Tuesday, December 23, 2008

No Plans for Christmas: Lessons I'm Learning, part 3

Oh, but this time I finally have plans for Christmas! When I try to process my thoughts of the past week, I get overwhelmed and am not sure I want to unpack them here in public for you all to see! But there are some things worth sharing:

- I could do a separate portrait on "English front lounges during the holidays" but I'm not. What I would write in said portrait is about how fun it is to walk on the streets of residential neighbourhoods in England, catching glimpses into people's front windows. I know, I'm a terrible invader of privacy, but it's such a cozy sight to witness people sitting around, getting on with their lives. Some lounges look lonely but many homes have a definite family feel as well. I get almost as cozy a feeling from glimpsing into people's lives as I do from living a cozy life! I guess that's the sociologist in me... One observation I've made this week, specifically, though, is that there's a lot of TV-watching going on. Most homes had a television turned on. It was a little sad to see, but it also somehow added to the cozy homey feel of it all.

- It is both gratifying and disconcerting to live my life in semi-public via Facebook, blog, and now Twitter. To those of you who commented or emailed me about current state of flux, each of you with encouraging notes, your words meant so much to me! I'm so privileged to not feel alone even if in many practical senses I am alone. Somehow I've ended up with friends in all corners of this crazy world, and it's great to still feel connected.

I've also been a tad disconcerted, though, with how many people have started wondering about me who might have otherwise forgotten me. For example in reply to a status update saying "I have no plans for Christmas" someone might have emailed me to ask "What are your plans for Christmas?" This would have been someone who wouldn't have thought to ask me had I not 'announced' my lack of plans.

- I am still trying to process what a life is without plans, without a future. I've made plans to see friends over Christmas and afterwards, but the details from there on out are still very fuzzy... This feels like a very wrong way to live, yet I wonder whether it really is wrong. Perhaps it's actually the right way to live, but my culture has conditioned me to plan, plan, plan! Either way, at the moment, I'd sure like to be able to see into the future, at least a little ways!

- I need an Internet break. I think I'll close down skype, close down Facebook, and close down my RSS reader. I'll still check email because it'd feel responsible not to, but maybe less frequently. This means I'm not going to blog for a while. How long? A week, maybe two, I imagine.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

No Plans for Christmas: Lessons I'm Learning, part 2

One of my favourite Christmas songs is "Little Drummer Boy." As a bit of a treat to get myself into the Christmas spirit, yesterday I downloaded (and paid for - a big step for me ;) ) Josh Groban's Christmas CD Noel. One of its feature songs is a lovely rendition of this great song. As I've been listening to the song over and over and over, I have been especially inspired by it. Here are its lyrics, with the pa rum pum pum pum's removed:

Come they told me, a new born King to see. Our finest gifts we bring, to lay before the King so to honor Him, when we come.
Little Baby, I am a poor boy too. I have no gift to bring that's fit to give the King. Shall I play for you on my drum?
Mary nodded, the ox and lamb kept time. I played my drum for him, I played my best for Him. Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

Picture with me a little poor boy. He's barely old enough to work to help support his family: maybe 9 or 10. His only talent is that he's got rhythm, so he walks the streets playing on his little drum, hoping to get paid for accompanying funerals or weddings or the like. One day he hears about this baby who is the talk of the town, so he goes to visit the child that was born in a barn. When he gets there, something in him connects immediately with this infant, and he wants to give the baby something special, or maybe a gift for the mother. But he has no money, in fact he still hasn't made anything today and he still needs to buy bread for his family before going home tonight. So he timidly asks the mother, "Would it be alright if I play my drum for him, just a little?" The mother nods and smiles at the boy, who then starts banging out a beat. It's a catchy beat, and he totally gets into it. The mother is tapping her toes. The baby in his mother's arms feels the rhythm from the drum, flowing through his mama, feels the motion in his mother's legs, and lets out a joyful baby giggle.

Isn't this what a life of faith is all about? Giving God whatever it is we have, whatever it is we enjoy, whatever it is we're going to do anyway! No more, no less: it's just living our lives, knowing that he's smiling down at us as we're smiling up at him.

This afternoon as I listed to the song for about the 47th time, I started to think of that classic film Chariots of Fire. One of the main characters, Eric Liddell, is a very religious man who is an extremely fast runner. The film makes it seem like he could run the sprinting competitions in the Olympics in his sleep. And this is what he says about running: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." He ends up a missionary in China, but before he goes to do that, he runs. Running is his way of smiling at God and he knows that he's being smiled upon as well.

