Over The Sea to Freedom

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After the Second World War, the International Refugee Organisation improvised shelter wherever they could for Displaced People. Primarily this was in military barracks, but also in hotels, castles, hospitals, private homes and even in partly destroyed buildings. By the end of 1945 there were literally hundreds of DP Camps throughout Europe, controlled and managed by the Americans and the British. As people found homes refugees were consolidated into fewer camps which meant a lot of moving. While the immediate concern was to provide shelter, nutrition and basic health care, conditions were generally harsh with restricted rations and curfews. All refugees came to these camps not only emotionally broken, but physically debilitated. Having experienced terrible hardships, including lack of food, personal hygiene and medical care, they also had to deal with the after effects of oppression, constant fear, terror and even abuse. People were often sick, lice-ridden, traumatised and very suspicious. But together they made the best of it; their personal experiences became a shared experience, and community spirit prevailed. Camp residents set up churches, choirs, newspapers, sports groups and schools. They also organised song festivals and wherever possible people picked up their trade or profession and began to work and teach others. They were filled with high hopes and anticipation. My parents and I were amongst those displaced people, and this is the story of how we arrived in Australia.

Ulm Refugee Camp

Refugee Camp in Ulm, Germany

My Latvian parents met and married in a refugee camp in Germany. As much as they would have wanted, they could not go back to a Latvia ruled by Communists. So after months and months of waiting, and months and months of moving from camp to camp we were finally accepted by Australia. All countries accepting refugees after the Second World War had strict rules and regulations, and one of the regulations for Australia was that a child had to be two years of age. I was not yet of age, so we had to wait, and we had to keep moving ~ we lived in a constant state of preparedness. This of course was very stressful, especially with a baby, for we never knew what the following day would bring. And moving was never easy ~ we were loaded into open trucks with only what we could carry, often at night in wind and rain. When a camp couldn’t take us, we stayed in the trucks overnight covered with blankets. It wasn’t easy trying to feed, change and settle a baby in the back of an open truck filled with strangers. At times there was no food or water, let alone clean nappies; survival was a day-at-a-time experience, and my parents got through every minute of it. They found the strength and the faith to go on, to do their best, to give and to love. Yes, it is always at the hardest of times that the human spirit shines the brightest.

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Celebration of Love

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Every year our small family of siblings and cousins gather to celebrate a special day ~ my mother’s birthday. She is the last of her generation, the matriarch of the family, but this year it was extra special for it marked her 90th year, and we came together to celebrate all that my mother represents … living and loving well.

My Mother

My beautiful young mother. Taken in 1941 when she was just eighteen.

Even though our beginnings in Australia were fraught with difficulty, we are a fortunate family. You see we are imports ~ post WW2 refugees. My parents, and my mother’s brother and his wife arrived from war-torn Europe.

They came to freedom, each with a baby in their arms, and while their hearts ached for the home and family they left behind, they made a new life.

It was not easy, but it was happy, and our family grew. More children, more cousins, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren to further the story of our family.

Celebrating each other is an important part of how our family works, and we do it with a great deal of pleasure and joy. My mother‘s 90th birthday was no exception.

So … what can I say about my special little mother? Having spent most of her childhood alone in a hospital due to tuberculosis of the spine, planting solid roots and creating a family is what her whole life has been about.

And she has done it very well. Married to my very happy-go-lucky father, life throughout the years has often been a roller coaster, but she has been steadfast. With her feet on the ground, she has kept our family strong.

My beautiful ninety year old mother

My beautiful ninety-year-old mother.   The queen in our family!

Mum learned from a young age to live by a set of rules. Refined, patient and particular by nature, she loves order and cares very much about doing the right thing.

While Dad brought excitement into our lives, Mum brought her kind heart, her compassion, and her loyalty. She has always been guided by her heart, and the older she gets, the more important it becomes.

She believes in God, in Angels, in the Great Good and in miracles. She loves a laugh, loves being right, can get very feisty, and without exception, will argue the point.

And, she’s a worrier.

But all you have to do is ask anyone who knows her, and they will tell you she touches them all with her kindness and wisdom.

And she gets back in abundance what she gives. Everyone loves her. Frail and struggling with her health now, she manages to get through her days with a determined smile.

She loves her garden, which my brother lovingly tends and makes more and more beautiful just for the pure joy of bringing her pleasure. My sister is also very close to Mum. Being the baby of the family, they have their special bond. As for me, Mum and I are very good friends. We speak every day and discuss everything from politics to religion, the treasured memories, and of course, life and death.

