A Day at the Beach

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The first time I fainted I was a teenager. Sunstroke was the culprit, but my lack of good sense was the reason. I sat far too long on a sun-drenched beach, frying in the heat.

I had travelled by train that day with my younger brother and his mates, who took off the minute we arrived. That was fine by me as we had agreed to meet at three o’clock, close to where I was spending the day, for the journey back home.

I was so grown up, all by myself on an uncrowded beach, preening and posing in my new bikini on my new beach towel with waves crashing in the background and seagulls screeching overhead. It wasn’t about swimming for me that day, it was about sunbathing. I had no hat, no umbrella, and no water, but what did that matter. I was in a world of make believe.

Two hours later, the midday sun was blazing and I was thirsty. A  milkshake! Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted – a cold, cold milkshake. The shop, however, was at the other end of the beach. I squinted down the endless stretch of sand. Could I make it?

I started full of gumption, but with each step, my flimsy sandals sank deeper into the hot white sand. It was harder than I thought, but determined, I valiantly plodded on, and on, and on.

At last… shade. The little shop was crowded, and I had to wait. When it was my turn, overcome by thirst I blurted out, TWO milkshakes please. As the seconds ticked by my throat began to constrict. It was so dry I couldn’t swallow. Then there they were – two glistening, ice-cold, silver tumblers, looming large as they moved across the counter towards me. Oh, how I was looking forward to those milkshakes. My hand was so close. But as I leaned forward, ready to reach out, my ears began to buzz. My head filled the room, my legs wobbled, and before I could speak, blackness enveloped me and I hit the floor.

Then a blurred memory of sitting on a chair with my head between my knees and being helped through a door behind the counter, into another room. It was the owner’s lounge room. They lay me down on their couch, and before they were gone, I was asleep. Two hours later, with a thumping head, I stumbled out. With words of concern echoing in my ears, panic set in. Where was my brother? How would he know where I was? What if he’d left without me? I had to get back to my little pile of belongings on the beach.

As luck would have it, amongst the waiting crowd when I fainted was one of my brother’s mates. So, I was not abandoned after all. My brother knew where I was and he was waiting. Being the eldest, I didn’t want to lose him at the beach or have to answer for him getting home without me.

So, together, we headed home. One responsible brother and one grateful, limping big sister. But the lesson was learned – the sun and I were no longer friends.   

Inara Hawley © 2021

The Best Ride

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Our first family car was a sleek-looking import—an American Hudson. Photographs of this new wonder depict our family standing proudly in front. Everyone except me—an unsmiling eleven-year-old. It was a fancy two-tone number, but I hated it. It is the only car in which I have ever felt unrelentingly and horribly car sick. Given Dad loved it so much, it’s surprising we didn’t have it for very long, but I was immensely pleased to see it gone.

Before its arrival, our mode of transport was either by bus, train, or Dad’s motorbike. Mum’s early memories were sitting on the back and holding on tight, frozen in her best dress and heels while flying into the city to go to the movies. My memories, and they are some of my absolute best, were riding in the huge side car. Mum would line it with soft blankets, and my brother and I sat deep within its bowels, often eating fish and chips while the outside world whizzed by unseen. We felt cosy, warm, and very safe, especially late at night as we zoomed along with lights flashing  past and the wind whistling above. It was always exciting, but also, just a little bit magical for it was not every day we got to ride in the sidecar. We never popped our heads out—it was much more fun staying hidden inside our secret little cubby on wheels.  

When it was time for the Hudson to depart, our next family car was a Ford Falcon Station Wagon, and oh, how we loved that car. We had the happiest of times going places in that vehicle, in the days when there were fewer cars on the road and it wasn’t against the law for three children to sleep in the back. Some years later, when my brother was a car-mad teenager with a licence, he and Dad put their heads together and decided it was time for a new car. Mum and I literally wept as our beloved station wagon backed out of the driveway heading to the car yard. If you have ever wanted to drape yourself emotionally over an object, you will know how we felt—saying goodbye to that car was a heart-wrenching moment.