I like that story because I love running. If I were racing Eric Liddell, he could probably start the 100 metre with a full kilometre's disadvantage and still beat me. I'm not a fast runner. But I love it, and I can relate to what Liddell said about it being a spiritual experience (but not the part about being fast).

This afternoon, thinking of the drummer boy who had nothing but his music, something he loved doing anyway, and Eric Liddell, I was so encouraged. Here I am in between jobs, not sure where I'll be in two day's time, and even less sure what I'll be doing. But that all fades in the everyday glory of living my life, doing the things that I can do, that I enjoy, and that I can do well. Like writing. Like running. Like visiting with friends. Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

No Plans for Christmas: Lessons I'm Learning

(By the way, if you read my blog via RSS or Facebook, at some point, check out the actual website: I did one of those wordle images for my book. It may not be your personal cup of tea, but I thought it was cute :) )

Today is exactly one week from Christmas. I never imagined that I'd make it to the 18th of December and still not know how I'd be spending the holidays. Yet here I am, and enjoying it so much. I'm learning a lot from living without panicking over the calendar, possibly for the first time in my life. While I know others would like me to make up my mind, I still have a whole week, and in God-time, that's like 7000 years! It's been faith-building to trust that when the time comes to take the next step, I'll know that it's time. And right now I'm pretty sure it's not time.

But, more than anything, it's been one of the most affirming experiences I've ever had. With my lifestyle, I can often fall into a mire of loneliness, feeling like no one really cares about me. But this Christmas season, I find myself wondering what I did to be the beneficiary of so much love!

A few years ago, when I spent Christmas with my parents in England, they signed up to help transport people to and from their church's Christmas dinner. Every year the church prepares a nice Christmas banquet and invites anyone from the community who doesn't have anyone else with whom to spend the holiday - mainly elderly retired people whose children aren't nearby or who - gasp - don't care. Some of those who attend the dinner, being accustomed to living a life of solitude in their homes, are apparently overwhelmed at the thought of spending the afternoon with a big group of people. Other people are touched to the core that they don't have to spend Christmas alone. I suspect most of the people who attend that Christmas dinner waffle between both emotions.

I kind of figured that if I couldn't make Christmas plans in time to get to my holiday destination, I'd be lucky to be invited to a group dinner. But instead, I have received almost an invitation a day for the past two weeks! At least four countries and seven cities are represented in the invitations - though I'm trying not to keep count, because each one is special. (Seriously, I'm not naming names in my blog, but if you're reading this and you are one of the people who has made a point of saying I'd be welcome to join you over the holidays, I guarantee that my heart is warming at the thought of you right now! I really enjoy your company, and it would (will? who knows) be a joy to spend the holiday with you.)

What did I do to deserve such a supportive collection of family and friends? Instead of brainstorming ways to show the same kindness to others (I do do that, and will do that more), I just want to express my deep gratitude to God right now.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Chapter 8e: Could anything be harder? (final)

That night I lay on my mattress in the living room trying to be as quiet as possible. Rashad had school early in the morning and I didn't want to disturb his rest, but I could hardly keep still as I processed and reprocessed the conversation with the landlord. What had he been thinking? How had I given him the impression that this was something I'd do? Maybe it didn't have anything to do with me at all, I came to thinking. Maybe it was all about him wanting his money and seeing a business opportunity. For I couldn't bother to doubt that, besides our rent, he'd be getting a little extra on the side for pimping my sisters to this woman, whoever she was. I knew that Iraqis don't have the best reputation in Syria, and of course being Christian - could I expect any less of a Muslim?

I was so irritated I couldn't hardly believe it. But after an hour or two of lying there, shivering under my blanket and finding it hard to get sleepy at all, I moved on in my thinking. Since we would not be getting a rent reduction, we had to do something else. We'd have to move out by the end of the week, I supposed. The one good thing about the Landlord's sleazy offer was that it bought us a few days, I mused. So where would we go? How would we find a place that was cheaper? What neighbourhood? Who would we live with until we found a place?

These thoughts rolled around in my bed until they rolled so gently that I finally rocked off the sleep, with the dim resolution that I'd go apartment-hunting in the morning. I'd find something, then announce to the family that we were moving and I would already have an address ready for them.

