I smirked as he raised his phone and took a photo.
I wondered if this orange light was making me look younger than I am. My reverie was interrupted.
“I’m going to take this round to the gas station and show it to them in order to eliminate you from our inquiries.”
I know what that means. He thinks I’m guilty, but he can’t prove it.