Being the sensible girls we were, Mum and I envisaged they would come back with a sensible car—beige or white perhaps with four doors, but we were in for a shock. In drove a bright red, two-door Holden Monaro with a garish black stripe down the side. Dad and my brother were beaming, Mum and I were cringing. Neither of us ever felt happy or safe in that car. It was loud and obvious, and we disliked it immensely.

Looking back, the two boys in our family should have looked after that Monaro better given its worth in later years, but they did not. It eventually went the way of all cars over-revved by reckless young drivers—to a mechanic who could fix it. That was my last ‘family’ car. When I was twenty-one, I left for wider pastures while it still sat in the driveway.

Later, for Dad, came a practical Mazda hatchback, which he drove for many years till one day, it blew up. He was distraught as it was beyond repair, but the family was hugely relieved. By then, his driving had become so erratic we said a little prayer whenever he got behind the wheel. It was the perfect opportunity for him to retire from driving, but sadly for Dad, the end of an era.

Our family cars were an integral part of our lives, representing not only how our family evolved over the years, but the different aspirations of those who had a hand in purchasing them. They were either loved or loathed by various members of the family.

As for me? The worst ride was the Hudson, the happiest ride was the Ford Falcon Station Wagon, the most embarrassing ride was the Monaro, but by far, the best ride was in the magical sidecar of the motorbike.  

© Inara Hawley 2020

Crossing the Desert

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The tired confusion on my face, and the strained smile on my mother’s tells a story. I know where I am, but I cannot remember it. Strangely enough, I can remember standing in the snow in Germany many months earlier dressed in a green, hooded, furry coat, but I cannot remember standing beside my mother and brother, in our winter clothes in the heat of late summer, in 1951 at Central Station in Sydney, after a hellish journey across the desert.

But I do know exactly how you were feeling Mum, because years later, you told me. You could barely hold yourself together, and yet, you did. With two babies, what else could you do?

Soon after we arrived at the Northam Refugee Camp in Western Australia, my grandparents who were already in Sydney, started the process of getting us over to New South Wales.

The first leg of our journey was by bus to Kalgoorlie, then across the desert by rail. When we boarded the train, families were separated—women and children at one end and men at the other, meeting only in the dining carriage for meals. There was no access to water and no provision for the needs of babies, especially for those like my brother, who was bottle-fed. Dad managed to get hot water to wash the bottles, but Mum was left with the dirty nappies. She washed them in the hand basin of the toilet late at night and held them out of the train window to dry. It worked well until one night there was a desert storm, and all the nappies were covered in red dust! Disheartened, she wept.  

We arrived in Melbourne at 9 p.m. seven days later, but the ordeal did not end there. And I know just how you felt with what came next Mum. You and Dad were told that you had to change trains in Melbourne for Sydney, but no one bothered to tell you that the train for Sydney departed the following morning. You had no access to timetables nor were you given any information as to where you could find accommodation for the night. With no English, you had no idea how to ask.

You were not only isolated, given what happened next, you were also ignored.

You had nowhere to go, so all you could do was sit and wait. Fortunately, it was summer so being out at night was not overly cold. And that is exactly what you did. You sat on the station, with your babies, all night. It would have been clear to the station master that you needed help—a family who did not speak English, but true to the xenophobia at the time, without a glance or a word, he turned off all the lights, locked the doors to the station buildings and waiting rooms, and left.

My father, who could always move mountains and get things done, must have felt useless and completely emasculated. He carried out a bench from the platform and moved it to the side of the building to afford some protection for the hours to come. Mum laid me down on the seat between her and Dad, and my brother, who luckily had a full bottle, fell asleep in her arms. And that is how we spent the night, with no food or water.

When the sun came up, exhausted, we boarded the train for Sydney. While we were not separated this time, Mum was in such a distressed state she had no memory of this last part of the journey. The experience had stripped her bare, emotionally, and physically.

As with all non-English speaking migrants, the introduction to our new life was proving to be very tough indeed. All we had left was the hope that what was to come, would be better. 