The next day, I called my boss and asked for the morning off. He's a good man, truly sympathetic to our plight, I think. He understood and said to come in when I could and not a moment earlier. So I began house-hunting.

It was possibly one of the most frustrating mornings of my life: Nothing clean. Nothing warm. Nothing spacious. Nothing at all cheaper than what we already had!

I was so dejected I never made it in to work. I went straight home and kissed Mama on the cheek. Then I pulled her into the kitchen and explained the situation. Her mouth opened a bit, then her jaw dropped down a bit, then her eyes widened a bit, then her body seemed to tense up a bit more. When I told her what the landlord had said, she shook her head.

"Of course we can't do that," I quickly added. "But, Mama... I don't know what else to do."

She just looked at me and said, "We will sleep on your streets. Just keep your sisters out of it."

"Mama. I love my sisters. They are my blood and my family. But what do I do if they are the only ones who can save our family?"

"I don't want to hear another word about it." She said, her jaw now clenched and her arms crossed. "I'll go to the church and pray. God will protect us. He always does."

And she quickly put on her hat and scarf and marched out the door.

I wandered into the living room and sunk into the chair. I think I probably let out a sigh and looked irritated as I stared at the TV screen without paying any attention to what was there.

"I'll do it. I'll help!" It was the cheery voice of Nour.

I quickly glanced up at her. I hadn't realised anyone else was there. She was alone, and she told me that Marwa was at a friend's house and Rashad was in the room taking a nap. There was no need to involve them. She understood that this was a bad job, so she might as well do it herself. No need for Marwa to get messed up.

She was 13 years old. A baby. But she seemed to understand what she was offering.

I just stared at her for a minute, then went back to watching TV. But I felt the silence swelling to an uncomfortable tide, so I walked out of the living room onto the street.

I don't usually smoke, but I did that day. I got downstairs and asked the shopkeeper for a cigarette and a light. This was too much. Nour was our only way out, but how would I ever live with myself if I let her do this?

Oh, that was the lowest point in my life, that week. I didn't make a decision immediately, and Mama told me to keep waiting. Then after a few days, she suggested I go to the Catholic Sisters. And it was there that I met Hanan. The best day of my life. And it was they who asked around at the church and found us a cheaper flat with a kinder landlord. We moved the next week. Nour never found out what she had offered to do.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Chapter 8d: Could anything be harder?

Good girls don't work. Girls from good families shouldn't work - shouldn't need to work. Maybe when we move to Canada, my sisters will get a professional qualification and then work in their field of expertise: I hear it's normal there. But not here. Here, there are horror stories of girls being mistreated in their workplace. I wouldn't want to subject my sisters to that. Plus, girls who work don't have a good reputation. Our family doesn't need to deal with that.

But between sleeping on the streets and sending my sisters to work... Of course, if I asked my sisters, they would jump at the opportunity. They'd want to help out. It was better for them not to know about the idea - or the need behind the idea - at all. All things considered, though, I was interested in the thought that what my landlord was suggesting was a job where their boss would be a woman. That's something. And that they could go to work together. Marwa and Nour would look out for each other.

So, standing there in the hallway, I decided to consider it.

"What kind of a job is it?" I asked him.

He crossed his arms on his puffed-out chest and leaned back against the doorframe. "Well, let's see. You're a good young man and I don't want to mislead you. It is a hard job, not easy work for a young girl. But there's a huge demand for girls like your sisters these days, and I know they would be able to take in a good salary."

"That's good, I guess," I said, not at all suspicious. "But what exactly would they be doing?"

"Boy!" he exclaimed in a very quiet voice, arms still crossed. "Think about it. What can young women do that pays well?"

I thought for a moment, then felt like a complete idiot. But the anger was stronger. How could this man think I would stoop so low?

My body started pulling me back up the stairs to our little flat, but I kept my feet rooted as I said, "Honourable Mister, I guess we'll be moving out in a few days. Can we have to the end of the week?"

"Think about it," he replied smugly as he turned and knocked on his own door. His wife quickly opened it and he slipped in, leaving me to trudge slowly back up the stairs.

I couldn't think of how to break the news that we'd be moving out to the women sitting around the coil heater watching some soap opera. So I just walked in silently. Mama moved over an inch or two to make room for me to hold my hands up to the heater.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Chapter 8c: Could anything be harder?

