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.

Give a parent a tangerine for the holidays: 3

My holiday gift shopping is about halfway done, I think. It’s not easy, with six children, six grandchildren and various other people to buy for. But at least I’ve solved the problem of stocking stuffers, hostess gifts and the like. I have a little stack of Tangerines, so I won’t be caught out wondering what to give the person I forgot about. The tangerines are, of course, copies of Tangerine Tango, the lovely little book that contains some of my work. The book’s available at Amazon in either paper or digital form.

I’ve already written about some of the pieces in the book. Today, I’m going to give you a few samples of the articles about parents. We’ve all had them, and no matter how much we vow we’re never going to become them, it’s amazing how often we find ourselves doing or saying something that could only have been learned from them. I expect my own children have occasional moments like that, poor things.

Donna Barry is a blogger, nurse practitioner and cyclist, among other things. Here’s part of her essay about gardening with her dad:

From the time I was old enough to walk I spent my early days following Daddy around the yard. Each summer evening after supper, he’d leave the inside work behind and tend the flowers and garden. Never mind that he’d just spent all day working in someone else’s greenhouse – this was the work he loved. We’d putter in the yard together. I’d follow along while he carried buckets of water, sifted composted soil and scattered pink fertilizer around the stems of young tomato plants. I learned the names of every kind of petunia, marigold and tomato. Big Boy, Early Girl, beefsteak, and cherry tomatoes, all went into the garden behind our greenhouse. Tiny tomato sprigs that Daddy had painstakingly started in our cellar from seeds back in March were now brave little plants that grew into bushes under our care. At the end of our gardening, there would always be time for a wheelbarrow ride, then sitting in Daddy’s lap in the cool darkness of the porch until bedtime.

Today, I no longer grow tomatoes, but I have flowers. Perennial gardens of Black-Eyed Susan, Sedum and Euonymus edge the house and yard…(the rest is in the book…)

Chris Rosen had this to share about her mother(s):

Born in 1908, Gertrude Smith was a flapper. Barely 5’2” tall, her blonde hair was neatly combed into a Marcel wave ending just below her ear. She told me once or twice, that when she was young she was a “rebel.” Her ancestors were Irish coal-miners, who settled in Scranton, PA. She was widowed three times. Although I wasn’t actually raised by my birth mother, I visited her often and eventually at the age of eleven moved into her home. I was her last child, and these are some of the things she taught me.

“Signs are for sheep.” My mother could always find her way in, around, over or under a problem. She encouraged us to think for ourselves, never to take “No” for an answer, and to always hit back harder when faced with a bully. She did not suffer fools at all. When Nell (who was my foster-mother) and my mother first met as teens, she was sporting a black eye. When asked how she got it, Nell said, “Your mother could swear like a sailor.” They didn’t know then that both women would become my mothers.

“I’ll not only walk again, I’ll dance on your grave!” After losing her husband to a brain tumor, and surviving a near-fatal car accident in that same year, 1949, this is what she had to say to her doctors.

There’s much more to read in Tangerine Tango. Just the book to dip into over the holidays, when a refreshing break in someone else’s world can help pep you up!