© Inara Hawley

A Story About Love

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This is a story about love.

My mother and my husband have a delightful relationship. He has a twinkle in his eye and so has she.  When all is well with the world, they have a lot of fun together. Recently, however, hubby has been very ill and during that time, my mother who is now so frail she can barely walk, did her special thing – her ‘healing with the heart’ love thing, which reminded of a time 42 years ago.

Not long after we were married, hubby was admitted rather dramatically to hospital with a suspected heart attack. After four days in cardiac intensive care it was discovered he required gall bladder surgery, but the night he was admitted, I was lost and needed my mother.

She was at a formal Latvian ball. I found the telephone number of the venue caretaker, a family friend, rang and asked him to find my mother amongst the crowd, and he did. Within half an hour, in all her finery, she stepped out of a taxi and I was wrapped in the loving arms of the one person I knew I could trust.

That night I was terrified and asked her, ‘Mum, is he going to die?’ She held me close, and with complete certainty, promised me that he would not. And I believed her.

We talked about that moment today, and she said that she truly believed she could save him with the power of love. And that’s how she still feels today. She gives that same love in this very moment to me, to my husband and to all our family. It is a mother’s love.

She is an Angel in our midst. I am so grateful that at 94 her heart is still so giving and that I have the blessing of hearing her loving words every day.

What a gift.

Inara Hawley © 2018

A Beautiful Thing

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“I can’t leave it behind. What if I don’t come back?” said Karline, as she looked at her most precious piece of porcelain.

Karline, my grandmother, was preparing to leave Latvia and the Russian onslaught that was coming. She was packing her most prized possessions and sending them to a friend in the country. The piece she held in her hand represented the life she and her husband, Theodore had built for themselves.

As her husband’s business, had grown, so had their social standing. Karline learned to cook French cuisine, a dressmaker was hired to make new clothes, and she visited the hair salon regularly. On weekends, like all well-to-do people, they walked in the parks, listened to bands and drank coffee at cafes. They even had a private box at Riga’s Opera House.

And of course, they entertained often. Guests arrived in the early afternoon; the gentleman played cards and the ladies chatted, while they nibbled on French tartlets and cakes before dinner was served. This is the life she was leaving. The life the porcelain piece represented.

She could not leave it behind, and she didn’t. She carried it through war-torn Europe, as they moved from city to city and as the bombs fell. They survived the annihilation of Dresden and they survived the refugee camps. And miraculously, the porcelain that held my grandmother’s memories survived as well.

Today, I am privileged to own it. A beautiful handmade Jessen soup tureen – not only a tangible memory of my grandmother’s glory days, but a symbol of survival and a life well-lived.

© Inara Hawley 2017

Leaving Latvia

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For my mother’s family, leaving Latvia was inevitable. When the Russians were close to regaining Communist control in 1944, it was time to prepare for escape.

My mother’s adoptive parents sent their porcelain and crystal to friends, then packed clothes, bedding, and the barter goods they would need. Next, they packed preserved food. Black bread, fish, vegetables, butter, jam, and tea. And my mother, who was still in high school, packed photos of her deceased parents, and her books.

When they heard the guns and saw the fires burning – the Germans were destroying Latvia as they left – it was time to go. On 4th September 1944, they fled on the last ship to leave Riga for Europe, a cargo vessel full of animals, injured soldiers, and terrified people.

With no available sleeping quarters, my grandfather bartered for beds. He bribed the crew with alcohol and cameras. My mother, the smallest, slept in a bathtub.

They arrived safely in Danzig two days later, lucky to have not been bombed. A month later, in October 1944, Riga fell.

My mother did not take in the full seriousness of the situation, nor the fact that they were fleeing to a Europe in the full grip of war. However, in a moment of true defiance, on the day she left Latvia, my mother expressed her true feelings for the first time, without fear of retribution. She scratched, ‘I HATE COMMUNISM’ in large letters across her desk for all to see.