The last thing I wanted was for them to hear my conversation with the landlord, so as soon as the new year had officially begun, I walked downstairs to the spacious ground floor flat, where he and his family lived. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

He greeted me graciously, shook my hand, bellowed Ahlan wa Sahlan! Welcome!, and wished me a happy new year in a loud cheerful voice. But he didn't welcome me in. He came out and closed the door behind him, so we were left standing alone in the dank hallway.

"You're a few days late, but it's the holiday season so I won't charge you a penalty this month," he said, still in his big sweeping voice. So generous of him, no?

"Actually, sir..."

"Oh, you need a few more days? I understand. After all, life stopped over the holidays, didn't it? But I bet you did well at the restaurant with all the extra movement, eh?" and he chuckled while fake-elbowing me on the arm.

Then it all poured out in a completely illogical order. My poor father, may he rest in peace... ("God have mercy in his soul," the landlord chimed in.) Mama was bringing in sewing... Syria had truly welcomed us... Brothers... ("We stand in solidarity with our Iraqi brothers against the Zionist invasion." Ha.) I was working so hard but would work harder... ("May God give you good health," he offered, sounding somewhat distant now.) Canada any day now...

At this point the big man cut me off. "You mean to say that you do not want to pay the rent anymore because you'll be leaving any day? That doesn't make any sense at all."

"No, no," I clarified. "It's just that you are a kind man who fears God and I need to ask for your mercy because until we get our resettlement call, money is going to be very tight. My salary at the restaurant is no where near enough to cover our rent, you must understand."

It occurred to me at that very moment that I had never begged anyone for anything.

"I see, I see," he said, and I had a glimmer of hope. Would he lower our rent? "Don't you have an uncle who lives in Canada already? Why don't you call him and ask him to help you out? Why ask a stranger for help before turning to your own family?"

"Sir, our uncle is doing everything he can to help us. His job in Canada pays very little, but he sends what he can to my aunts and uncle living in Jordan, and when there is any left, he will send it to us. I have asked him, and he has promised me he is trying. He also told me that he is working on our visas which should arrive any day now."

"And you want to continue living in comfort until your visas come?" he said, now in a sarcastic voice. I could only assume that the sarcasm was due to the assumption that, just because we had fled our homeland for our lives, us Iraqis think we should move to Canada when everyone knew that a Syrian would have much more trouble getting a visa to any country in the West. Not because his calling our flat "comfortable" was laughable.

So I kept trying. "It is so hard to find any place in Damascus these days, sir. This is an excellent neighbourhood, true, and you have been a good landlord to us. It is my job to look out for my family and I don't want to see them suffer. My poor mother has lived through so much. And my grandmother is ill, it's so hard for her to move anywhere."

"But she'd get on a plane to Canada," he said quickly.

I shut up. I'd lost, hadn't I? I was only 18 years old, I didn't know what I was supposed to do!

He was quiet, too, for a moment. Then he said, "These are difficult times in Syria. Not just for Iraqis, but for Syrians, too. My expenses have gone up considerably and I should raise the rent, too. I have been kind in leaving your rent as low as it is, and I'm afraid it's out of the question to lose any more money than I'm already losing on you." I felt my blood boiling. There is nothing so character-building as having to stay quiet and respectful in the face of such blatant lies. "But," he continued after a moment's pause. "I may be able to help you. Specifically, I may be able to help your family make some more money. I know someone who is looking for young women to work for her. It would be part-time, so your sisters could continue attending school during the daytime. She pays quite well. I'm confident your sisters could make enough to lessen your family's burden."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Chapter 8b: Could anything be harder?

I went to talk to the Landlord. I remember clearly the day, it was right at the beginning of the year. It was cold! That year during the holidays we went to the Chaldean church service, the Greek Orthodox church service, the Syriac church services, the local Catholic church services. We even almost went to the Evangelical church services but we showed up at the wrong time and couldn't figure out what the right time was.

It seemed like inside the house was closer than outside the house so we went to all the church parties, we walked around the souqs pretending to shop at least twenty different times, and to celebrate Christmas we went to a nice restaurant and drank tea. That was a fun outing. It was in another one of the Arabic house restaurants in the old city, and we chose a table right in the middle of the courtyard and asked the waiter to bring the big gas heater right by our table. Rashad wouldn't sit: he just stood under the tall umbrella shaped heater and reached his hands up to feel the warmth.