My mother loves nothing better than a good chat. Ask any of her grandchildren. She’s a great listener and she gives great advice.

Mum having a cuppa

Mum with a cuppa enjoying her flowers on the day of her 90th Birthday.

She has been through so much in her life, worked so hard. She is brave and courageous. She is determined and strong. And she is honest and true.

Living by her high standards has not always been easy. But thankfully, the boundaries between black and white have blurred somewhat over the years, and these days, she is much kinder to herself.

And now she relies on all of us. It is our turn, and our privilege, to make her life as good as she has made ours.

Preparing Mum's Lunch

Preparing the Birthday Lunch with my siblings

So, as we have done in the years since she became the matriarch, we came together once again to celebrate her birthday. The weather was perfect, the food was wonderful, and the family was relaxed and happy.

The day hummed with love and goodwill as we all caught up with each other’s lives. Mum, as usual, gave her emotional rambling speech, loving us all with her words and her tears.

And with gratitude, we all accepted this as the blessing it was, from an amazing little lady who celebrates love every single day of her life.

Inara Hawley © 2013

Dreams Do Come True

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Do you believe that dreams can come true? I’m not talking about those special goals we make and aim for ~ I’m talking about the miracles we wish for. In this busy world of ours where everything moves so fast, many of us don’t have time to sit and dream about miracles. But miracles do occur, and it’s when we hold tight to a burning desire with passion, that they come true.

So let me tell you a story about a miracle. In1936, a few short years before the Second World War broke out, a desolate and very unhappy young girl was living a miserable existence in an orphanage. Her legs were scratched and bleeding from the rough woollen socks she wore, her feet were wet because she had no gumboots, she was lonely, and she was sick. For you see she had spent most of her life in hospital suffering from tuberculosis of the spine. When it was time to leave she had no family to go to. Her parents and her grandmother had long since died, and her only close relative, her grandfather, had fallen on hard times. He lived in a rented attic crammed full of memorabilia, and the authorities would not allow him to take her, so the only place left was the state orphanage.

The safe refuge of the hospital was gone, and daily life was now about the survival of the fittest. But unfortunately her lungs and spine were badly damaged and still very weak, and having to fend for herself and deal with the harsh daily regime was not easy. She slept in a twenty-bed dormitory, and her life was dominated by bells. There was a bell for everything; for washing, for dressing, for eating, for school, and for sleeping. Bell after bell controlled her every movement. There was never a moment to recover. She had to be sharp and fast, something which was very difficult for a girl who was not physically strong. She even had to fight for her food ~ breakfast was a case of the quick or the dead, and she was not quick.

Getting around was also very difficult. There were lots of steps and it was slow going. She didn’t walk like other children, nor could she run or play as she still wore a spinal brace. And because her gait was different, the other children made fun of her and pushed her over. Years of living in an institution had left its mark ~ she was insecure, fearful, and lacked self-esteem. So she spoke with no one, and no one spoke to her. Her only respite was school ~ she loved it. Learning became her sanctuary and she excelled. It gave her something to hang on to and feel proud of.

When she was discharged from the hospital and moved to the orphanage she was given a parting gift ~ a book of her favourite stories, and the one she loved the most, was about an angel who was sent to earth at Christmas to do a good deed. The angel’s mission was to find a child for a broken-hearted mother whose baby had gone to heaven. The angel searched and searched, and on Christmas Eve, found the child he was looking for ~ a destitute orphan who desperately needed a mother. And in the words of the book, ‘by the love in the light of a candle flame’, the angel brought them together.

With heart and soul this little girl believed it to be a true story, and with burning faith, believed it was also her story. She slept with the book under her pillow and knew the words by heart, whispering them to herself every single night and praying to God and the angels for her miracle to come. So deep and intense was her belief that she was convinced her prayers would be answered with the coming of Christmas, only weeks away. Just like the story, the angels would send her a mother, exactly the right mother, to fill her life with love.

In this lonely existence, one day she had an unexpected visitor ~ her grandfather. And what he found not only shocked him, it made him very angry. He may have lost his wealth, but he was not about to let his granddaughter get lost in a world of poverty and struggle. He was still owed money from the days when he was a wealthy man, and if he couldn’t get the money, he was going to make damn sure those who owed it to him met his granddaughter’s needs. And so without ceremony he made his way to the doorstep of the man who owed him the most.