She believed she would return. They never did, and not only did they leave behind their life and their possessions, they left behind their most precious ideal – Latvia’s freedom.

© Inara Hawley 2017

A Hospital Home

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Antonija died of tuberculosis aged 31, but it was her four-year-old her daughter, Ksenija, who would bear the brunt of the disease for the rest of her life.

Ksenija, my mother, had been diagnosed with a spinal injury which required attention, but as her family was in the grip of grief, she was kept quietly at home until her mother died. In her weakened state, however, exposure to tuberculosis was to have serious consequences. It was only after her mother’s funeral that her grandmother took her to the City Hospital in Riga for further tests.

It was a visit, she remembered well. To a small child, it was an ominous place. The rooms were huge, the windows, enormous, the beds impossibly high, and thunderous footsteps echoed through the halls. But most of all, she remembered the fear. In her child’s mind, the doctors were white giants who spoke words she didn’t understand.

The test results confirmed a diagnosis no-one wanted to hear: tuberculosis of the spine, a crippling illness which required long-term treatment in an isolation ward. She was then five years old, but in the 1920’s there was no gentle easing into an extended hospital stay. One day she just didn’t go home.

She entered hospital a confused little girl, and left, nine long years later, an insecure teenager. She had lost her mother, the safety of her home, and the loving kisses and hugs that only her family could give her. The hospital, a bleak, loveless environment, became her home, one from which she couldn’t escape.

In her own words: “The days turned into weeks, the weeks turned into months, and the months turned into years”.

© Inara Hawley 2017

Man of Honour

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I was surprised to see Jekab on my doorstep. Even more surprised to find him sober.

He didn’t wait to be invited in. He barged in blustering and demanding to be heard, and a few minutes later, I knew the reason why.  And now I have a decision to make.

Yes, I owe him money. A lot of money. Yes, I am obligated. And no, I will not give a drunk money. I do not trust him.  I will not pander to the demands of an alcoholic. He knows that, and up until today, has not come begging.

But now he demands! He says the child’s needs must be met, and I have the money. The hide of the man! It is his disgraceful behaviour and irresponsible neglect that has cost him everything, not the debts he hasn’t collected. He has only himself to blame.

I abhor weakness and I abhor irresponsibility. Jekab is both of those things, but I abhor dishonour more. So, I have decided. Tomorrow, my wife will go to the children’s home and see for herself. She will tell me what is needed to be done for this granddaughter of Jekab. Then I will see if he speaks the truth.

And if he does, I will gladly pay my debt, on one condition. The money must not grace his palm. It is the child I will be helping, not him. He doesn’t deserve it, but I am not heartless. I will help the child.

After all, I am a God-fearing man of honour.

Author’s Note: Written from the point of view of the man who eventually adopted Jekab’s granddaughter – my mother.

© Inara Hawley 2016

Lost and Found

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Born in 1869, my great grandfather was both a man of means and a pauper during his lifetime. A tradesman – painter of murals in churches, he rose to become a man of property and a man of business. He lived with courage and purpose.

He married and had three beautiful daughters. Life was good. But one’s character strengths can crumble all too quickly when the heart is broken. By 1928 he lost all three daughters to tuberculosis – the great white plague. Within 6 months they were all gone, and his five-year-old granddaughter was hospitalised with tuberculosis of the spine. She spent the next 9 years in a hospital ward, during which time, his wife also died.

It wasn’t long before my great grandfather was living alone in an attic crammed full of memories, his only solace, alcohol. He had lost everything.

When his granddaughter, was released to a State Home, he visited her and what he found appalled him. She was in a pitiful state with a back brace. She could barely walk.

Suddenly, courage and purpose dormant for so long gripped him. He knew what he had to do. He knocked on the door of a wealthy man who still owed him money and demanded his granddaughter be cared for.

And she was. They adopted her in February 1938.

These are the stories my mother told me when I was writing her memoirs. She remembers it all. Others may have seen her grandfather as a good for nothing drunk, but in saving her, his heart was revealed. It was strong and true.

© Inara Hawley 2016