But even though we kept ourselves active, to keep warm, to forget, to depend on God, or for some other reason... we still seemed to spend most of our time at home, huddled together around the little old electric coil heater. We watched lots of television, and chatted. My sisters were just moving up from children to women and I remember clearly some of the things they said that seemed so wise and beautiful. I was proud of my little sisters, and vowed to myself to look out for them until they met men who deserved them.

I knew during this season that we were not going to have enough to pay the next month's help. Up until then, my salary, plus what Mama made sewing, plus a chunk of cash taken from the savings box, had covered our expenses. But the savings box was now empty. It was just me and Mama, and we were not going to be able to make rent. It was the holidays, though, so I kept quiet about it and avoided the Landlord as best I could. He was busy with his own holiday - all of Syria was celebrating that December because the Eid fell on the same week as Christmas - so it would have been aieb/shameful for him to have come bothering us about the rent. So I just enjoyed the season of goodwill with Mama, Teta, Marwa, Nour and Rashad. We missed Baba, but the way the cold brought us all together seemed to lessen the pain of his absence.

The Landlord could wait, but he wouldn't wait much after the New Year. My plan was to appeal to his humanity, to his sense of charity. At night, awake at night, I would rehearse what I'd say to him. I will work harder and hopefully make more next month. Teta is sick and our UNHCR check hasn't yet come. It would be tragic for my sisters or brother to have to stop school. Soon we'll get our resettlement call and be on our way. I'll write my uncle in Canada again, but the poor man has his entire family in exile. We really like living in this flat, you've been so good to us so far. God bless you, kind sir. You have shown us that you truly are our brothers by welcoming us in... He seemed like a dignified man, surely he would give us a more reasonable rent. What else could I do?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chapter 8a: Could anything be harder?

Remember Majid, the [fictional] young Iraqi man living in Damascus with his mother, sisters, brother and grandmother? Well, he's back, now, to tell some more about life as a refugee.

I'm not even yet twenty years old and it seems like I have lived enough to be an old man. Back in Iraq, I quit school early and worked. I saw the war start, the violence continue, and the suffering all around me grow. I became the head of my family at an age many men like me would be just starting their university studies, then I led my mother, grandmother and the younger ones to a foreign country that doesn't want us. It is I who keep the security police from entering our house when they want to threaten us with deportation. I do the best I can to protect my family from knowing just how tight money is and just how insecure our residence here is. I know my job is to look out for them, and especially to protect my sisters. I need to be like the leaves on a flower protecting the petals until it is time for them to bloom.

I have been called nasty names, snubbed and even beaten up on the street. I can handle it all and more if I have to. Sure, I dream of a life somewhere someday that's comfortable, where those things don't happen. But this is my lot in life. What I can't handle is the thought of surviving another incident with my sisters.

They are young and innocent, with their whole lives before them. They still have a chance at a future and happiness. Only a truly evil person could think of doing the things to a girl that my landlord wanted to do to my sisters. And only a truly heartless person could sit by and watch it happen to girls he loves.

But... I almost agreed, didn't I?

Because I was faced with a choice. This all happened about a year ago. We'd been living in Damascus for almost a year. I had found my job at the restaurant, but seriously, anyone who thinks that a busboy's salary would be enough to support the family must be naive. Or not care. Because Iraqis pay a lot for rent. I don't know how much Syrians pay but I've heard a rumour that we pay three times what a Syrian family would pay for our same flat.

So we came to Syria with a couple of thousand dollars in savings, and we thought that would last us until we moved to Canada, but everything just cost too much! Our money seemed to just sift out of our hands like sand. Mama asked around with the neighbours and found some people who would pay her to do some sewing for them. That lessened the tension a little bit.

But the Math still didn't add up. We were stuck.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Scenario #18: Gloss or Matte?

I'm talking about my fingernails, of course!

I was walking through a mall today and avoided being stopped by any hagglers of any sort, until I was just about on my way out. Then a lovely woman with black hair and white skin and gorgeous eyes pulled me aside and asked me if I do my nails 'natural.' When I said yes, she was excited and asked me for 'just five seconds of my time.'

Famous last words. It was not a good start. That and the fact that the miracle product she showed me (which actually did seem to work!) was only sold with a variety of other beauty products in a package that added up to a rather hefty price.

