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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Sunday MusingsThis is a story about love.

Three years ago, these two, Hubby and my mother were having a fun moment. All was well with the world. 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

A Family at Last

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For the first time since she was five years old, my mother experienced family life. Adopted at the age of 14 her life was now taking a very different path from her Seventh Day Adventist beginnings. She would be christened in the Lutheran Church and have a far more structured existence than her birth family could ever have imagined.

While the little family of three lived together happily, there was a genuine undercurrent of sadness for my mother’s adoptive parents – they were estranged from their son. He had married a woman they did not approve of.

They had not attended the wedding, nor had their son been to visit his mother. Almost a year had gone by since she had seen her son. But circumstances had now changed. He had heard of the adoption.

Having a young girl to love and care for did much to fill the void, but a mother’s heart for a lost son will always ache. Whenever the doorbell rang, with a hopeful heart, she said, “That may be my son…”

Her husband, however, was still very angry and made it clear their son was not welcome. But he was not there the fateful day the knock on the door came. My mother was the one who ran to answer it. When she realised who, it was she threw her arms around him with pure delight. In her mind, he was her brother and she welcomed him with an open heart.

He had no such inclination. Consumed with jealousy and rage, he pushed past her and marched into the living room, into the waiting arms of his mother.

© Inara Hawley 2016

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