Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Wooden Trunk We Carried with Us from Germany

When my family, my parents, my sister and I, finally left Germany in 1951, we were allowed to bring very little, only what would fit into a steamer trunk. The problem was that we couldn't afford to buy one. Not many of the families living in the camps could. So my father did what other people did. He and a friend got together and built one.

Someplace, somehow, my father and his friend found a hammer and a saw and nails and some metal stripping, and they set to work. Getting the wood wasn’t a problem. They got the wood from the walls of the barracks they were living in. It was one of the old German concentration camps that had been converted to living space for the Displaced Persons, and this place didn’t have finished walls of plaster, or anything like that. If you wanted a board, you could just pull it off of the wall, and that’s what my dad did.

I don’t think he felt guilty about busting up those walls. He had probably spent enough time staring at them, so that he probably felt he could do anything he wanted to them, and it would be okay. I think if a man spends enough time staring at a thing, finally it becomes his by a kind of default. I don’t know if that’s what my dad thought. He didn’t say a lot about building that wooden trunk, and he probably didn’t give it much thought.

The trunk my father and his friend built out of those old boards wasn't big. It was maybe four feet wide and three feet tall and three feet deep. The walls of the trunk were about 3/4 of an inch thick. But wood is always heavy, so that even though it wasn’t that big, that trunk needed two people to lift it.

My parents couldn't get much into the trunk, but they put into what they thought they would need in America and what they didn't want to leave in Germany: some letters from Poland, four pillows made of goose feathers, a black skillet, some photographs of their time in Germany, a wooden cross, some clothing, of course, and wool sweaters that my mother knitted for us in case it was cold in America. Somewhere, I’ve got a picture of me wearing one of those sweaters. It looks pretty good. My mother knitted it before her eyes went bad, and she was able to put little reindeer and stars all over that sweater.

When we finally got to America, my parents didn't trash that wooden trunk or break it up, even though there were times when breaking it up and using the wood for a fire would have been a good idea, kept us warm. Instead, they kept it handy for every move they made in the next forty years. They carried it with them when we had to go to the migrant farmers' camp in upstate New York where we worked off the cost of our passage to America. And my parents carried it to Chicago too when they heard from their friend Wenglaz that Chicago was a good place for DPs. And they carried that trunk to all the roomimg houses and apartment buildings and houses that we lived in in Chicago. I remember in those early days in Chicago that there were times when the only things we owned were the things my mother and father brought with us in that trunk, and the only furniture we had was that trunk. Sometimes it was a table, and sometimes it was a bench, and sometimes it was even a bed for my sister and me.

When we were kids growing up, my sister Donna and I played with the trunk. It had large blocky letters printed on it, the names of the town we came from in Germany, the port we sailed from, and the port we sailed to in America. We would trace the letters with our fingers even before we could read what they said. We imagined that trunk was the boat that brought us to America, and we imagined that it was an airplane and a house. We even imagined that it was a swimming pool, although this got harder to imagine as we got older and bigger.

When my parents retired in 1990 and moved from Chicago to Sun City, Arizona, they carried that trunk with them. That surprised me because they didn’t take much with them when they went to Arizona. They sold or gave away almost everything that they owned, almost everything that they had accumulated in thirty-eight years of living in America. They got rid of bedroom suites and dining room suites, refrigerators and washing machines, ladders and lawnmowers. My parents were never sentimental, and they didn’t put much stock in stuff. They figured it would be easier to buy new tables and couches when they got to Sun City. But they kept that trunk and the things they could put in it. And a TV set.

After my father died in 1997, my mother stayed on in Arizona. She still had the trunk when she died. She kept it in a small, 8 foot x 8 foot utility room off the carport. My parents had tried to pretty it up at some point during their time in Arizona. The original trunk was bare, unpainted wood, and was covered with those big, blocky, white letters I mentioned. But for some reason, my parents had painted the wooden trunk, painted it a sort of dark brown, almost a maroon color; and they had papered the bare wood on the inside of the trunk with wallpaper, a light beige color with little blue flowers.