The miracle product was supposed to make my natural nails look much better. It was a three-sided nail buffer. The first side was like a file but for the surface of my nails. The second side was something that was supposed to bring out the natural oils from my nails, whatever that means. The third side was silk, she claimed.

As she finished the three-part buffer job, she said, "Are you ready to see the amazing change? Now, I warn you, don't scream so loud everyone in the mall comes running, ok? I'm going to take the buffer off and you're in for a shock!"


Well, I must admit I was impressed. My nail now totally glowed, and it had taken less than a minute!

But the thing is, I always get my photographs in matte, not glossy, so why should I want my nails in glossy?

She found a real connecting point with me when I told her I lived in the Middle East, as she's originally Israeli. So she tried to inspire me to buy by throwing in some Dead Sea soap as well. But the one thing she wouldn't do was sell just the buffer without the side products (oils and creams).

So I told her I'd look at my nails tonight and decide: Do I prefer matte or glossy? If I like glossy, is it worth buying all those other things, too?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Profile #63: Down to Earth

I remember when I was younger, probably not quite yet a teenager, I learned about 14 Carat gold. The first time someone mentioned carats of gold, I asked, "Why do they name gold after carrots? What do gold and carrots have in common? That seems like an odd name..." Then someone kindly explained to me that it's not "carrot" it's "carat" and it refers to weight not vegetables. I still thought it was funny, but I came to accept it and now don't think twice about it.

This afternoon, I was checking out the Hope Diamond, a 45.5 carat gem in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and reading about how its known history started at 117 carats but was cut down to fit different jewelry settings to what it is now.

As I was observing the gem, trying to decide whether I thought the thing is more blue or black, two women in their forties-or-so walked up to look at it. When they read that it's a 45 carat gem, one woman said:

"That's a funny thing to call it, huh? Carats."

Her friend replied, "Carats actually refers to the weight of the gem."

"Yes, but it's still a funny name, isn't it?"

"I don't think it's spelled the same as 'carrots.'"

"I think you're right," the first lady said, bending down to read the label a bit more carefully. "Look, it's spelled C-A-R-A-T."

"So it's really a different word, isn't it?" The second lady mused. "But you're right, it's still a funny sounding word."

"It must be foreign or something," nodded the first lady.

I'm so spoiled by my education, both in school and in experience, for having learned the difference between a 'carat' and a 'carrot' at such a young age!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Babci and Dzia-Dzia

"Don't marry someone because that you like him. Marry him because he need you. I am praying for you to one day marry someone you can help."

That's the relationship advice I received from my Babci every time the topic came up. Which wasn't all that often, but she did regularly share with me what was on her mind. So if she was thinking about the "special boy" that I know she prayed about, she'd tell me that she was praying and tell me to look for someone who needed me.

Two years before she died, Babci started down a painful path of confusion and even dementia. It was hard to see such a strong woman unable to remember people, and even harder to watch her occasionally grow paranoid. But to everything there is a silver lining, and the silver lining to this was that whenever her brain was in good shape, Babci took advantage of her clarity to tell us stories. Her life was not easy, and she was very much not a selfish person, so she rarely talked about herself. This meant that every time she'd tell me a story, it was special.

One of the first stories she told me during those final years has stuck clearly in my mind. It was the story of how she met and married my Dzia-Dzia (grandpa). And it completely helped me understand the thinking behind her unusual relationship advice.

Babci was very happy with her life in Germany. After the war ended, she had made a group of close friends who were also single, also independent, and also believers in the same strong Christian faith. One of them in particular was a dear friend, close as a sister. I recently saw some photos of this group of ladies: they'd go out together and places together, they went hiking together: they did the kind of things that young professional adults do.

She missed her family in Poland, but going home wasn't an option, so she decided she'd probably just make her life in Germany. She'd found her own version of family there. But she had an uncle who had immigrated to the United States, and had in fact done rather well for himself. He owned a duck farm. Every so often, he'd write my Babci and suggest she come for a visit. He'd say it's not good for his niece to be off on her own when she has a family in America who can look out for her. He kept writing and grew rather insistent, so eventually my Babci agreed. Her visa and ticket came through, and she got on a ship across the Atlantic. She figured she'd go to Long Island, spend some time with her uncle's family, show them that she's still a good girl and is happy and healthy, then after a few months she'd head back for Germany.

