Dreams Do Come True

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“Move along, be quick. Get in line.”

Harsh voices, loud noises, pushing and shoving. It’s late 1937, two years before the Second World War and the place is a Latvian orphanage.  A desolate and very unhappy young girl is living a miserable existence, her legs scratched and bleeding from the rough woollen socks she is forced to wear and her feet are wet because she has no gumboots.

She is lonely and she is sick. For you see she has spent most of her young life in a hospital isolation ward for 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 cramped one-room attic, and the authorities would not allow him to take her, so she was placed in Riga Orphanage. She was admitted on 7th September 1937, a week after her 14th Birthday.

“Get your hands off, that’s mine.”

Too many bullies. The safe refuge of the hospital that was home for nine long years is gone, and daily life is now about the survival of the fittest. But unfortunately, her lungs and spine are badly damaged and still weak, and having to fend for herself and deal with the harsh daily regime is not easy. She sleeps in a twenty-bed dormitory, her only private space, her bed. And her life is dominated by bells. There is a bell for everything; for washing, for dressing, for eating, for school, and for sleeping. Bell after bell controls her every movement. There is never a moment to recover. She has, to be sharp and fast, something that is difficult for a girl who is not physically strong. She even has, to fight for food – breakfast is a case of the quick or the dead, and she is not quick.

“Don’t you know how to walk!”

It’s slow. Getting around is difficult. There are lots of steps. She doesn’t walk like other children, nor can she run or play as she still wears a back brace. And because her gait is different, the other children ridicule her and often push her over. Years of living in an institution has left its mark – she is insecure, fearful, and lacks self-esteem. So, she speaks to no one, and no one speaks to her.

“Please, send me a miracle.”

She prays every day. When she was discharged from hospital, she was given a parting gift – a book of her favourite stories. One of these stories, about an angel sent to earth at Christmas to find a child for a mother who had lost hers, had captured her heart. The angel searches and searches, and on Christmas Eve, finds the child he is looking for – a destitute orphan who desperately needs a mother. And in the words of the book, ‘with the love in the light of a candle flame’, the angel brings them together.

With her very soul, this young girl believes it is a true story, and with burning faith, believes it is also her story. She sleeps with the book under her pillow and whispers the words every night, praying to God and the angels for her miracle to come true. So, deep and intense is her belief that she is convinced her prayers will be answered with the coming of Christmas, only weeks away. She is sure the angels will send her a mother, exactly the right mother, to fill her life with love.

“Oh, my child, my heart bleeds.”

The rescuer comes. In this lonely existence, one day she has an unexpected visitor – her grandfather. He has come to see what her life is like. And what he finds not only shocks him, it makes him very angry. He is not prepared to lose his granddaughter to a life of poverty and struggle. He is 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 his granddaughter’s needs were met. And so, without ceremony, he turns on his heel and makes his way to the doorstep of the man who owes him the most.

His actions set powerful wheels in motion. Karline, the wife of the man he visits decides to go to the orphanage to see for herself, this child he is so passionate about. She is a kind and loving woman, and it is with a caring heart that she sits beside a tiny, frail young girl, in the dormitory of the orphanage. And as if it is heaven sent, the girl beside her instantly knows this is the miracle she has been praying for. This kind lady with the loving eyes is her mother. She is certain of it. And without a second’s thought, she looks up into the face of compassion and utters the words which are the turning point in both their lives.

“Mother, when are we going home?”

This was indeed 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 the weeks went by, their bond grew. With the blessing of my mother’s grandfather, in February 1938 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.

So, yes, dreams do come true and debts are paid in the most miraculous way. And the gift of love lives on.

© Inara Hawley 2017

Note: This is a university writing assignment with a limit of 1000 words, and a rewrite of a family memoir story I wrote in 2013 with the same title. You can find it here if you wish to compare them. It’s not vastly different, but I like to think the changes I have made have improved the piece.  I hope you do too!

A Beautiful Thing

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Writing Exercise – Placing an Ancestor’s Object in History

“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.

(262 words)

© Inara Hawley 2017

Leaving Latvia

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Writing Exercise – A ‘Point of No Return’ Event for An Ancestor

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.

(275 words)

© Inara Hawley 2017