His actions set some very powerful wheels in motion ~ the wife of the man he visited decided to go to the orphanage and see for herself this child he was so passionate about. She was a kind and loving woman, and it was with a caring heart that she sat down beside a frail little girl in the dormitory. And as if it was heaven sent, the child beside her instantly knew this was the miracle she had been praying for. This kind lady with the loving eyes was her mother ~ she was certain of it. And without a second’s thought, she looked into her eyes and said, ‘Mother, when are we going home?’ These words were the turning point in both their lives.

Dreams Do Come TrueSo yes, dreams do come true. This was the miracle she had been longing for. The young girl was my mother and the kind stranger was the only grandmother I ever knew. And so it was that my mother spent her first Christmas in ten years in the care of a loving family. And as time went by their bond grew. With the blessing of my mother’s grandfather, within a few months they adopted her, and Omi and Opaps, as we always called them, became my grandparents. Omi did everything in her power to bring my mother back to health and Opaps lived up to his responsibility and gave her everything she needed, and more. Omi saved her life after years of illness and Opaps kept her safe during the war.

My two siblings and I became much loved grandchildren to our Omi and Opaps. Even though they had a natural granddaughter of their own, we were a loving part of their family, and many years later, when the meagre proceeds of their estate was distributed, it was divided equally amongst their four grandchildren. So their debt was finally paid, both in honour and in obligation, and the miracle of love lives on.

Inara Hawley © 2013

*This story is an abridged extract from my book, ‘Conversations With My Mother’, published for the family in 2010*

Happy Birthday Dad

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Dad ~ today is your birthday. You would have been 90 years old, so this morning I toasted you with my first cup of tea. And because you have been on my mind all day, these words are for you.

Life with you was never dull, and being the happy-go-lucky person that you were, you swept us all along on that roller coaster ride of yours. You may not be in your earthly body anymore but your energy and lust for life is still here as strong as ever. How could anyone not have noticed you! So sure of yourself that you told your bride she would be your wife the very first time you met her. So affable, fun-loving and irresistibly charming that she couldn’t resist! And such a good dancer, that you waltzed around the dance floor with commanding ease!

Riding the Motorbike with DadMum called you a hero Dad for the way in which you fought till the end, and when I was a child, you were certainly my hero. To me you seemed invincible ~ so big and strong. As far as I was concerned you could do anything, and you did! You saved my life when I stopped breathing as a baby, you got your family safely to a free country and you did extraordinary things for us like the time you rode 12kms on a pushbike with a huge glass window strapped to your back so we could have light in our meagre garage lodgings. Dad, you were amazing!

And you were such a doer too ~ always committed to doing your best and getting the job done. If something needed doing, from organising a function to moving house, you were the man. You were the ultimate wheeler-dealer ~ very smart and sharp! You always found a way, and you did it the quickest and the best way without any fuss. Over the years we all witnessed your incredible determination, will and drive. Growing up we were inevitably caught up in what you were doing, and whatever it was, it always involved people and action. 

You worked very hard for us Dad ~ you saw that as your duty, but you also played hard as well, especially in your hey days. Having come through a horrific war, like most, you refused to discuss it and instead you lived in the moment, took chances and loved a gamble. You locked away the demons and focused on the pleasure. You saw yourself as a winner, and when that winning moment came you revelled in it, often throwing caution to the wind. But oh how you loved those impulsive breezes and where they took you!

A free-spirited farm boy and a believer in ‘live and let live’, there was no hiding behind a bush for you! You did your own thing, secure within yourself, never feeling the need to impress anyone. Your only sadness, and it never left you, was the heartbreak of having to leave Latvia and your family behind. In later years, as you worked in your garden, I know you often thought of your father and mother, and never once did you fall asleep without closing your eyes and walking through your childhood home first.

Dancing with Dad

Dancing with my Dad

So you see Dad, we all understood you very well through all the ups and downs. We felt your sadness and your joy, and we loved and accepted you just the way you were. Strong of mind, body and will ~ anyone who shook your hand without damage to all their fingers was extremely fortunate ~ your ideals were simple: family, hard work, friends, good food and fun. You lived your life exactly as you wanted, and you enjoyed it. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Dad you may have been a man of few words, but you left us with so many memories and so much love. I am a better person for having you as a father, so thank you ~ for saving me, for being my hero, for teaching me how to dance, for instilling in me your work ethic, for letting me be me, for being proud of me, and for the times you made me feel like a princess. But most of all, thank you for showing me how to celebrate life, live in the moment and in-joy it!

Inara Hawley © 2013