When she got to America, though, as is so often the case, things did not turn out as she had expected. Her uncle didn't expect her to leave again, and one thing led to another. Six months came and went and she didn't leave. But she wasn't particularly happy. She told us that she wanted so much to go back to Germany, and was always waiting and looking for a way to leave. Her best friends and her life were all back in Germany. In America she was living in someone else's home: even if they were family, she didn't really feel like she belonged.

Well, also during this time, a young man from Ohio came to work on her uncle's duck farm. He was related to Babci's uncle's wife, and had recently left the military and was needing some work to get on his feet. He was an electrician by trade, so was invited by the family to come try his luck in New York.

Well, this young man was, at least as far as I can tell from the old family photos, a rather good looking chap (not that my Babci was the type to be too concerned by these things). And he was nice, too. My Dzia-Dzia (for of course this is who that is) helped her out in little ways. The two distant relatives living and working on the duck farm developed a bond of friendship.

But my Dzia-Dzia had some health problems. While in the military, he'd been posted out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where he'd contracted malaria. It hit him frequently, and hard. So when he had a recurrence of malaria while living on the duck farm, his new friend found herself nursing him back to health. He was sick for a few weeks, and my Babci stayed by his side, looking out for him, doing what she could.

When he got better, life went back to normal. If anything, I got the impression my Babci was a little irritated that she'd had to do this service. But she thrives on serving people, so mainly she was just glad to help.

After a few months, right when my Babci was finally making arrangements to catch a boat back to Germany, my Dzia-Dzia proposed. According to Babci, he said, "I get sick sometimes and need someone to take care of me. Will you marry me and take care of me when I'm sick?"

Well, I wasn't there, but from the way Babci told the story, I got the impression she kind of laughed in his face. Here she was getting ready to go back to living the life of the independent, strong young professional woman in Europe, and this Polish-American semi-disabled electrician expects her to drop her life and be his wife? I don't know what her expression really was, but I know that she said no and went on with her plans.

But then a week or two after that, Dzia-Dzia got sick again. And Babci found herself at his bedside again. During this time she felt like God was speaking to her, showing her that she had a new job to do, in America. And so when he was conscious enough to have a proper conversation, she told him that she'd thought it through, and if she was going to play the role of his caregiver anyway, she might as well marry him and make it official.

My grandfather was in and out of work his whole life. After they were married, they moved into a small flat owned by someone they knew. They were not very comfortable there, and not treated particularly well by their landlord, so they were fortunate enough to buy a house after only a few years of marriage. Babci was more than thirty years old already when they were married, and Dzia-Dzia was several years older, so my aunt came along quickly, and my mom not too much later. Through most of this time, Babci worked as a seamstress to support the family, which was important because her work was much more consistent than Dzia-Dzia's. In her spare time, she took care of her two daughters and looked out for Dzia-Dzia who did in fact get sick from time to time and need someone to care for him.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

the Babci interview

If you read my blog about Babci, I finish it with a few paragraphs from a narrative I wrote up from Babci several years ago. I lost the last few pages of it, but here's what I do have. She was the most pragmatic, practical and loving woman out there, and I hope that you see that in her words here...

I am from Poland, from a very small town. Its name is B. I was taken when I was twenty years old to Germany to work during the war. You see, when they took our country, there were not enough workers in Germany for the factories. So whomever had three kids, one went to Germany for six months. But that wasn't true. After six months, the war wasn't over. I guess they thought that the war would be quick. I worked for a little while in a soap factory, for oh, three or four months.

In the soap factory, there are many departments, and I did as many jobs as they needed. Some workers can switch easily, don't take a long time to get used to the new job, and that is what I did.

But then, my boss's maid had a baby. I went to work in his household as a maid. It was June of 1942 when I went to Germany. The war was over in 1945, but I couldn't go home because of the Russians.

There was no mail to Poland. I could not write my family. My family was very persecuted there. It is hard to understand or to put on paper. My father didn't want to submit to the Russian guidelines. They were not right. He believed everyone is free and can live free - just like we do here. But the communists, they have a different system. My father said no. If my father said OK, then the rest of the people would go, too. This is why he was treated so badly by the Russians.
My father was honored by the people: he helped whomever needed help, so the people supported him. He suffered a lot because of this; he gave in at the end.