When my mom died, I was with her. Her dying was long and hard. She had had a stroke and couldn't talk or understand what was said. She couldn't move at all either. When she finally died, I had to make sense of her things. I contacted a real estate agent, and he told me how I could get in touch with a company that would sell off all of my mother's things in an estate sale.

I thought about taking the wooden trunk back home with me to Valdosta, Georgia. I thought about all it meant to my parents and to me, how long it had been with them. How they had carried it with them from the DP camps in Germany to Sun City, Arizona, this desert place so different from anything they had ever known overseas. I knew my sister Donna didn't want the trunk. I called her up, and we talked about the things my mother left behind and the estate sale and the trunk. Donna has spent a lifetime trying to forget the time in the DP camps and what the years in the slave labor camps during the war had cost my parents. But did I want it?

I contacted UPS about shipping it, what it would cost, how I would have to prepare the trunk. They told me it would cost about $150 to ship. But did I want it?

I finally decided to leave it there and to let it get sold off at the estate sale. That wooden trunk had been painted over, and the person buying it wouldn't know anything about what it was and how it got there. It would just be an anonymous, rough-made trunk, painted a dark brown, almost maroon color with some goofy wallpaper inside.

Thinking back on all of this now, I'm not sure I know why I left that trunk there. When I'm doing a poetry reading and tell people the story of the trunk and read one of my poems about it, people ask me why I left it. It doesn't make any kind of sense to them. And I'm not sure now that it makes any kind of sense to me either. Why did I leave it?

I was pretty much used up by my mom's dying. It had been hard. My mother went into the hospital for a gall bladder operation and had had that stroke, and the stroke left her paralyzed, confused, and weak. She couldn’t talk or move, and the doctor told me that my mother couldn’t even understand what was being said to her.

Her condition got worse, and I put her in a hospice in Sun City. I sat with her there for three weeks, watched her breathing get more and more still. Sometimes, her eyes would open, and she would look around. I would talk to her about things I remembered, her life and my father’s life, my life and my sister’s life. I don’t know if she understood anything. She couldn’t blink or nod, or make sounds with her mouth. I just talked to her about what I remembered, any stupid thing, the bus rides we took, the TV shows she always watched, the oleanders she and my dad liked to grow and plant in the backyard. I didn't think that there was much else I could do for her.

When she died, I didn't want to do anything except get back home to my wife Linda in Georgia. Maybe the extra burden of figuring out how to carry that trunk back to Georgia was more than I could deal with. Or maybe I thought that trunk wasn't the same trunk that my parents had brought from the concentration camp in Germany. It had been painted, changed. Or maybe I just wanted that trunk to slip away into memory the way my mother had slipped away, become a part of my memory, always there but not there.


A version of this essay appears in my recent book Echoes of Tattered Tongues.


Urkat said...

"When I'm doing a poetry reading and tell people the story of the trunk and read one of my poems about it, people ask me why I left it. It doesn't make any kind of sense to them. And I'm not sure now that it makes any kind of sense to me either. Why did I leave it?"

The trunk obviously had meaning for you. You think and write about it. Listeners to your trunk poems are listening to you talk about the trunk and tell what it meant, and then they hear that you let it go. It's natural to wonder how it could have this meaning and yet be let go of. Perhaps the answer lies in the difference between the "idea" of the trunk and the actual physical wooden trunk with all it's material qualities of weight, size, its bulk to deal with, and with the circumstance of its being left for you to deal with. The trunk and the idea of the trunk are two separate existences. Perhaps you kept the most valuable, less cumbersome part of the trunk and dispense with its mortal embodiment.

John Guzlowski said...

Thanks, Matt, for helping me think this through. I think I agree with you. Even when I was leaving the trunk I knew that I would regret it but also that the trunk itself was finally not what was important.

Urkat said...

John, You are a thoughtful man. You make people feel better about their world, bad as it is at times.

Urkat said...

