Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Mother

In honour of Mother's Day, I would like to post a poem from my ebook "Family and More - Enemies or Friends?"

The Mother

A child of East Prussian woods and forests,
a German outpost
dwarfed by the Russian giant nearby.
Skiing to school
in winters of iceberg temperatures
minus thirty and below,
swimming in pristine lakes
on steaming summer days,
walking through the cooling shade
of fresh-smelling pines,
the small hand engulfed
so safely,
so securely,
in the father’s,
feeling so proud,
so happy,
so warm,
so loved.

A big sister to three,
a younger to two others,
one of a handful of girls
in a grammar school1 of boys,
diligence driving her again and again
to fall asleep over books,
to gain the reward of good grades
and the praise of teachers inspiring.
Sport, biology, English
no problem at all,
but math and physics
a different story;
sixth form2 classes
with pupils few,
for the oldest boys,
her brother, too,
have gone to fight and die
in honor, they say,
on the Eastern front.
But war or no war,
nothing deflects
from her goal of study.
A levels3 she passes with
countless distinctions,
and so to university
to realize her dream
to become a doctor,
a doctor for children,
to help and heal
to care and share.

Two terms at university,
then books and lectures
she abruptly leaves —
a letter from the father adored,
soldiering in Leningrad,
foretelling the disaster to come.
The family must flee
from the Russian advance,
shedding tears for a father
they’ll see no more.
Hour upon hour
in horse and cart
on the long journey West,
Hamburg their goal,
along tracks barely passable,
thick with refugees,
leaving the happy land of childhood
for the future of uncertainty and fear.

The brother lying wounded
in a hospital southeast of Prague,
so farewell to family
when they reach Berlin.
The long trek shared with
the brother’s young wife,
anxious and afraid,
squeezed like sardines
in the back of an ammunition truck,
no longer stuffed with bullets and shells
but with Russian prisoners’ coats,
destined for German soldiers at the front,
then by train to Prague...
But a city in turmoil
and frenzied revolt they meet —
Czechs rebelling against
wartime oppressors —
so German barracks they seek,
a refuge from fires and shooting,
till a ceasefire agreed,
leaving at midnight
without brother, without hope,
back on foot from whence they came,
in sweltering, stifling heat,
jeered on by locals
offering poisoned water
to the sun-parched German throats,
whilst the brother’s shiny, new officers’ boots,
two sizes too big and
for the bulging rucksacks too large,
rub, rub, rub, rub, rub,
the suffering, silent feet.

The town of Pilsen in sight,
forty-odd miles
from German borders.
Soldiers there,
odd-looking helmets,
the Americans,
how come?
“The war’s over,” she hears.
Relief overwhelmed by
fatigue and pain,
and a doctor called to treat
the young girl for exhaustion
and brutally blistered feet.
Then by hook and by crook
to Hamburg they must,
no trains, no buses, no planes,
but from south to north they must go.
A journey of months it will be,
lorries and feet sharing the load
and pages of an English dictionary,
discarded by a German soldier,
helping to while away
long, tedious hours on the road.
Sleeping fitfully
in airless air-raid towers
and suffocating barns,
rivers and streams,
pumps and wells
washing off the dirt and heat
of miles and miles and miles.
Hamburg they finally reach,
delight at the sight of family reunited,
even the brother thought hopelessly lost
in that hospital near Prague,
their ears made sharp and sensationally keen
by his tale of escape on the last train out,
bodies shuddering with fear,
realizing what a close shave it had been.

Through bombed ruins
she makes her way each day
to British Army HQ,
showing German clerks
how to impress with
expert, efficient administration,
teaching them mind-blowing,
bewildering, English ordnance jargon.
A slice of bread her breakfast and supper,
a soup of water for lunch,
hunger pangs her constant companion.
Then one day no food left —
digging under cover of darkness
for vegetables to feed
starving brothers and sisters,
face wet with streaming tears.
But starvation knows no shame,
no dishonor,
no deceit,
swallowing all
in the aftershock of war.

Yet still she takes pride
in smartness and fashion,
hours spent conjuring up clothes
from this rag and that,
hands weaving magic
with needle and thread.
Catching the eye
of an English colonel
with a well-informed mind
and attractive appearance and manner.
An unhurried courtship
leading to announcement of marriage
and good-byes said to family and friends;
then off to the land
her husband calls home,
to a life of new hope and success.

All so strange this new country,
adapting to customs unknown,
spellings so odd and funny,
shorthand and typing, too,
a secretary valued by bosses
for reliability and punctuality,
efficiency extreme,
but what of the pediatrician,
her longed-for, childhood dream?
Gone up in the smoke
of the burning bombs,
other things to focus on now,
no time for regrets
with two screaming infants in tow.
Decorating an old, worn-out house,
busy from morn till night,
then translations to do till three,
useful money it brings
for a family’s needs, you see.
But translations aren’t enough,
when school fees have to be paid,
so off to work she goes,
to London each day by train,
rising at four for weeks on end
when railways strike,
though the stress would drive
many others around the bend.
Yet even she succumbs at last,
two weeks she’s off,
made ill by the strain,
work has to get by
without her for once,
till she’s fit again.

Application intense
and energy immense,
no problem for this woman
of German descent.
Hard work her friend,
her family and house her rewards
in this life she has made across the sea.
A British citizen of many years,
yet still the voice betrays
an accent ever so slightly,
indefinably different,
and her desire for tidiness precise,
for everything in its place
and cleanliness supreme,
for work to be done just so
and attention to details minute,
still give clues to the land of her birth.
But to return is not her wish,
here she will most certainly stay,
walking, reading,
badminton, gardening
giving clear purpose to her day.
A wild, overgrown bush —
what to do?
Pull it out, of course,
no other choice,
spade, push,
root, pull,
push and pull,
pull and push,
pull and push...
“Ow! Not that leg,
my bad hip.
Forgot again...
Got to shift.”
Toiling with the energy
of someone barely forty,
though her years number now
(would you believe?)
a massive one and eighty.
Planting and cutting,
digging and weeding
regardless of time,
ignoring the cuts, the bruises,
the aches and the pains,
because to do nothing and lie back
would be infinitely worse,
in short —
a villainous crime.

A remarkable woman
who laughs at the conduct expected
of old fogies aged eighty and more;
the pursuit of her passions
infusing energy into her days
and cementing the resolve
to vanquish all problems,
events that serve merely
to engage mind and body,
extracting solutions
of admirable resource and
great ingenuity.
How many of us follow
our passion in life?
How many of us grow old
in grayness and lethargy
because we never
listen to the heart’s joy,
destined to fill our soul with
rainbow-like vitality?

The daughter gives thanks
for this woman of resolute will
who refuses to wallow
in past tragedies, disappointments,
upheavals and strife,
living in the here and now
of the autumn of her life
and living it in a blaze of vibrant color.
May each day in the seasons
of our lives glow likewise
with iridescent rainbows
of passion and joy,
so we can live life to the full
and help and heal
and care and share
like this woman,
exceptional and extraordinary,
whom in another time, another place,
one unthinkingly called an “enemy.”

1Selective high school
2Last two years at high school
3High school leaving exams

Copyright © 2008 Helena Harper

What does Mother's Day mean to you?

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