All this was after the war, though. During the war, the Germans were there and life stayed the same. When the Russians conquered the Germans, they inflicted their rights.
After the war, I couldn't go home because of the Russians. So I became D.P., that's a displaced person. I didn't have anywhere to go, so a good friend took me in. Her name was AW. I knew her from working in the factory. Yes, she was German. I lived with her and her parents and sewed for people. They were very good to me, and I agreed to stay in Germany until it was free for me to get on a plane, or a bus, or a train to go home. But that never happened.

I had an uncle living in the United States, and he invited me to come stay with him. I really didn't want to go. You see, the first time you move to another country, you don't know what to expect, but the second time, you know the hardships you will have to face. And I already had a family in Germany.

But my uncle kept asking me, so I came for six months. I came from the Germany on a boat, the Stuart. That was an empty United States military boat. We didn't have to pay, just clean the boat. We were fourteen days on the sea. Lots of people was seasick the whole time. There were all kind of people on the boat, like me, displaced.

But they were a different kind of displacement. They had to leave the territory for various reasons. Some of them, the Germans have to take them out of their homes because of the war. It wasn't punishment, but they still lost their homes because of the war. Then the Russians came. Before going to the United States, they lived in, where is the military home? If you are drafted, you don't take an apartment, you go to training. Well, that is where the D.P.'s lived, there was lots of room there after the war.

But when I arrived here, I couldn't go back, because I didn't have the money. This was 1952, I was 30 years old. So I found a job at a dress factory. In 1953, I met, uh, Daddy - W. He came to visit my uncle: he is related to my aunt. He asked me to marry him and I agreed. We were married in 1953.

That was another hard decision to be made. He was a sick and he needed the work. But he could speak English. I could speak almost very little English then. I still wanted to go back, too. I couldn't go back to Poland, the Russians don't deal so merciful, they treat the people who come back like traitors. But the Lord showed me if I was to go back to Germany... well, here, I knew I will have many difficulties to overcome, but there are blessings here too. So I knew I had to stay.

We got a little apartment, and we bought a house, this house where we are now, in 1954. Our daughter A was born in 1954 and S came in 1955. Life went on. Going back home was something that I no longer hoped for. I learned more English, God gave me new friends, and a church, and I grew in loving him.

I am still a displaced person. I didn't take U.S. citizenship. People have told me it would be very easy, married to an American citizen. I just never applied for it, though. I don't regret it, I never needed to use it. I never traveled more than to Baltimore to visit S and her family. I feel like a U.S. citizen. And I still could have returned to Germany.

I'm not illegal, I'm married to a U.S. citizen. And I have the, what is it? The pink, no, the green card, l came to the U.S. because I needed a country. I have the privilege to live here. Nobody ever asked me for anything. No, no problem with social security either.

My friends from Germany passed away. One girl is still alive. I can't do the German anymore, I can't keep in touch with them anymore anyway. After a long time, you know, you lose the language. I tried to read it for a long time. A family I lived with here before I married was German, but they sold their house and moved to California ten years later. They were kind of like parents to me, their son is back in Germany. So I lost the German.

I never talked to my sister. We write, but we don't talk. Only my sister is now living. My brother have a three sons. My other sister has three children living in Russia. This sister is living in a small country between Russia and Poland. So you see, they're all in different countries.
The Russians took the two sisters. Only my brother stayed. He was in a different part of Poland which became free, after I was already here.

I would wanna go back now for a visit. You know, from the beginning I worked to go back. Because, you know, there was home. Here, I had to learn everything, the language, the responsibilities.

The Lord gave me three families. The first was when I was born. The second was in Germany, people loved and supported me. Then the Lord gave me the third family which is here in the United States.

He replaced the things with what I needed in life. Here is good, but here is a struggle for survival. People say here is everything, and they are right, here is a everything, but you have to struggle to survive. You have to know how to do something, how to get places. You see, these kinds of struggles, they are every place existing. We have to adapt, we have to know how to conquer.

I love my other two families. You don't lose the attitude, you don't lose the love. I cherish them all. Now I have bigger number of people to love. Yes, I would love to go back to Poland to visit!
But I know in my heart it is impossible for me. It is hard to travel when you are old. I have a husband who is needing care. Someday, when we see the Lord, we will all see each other Just to feel you want to is too much trouble for the people. My daughters would be worried to make sure I get there, that I don't get lost. My desire would be very costly.

In Germany, almost everyone is gone. At home, too. The price would be much too big. Sometimes we have to put our desires behind to do what is right...