Later on I found myself thinking about the trunk, where it came from and what it came to represent. Perhaps it's part and parcel of our brains' tendency to boil things down to their symbolic equivalent. Anyway, the trunk itself will probably remain there in memory where it can go on absorbing your emotions about your parents, storing them, so to speak, so they can evolve with your own understanding of their predicament.

Jehanne Dubrow said...

Hi, John. Thanks again for posting over at Notes from the Gefilte Review and for steering me over to your blog. It's a fascinating read. I am not sure if it's great idea for me to post my email here. Maybe we can exchange contact info through Charles Fishman?

Oh, and before I forget, I really admire the work you've been doing on this topic--very provocative and very much in line with what I've been writing.

Marty said...

What Matt said is true and good. Perhaps also, John, the trunk accompanied your mother and father on their journeys, not yours. To let it go respects them, their burdens, their choices. They gave things up and moved on. Keep the reindeer and the stars. Those are yours.

John Guzlowski said...

Hi Marty,

A friend of mine named Joe read the piece about the trunk and wrote me a note and talked about leaving the trunk as a sort of burial.

I see that. Like you say, it accompanied their choices, their lives, not mine. But I guess that what makes that separation hard is how much I feel connected to them still, unwilling to leave them and their trunk behind, even though I've left them and their trunk behind.

But grief is what finally ties us together, sure as the turning of the earth.

Urkat said...

John, My Dad showed me a book he has called something like "Rendezvous at Katyn" about the burial of Polish Cavalry officers they discovered there. Let me know if you're interested in looking at it.

Urkat said...

John, I read today a piece of trivia--that next to the Capital of Poland(Warsaw?)Chicago has the largest number of Poles living there of any city.

John Guzlowski said...

Chicago has a lot of Polish Americans. I think that the factories brought them there. Every Pole I knew growing up (and I knew probably as many Poles as live in Warsaw) worked in a factory.

And the great thing is that they keep coming. And coming.

I was in Chicago 2 years ago, visiting a friend, and he had to get a door installed.

The carpenter showed up. He was a Pole, fresh off the boat (ur, I mean plane), and he could barely speak English.

I got to talking with him. He said his name was Greg. I said, "I never met a Pole named Greg." He said, "Well, my real name is unpronounceable."

I looked at him, and said, "You and I have the same first name, Zbigniew."

We laughed in Polish.

Urkat said...

You gotta love a name with two z's, especially when one follows another consonant--Brzezinski-haha.

i am dark said...

The trunk was already gone when you left it behind. Your memories remain, but soon they too will be gone and you, yourself will go with them. Nobody gets out of here alive and you won't be bringing any trunks with you when you go.
Life is short and imperfect. It inevitably hurts, but in the mean time there are things that are worth doing. The wise man knows when it is time to leave the baggage behind and go forward.

John Guzlowski said...

Dear I am dark,

When you write "Nobody gets out of here alive and you won't be bringing any trunks with you when you go," I feel the truth of that on my bones.

Thank you for the post.

Urkat said...

I Am Dark, Are you always this cheerful?

betty said...

Dear John,
I just happend to stumble on your stroy by chance. I was only looking for decorated trunks. I have to tell you. I was really touched. Maybe it was for the best you left that old trunk. Everything happends for a reason. Who knows maybe some day. Your grandchildren might come across it in their travels. Believe my the lord has a plan for you. Might I add you made my day with your beautiful story. God bless, betty

Julie said...

Hi John,

I was moved by your touching story, as it also brought back memories. I still have a trunk that I haven't been able to let go of.

My parents were in German labour camps during the war. I was born after the war, in 1947. We came to Canada in 1951 with a large, heavy wooden trunk painted a deep maroon color, with all the necessary bold printing on it.
This trunk, still containing my grandfather's coat(it remains surprisingly well preserved), is in my garage. My grandfather was taken to Siberia by the Russians before the war. My parents, who are both gone, couldn't part with the trunk, and apparently I can't either, although I know that the day is coming. Reading your story and the comments you received regarding it may one day make it easier for me to let go. So many similar stories!

Take care John, and God Bless.