A Hospital Home

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Writing Exercise: An Account of An Ancestor in a Frightening Place

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 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”.

(276 words)

© Inara Hawley 2017

Man of Honour

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Writing Exercise: Walking in The Shoes of An Ancestor

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.

(257 words)

© Inara Hawley 2016

Lost and Found

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Writing Exercise: An Event in the Life of An Ancestor

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.

(263 words)

© Inara Hawley 2016

A Family at Last

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Writing Exercise: Hooking the Reader with a Family History Story

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.

(272 words)

© Inara Hawley 2016

The Final Edit

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The Final Edit - A Good LifeHappy dance ~ the final edit is done! The words are written, the photographs are all in, and the formatting is done ~ it’s finished. A year of solid work is now polished and shining. Hubby’s memoir, ‘A Good Life’, is now ready for the printer, and there’s no better feeling than being satisfied with the end result. It’s exactly how I envisaged it would be, and Hubby is very happy to have a record of his life. For him, it has been a long held desire and he has dedicated the book to his four beautiful daughters with the following words: “To know your ancestors is to know yourself”.

The Final Edit - Conversations With My MotherThis is my second labour-of-love book for the family. The first, ‘Conversations With My Mother’, was the story of my parents’ life from their early days in Latvia where they were born, leaving behind their beloved homeland, surviving the Second World War and crossing the oceans as refugees to start a new life in a country further away than they could ever have imagined. Sitting and talking with my mother about their life was a gift and a blessing. Putting it all into words was for me, an intense and emotional journey, one which took two years and a lot of tears. When I finally put the book into my mother’s hands I could see how much it mattered. It was her legacy.

Hubby’s memoir, however, was quite a different journey ~ it is about a very pleasurable and happy life. I worked from his notes, which he had put together over a five year period. Each time he sat down to write, he did it randomly from memory without referring to his previous notes, so there was not only repetition, but time gaps as well. A challenge indeed, but a beginning nonetheless … and there’s nothing I like better than a good challenge!

I sorted, edited, and added words, and asked lots of questions, the most frequent of which was: “And how did you feel about that?” I also followed his brief, putting it together the way he wanted it structured, and of course, wrote in his voice. Expressing someone’s life and thoughts onto the page is a most unique and rewarding experience. The end result is 81,200 words and 370 pages covering 4-5 generations of ancestry research, and the life and times of a man who has had a very good life indeed.

When I picked it up again last week for the final edit (there have been at least three previous edits), I had not looked at it for about 12 months, and I must say, it was a great feeling to find that I was impressed ~ it’s good! And it reminded me of how much I love the whole process from start to finish. For me, the challenge at the beginning is like a little tickle which births an exciting bubble that grows with each new page of words. In its creation it becomes a world of its own, one which I stepped into every day and made mine until it was finished, until that final edit when the pages were not part of me anymore, but an entity of their own. Then I knew it was done.

One day I’ll turn my hand to fiction, but for now, what I enjoy most is writing true-life stories and exploring what they mean to each one of us. That’s what this blog is all about, and one day, my stories will become part of my book. I hope that the final edit is something I will always be working towards.

Inara Hawley © 2014